This book has been on my TBR pile for a while, so Rich’s Crimes of the Century Monthly Challenge at Past Offences gave me a good excuse to give it a go. Rinehart is an author I have never read before, but I have known about for a while after having read about her in Martha Dubose’s Women of Mystery: The Lives & Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists (2000). Rinehart’s work is primarily domestic suspense and was later derogatorily known as the Had I But Known School, a genre which Julian Symons (1972) said had ‘the air of being written specifically for maiden aunts,’ (Symons, 1972: 97) and Howard Haycraft said it was ‘a school of mystery writing about which the less said the more chivalrous’ (Haycraft, 1946: 319), which in itself suggests that this was a type of impoverished novel written by and for women. Some of this derision is to do with the apparent implausibility of the plots where ‘the heroine rarely behaves in a way that bears much relation to common sense… [and] invariably and inevitability finds herself in a situation she has been warned to avoid’ (Steinbrunner & Penzler, 1976: 180). A sentence I think in fairness could be applied to a number of other male fictional amateur sleuths. This perception of HIBK novels is quite a dominant one in my opinion as it is the first one I encountered when I first started reading crime fiction and I admit it did put me off slightly. However, further reading around the genre suggests there is more than meets the eye. Such works often focus, either in first or third person narration, on a woman’s dramatic experience. With first person narratives the female narrator is often retelling an experience of theirs retrospectively and therefore foreshadows the danger which awaits them. Catherine Ross Nickerson (2010) says that in Rinehart’s work, ‘the exploration of women’s experience is her real subject. She is especially interested in how to tell a story from a woman’s perspective…’ (Nickerson, 2010: 35). Therefore HIBK novels can be seen as gendered in a more positive way, in that they prioritise representing female experience and in some way express female resentment at limiting male perceptions of women. Consequently as well as just giving my thoughts on The Yellow Room (1945) as a novel I am also going to be looking at how this novel fits into or deviates from the opinions outlined above about the HIBK genre.
In the beginning of The Yellow Room, Carol Spencer is emphasised at the outset as an ordinary woman whose romantic hopes have been dashed by the war and therefore as the only unmarried daughter she has taken on the role of looking after her invalided though not as feeble as she looks, mother. At her mother’s wish they are going to reopen their house, Crestview at Bayside in Maine, due to her brother Gregory coming back on leave to be decorated for his bravery in the air force. Reopening the house is not something Carol is looking forward to as the father of her now believed to be dead, fiancée Don Richardson lives nearby and awkwardly Colonel Richardson has not been able to accept his son’s presumed death. Even worse this was a last minute decision on Carol’s mother’s part, meaning Carol has to go on ahead (having first deposited her mother at Elinor’s) with the servants to prepare the house, though she is hoping some of the work will have already been done by the caretaker’s wife, Lucy Norton.
However, things do not turn out as expected. Firstly when leaving her mother at Elinor’s, her older sister is out of character, appearing distracted and tired, a far cry from the usual image of the perfect hostess. More is to come though when Carol and the servants arrive at Crestview, as not only is Lucy Norton not there and appears to have done little within the house, the house itself has an unusual pungent smell of smoke. Revelations are soon to follow. Both the gardener and Lucy Norton are in hospital, the former recovering from an appendix operation, whilst the latter has broken her leg having fallen down the main stairs at Crestview during the night, an accident she said happened due to some unknown figure chasing her. Village gossip has also mentioned a light burning in the window of the yellow room at Crestview on the very same night. The burning smell is also explained when one of the servants finds there has been a fire in the linen cupboard, a fire which also contains the burnt corpse of a woman.
