Once again Dr. Boli has contributed a short introduction to a Serif Classics edition of an interesting book from the past. This time the book is by Mary Roberts Rinehart, who ought to need no introduction, but whose enormous popularity and influence have been strangely forgotten recently. The book can be found on line, of course, but the Serif Classics edition is well formatted, pleasant to hold and read, and always there for you when the power goes out.
We make no apology for launching this new edition of The Man in Lower Ten without a lengthy introduction. It is pure entertainment by the author who, of all American writers, was most adept at entertaining us.
By a strange freak of the publishing industry, though, Mary Roberts Rinehart’s books have been largely forgotten today. It is not because they are no longer entertaining. It is simply because they are filed in the wrong section in the bookstore.
In her lifetime, her books were described as mysteries. We have a different expectation for mystery stories now, however. We expect something either more like Agatha Christie or more like Raymond Chandler.
Agatha Christie stories give us a comfortable formula, in which the same detective solves one mystery after another, regardless of the creeping depopulation of her village.
Raymond Chandler gives us the seamy underworld with its colorfully amoral characters, one of whom is a detective whose breezy cynicism hides a little diamond core of morality. We expect it always to be the same detective, even if the stories are by different authors.
The category that fits Mary Roberts Rinehart today is “thriller.” The Man in Lower Ten could almost be a story by the late Dick Francis. With one notable exception, Francis’ heroes did not reappear for later stories. They had their one big adventure, and then they retired to live normal lives. This is the Rinehart way.
The one thing that tells us right away that this is not a Dick Francis story, however, is that Rinehart has a sense of humor. Francis never mastered that department of writing. He did just fine without it. One feels, however, that with humor added to thrills, mystery, and romance, the package is more complete.
Our story takes place mostly in Pittsburgh (which was officially spelled “Pittsburg” in 1909) and Washington and along the railroad between them. This is territory Rinehart knew backwards and forwards, and her familiarity with it makes the narration seem natural and effortless. There is a missing bundle of papers, a hero wrongly accused of murder, a train wreck, a beautiful woman with a mysterious secret, two old dark houses, a comically tyrannical housekeeper, and a wisecracking best friend. You can rely on these ingredients to produce first-rate entertainment, and you can rely on Mary Roberts Rinehart to make the best use of her ingredients. And with that we confidently leave you to enjoy the show.