Friday, 4 February 2011

Penguin no. 943: The Yellow Room
by Mary Roberts Rinehart

This was a disappointing book. I haven't read Mary Roberts Rinehart before, and so I have nothing with which to compare it. The description on the back cover of this Penguin edition suggests that she was one of the most popular mystery writers of her day, having taken up writing when her husband's finances were affected by the stock market crash of 1903. But having read 253 pages, I couldn't find a single line which I felt to be worth quoting. And I read the last chapter of the book without interest; the plot simply became implausible and the solution too neat. It didn't satisfy me at all.

It is set during the Second World War. Carol Spencer is 24, and unmarried, her fiancé believed killed flying over the Pacific. She is compelled by her unreasonable mother to travel to a small sleepy town in Maine to open their holiday home and prepare it for the possible arrival of her war-hero brother. But the home is not empty. The partially burned body of a young woman lies inside the linen closet.

Suspicion falls on Carol, although its not easy to follow why it would, because her alibi is solid. This bizarre accusing of the young woman who has come from elsewhere to find the body is perhaps the first warning that this mystery novel has some problems. It makes the police look inept, and the official investigation continues to look inept throughout the book. The local policeman inevitably jumps to easy but false conclusions, is always several steps behind the interested and logical next door neighbour, and he becomes surly and aggressive when events prove him wrong.

You get the sense that everything would be fine if people just stayed in their beds at night. Each crime takes place in the dark, the victim conveniently wandering about. And each clue is revealed because someone cannot sleep. Eventually the suspicion is that Carol is covering for someone else in her family, either the war-hero brother or her rich, self-obsessed sister. It's not clear why either would travel to Maine to murder someone they could murder elsewhere. And neither is it clear why crimes and attempted murders continue after the police have bungled the case and arrested the wrong suspect. Surely a sensible murderer or accomplice would lie low?

But it does give an interesting snapshot of American middle-class life during the war with passing references to small details: the removal of telephones from houses, the rareness of everyday objects like cameras, film, petrol and soap, the inappropriateness of a décoletté dress during wartime. There is the need for patience, forbearance and resilience - all the capable man are away, and only the old and feeble seem to remain. And these tales of rationing and deprivation sit alongside a picture of American wealth. Externally, there is the holiday homes, servants, maids, and a life of leisure. Internally, the realities of this family's life. A manipulative mother unwilling to adapt herself to the straitened circumstances, indifferent to her impositions upon her daughter and feigning ill-health if her daughter won't bend to her ways. The wealthy sister living a separate life to her husband, motivated solely by the desire to protect her position in the world. The only interesting aspect of this novel is the positioning of the mystery story within this realistic background; the mystery story itself lacks credibility.


  1. It sounds like Rinehart should have focused on writing a straight domestic novel and thrown out the mystery aspect. I feel that a lot of authors make that mistake today as well because mysteries are so popular and guaranteed to be read.

  2. This book is clearly written later in her life, and given her popularity I suspect the earlier detective novels must have been superior to this one. But unfortunately this seems to be the only one published by Penguin.



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