I’ve probably, at some point in this blog, been less invested in the outcome of a mystery than I was while reading Miss Pinkerton (1932) by Mary Roberts Rinehart, but rarely have I dreaded the oncoming pages as much as I did here. When the second death occurs at the two-thirds point, I felt my heart sink when I realised that approximately 486,000 pages of this 237-page novel remained and that, as much as I admired the pluck of Miss Hilda Adams, a private nurse called in by Inspector Patton to keep an eye on suspects in a murder case whenever the police aren’t able to be quite so free in their investigations, I just didn’t care any more and probably never had.
It’s the shooting of ne’er-do-well Herbert Wynne, nephew and last living relative of elderly, bed-ridden Miss Juliet Mitchell, that sees Hilda Adams awakened late one evening and summoned by Patton to the once-opulent Mitchell mansion. Herbert’s death might have all the markings of an accident — possibly he shot himself while cleaning his gun — but for Patton certain things don’t add up and he wants his personal “Miss Pinkerton” to keep her eyes open and report on the menage. It’s a small household, consisting of just the elderly matriarch and a pair of married servants, and so Hilda must be a little cautious as she seeks to make sense of the unusual events she witnesses if she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself. And that’s…kind of it. Very slowly we’re introduced to the cast, the layout of the house, and a variety of incidents that will have some bearing on the outcome of the mystery, but all of it is done at a pace and with an earnestness that I found intolerable, and written in a way that at times makes it tremendously hard to follow precisely what was being referred to.
This is in part due to the sole piece of interest that I was able to take in this: the overwhelming, anti-puzzle plot policy of drawing the reader’s attention to every event that will turn out to be relevant later and telling you that it will be relevant later. Where the puzzle plot delights in showing you events to misinterpret, only to subsequently inform you that you should have been looking at it this way, Rinehart sets out her stall to inform you at every stage that something has happened, is suspected, or just been missed which will, in time, prove to be highly relevant. And it’s interesting, but exhausting.
I often think of that scene. The two of us there on the front porch, the Inspector’s two excursions to the rear, and neither one of us suspecting that a part of the answer to our mystery was perhaps not more than fifty feet away from us while we talked. Or that he almost fell over it in the darkness, without even knowing that it was there.
The butler showed me into a large living room, and I found Paula there. She had apparently been curled up in the corner of a davenport until I came in, and I had a feeling that she had not been alone there; that someone had left the room by a rear door as I entered.
She moved toward the bed, and, dark as the room still was, I felt certain that she held something in the hand I could not see, and that, with a surprisingly quick gesture, she slid it under a pillow. Right or wrong — and I know now that I was right — she refused any help in getting back into bed, or to allow me to straighten her bedclothing, or, indeed, to work about the bed at all.
I’m aware, of course, of the Had I But Known idiom this is written in, but it’s fascinating to be told at every juncture ‘Well, that’s going to be significant later’ simply because it runs so contrary to what I’ve come to this genre for, namely the clever misdirection away from significant events. And so what we have here is not so much a plot as a series of happenings that we know are going to be strung together because we’ve been told they’re all meaningful, and somehow it just fell very flat for me…especially when heavy emphasis is laid on things which, in all honesty, aren’t even that notable (“…a scrap of dirty newspaper which I left — luckily, as it happened — where I found it”). You can see John Dickson Carr being struck by this principle and using it when writing The Nine Wrong Answers (1952), but Rinehart’s intention seems only to intrigue: ‘Ooooo, now that’s interesting, eh?’. No, no, Mary, it isn’t.
I enjoyed the moral element of betraying trust that our “stool pigeon” nurse has to grapple with when giving the police information about, say, the identity of a heartbroken you woman, some of Rinehart’s prose is enjoyably wry…
“Why should they question Paula? She couldn’t know anything about Herbert.”
“I wouldn’t let that bother you,” I said, as gently as I could while shouting at her. “They’ve questioned a lot of people.”
…and the cynical attitudes taken towards, say, the secretary of an attractive, single lawyer are pleasingly arch, but on the whole there was very little meat here to grapple with, just Nurse Adams wandering around the house, telling us something will be important later, and then some obvious misdirection being laid on to give the impression of a plot behind it all. Also, if an alley is “twenty-five feet wide” that, madam, is not an alley. That is a main road.
Flashes of good ideas, like the scrap of newspaper hinting at suicide, show through, but I found it laborious, and was insufficiently interested in the various comings and going to want to fight my way through the remainder of the book despite the momentarily diverting second death, the power of which was undone by being told 100 pages earlier that it was going to happen. I skipped ahead, found very little to capture my attention, tried to read the final couple of chapters, realised I wasn’t invested in any of these actions or their more-than-likely-disappointing explanation, and so put this down unresolved. Is that the first time I’ve done that on this blog? I can’t remember, but if I don’t finish a book I tend not to review it, so it certainly feels like the might be a first.
