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.
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.
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:
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.