May 2, 2013 | 3
I’m rather a bit in love with a dead woman. I met her in a moment of desperation, when I was running low on Dame Agatha Christie and had finished all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stuff, and still had a yearning for turn-of-the-last-century detective literature. There she was, one of the helpful recommendations on my Kindle Fire: Mary Roberts Rinehart, mystery writer.
And I was like, meh. She was an American author. I wanted British. But I looked her up, and there were these little hints of someone I should get to know – American Agatha Christie, inspired the whole “the butler did it” meme. Also, Batman.
Well, a Batman fan such as myself can’t resist that siren song. I downloaded The Circular Staircase and got to reading. I didn’t know I was embarking on a journey that would lead from a murder scene in the billiard room of the moneyed leisure class to the crest of the Cascades, or that I would find myself enthralled not just by her writing, but her life.
We get such a one-dimensional view of authors. Out of a considerable body of work, we too often read maybe one or two of their most famous works, and label them accordingly: mystery writer, in this case. As if that’s all Mary Roberts Rinehart was or did. She was a wife and mother; a nurse, feminist, adventuress, playwright, comedy writer, war correspondent, advocate for Native American rights who was initiated into the Blackfoot Tribe. She marched for women’s suffrage. She wrote about the injustice of wife-beating long before it was popular to take up such a cause. She was a breast cancer survivor who advocated for breast exams in an age when such things weren’t often talked about. She was the first female war correspondent on the Belgian Front in World War I; King Albert chose her to take his first statement on the war. She crossed the Cascades on horseback over a little-explored pass that nearly killed her, and floated uncharted rapids on the Flathead River in a wooden boat.
All that, and she was one of the inspirations for Batman. Not bad for an East Coast woman born during the dying days of the Victorian era, in a time when women were still expected to be delicate little flowers completely under the thumb of husband and family.
Vestiges of that age find their way into her writing. She couldn’t escape all of the prejudices of her day: reading her works, you’ll encounter some very not-PC stuff. But she had a feeling for people. Just when you think she’s verging on caricature, she veers off, and even when her white privilege shows, you can see genuine caring and respect. Her female characters, not entirely free of Victorian sentiments, are still remarkably strong, active and intelligent. Much like Mary herself.
I knew little of this stuff. I had no idea what a remarkable woman she was. I just knew I’d read The Circular Staircase, and rather liked it, and thought I’d investigate some of her other works, such as the one that inspired Batman. I popped into the Kindle store to see what was available, and that’s when I saw the title Tenting To-night: A Chronicle of Sport
and Adventure in Glacier Park and the Cascade Mountains. Seriously? A city woman loose in the Cascades back when things were still wild and woolly? This East Coast mystery author had trekked all over my stomping grounds? And the resulting book is now free? Oh, hell, why not. Batman could wait.
So I embarked on a trip through the wildest part of Glacier National Park and over Cascade Pass with Mary Roberts Rinehart. This, I think, is when I fell hopelessly in love. Her mysteries are good; her travel writing is sublime. She has a fine, wry sense of humor that hooks you like one of the trout flies she cast. She sketches her family and fellow travelers wonderfully, capturing their essence in just a few words. She has an excellent sense of place, and she enlists the senses, allowing you to experience the adventure with her. And through it all is the remarkable fact that this woman saw some of the wildest places in American, willingly went through untamed wilderness, took extreme risks for the newness of it, and for the story.
She wasn’t a geologist, but there are moments when you know she’s aware of geology. At Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park, she describes how “our long procession mounted the rise which some great glacier deposited ages ago at the foot of what is now Bowman Lake.” And the beauty of those stark, forbidding glacial landscapes, still actively being carved by the ice, arrested her:
Now and then there are scenes in the mountains that defy the written word. The view from Cloudy Pass is one; the outlook from Cascade Pass is another. But for sheer loveliness there are few things that surpass Lyman Lake at sunset, its great glacier turned to pink, the towering granite cliffs which surround it dark purple below, bright rose at the summits. And lying there, still with the stillness of the ages, the quiet lake.
Geology appears in the scenery, and in gentle humor at her middle son’s expense:
Our trail led us through one of the few remaining unknown portions of the United States. It cannot long remain unknown. It is too superb, too wonderful. And it has mineral in it, silver and copper and probably coal. The Middle Boy, who is by way of being a chemist and has systematically blown himself up with home-made explosives for years—the Middle Boy found at least a dozen silver mines of fabulous value, although the men in the party insisted that his specimens were iron pyrites and other unromantic minerals.
And she went where the USGS had not gone before:
In the north-central part of the State of Washington, Nature has done a curious thing. She has built a great lake in the eastern shoulders of the Cascade Mountains. Lake Chelan, more than fifty miles long and averaging a mile and a half in width, is ten hundred and seventy-five feet above sea-level, while its bottom is four hundred feet below the level of the ocean. It is almost completely surrounded by granite walls and peaks which reach more than a mile and a half into the air.