The senior policeman at the village, Floyd is called in, who in turn invites Major Jerry Dane (who is recovering from a leg wound) to join the initial investigation of the scene. Carol and Jerry get off to a slightly tempestuous start, but every reader knows this is the commencement of the romantic angle of the novel. There is no doubt that this is case of murder, with the victim’s skull bashed in before the fire. But when did this fire happen, as Lucy Norton when first questioned never mentioned it? The presence of the corpse is made even more inexplicable when it appears she was staying in the yellow room, with the implied knowledge of Lucy. But who was she? And what is Lucy not saying? The killer seems to have made this task hard for the investigators as all her belongings and clothes have been removed. Suspicion quickly falls on Carol, only to be proceeded by falling also on her older siblings Elinor and Greg, as eye witnesses state they saw Elinor’s car in the area on the night of the murder, a car which also seemed to have a male passenger. As the novel progresses further evidence becomes apparent or is hinted at, creating a tense atmosphere for the three siblings (as Elinor and Greg come to stay with Carol), who become increasingly suspicious of what the others may or may not have done or know. While the police investigation seems focused on proving the guilt of one or more of the siblings, Dane is sure they are on the wrong track and begins his own investigation, roping in a private detective to help him. But when the victim’s identity is discovered, it seems like Dane has set himself a difficult task. Further criminal acts follow the initial crime placing suspicion more and more on the three siblings at Crestview such as hillside arson as well as further death and violence, leading to Dane even having small doubts about Carol and of course various members of the community are out and about during these invariably nocturnal acts and are generally acting much more suspiciously. But is their presence a guilty one or just a red herring? An arrest is made but Dane is sure it is a wrong one but it is a race against time to prove the validity of his gut instinct. The solution is definitely an unexpectedly surprising one, though it could have been more effectively revealed.
Although fairly new to the HIBK genre, I don’t think this novel fits that category as closely as some of Rinehart’s other novels such as The Circular Staircase (1908). It certainly avoids the stereotype of the HIBK novel which Steinbrunner & Penzler (1976) outline, as Carol is not a heroine who walks carelessly into danger. Though we do get a slightly reminiscing tone at times such as when the burnt body is first discovered: ‘Later Carol was to remember that faint of Freda’s as the beginning of the nightmare.’ But I do think female experience is not significantly focused on in this story, as after the initial setup of the first crime, the narrative increasingly becomes more centred on Dane and his investigation. Dane is certainly the active detecting element out of the two of them, although Carol at the start does help out a little, with Dane taking the lead:
‘How about helping me with a little job this morning?… I’m no bird dog, with this leg. I could use an assistant.’
In this respect the novel did remind me of Lenore Glen Offord’s The Skeleton Key (1943). Conversely though I think Offord’s novel looks more at female experience than this novel does, despite Nickerson’s (2010) assertions that Rinehart’s focus was on portraying and exploring female experience. In particular one female voice which is understandably missing from the novel is that of the first victim and instead her intentions and character are replaced by a version created by male investigators. Furthermore, at the denouement of the novel it does feel like male deviancy is more justified or excused than female criminality, which perhaps undermines Nickerson’s viewpoint.
Carol is not a very active character in the story once Dane and the police begin their separate investigations, but nevertheless in the beginning I think she does conform to some elements of the HIBK heroine. Nickerson (2010) suggests that the ‘blend of gothic atmosphere and detective story structure allows… [Rinehart’s] readers to see the situation of women in the twentieth century dramatized in a satisfying way. The female gothic tradition is a discourse of anger…’ (Nickerson, 2010: 37) against patriarchal society. Whilst I would dispute the idea that female experience is ‘dramatized in a satisfying way’ in this novel, I do think Carol has some moments where she expresses her annoyance and anger at patriarchal attitudes towards women, which traditionally limit female careers and advocate marriage. For example, Carol is frustrated that she has to take care of her mother, as she would prefer to be involved in the war effort either as a WAC, a WAVE or a nurse aide. Moreover, there are also moments where she is annoyed with what is considered the feminine ideal and the fact she feels she cannot fulfil it. This is seen when she compares herself with her married sister:
‘She had broken two fingernails getting ready to move, and she eyed them resentfully. Elinor would spot them at once, she thought. Elinor who was the family beauty, Elinor who had married what was wealth even in these days of heavy taxes, and Elinor who had definitely refused to look after her mother so that Carol could go into some sort of war work.’
It might also be noticed in this example that the feminine ideal embodied by Elinor is also seen to be a literal obstacle to Carol doing war work.
