Thursday, January 24, 2019

“The Case of Jennie Brice” by Mary Roberts Rinehart

My introduction to the mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart was via television. In the early to mid-1960s, one of the local television stations had a program of showing mystery and horror movies on Saturday night. One such show featured the 1959 movie “The Bat,” starring Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price. 

Rinehart (1876-1958) was a prolific writer of plays, mysteries, short story collections, non-fiction, and essays. A stock market crash in 1903 forced her to find income, and she began to write short stories. In 1907, her novel The Circular Staircase made her famous across the United States. The Batfirst appeared as a play in 1920 and published as a novel in 1926. 

Born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (not part of Pittsburgh), Rinehart published The Case of Jennie Brice in 1913, which uses Allegheny City and Pittsburgh as its setting. Specifically, it is a flood (inspired by the actual river flooding of the area in 1907) that inspires the story. Reprinted many times over the years, the novel has now been republished by Midwest Classics Press

In the story, Mrs. Pitman operates a boardinghouse in Allegheny City, I a relatively poor, run-down area prone to river flooding. Her boarders include a couple, the Ladleys. Mr. Ladley is unemployed; Mrs. Ladley is an actress with the stage name of Jennie Brice. During the 1907 flood, Miss Brice disappears, and Mrs. Pitman is convinced her husband has killed her.

Mary Roberts Rinehart
Much of the story focuses on the investigation and eventual murder trial, and how significant details only gradually come to light. But the story is also about Mrs. Pitman herself, and how she had eloped years before, been disowned by her sister, and how she quietly follows (and helps) a niece.

The Case of Jennie Brice is very much a period mystery novel, but it has an urgency about it that makes it seem farm more contemporary. It’s an enjoyable story, providing a window on Pittsburgh (and its rivers) in the first decade of the 20thcentury.

Top photograph: Downtown Pittsburgh during the Flood of 1907, via the Heniz History Center.

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