|Vintage Pulp||Aug 11 2023|
The thrills get lost in the deep end of Rinehart's final novel.
Mary Roberts Rinehart is another of those legendary mystery writers from the pulp era, having launched her career all the way back in 1908. The phrase, “The butler did it,” derives from her work. Of her many novels, we chose to read her 1952 effort The Swimming Pool and our reason was simple—we loved the cover. It was painted by Victor Kalin in a different style than we'd ever seen from him. So with excellent art fronting the work of a major author, we sat down, rubbed our hands together, and thought: “Okay, here we go.” And long story short, The Swimming Pool was definitely too slow to enjoy. And we have a suspicion Rinehart knew it, as her use of foreshadowing to sustain interest is incessant:
Perhaps that excuses her for what happened years later.
I daresay any train east from that Nevada city carries its own load of drama, but I had no idea it was carrying ours.
She was terrified, although it was only after long months of what I can only call travail that we learned the reason for it.
But those inquiries of hers eventually led to her tragic undoing.
And so forth. It occurs particularly at the end of chapters, but it pops up numerous times in other places. It was combined, as well, with the technique of having characters withhold information. We don't mean clandestinely. We mean openly, as in: “I'm not going to tell you that right now. Later perhaps, but not now.” We could have weathered this if it had been only a single character who knew more than he/she said, but there are two important ones here who simply won't speak up. It's a style. We get it. But in real life we'd be like: “Oh you better believe you're going to tell me what you know or this day is going to turn all kinds of bad for you.”
The story deals with two sisters living in a luxurious but neglected estate. The younger sister is a novelist of middling success, while the older one is basically a socialite. For months this older sister has been living in terror, but refuses to tell anyone what the danger is or accept help for her problem. Soon mysterious events occur, such as strange people creeping around the estate, someone taking potshots with a pistol, and a woman drowning in the titular swimming pool. Protection seems to miraculously arrive in the form of a studly renter for the estate's guest cottage, but he has his own agenda, which he reveals at the pace of Chinese water torture.
In fact, Rinehart's entire narrative feels padded, or deliberately drawn out in service of a word count. But here's the thing—she can certainly write. Who are we to even say that? Of course she can write. She published hundreds of stories, scores of novels, and saw her work adapted to cinema or television something like fifty times. But what can we do? We like what we like. The pacing of The Swimming Pool eventually wore us down. We learned only after reading it that it was her last novel, published when she was seventy-six. So we're thinking her spark might be brighter earlier. That means we'll try her again sometime. A serious reader of crime novels could do no less.