So, maybe I’ve missed the point of Mary Roberts Rinehart, or maybe I simply picked a bad example of her work from he near-40 books she wrote. This feels like something that got reprinted because the copyright had expired and so it can be brought into circulation cheaply, with very little in its construction, tone, or ideas that felt worthwhile — sure, it has a female protagonist, but, jeez, there have to be better examples than this if that’s going to be among your selection criteria. I’m always reluctant to dismiss an author after one book, however, so if there are better examples out there, hit me up. I can’t say I’ll race to read them, but I’ll definitely put them on the list.
Kate @ Cross-Examining Crime: [T]he crime in this book is very clever with a substantial back story which is revealed to the reader piece by piece. The narrative style is also engaging, one which is narrated by Miss Adams herself and I think her voice is one you enjoy listening to and following.
Jose Ignacio @ A Crime is Afoot: All in all, I found Miss Pinkerton more than interesting and quite entertaining, it stands the test of time quite well. Nurse Adams’ mysteries seem to fit better in a full-length novel than in a novella, even though, in my view, I have enjoyed The Buckled Bag more. Still, Miss Pinkerton has not disappointed me at all. It may not be a perfect novel and, on certain aspects, Rinehart abuses certain mechanisms to get our main character out of compromising situations. She just faints and we wait for someone to wake her up.
16 thoughts on “#1034: Miss Pinkerton, a.k.a. The Double Alibi (1932) by Mary Roberts Rinehart”
I tried The Circular Staircase, and I got similar vibes. I remember liking the elements but hating how they were presented.
Yeah, from a slightly different perspective this would have been much more my kind of thing. Interesting to reflect on how these little changes in presentation can so alter the experience of the book.
This is on my TBR pile, but after your review I don’t know if I will read it. I also tried The Circular Staircase but found it too overwrought and abandoned it unfinished.
Maybe try the first half; if that doesn’t do it for you, I can’t believe much past that point will, either. There’s a lot of looming shadows and radio knife chords. It’s…certainly something.
I feel the 1932 film version suffers from the same weaknesses you describe. It’s not that the great puzzle writers never point out at the time of their introduction that clues are significant, but in such cases they almost always delay the explication off that significance until a later time. The film had the wonderful Joan Blondell and terrific Warners production values, but it isn’t enough for me.
The delay in payoff is half the fun, and it sort of dampens the experience to be told that something will be notable later…especially when it often turns out to be something to prosaic that you wonder why an issue was made of it in the first place (a difficulty this also shares with Carr’s The Nine Wrong Answers).
Didn’t realise it had been filmed, but since I didn’t exactly go for the book I’m not likely to check out the film, either. Besides, my film recommendation list is currently longer than my TBR 🙂
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Yes, being informed that something will be of importance later can dampen the effect, but it can also enhance it, when a detective says, “Yes, it is interesting that there was $50,000 in large bills wrapped in a rubber band in his pocket when he died, but I find it even more interesting that the rubber band was BLUE.” Of course, the explanation of that peculiarity has to live up to its enigmatic claim of significance, but if it can do so, it’s a really effective way to keep reader interest.
And yes, there are far more interesting films of the genre to check out, IMO.
I must express some disagreement here. I can see the validity of the points you make, but I still enjoyed reading this (and much of her other work). Maybe you should try one of her novellas? (EG Locked Doors or The Confession)
Well, sure, I never claim to have the final word on anything 🙂 Perhaps the novellas are a good way to go, since the length of this is in part what put me off — that final third was a stretch too far!
I am not entirely surprised by your rating for this one. I felt it might be a bit of a long shot for you enjoying this one but then you do like to surprise us all. I wonder if trying one of her earlier works might work better? The Bat might possibly be a contender. But even earlier ones like The Man from the Lower 10 might be worth looking into as at that stage her HIBK style was less fixed, she hadn’t made her name in it, so she was still probably testing the waters and trying different things out.
Might be worth asking Xavier Lechard as he has read a number of her books I think.
Going earlier in her career is a good idea, given that she might have been a bit less settled into the HIBK groove. Thank-you, I shall do some research and consider a return in due course.
Had I But Known your feelings for this book a mere three months ago, around the time that I became private secretary to reclusive millionaire Reginald Mannion and assisted in the marriage of his daughter Lucinda to her childhood sweetheart, John Callendar, despite Lucinda’s feelings for Bentley, the family chauffeur, as well as John’s own wandering eye . . . if only I had made acquaintance with your opinion at the same time that my temporary bout with amnesia lifted, allowing me to remember my own experiences with the film version starring Joan Blondell . . . then, and ONLY then might I have refused to buy a copy of Rinehart’s The Wall for only three dollars at the local library book sale.
Hey, it’s a different book so it might be better. Someone not enjoying They Came to Baghdad doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read And Then There Were None, after all…
“The anti-puzzle plot stood out to Jim early on, but there, ensconced in the shadows of his reading room, had he but known just how important that tingle of a revelation would later come to play…”
You have to see what Christianna Brand does with this style of story telling in Cat and Mouse. Brilliant stuff, because it’s doing all that MRR apparently isn’t with this one – the misdirection away from the real significant events, the misinterpretation of the obvious significant events, etc.
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Who knows, with so much of Brand’s work coming back into circulation, maybe C&M will enjoy a reprint and I can see what you mean. Let’s keep everything crossed!