(Book Review) The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Review by Ian G. Wilson

If you like your melodrama with a capital “M” and lots of exclamation points, Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat is the book for you. An isolated house with people who aren’t who they claim to be, appropriately timed electrical blackouts, a deadly supercriminal, a young woman trying to protect her falsely accused lover, a man who has lost his memory—The Bat reads almost like a stage play. I could imagine myself in the audience waiting for the next blackout and listening for the scream that follows. What I didn’t know while I was reading it is that The Bat was actually a stage play first (1920) before being turned into the 1926 novel.

The Bat is a mysterious thief, who, despite his flamboyant modus operandi, has eluded the authorities. One of his calling cards is leaving the image of a bat at the scene of the crime (on a couple of occasions, it is a real bat nailed to the wall of the robbed house). No one has yet succeeded in capturing him; those who have tried have met an unfortunate end. Despite the gruesome trappings of his appearances, he quickly becomes a favorite of the press and opportunist retailers quick to catch on to the bat craze which is sweeping New York:

“Columnists took him up, played with the name and the terror, used the name and the terror as a starting point from which to exhibit their own particular opinions on everything and anything. Ministers mentioned him in sermons; cranks wrote fanatic letters denouncing him as one of the seven-headed beasts of the Apocalypse and a forerunner of the end of the world; a popular revue put on a special Bat number wherein eighteen beautiful chorus girls appeared masked and black-winged in costumes of Brazilian bat fur; there were Bat club sandwiches, Bat cigarettes, and a new shade of hosiery called simply and succinctly Bat. He became a fad—a catchword—a national figure. And yet—he was walking Death—cold—remorseless. But Death itself had become a toy of publicity.”

Enter the wealthy Miss Cornelia Van Gorder, an aging socialite bored by her lifestyle and who longs for the thrill of danger:

“She threw down the morning paper disgustedly. Here she was at 65—rich, safe, settled for the summer in a delightful country place with a good cook, excellent servants, beautiful gardens and grounds—everything as respectable and comfortable as—as a limousine! And out in the world people were murdering and robbing each other, floating over Niagara Falls in barrels, rescuing children from burning houses, taming tigers, going to Africa to hunt gorillas, doing all sorts of exciting things! She could not float over Niagara Falls in a barrel; Lizzie Allen, her faithful old maid, would never let her! She could not go to Africa to hunt gorillas; Sally Ogden, her sister, would never let her hear the last of it. She could not even, as she certainly would if she were a man, try and track down this terrible creature, the Bat!”

The country home in question is that of a financier who died shortly after his bank collapsed due to the theft of a large quantity of securities. A young accountant has been accused of the crime and a search is underway for him. Little do we know that the accountant is the lover of Miss Van Gorder’s niece, Dale. Events soon unfold which bring a raft of diverse individuals to the isolated Van Gorder doorstep. In true Agatha Christie fashion, the occupants of the house are trapped by a storm and are tormented by their own suspicions and the real arrival of the arch criminal.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was, in fact, frequently called “The American Agatha Christie.” She published her first novel some years before Christie’s Mysterious Affair at Styles, so perhaps it would be more correct to say that Agatha Christie was the British Mary Roberts Rinehart. There are similarities, though Rinehart seems to rely heavily on a nineteenth century sense of over-the-top melodrama in The Bat. She is an excellent writer, though most of the really good writing is in the first part of the book, describing the exploits of the title character, and then it becomes a good, but straightforward, creepy house mystery in which the occupants have to band together to avoid becoming victims themselves.

Despite the presence of a top police detective, the real spadework is done by Cornelia Van Gorder, whose amateur sleuthing uncovers the true reason for the Bat’s attacks on the guests. As such, it is an early example of a woman detective outguessing the men who are paid to do the job. Miss Van Gorder is more active an investigator than Miss Marple, however. She has a gun which she has never used, but this doesn’t deter her from trying. (In a way, it’s a sad commentary that the gunplay is even expected or necessary in an American mystery, unlike their more civilized British counterparts.) However, she stands as a smart, vivacious woman, sensible and clever, boisterously announcing her hypotheses and finding them proven correct more often than not.

One of the less savory tropes of this type of melodrama is the “shifty foreigner.” As with many novels written at the time, there is an ugly tendency toward racial slurs on the parts of all the characters, who seem to think a shortened form of “Japanese” is the correct way to refer to the butler. “Inscrutable” is, unfortunately, another term that crops up in reference to this character. He is, of course, under suspicion because of his ethnicity, though there is never really any indication that he might be guilty.

An intriguing aspect of Rinehart’s novel is its relationship to Bob Kane’s Batman comic book hero. Kane himself said that he drew some aspects of the character from The Bat. Some of the darker aspects of the superhero’s character as portrayed in recent films can be seen here, and there is the first use of a “bat signal.”

As the progenitor of what is called the “Had I but Known” school of mystery writing, in which events are heavily foreshadowed, Rinehart often used the device of an obviously creepy setting in which it is quite clear that something bad is going to happen, though the characters walk into it blithely. A few of them (Miss Van Gorder in this case), are aware of their peril but either relish it, or wrongly think everything will really be okay. Sometimes this works well if the foreshadowing is subtle enough, but if it is too apparent, it succumbs to clichéd settings and character types. The Bat falls, admittedly, into the second category, but despite the plentiful tells, the specifics of the plot are unusual enough to keep the novel interesting, and the idea of an evil villain with gruesome calling cards adds the appropriate frisson of excitement. And sometimes the familiar can be fun (“don’t open the door to the creepy room that you’ve been told to keep out of” syndrome), and The Bat, for all its foibles, is fun. It’s also short, at only 130 pages (295 in large print). I’d recommend The Bat if you’re in the mood for an over-the-top drawing room mystery.

Supposedly Rinehart is the source of the phrase “the butler did it” in her 1930 novel The Door. Her other books include The Circular Staircase (1907), The After House (1914), The Red Lamp (1925), and The Wall (1938). She also co-wrote many plays, including the original incarnation of The Bat. Rinehart died in 1958.

The Bat was republished in large print by G.K. Hall in 1998 and is available in that edition from Greenville Public Library.

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