The work of Mary Roberts Rinehart has cropped up in my reviews a couple of times this year already, with mixed success. However today I think I have read my favourite Rinehart novel to date. The Bat (1926) opens with the infamous deeds of the Bat, a master criminal who is on the loose and whom the police nor private detectives can identify and capture. The Bat is a thief of extraordinary abilities and is not afraid to use violence. Murder is not a crime he shies away from. The whole of society is obsessed with his deeds, finding them exhilarating and frightening at the same time: ‘He had become a fad – a catchword – a national figure. And yet – he was walking Death – cold – remorseless. But Death itself had become a toy of publicity.’
The narrative then switches on to a rather different track looking at the household of Miss Cornelia Van Gorder. Cornelia has rented a house in the country for the summer, yet due to various unsettling events, servants are hard to keep a hold of. Anonymous letters threatening her to leave are a daily occurrence and more than one servant has seen a mysterious figure wandering about the place at night. There is also Cornelia’s niece to consider, Dale Ogden, who is far from happy. But why? Events all come to a head one stormy night, where murder, theft and criminal opportunism give Cornelia a night to remember, as does the fact most of the events take place in the dark or by candle light due to power cuts. The disappearance of a million pounds from a local bank is at the centre of this mystery, a fortune which tempts all and sundry and of course as Cornelia thinks and hopes, the Bat is amongst the various people gathered at her house on this fateful night. Though one wonders whether this is the least of her troubles.
I think one of the main reasons why I enjoyed this book was because we get the expected Rinehart atmospherics, but we also get quite a good sneaky underlying puzzle as well. The action is fast paced, but underneath the mysterious noises and dramatic entrances and exits, there are a number of clues Rinehart places in full sight of the reader. Yet of course these clues are much easier to see in retrospect when you no longer have dramatic events distracting you. I managed to decipher some parts of the solution, yet enjoyably there were still a number of surprises for me and the ending of the book is quite a treat. The fact the story mostly takes place over one night works effectively with the plot type and it is easy to see why this novel was adapted for stage and film.
The characters are also a delight. Cornelia makes for a wonderful amateur spinster sleuth, who has always yearned of proving herself capable of ‘dangerous exploits’ and she does indeed go on to prove this capability in herself. Cornelia’s sharp mind and wit contrast with the more heroine in distress exploits of her niece and one of my favourite comebacks by Cornelia, (when someone asks her if she will change her mind or not,) is: ‘I have a great deal of mind. It takes a long time to change it.’ Also like Miss Marple and Miss Silver would go on to do, Cornelia enjoys knitting when trying to figure out what on earth is going on in her house.
All in all a good afternoon’s read and I would definitely recommend this novel as a starting place for those new to the work of Rinehart. It’s clever and funny, with strong lashings of sinister atmosphere and suspense.