As a reader, I'm fascinated with the difference that point of view makes. Some authors always write in either first person or third person. Some use different narrative styles in different books and I've read a few books that mixed the two styles. Generally, I think that mysteries are more immediate and compelling written in first person, although some of my favorites are written in third person.
Rinehart used both styles. When her books do have a narrator, it's usually a woman. The novella SIGHT UNSEEN has a male narrator, as does THE RED LAMP. Interestingly, both center around mediums and psychic phenomenon. Did Rinehart think that men would be more likely to be interested in "spiritualism" (as it was then known) or was she hinting that they are more credulous and easier to fool than women?
In the early 1900's psychology and "psycho-analysis" had become popular subjects and psychic phenomenon was widely believed to be part of the new, scientific view of the human brain and how it works. Seances were popular and mainstream. The six middle-aged, middle-class people in the Neighborhood Club aren't doing anything particularly unusual by hiring a young medium to entertain them at one of their meetings. What she tells them seems intriguing, but little more. But when events prove that she's described a death that occurred as she spoke, matters take a more serious tone.
The dead man appears to have committed suicide, but the neighbors aren't satisfied. Is it because they disapprove of his young wife and her incessant partying and her obvious boyfriends? Or are they correct that a popular, easy-going, healthy man would be unlikely to kill himself? It makes a difference to them and not just because a murderer may escape justice. As it stands, Arthur Wells will be forever branded by "the stigma of moral cowardice, of suicide." There was little sympathy then for people guilty of self-destruction and even less for their families.
I found the characters fascinating, as I always do in Rinehart's books. The narrator (a pompous lawyer) and his devoted-but-suspicious wife. The skeptical doctor who has a vested interest in the medium's safety. And Mrs Dane - elderly, disabled, but brimming with life and energy. "Never have I known a woman, confined to a wheelchair, live so hard" says the narrator admiringly. Her zest for life (and gossip) drives the plot.
Rinehart was a wife and the mother of three sons. I suspect she knew as much about men as a woman CAN know. Was she comfortable speaking as a man or did she use this book to poke gentle fun at men? Every reader must decide for himself. This is one of my favorites.
It was sinister, mysterious, dark. Its immediate effect on my imagination was apprehension - almost terror. Murder or suicide, here among the shadows a soul, an indestructible thing, had been recently violently wrenched from its body. The body lay in the room overhead. But what of the spirit?
About the Author
Often referred to as the American Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Rinehart was an American journalist and writer who is best known for the murder mystery The Circular Staircaseconsidered to have started the Had-I-but-known school of mystery writingand the popular Tish mystery series. A prolific writer, Rinehart was originally educated as a nurse, but turned to writing as a source of income after the 1903 stock market crash. Although primarily a fiction writer, Rinehart served as the Saturday Evening Post s correspondent for from the Belgian front during the First World War, and later published a series of travelogues and an autobiography. Roberts died in New York City in 1958.