The region back from the lake is practically unknown. A small part of it has never been touched by the Geological Survey, and, in one or two instances, we were able to check up errors on our maps. Thus, a lake shown on our map as belonging at the head of McAllister Creek really belongs at the head of Rainbow Creek, while McAllister Lake is not shown at all. Mr. Coulter, a forester who was with us for a time, last year discovered three lakes at the head of Rainbow Creek which have never been mapped, and, so far as could be learned, had never been seen by a white man before. Yet Lake Chelan itself is well known in the Northwest. It is easily reached, its gateway being the famous Wenatchee Valley, celebrated for its apples.
While supplies were being collected for the great pack-train adventure over the Cascades, she made further geological observations on the Wenatchee area, noting, “It is volcanic ash, disintegrated basalt, this great fruit-country to the right of the range.” If she hadn’t made her living writing novels (among them the first American mystery bestseller), stories, and articles, she might have had a long and prosperous career as the first woman to survey and map for the USGS.
Certainly, nothing daunted her. There are times in this book when the entire party is in mortal danger, when the survival of the humans and animals crossing that wild territory was in serious doubt. There were times they almost died. But even when she’s scared, Mary Roberts Rinehart never gives up. She doesn’t lose her shit. She handles the situations as they arise, and once the tense moment has passed, is always looking forward to the next phase of adventure. And she doesn’t lose her wry sense of humor, even when describing the mountains that threatened to kill her family:
It is a curious thing about mountains, but they have a hideous tendency to fall down. Whole cliff-faces, a mile or so high, are suddenly seized with a wandering disposition. Leaving the old folks at home and sliding down into the valleys, they come awful croppers and sustain about eleven million compound comminuted fractures.
These family breaks are known as rock-slides.
Horses rolled down ice fields; weary travelers wrenched muscles and held on for dear life and wondered, at times, if they’d ever get across. And then, they were through it: over the Pass, with the quiet forests and lush vegetation of the western slope of the Cascades ahead, not so far from civilization (following a trail quite close to where Highway 20 passes now). After the rush of danger, beauty.
And one of her fellow travelers, who had been mostly silent until then, said:
“Why can’t all this sort of thing be put into music?” he asked. “It is music. Think of it, the drama of it all!”
Then he went on, and this is what “Silent Lawrie” wants to have written. I pass it on to the world, and surely it can be done. It starts at dawn, with the dew, and the whistling of the packers as they go after the horses. Then come the bells of the horses as they come in, the smoke of the camp-fire, the first sunlight on the mountains, the saddling and packing. And all the time the packers are whistling.
Then the pack starts out on the trail, the bells of the leaders jingling, the rattle and crunch of buckles and saddle-leather, the click of the horses’ feet against the rocks, the swish as they ford a singing stream. The wind is in the trees and birds are chirping. Then comes the long, hard day, the forest, the first sight of snow-covered peaks, the final effort, and camp.
After that, there is the thrush’s evening song, the afterglow, the camp-fire, and the stars. And over all is the quiet of the night, and the faint bells of grazing horses, like the silver ringing of the bell at a mass.
I wish I could do it.
I believe she did. It’s not in musical notation: no orchestra plays it. But the words she wrote are a symphony, an ode to the joy of wilderness, adagios and allegros and leitmotifs that sing out from the page.
Perhaps I love her because she shares my love for storytelling, for the mountains and their fantastic geology, for love and laughter and good times. But she did far more than I ever could. For one, she was willing to camp.
And she inspired Batman. No self-respecting geek can fail to love and admire her for that. Bob Kane, creator of Batman, found three things coming together to create the character in his mind: Zorro, Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter, and the film version of The Bat.
In 1920, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood turned The Circular Staircase into a Broadway play. They changed some details around and added an arch-criminal called The Bat, a mysterious and sinister character who confounded the police and terrorized the populace. He was a shadow, a ghost, haunting the darkness and leaving only his bat symbol behind. In one scene, there’s even the prelude to the Bat Signal, when a spotlight throws the image of a bat onto a wall. It’s a bit strange to think that a criminal mastermind was one of the major inspirations for Batman, but that’s the wonderful alchemy of the creative process.
The Bat was a huge success. It ended up being filmed several times: there was a silent film, and a movie called The Bat Whispers, and Bob Kane saw it, and things went click in his mind. Without Mary Roberts Rinehart’s influence, Batman may have been quite a different superhero than the Dark Knight we’ve come to adore. Knowing that the woman who crossed my beloved Cascades on horseback also had something to do with my beloved Batman delights me.
That’s the woman I’m in love with. Is it any wonder?
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection: Mary Roberts Rinehart, by Michael E. Grost.
The Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Mary Roberts Rinehart.
Arlington National Cemetary Website, Mary Roberts Rinehart.