Lost Ecstasy shows the Old West’s ugly underside

cowboy boots and woman's high heels beside bed on cover of Lost Ecstasy

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Lost Ecstasy turns the romance of the Old West on its head.

Handsome cowboy Tom McNeil can ride, rope, and sing baritone. His only flaws—binge drinking, womanizing, and using paper napkins—aren’t enough to put off pretty, Eastern heiress Kay Dowling.

Lost Ecstasy by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
Doran, 1927. 372 pp.
1927 bestseller # 6. My Grade: B-.

She throws herself at Tom.

Kay leaves her fiance and family money for Tom, who at the time is working in a traveling Rodeo and Wild West Show .

When Tom is injured in the show and can no longer do cowboy stuff, Kay finagles a ranch for him to run by offering the local banker her pearls and a check from her aunt as security.

Tom is on the verge of making the ranch pay when Kay’s mother has a heart attack.

Kay goes home to care for her.

While she’s gone, a bad winter wipes out all Tom’s work. He ends up working the Wild West Show again.

When her mother dies, Kay must decide whether she loves Tom enough put up with his faults.

Kay and Tom are both stereotypes. The plot is hackneyed. Even the settings feel as if they were written on the back lot at Universal Studios.

The paper napkins, though, are a nice touch.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My picks of the 1918 bestsellers

I had no difficulty selecting my two two choices of the 1918 bestselling novels: Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter and The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Both novels have an anti-establishment and feminist edge. I suspect had they been written by newcomers to publishing instead of by highly successful authors noted for quite different sorts of  bestsellers—Rinehart is best known for her mysteries and Stratton-Porter for light romances—they might not have attracted a publisher at all.

For a third recommendation, I’ll add The Pawns Count, a mystery-thriller by E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Daughter of the Land

I admit I’m not a fan of Stratton-Porter.  She tends toward romances in which the leading character are too good to be true and the plots too contrived to be believable.  But she was popular: Michael O’Halloran, The Keeper of the Bees, Laddie, The Harvester, and Her Father’s Daughter each were bestsellers.

In Daughter of the Land Stratton-Porter breaks from her usual pattern.

Kate Bates, the daughter, is not breathtakingly beautiful nor is in thrall to a male figure. She’s smart, shrewd, hardworking, and she knows exactly what she wants: Kate wants to be given the same opportunities as her brothers. Each of them got a house, stock, and 200 acres when they turned 21.

The best Kate could hope for was what her nine sisters got on their marriages: “a bolt of muslin and a fairly decent dress.”

Unwilling to settle for anything less than 200 acres to farm, Kate strikes out on her own to seek her fortune from her only marketable assets: her brain and her kindness.

Stratton-Porter has Kate make a lot of mistakes and learn from each one of them. Some of her mistakes are deliberate acts of will. Many, however, are thoughtless choices she makes under physical and emotional stress—an unheroic type of mistake rarely made by leading characters in novels.

Not everyone likes Kate, but people respect her. They know she won’t lie to them; she won’t take advantage of them. Even her brothers accept that Kate’s method of settling their parents’ estate is fair to everyone.

Daughter of the Land is not great literature, but it’s a great story from which teenage girls and their parents today could learn a great deal—and enjoy the experience.

The Amazing Interlude

Like Stratton-Porter,  Rinehart was a prolific writer and for four decades a  popular one. A mystery, The Man in Lower Ten (1909), was Rinehart’s first bestseller. It’s probably still her most popular novel.

Rinehart followed that the next year with two more bestselling mysteries, The Window at the White Cat and When a Man Marries, which mingles comedy with mystery. By the time she published  K in 1915  her name had become firmly associated mysteries.

The Amazing Interlude was Rinehart’s first bestselling novel outside the mystery genre.

As she does in most of her books, Rinehart sets Interlude in settings that her readers would have recognized: small town America and the Western Front. The story is about a seemingly very ordinary young woman engaged to be married to a man she’s known all her life.  Sara recognizes that Harvey is dull and boring, but he’s the sort of man girls in her town marry.

When a letter describing the horrible conditions behind the front lines in Belgium is passed around town, Sara’s sympathy and imagination are stirred. She goes off to France to run a soup kitchen for soldiers.

Sara knows no French, has no foreign contacts, has no credentials, and she has no financial support other than from women of her church. Sara rises above her limitations, doing all sorts of things she would never have dreamed anyone could do, let alone herself.

While Sara scrubs floors and scrounges for food while shells explode around her, Harvey fumes because he thinks she’s playing instead of doing the accepted thing: staying at home tending to his wants.

