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Before Agatha Christie, there was America’s Mistress of Mystery. This is the story of her life and creative legacy, from the butler who did it to Batman.
In the decades since her death in 1958, master storyteller Mary Roberts Rinehart has often been compared to Agatha Christie. But while Rinehart was once a household name, today she is largely forgotten. The woman who first proclaimed “the butler did it” was writing for publication years before Christie’s work saw the light of day. She also practiced nursing, became a war correspondent, and wrote a novel—The Bat—that inspired Bob Kane’s creation of Batman.
Born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, before it was absorbed into Pittsburgh, and raised in a close-knit Presbyterian family, Mary Roberts was at once a girl of her time—dutiful, God-fearing, loyal—and a quietly rebellious spirit. For every hour she spent cooking, cleaning, or sewing at her mother’s behest while her “frail” younger sister had fun, Mary eked out her own moments of planning, dreaming, and writing. But becoming an author wasn’t on her radar . . . yet.
Bestselling mystery writer Charlotte MacLeod grew up on Rinehart’s artfully crafted novels, such as the enormously successful The Circular Staircase—“cozies” before the concept existed. After years of seeing Christie celebrated and Rinehart overlooked, MacLeod realized that it was time to delve into how this seemingly ordinary woman became a sensation whose work would grace print, stage, and screen. From Rinehart’s grueling training as a nurse and her wartime interviews with a young Winston Churchill and Queen Mary to her involvement with the Blackfoot Indians and her work as doctor’s wife, mother of three, playwright, serialist, and novelist, this is the unforgettable story of America’s Grande Dame of Mystery.