The Case of Jennie Brice by Mary Roberts Rinehart

published 1913

Case of Jennie Brice 3

Temple Hope, the leading woman from the Liberty Theater, [arrived].

“I would like to talk to you, Mrs Pitman,” she said. “Now then, where is Jennie Brice?”

“I don’t know, Miss Hope,” I answered.

We looked at each other for a minute, and each of us saw what the other suspected.

“He has killed her”” she exclaimed. “She was afraid he would do it, and – he has!”

“Killed her and thrown her into the river,” I said.

I did not know whether to be glad that the water was going down again and could live like a Christian again, or to be sorry, for fear of what we might find in the mud that was always left.

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commentary: This little gem came from Kate Jackson’s Coffee and Crime Subscription Box.  In case you don’t know, crime fiction blogger Kate, the proprietor of Cross-Examining Crime, offers a gift service – subscription or one-off – of vintage books parcelled up with all kinds of goodies and bits and pieces. I can highly recommend this: the friends to whom I sent it all absolutely loved it. They don’t need to be hardcore crime fans, anyone generally interested in books would enjoy the box, and Kate is happy to adapt it to personal tastes, she likes to get her selection just right. It really is a perfect gift.

And… she must have wondered what to send to me, I should think, and this one was a huge success. Of course I knew of Mary Roberts Rinehart (MRR hereafter), and think I may have read one of her books a long time ago – she is famed for inventing a whole genre of romantic, rather gothic thrillers, and was a massive bestseller in her day. She is credited with being the original of HIBK books: for non-aficionados, this stands for ‘Had I But Known…’ and is alleged to be what dippy heroines say when they go out onto the dark staircase in their nighties with just a candle, ie ‘Had I but known the evil in that house, I would have stayed in my bed.’ (See my own comments on wandering round old dark houses in this recent post.) In fact there is some doubt that any MRR character ever said that, but she is inextricably linked with the phrase – which is a useful one for defining certain books.

Case of Jennie Brice 1
Mary Roberts Rinehart

As it turns out, Jennie Brice was full of surprises – first of all, how long ago it was published. In fact MRR wrote (prolifically) between 1906 and 1952. Secondly, the heroine, far from being a sweet & innocent romantic heroine, is a vinegary older lady who runs a boarding-house in Philadelphia, a landlady whom you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. The area where she lives is regularly flooded, and during the stresses of dealing with this, one of her tenants – Jennie Brice, aka Mrs Ladley, an actress – disappears. Our narrator Mrs Pitman, and various other people, are very suspicious of Mr Ladley, whose grief seems controllable.

So – will the body appear when the waters fall? If there is a body, whose is it? Who is that woman coming to the door with baby chickens for no apparent reason? This is a great story, barrelling along at great speed: it’s also a very short, quick read. Mrs Pitman is a hoot, funny and dry, and obsessed with getting back her onyx clock, which has mysteriously disappeared along with Jennie B. There is a young couple whose romance seems to be under threat, and there is plenty of spying and checking and looking for clues, and a scrap of paper with inexplicable words on it. There is a plotline about a tattoo, which seemed very 21st century, a useful reminder that all kinds of aspects of life have been going on for a long time…

And again I will stress I wasn't expecting it to be so funny. For example, one of the investigators is a Mr Holcombe, who has confidently predicted he will solve the crime. The next day he is not looking good, his face swollen and puffy:
He opened one eye and looked at me. “What a night!” he groaned. 
“What happened? What did you find?” 
He groaned again. “Find!” he said. “Nothing, except that there was something wrong with that whisky. It poisoned me.”

Spoiler: there was no poison in the whisky.

I was rather surprised by the spying from one room to another via a periscope:

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CCTV and video bugs have nothing on this. Ogden Nash parodied HIBK beautifully like this:
"Had I But Known then what I know now I could have saved at least three lives by revealing to the Inspector the conversation I heard through that fortuitous hole in the floor."
- perhaps he was thinking of this book.

And I was completely blindsided by the eventual solution – I had assumed a much simpler plotline. (btw, luckily there was no contents list at the front of this book: if the chapter titles HAD been listed, one of the later ones is a complete spoiler… ). One character seems to have been disposed of rather summarily – I kept flipping through again to try to discover details of their fate – but otherwise this was a clever, entertaining book, with considerable charm and wit, and a rather touching good-heartedness about it.

So full marks Kate – thank you very much.

Pictures most happily from the Library of Congress who have quite a few MRR pictures. The photo is MRR herself – wearing a fur coat, an important feature of the book. The man in the boat, and the periscope, are illos from the original publication of Jennie Brice in a magazine, preceding the book: the floods were such that boats could float in and out of the houses, which is key to the plot. The other picture is an illustration from a different MRR story.


  1. This does sound good, Moira. I can't say I've read a lot of Mary Roberts Rinehart, but what I have read has that wit you mention. And I like the idea of the main character not necessarily being the beautiful young woman. Sometimes vinegary older women make interesting characters, too...

    1. I had never felt a great pull towards her, Margot, but based on this one I would happily read some more. Great characters! and also, while I was reading the book I was thinking of you, because I associate you with Philadelphia.

  2. Thanks for the mention and glad you enjoyed the book. Interesting to see that she breaks her own mould or rather the mould thrust upon her.

    1. Thanks for the book - it was a great choice and a big success! And yes, I think she's more varied than people give her credit for.

  3. I read a lot of MRR back in 2010 (I see this from my own dormant book blog) and really enjoyed her books. IMO the racism in the books make them a little tough to stomach for a modern reader, but at the same time it helped me understand a lot more about racism in the US - how insidious it is and how deeply-rooted.

    I remember thinking at the time that a lot of her books would make excellent film plots (with some editing of, you know, THE RACISM) - can't understand why no screen-writer has made the attempt? The After House was really thrilling!

    1. You make a good point about reading old books - casual racism can be hard to take (and of course is ultimately indefensible) but it does serve as a reminder of what life and attitudes really were like. And yes, great plots and surprising there aren't films. And so glad to get a recommendation as to which book to read next.

    2. I wrote a long post about her novels back in the day when I kept up my blog :( - reviewing both the racism and the bits I enjoyed :) Your post really brought it back for me - I'm going to re-read some of these soon!

    3. Thanks for the link - you gave her a real go didn't you? Very much enjoyed having a poke around your blog- I share your love for the Katy books, and remembered how much I enjoyed an Anabel Donald book, must go and see what happened to her.

    4. MRR had a lot of vinegary spinsters as her heroines, and at least one who presents herself (first person narrator) as a vinegary spinster but gradually through the book it dawns on the reader that the heroine is unmarried, yes, but hardly a vinegary spinster.

      Her "Tish" books and "Bab, a Sub-deb" are funny and available at Project Gutenberg.

    5. Thank you for being so kind about my (sadly very dormant) blog! I really enjoyed reading and writing for a while but it became a chore so I took a hiatus. I'd be terribly pleased if someone found a few tips off it though. :)

      Shay - I'm looking those up asap. :)

    6. Great. it is actually a lot of work keeping up a blog, to state the obvious, but it is nice that all your past posts are available to us. And yes, thanks Shay for the recos.

  4. I always thought she was a modern author, what little do I know? Not one for me though.

    1. Far from it, though she did write for a very long time. Not nearly as cozy as people think, but still not one for you!

  5. A husband "whose grief seems controllable" - that made my day!

    1. Thank you! You've made mine. I was quite proud of it.


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