Friday, April 3, 2015

Adventure classics -- When the good guys are behaving badly

The Yellow Room
by Mary Roberts Rinehart
It’s a week after the June 6, 1944, and the news everywhere is about the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Everywhere, that is, except in the tiny Maine resort town where the rich and beautiful “summer people” expect the arrival of Medal of Honor recipient and debonair bachelor, Gregory Spencer. But when Spencer’s sister arrives to ready the family mansion, Crestview, for her brother’s return, she finds the housekeeper hospitalized after a bizarre accident and the half-burned body of a murdered young woman stashed in a linen closet.

And that’s just the start of the happenings in Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1945 mystery, The Yellow Room.

It’s enough make Spencer’s younger sister Carol give up the whole idea of a summer vacation. Except she’s under orders from the local police not to leave, and as she turns up more details, including the overnight stay of the murdered woman in the mansion’s guest room, the one hung with yellow wallpaper.

The yellow room is a very pretty room, with pastel furniture and curtains and its own bathroom. But why did the Spencer’s resident housekeeper let the young woman stay there? And once there, why did she walk out the door to meet her murderer?

Strangest of all, the chief—make that only—suspect in the death is Greg Spencer, who, it turns out is the murdered woman’s husband, married to her secretly following a night of drunken partying. Is that why the housekeeper won’t explain her actions? Oh, no, now the housekeeper is dead too, lying cold on the floor of her hospital room despite round the clock guards.

It’s no surprise that Mary Roberts Rinehart, the creator of all this mayhem and mystery, was dubbed the American Agatha Christie, except that title couldn’t be used for more than a decade after Rinehart started publishing in 1908. Christie’s first mystery wouldn’t appear until 1920. Perhaps it’s she who should be known as Britain’s Mary Rinehart.

As Rinehart writes it, Greg Spencer isn’t the only soldier behaving strangely. What’s up with Colonel Richardson, hero of an earlier war, who insists his pilot son is still alive more than a year after his plane was shot down in the South Pacific? And why hasn’t the airman grandson of old Mr. and Mrs. Ward visited them during his recent leave? And who is the mysterious man calling himself Major Dane, and who claims to be recuperating from wounds received in action, except that there’s no record of any Major Dane in Army records?

A story about war heroes gone wrong may have seemed like a tough sell in 1945, but Rinehart’s take struck home with the millions of Americans who found their brothers, sons, husbands and sweethearts returning from war strangely changed. Post-traumatic stress disorder hadn’t found its name yet, but Major Dane could plead with Carol understand and find compassion for soldiers driven to desperation by their wartime experiences.

But do understanding and compassion mean overlooking murder? Or can the year-round residents of the little resort town avoid feeling strangely gleeful at the fall of one of the summer people who’ve lorded it over them so long? Rinehart’s village isn’t the comfortable hierarchy of Christie’s stories.

So did Greg Spencer kill his wife? Was he in Washington, D.C., receiving his medal when his wife met her death? Or wasn’t he? It’s going to take more than one post to unravel the twists of The Yellow Room.

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