Harvey gets the church women who funded Sara’s soup kitchen to quit sending her money to feed French soldiers. Without funds, Sara has to come home.

Rinehart makes readers understand that Interlude‘s Americans are not deliberately cruel or mean. They aren’t lacking in charity—as long as charity can be delivered by check from profits made doing activities one enjoys. It’s only when the enjoyment lags and the profits dwindle, or if the situation demands boring, dirty work, that compassion fatigue sets in.

Getting outside the security of her home, family, and town leads Sara to believe that being American means befriending people outside one’s home, family, and town; people who speak foreign languages, wear different clothes, have different religions; people who are dirty, smelly, lousy, contagious.

Sara comes home a changed person. Her idea of the world and America’s role in the world has changed forever.

The Amazing Interlude may find few enthusiasts in America’s current build-a-wall culture, but it’s all the more important reading for that.

The Pawns Count

E. Phillips Oppenheim was another popular and prolific author:  He turned out more than 100 novels. Oppenheim is best known for his thrillers, such as The Pawns Count.

Unlike my other two picks, Pawns’ is genre fiction whose continuing interest today beyond its entertainment value—it’s a good World War I-era thriller—is the insights it provides into how the war to end all wars laid the groundwork for World War II.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Amazing Interlude explores the meaning of America

It was fitting that I read The Amazing Interlude  on July 4, because the plot of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novel grows out of a young girl’s developing sense of what being an American means.

The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Illustrations by the Kinneys. 1918 bestseller #3.
Project Gutenberg ebook #1590. My grade: A-.

Sara Lee Kennedy, 19, is planning to marry a man “as slow as he was sure, as unimaginative as he was faithful,” when a letter telling of the appalling conditions of the Belgian Army touches her imagination.

Sara offers to go to France before marrying Harvey if the Methodist women donate money for her to run a soup kitchen.

Though she knows no French, has no credentials, and has no contacts to help her, Sara gets to Europe and sets up a soup kitchen in a roofless house in Dunkirk, a few hundred yards from the front.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Her finacé regards her decision as treacherous. While Sara makes soup and cleans wounds, Harvey fumes at home.

Finally Harvey explodes.

He accuses the Methodist ladies of being publicity hounds just as Sara’s letter arrives asking them for more funds for the kitchen.

She’s recalled to America.

When Harvey refuses even to listen to Sara’s stories of what she saw in France, Sara breaks the engagement.

She saw him for what he was, not deliberately cruel, not even unkindly, but selfish, small, without vision. Harvey was for his own fireside, his office, his little family group. His labor would always be for himself and his own. Whereas Sara Lee was, now and forever, for all the world, her hands consecrated to bind up its little wounds and to soothe its great ones. Harvey craved a cheap and easy peace. She wanted no peace except that bought by service, the peace of a tired body, the peace of the little house in Belgium where, after days of torture, weary men found quiet and ease and the cheer of the open door.

Rinehart lets Sara find love, but the romance is secondary to Sara’s finding herself.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Doctor is not a top Rinehart bestseller

Novels about doctors typically are tales about hard-working young men from poor families who, armed with only a stethescope, battle for justice, hand-washing, and marriage to millionaire’s daughters.

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Doctor follows in that tradition.

The Doctor by Mary Roberts Rinehart

©1935, 1936, 1963, 1964. This copy a Dell Edition, 1977 (paper) 448 pp. My grade B-.

Statue of doctor on pedestal thinking is central figure on cover of paperback edition of "The Doctor"Rinehart’s doctor is Chris Arden, a dedicated MD with hopes of becoming a surgeon.

He has rented office space and a bedroom from a shiftless family, the Walters, whose sole support he becomes when the alcoholic head of the family dies.

Katie Walters is in love with the doctor with a 16-year-old’s passion.

But Chris falls for the daughter of a wealthy, unscrupulous businessman. He won’t think of marrying until he can support her.

Beverly Lewis is equally smitten with Chris but unwilling to wait years for him to build a practice.

Chris is not a particularly appealing character. He’s nice to dogs and old ladies, but treats those closest to him as if they were furniture.

Katie and Beverly are not appealing either: Katie is too selfish, Beverly too much of a doormat.

The romantic ending is a deus ex machina that squeaks as Rinehart lowers it into the final chapter.

The Doctor is not a bad novel; it’s just bad compared to other Rinehart novels.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Slim pickings among 1909 bestsellers

Some years see several novels that are unforgettably good.  Other years see novels that are forgettable.

