Mary Roberts Rinehart, Queen of the Mystery Novels

by Thomas Schwartz

Writer Mary Roberts Rinehart

Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover shared an interest in mystery novels. Popular mystery writers appear with frequency among the titles in their personal library, especially at Camp Rapidan. One of the first women to excel in the genre was Mary Roberts Rinehart, who was also a personal friend of the Hoovers. Among her many celebrity fans were President Woodrow Wilson and Gertrude Stein.

Long before Agatha Christie, P.D. James, and Patricia Cornwell, Rinehart was America’s premier female writer of the “who done it.” She rose to national fame in 1907 with her novel The Circular Staircase. Her 1920 play The Bat inspired the 1930 movie,The Bat Whispers,which became a source of inspiration for comic book artist Bob Kane in the creation of Batman. In her 1930 mystery novel, The Door, the butler is the killer, establishing the genre cliche, “the butler did it.”

Rinehart, a nurse by profession, took up writing to supplement her family’s income. The mystery novels were the most lucrative source of her writing endeavors but she also served as a regular contributor to popular magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal. When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, Rinehart served as a war correspondent, covering the conflict. This war correspondent work first introduced her to the Hoovers forming a life-long friendship.

A warm Hoover partisan, Rinehart wrote two favorable articles on the Hoover Administration: “A New First Lady Becomes Hostess For The Nation,” and “What five of our Presidents have told Mary Roberts Rinehart about ‘The Worst Job in the World.’” She reluctantly accepted Hoover’s offer to place her on the Commission on Conservation and Administration of the Public Domain. The reluctance had less to do with the subject matter, issues she felt deeply about, but rather the time commitment that would detract from her writing. After Hoover’s reelection defeat in 1932, Rinehart wrote a letter of consolation claiming “there can be no doubt that this one term of yours will go down in history as a great and outstanding one, and that your policies have set a precedent which will last.” Her comments about FDR were less complimentary, asserting: “Of course putting Roosevelt in just now is like handing the government to a child. He has never thought in national or international terms in his life. And real economy in the face of a hungry horde of Democrats and a clamoring south is probably out of the question.” Hoover’s reply was more magnanimous: “That was a beautiful note you sent me! However, I don’t suppose the national stream of America will be stopped because of anything either one of us does or does not do.”

Among Hoover’s papers is an undated memorandum “Notes on Proposed Mary Robert Rinehart Foundation.” It outlines establishing a monetary award to “develop storytellers.” In fact, the Mary Roberts Rinehart Foundation underwrites an annual “Mary Roberts Rinehart Award” that is presented to a woman writer of a major nonfiction work.

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