out of 5
Review by Judy
A friend who knows that I am interested in mysteries and in books published between the world wars, loaned me an anthology of three Mary Roberts Rinehart novels, so you will be seeing the other two in a week or two. Mary Roberts Rinehart has often been called the "American Agatha Christie". This is a comparison with which I would argue. She is also the author most identified with the phrase "the butler did it" (although she never said that phrase)and the "Had I But Known" school of mysteries. This book was obviously meant to be read by young women, late at night, with, hopefully, a storm of impressive magnitude raging outside. Published in 1926, the "mystery" was the part of the book that I enjoyed the least. More important to me was the picture of the period that the book portrayed. Gender, class, and race issues were all present in this book in a major way. The central character, Miss Cornelia Van Gorder, is an indomitable 65 year old spinster of means who rather than shrinking from the chaos of the mystery leads the charge into its unraveling. She is the "new woman" of the 20s (although a bit older than most of the examples of her type in the literature of the period) who looks beyond the traditional social mores and gender roles and wants the same for her niece. She refuses to be coerced by the men around her, enjoys the upheaval of the mysterious events in the mansion that she has rented for the summer, and decides that she has followed the rules long enough. Less appealing are the roles that class and race play in the novel. Lizzie has been Cornelia's Irish maid for decades and Lizzie is obviously from a different class than Cornelia. Lizzie is no doubt loved by Cornelia, but that doesn't stop her employer from verbally abusing her and on one occasion, slapping her hand and threatening to lock her in her room. Lizzie demonstrates her class origins by continually becoming hysterical, needing to be attended to, and by her inability to cope with the situation in which she finds herself. The stereotype of the faithful, Irish servant with all of the folkways, superstitions, and terrors of the old country are assigned to her. Cornelia has to solve the mystery as well as deal with Lizzie's constant overblown emotions throughout the book clearly indicating which class each occupies and the values of each of those social classes. And, finally, the racial attitudes of the 1920s are highly visible in the literary treatment of Billy. Billy is the Japanese-American butler of the recently deceased owner of the mansion and he is mocked in every conceivable way. His manner of speaking and pronunciation of words, the color of his skin, the fact that he doesn't reveal his emotions, and the suspicion in which he is held by many of the characters (except Cornelia) all highlight the racial prejudices of many white Americans of the 1920s. But looking at this book primarily as a period piece makes the action in the novel all the more interesting.