THE MAN IN LOWER TEN (1906) by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Rinehart_Lower-Ten_dellThis was the debut novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958), though it originally only appeared between hard covers the year after the success of The Circular Staircase (1908), which more or less popularised the spinster ‘Had I but Known’ style most often associated with the author (rightly or wrongly). In this book however the narrator is male, an unmarried thirty-year-old lawyer from Washington DC, who while transporting important documents runs into murder, mayhem – and love.

I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Good God, that’s my man!” I said hoarsely, as the audience broke into applause.

One of the aspects I enjoyed the most was the section in chapter 15 in which Lawrence Blakeley, our narrator, visits a theatre and watches an early newsreel – and glimpses, possibly, the murderer. This must have been a very early use of the movies as evidence in fiction. Blakeley takes the train back from Pittsburgh carrying with him vital evidence in a forgery case. That night he finds a man sleeping in his berth so takes another. That night the man is found dead, the precious legal documents are stolen and Blakely is accused of the crime – and just when things are looking really bad for him, they get much worse as the train crashes and most of the passengers are killed. There follows a strange sequence in which Blakeley, with a broken arm, manages to extricate himself thanks to a woman he has just met and with whom he quickly falls in love with as they walk towards a farm looking for shelter and food. The woman is Alison West, who just happens to be his law partner’s fiancée. But it turns out she is involved in the murder and may be protecting the actual murderer – and so Blakeley ends up on the run to find the killer, get back the documents and protect the honour of the woman he loves but who is actually engaged to his best friend.

And then I realized the thing that stayed with me for a month, the thing I can not think of even now without a shudder. The hand lay ice cold, strangely quiescent. Under my fingers, an artery was beating feebly. The wrist was as slender as—I held the hand to the light. Then I let it drop.

Rinehart_Lower-Ten_hccThe pace is choppy and sluggish in places, betraying its roots in episodic serialised publication (in All-Story Magazine), though it certainly packs in lots and lots of incident (and coincidence). Who is Alison protecting? Who was the man seen jumping off the train in the newsreel? Who was the copper-haired woman on the train  and why does she want Blakely’s documents so badly? And who is creeping around in the supposedly empty house next door to Blakely, much to the consternation of his domineering housekeeper? All answers are eventually provided (though a bit hard to swallow) and I recommend Lower ten as an entertaining and exciting read. The book is available free on the net, including Project Gutenberg.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘Eat, drink and be merry’ category for its focus on the parties the hero has to attend and the various carefully prepared meals that he keeps missing, much to his housekeeper’s disdain:

024-Vintage-Rinehart

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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38 Responses to THE MAN IN LOWER TEN (1906) by Mary Roberts Rinehart

  1. You make such an interesting point, Sergio, about the way serialised stories can seem once they’re compiled into a novel. It’s really quite difficult to get the pace flowing smoothly and appropriately. And I’d suppose that’s even more the case given this was her debut novel. As always, a thoughtful and interesting critique, for which thanks.

    • Thanks Maregot – of course, so many novels were originally serialised before being published in hard covers in the 19th and early 20th century that this would have been par for the course for readers.

      • Todd Mason says:

        You remind me of Algis Budrys’s assertion that most serials were essentially linked novelets or novellas, until, basically, the point in the 1950s when book pub;action was going to be the dominant form for almost any work in question…even if serialized in the very remunerative SATURDAY EVENING POST…

        • Very fair, Todd – there must be some historical research on this, right, together with the impact of lending libraries and the such? The paperback revolution really was that.

  2. Colin says:

    Not sure if I have a copy of this. I bought a bunch of Rinehart books years ago and can’t remember all the titles off hand – I’ll have to rummage round.
    Her work isn’t the kind I can really get into to be honest – I think I found The Haunted Lady OK, but it’s been a long time since I read it.

    • It is a style that does, to me, seem especially remote (I find Wilkie Collins, from 50 years earlier, easier to enjoy frankly) but she was so popular and one wonders if a genuine critical re-assessment might not establish itself. I am not well-versed in her work. I’ve only read a couple of others, and that was decades ago.

      • Colin says:

        From memory, the style is more heavily weighted towards the melodramatic and romantic than the mystery. Pre-WWI writing, although not all of Rinehart’s work belongs to that era, does have a different feel to it in my opinion.

