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Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart

APA The Circular Staircase, c1908, novelized in 1926 from a stage play, entitled The Bat. This was Mary Roberts Rinehart’s first book.

MysteriousPress.com re-release (available as an ebook, including on Kobo through Powell’s Books), c2013, 174 pages, $9.99

Reading The Bat was like watching some of those melodramatic old movies about ghostly stately mansions, with plucky heroines, staunch heroes, imperious old women, and hysterical maids. The stereotypes abounded in those shows and they abound in The Bat as well. It may be the case of which came first, the chicken or the egg, however. The Bat was written in 1929 and may be one of the influential progenitors of those movies. It, in turn, surely leaned heavily on mysterious gothic tales, like those of Wilkie Collins. And following the path downward, surely “Abbot and Costello in Hold That Ghost,” is a direct wacky relation.

Miss Cornelia Van Gorder is the imperious direct descendent of the hardy Dutch who infiltrated New Amsterdam. Mary Roberts Rinehart labels her an “indomitable spinster” in one of her chapter headings. (I seriously think everyone should have chapter headings in their books.) In a spur-of-the-moment decision, she rents a summer house and carts off her belongings and Irish maid, Lizzie Allen, to the premises. Lizzie plays the wide-eyed, superstitious, comic foil. Cornelia’s niece, a young woman named Dale Ogden, joins her aunt, and the upper class scene is set for a drawing room mystery.

Who is the thief and murderer called “The Bat”? Rinehart writes, “From a thousand sources now the clamor arose — press, police, and public alike crying out for the capture of the master criminal of a century — lost voices hounding a specter down the alleyways of the wind.” And, “Like a bat he chose the night hours for his work of rapine; like a bat he struck and vanished, pouncingly, noiselessly; like a bat he never showed himself to the face of the day.”

Cornelia’s new home was suddenly available because its owner, Courtleigh Fleming, the president of a bank now in turmoil, died recently. A young cashier, Jack Bailey, is accused of absconding with enough money from the bank’s coffers to plunge it into insolvency. So Cornelia also inherited some of the house’s staff, most notably the racially stereotyped Billy, a Japanese butler. He is both a “Jap” and “inscrutable.”

According to Lizzie, the house is haunted. According to Cornelia, her house is in the territory The Bat has been victimizing and she may be the next victim. She is thrilled that some adventure may come her way late in life.

Take these characters, plus a new handsome gardener, a determined police detective named Anderson, a dedicated doctor, a bedraggled stranger with amnesia, Fleming’s nephew, and an innocent bystander, and shake the mixture thoroughly, and you have a mysterious melodrama with a decent twist at the end.

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