Carol may not be the atypical HIBK heroine, but Rinehart’s choice of setting certainly is, being the isolated country house. When reading about this genre I found it interesting to note the different way the country house is used in such novels, in comparison to the usual Golden Age country house murder mystery. In HIBK novels country houses ‘become a source of fear and dread’ (Nickerson, 2010: 36) and they are also places which encourage literal or symbolic discussion of the female experience. In addition, Nickerson also suggests ‘the gothic trope of seclusion or imprisonment within a house [is used] to comment on the waste of women’s talents… [and] become places that are subject to surveillance and intrusion’ (Nickerson, 2010: 36). This is seen in The Yellow Room, as for starters Carol definitely becomes to fear Crestview and early on in the story it is said that ‘always before when she came it had been warm and welcoming, but that day it was different. It felt, she thought shiveringly, like a tomb.’ Furthermore once the body is discovered the house is intruded and evaded by male figures such as the police and by the private detective, who Dane plants there. It is also in this house that Carol becomes painfully aware of her passivity and lack of work, which I will discuss further below.
The setting/ time period of this novel also interested me for three other reasons. Firstly because it reminded me of post-war mystery novels (despite it being set at the tail end of the war) such as After the Funeral (1953), The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962) and At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) by Agatha Christie, which comment on the changing times and the pitfalls of nostalgia. Dane in this novel expresses a sense of resentment at the relative stasis in the Bayside area, which still tries to uphold the old system:
‘He had walked up this hill daily for two weeks, and except for the Norton woman’s accident the place had been merely an ostentatious survival of an era that was finished. In a way it had annoyed him, sitting smug on its hill while the rest of the world blazed and died.’
Though by the end of the novel it is doubtful that this old way of life will remain due to its own literal and metaphorical ‘blaze[s].’ Secondly I also enjoying looking at the effects war had on crime investigation, as for instance there were fewer police men available and the police in this story can’t even take photos of the crime scene as no one has any film for a camera. Finally, I think a connection can be made between the setting of this novel, Crestview house and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), as both novels feature a woman, which people don’t want known about, dying and their bodies being involved in a fire. I won’t elaborate any further as I don’t want to give any unintentional spoilers.
Mary P. Freier (1999) when defining the HIBK genre also says that in such novels:
‘Any character who is a stranger to the environment – often the narrator – is immediately assumed to be of lower socioeconomic class than the rest of the major characters. The objectivity that results from this assumed difference in social standing frequently enables the heroine narrator to solve the mystery.’ (Freier, 1999: 197)
In this novel I would argue that it is the hero, Dane, who as newcomer to the area holds this outsider position and therefore the more objective perspective. He is also the one at the start of the investigation to attack the class system inherent in such an area. For example when Carol says, ‘It looks peaceful… It’s hard to believe that anyone here could do a thing like murder,’ Dane rebuffs her replying, ‘There’s murder all over the world… Why think people like you are immune?’ Carol perceives the implied criticism of her social group and thinks ‘it was obvious that Dane did not like what he called people like her…’ Moreover, it is at this point that she sees her own deficiencies thinking, ‘And she could not tell him that she loathed her own uselessness,’ which is see as a trait of being in her social class.
Overall I thought this an entertaining read, though it could have been shortened a little. The final solution is a surprising one, although some pieces may be guessed at before its’ revelation. Rinehart is adept at creating atmosphere and tension without being excessive and her characterisation although using stock characters is well done, with quite a number of nuanced and interesting relationships. I think this novel has given me a lot to think about and has piqued my interest in this so called Had I But Known genre.
Freier, M. (1999). Had I But Known. In: Herbert, R. The Cambridge Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 197.
Haycraft, Howard (1946). The Art of the Mystery Story. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Nickerson, C. R. (2010). Women Writers Before 1960. In: Nickerson, C. R. The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 29-41.
Steinbrunner, C. and Penzler, O. (eds.) (1976). Encyclopaedia of Mystery and Detection. New York: McGraw Hill.
Symons, J. (1972). Mortal Consequences. New York: Schocken.