        • I think you are right – she was very popular for a very long time (her last novel came out in 1952), but even if we think she is unfairly tarred with the ‘Had I But Known’ brush, hers is a style that certainly developed in the late Victorian style.

  3. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have not read this book, but I have read The Bat by the same author. I did not like The Bat, as I was turned off by the writing style. Most of the time, it reads like a farcical comedy.

    • Interesting that you mention THE BAT, which was a huge hit when adapted into a play and probably works best in that form, I agree. Incidentally, THE BAT was also filmed several times, most adventurously as THE BAT WHISPERS which was made in 65mm decades before large format films became popular.

  4. realthog says:

    I quite enjoy MRR — at least, the couple of books of hers that I’ve read. The Man in Lower Ten does sound like a fun romp, so I may line it up for reading sometime soon; I got it from Gutenberg a while ago.

  5. Bev Hankins says:

    I enjoyed this one a little bit more than you, Sergio (although it’s not her best work). What I did like was the twist on the HIBK–this time with with a man saying things like “I had no premonition of what was to come. Nothing unusual had ever happened to me….” and other little HIBK tidbits.

    • Yeah, it wasn’t what I was expecting and it had plenty of stuff that i liked. I didn’t think it hung together as a novel very well, but it’s not a fatal flaw by any means and the train crash was a certainly major surprise!

  6. Richard says:

    Wasn’t there a film or two of this?

  7. Yvette says:

    Not her best work for sure, Sergio.(Didn’t know it was her first novel.) But on the whole I enjoy rereading certain Mary Roberts Rinehart books, most especially THE EPISODE OF THE WANDERING KNIFE and THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE (which I liked much more than the THE BAT). I even have THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE on audio. I don’t mind the ‘had I but known school’ at all. Well done, it works just fine for me.

    • Thanks Yvette. Isn’t THE BAT technically an adaptation of THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE anyway? or have I got my Rineharts crossed (sic)?

      • Yvette says:

        Yes, you have it right, Sergio. The stories are so similar that you really can say you’ve read one if you’ve read the other. 🙂 But, in my opinion, THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE is the better of the two, writing-wise. Though of course, THE BAT has that bat thing going on. 🙂 I also recommend THE YELLOW ROOM, THE WALL and THE SWIMMING POOL, off the top of my head, as fine examples of Rinehart.

  8. Your reaction to Mary Roberts Rinehart is pretty much the same as mine. I don’t think her works have aged well.

    • Thanks for that George. I will try at least one more, eventually …

      • Todd Mason says:

        She had a brief revival vogue in the ’80s…or so Zebra Books hoped (iirc), though probably they had the more than several reprints all out as public domain items by then.

        • I think, I think, I remember that actually. Mind you, strictly speaking, her work should have popped back in to copyright with the Berne convention harmonisation as she was so long-lived, though all her 1923 work is excluded from that, while all the rest should last for 95 years from when they first went into print. Meaning nothing is PD until 2019, though you wouldn’t know it necessarily from the way her works are being redistributed …

  9. Sergio, I have read a couple of serialised novels in early periodicals and I can’t say I’m comfortable reading them as episodes. The good thing about such novelisation is that you can read it in the absence of a complete novel that may or may not have been printed later. I have never read Rinehart in spite of her work being in the public domain.

    • I do know what you mean Alex – some work well in the episodic form and works like The Woman in White, which employ multiple narrators, are bvery well suited to this approach. In other cases, well, you can plainly see the join!

  10. lesblatt says:

    I must admit I enjoyed Lower 10 more than you seem to have done, Sergio, but I did find that the touches of humor helped quite a bit. In terms of HIBK, Rinehart was certainly aware of her characters’ tendency to do dumb and dangerous things; I remember one classic line by one of Blakely’s friends, exasperated with the hero’s apparently slow mental processes, who snaps, “If you had had the sense of a mosquito in a snow-storm, you would have telephoned me.”

    • Thanks Les – I think i marked it down just because it was too episodic for me, which made it seem drawn out. I read it while on my hols in Italy and even with plenty of time time to spare, it still seemed sluggish. But I agree, it is skillfully put together, has some good humour, some nice surprises (especially the train crash) and hope review more of her books

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