Most of the 1909 novels fall into that latter category.

The most memorable of the lot are The Silver Horde by Rex Beach and The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

words "The Silver Horde by Rex Beach" superimposed on photo of salmon spawning

photo of Pullman car with caption "The Man in Lower Ten is classic--and classy-- mystery

Neither of these novels can be said to offer any principles to live by, but both will keep 21st century readers interested and leave them with a sense of having been pleasantly entertained.

Some days, that’s enough.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

K by Rinehart scrimps on happily ever after

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s  K  blends romance and mystery so satisfactorily that the unlikely plot coincidences aren’t noticeable until after the novel is back on its shelf.

K by Mary Roberts Rinehart

1915 bestseller #5. Project Gutenberg EBook #9931. My grade B.

When their circumstances fall below genteel poverty level, the Page women take in borders.

Newlyweds Christine and Palmer Howe move into what had been the Page’s parlor and back sitting room.

Mr. K. LeMoyne puts his suitcase in what had been daughter Sidney’s bedroom.

Sidney is in training as a nurse, which will eventually bring in a good, steady income.

She finds surgeon Max Wilson very attractive.

Joe Drummond, who loves Sidney, is frantic. He knows the surgeon’s reputation with women and fears the worst if Dr. Max takes an interest in her.

K settles comfortably into the neighborhood, falls silently in love with Sidney, and becomes the man everyone goes to with their troubles.

Who is K?

How did he come by his wealth of knowledge?

Why does nurse Carlotta Harrison fear K so much she risks offending Dr. Max to avoid him?

Rinehart produces answers, lets all the characters learn from their experiences, and pulls everything together so that everyone lives less unhappily ever after.

For boarding-house operators, less unhappily is as good as it gets.


© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My nominees for best of 1919 bestsellers

Nine of the 10 bestsellers of 1919 are each about some aspect of the world war that had so recently concluded.

The Re-Creation of Brian Kent by Howard Bell Wright is not only the oddball in the group, but it’s also easily the least good of the set.

Scratch that.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez is the best novel of the 1919 bestsellers. The main character’s explanation of how he served in the war “merely as a victim,” has to rank as one of literature’s most horrifying insights into the nature of war.

However, Blasco’s long paragraphs and high page count won’t draw most modern readers beyond a few pages, so I’ll reluctantly remove it from my list.

Three other novels can be eliminated from my short list immediately:  The Arrow of Gold by Joseph Conrad, The Desert of Wheat by Zane Grey, and Dawn by Gene Stratton Porter.  While each of these has interesting elements, none has a strong story that grows from the personalities of the characters.

I will also scratch The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land by Ralph Connor.  While having a military chaplain as the lead character makes for a memorable war novel, having the chaplain remain glowingly healthy in the midst of trench warfare after the Army declared him unfit for military service is a major flub.

In Secret by Robert W. Chambers belongs on my list of recommendations. In Secret is a thriller that truly lives up to that designation.

Chambers cleverly leaves out whole blocks of the story which in a Hollywood version would become the story. Instead Chambers focuses on the characters’ emotional and mental responses to terrifying circumstances.

Even knowing the ending doesn’t drain the tension from this novel.

In Secret is a keeper.

Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart and The Tin Soldier by Temple Bailey each look at how the war abroad affected families back home. I’ll choose Rinehart’s novel over Bailey’s: Rinehart’s major characters are far more interesting individuals than Bailey’s.

The remaining novel rises by default to my top picks.

Christopher and Columbus by Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim wraps a caustic exploration of anti-German hysteria in America in a witty and rather charming romance. The novel isn’t one of the Countess’s best, but she never fails to entertain.

So there you have my recommendations for the best 1919 novels for today’s reader:

  • In Secret by Robert W. Chambers
  • Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • Christopher and Columbus by Countess Elizabeth Von Arnim

Bombs Land Close to Home in Dangerous Days

Mary Roberts Rinehart opens Dangerous Days with a boring dinner party hosted by an American steel manufacturer and his wife.

The year is 1916.

Europe is on the verge of destruction.

Natalie and Clayton Spencer are on the edge of domestic destruction.

WWI soldiers fire a machine gun
Machine gunners at the Battle of the Somme

Clay has brought son, Graham, into his steel business at the bottom, much to Natalie’s dismay. She wants her boy to have the best even if it destroys him.

Clay wants a woman’s love but not at the price of his moral destruction.

Clay is sure America will be in the war soon.

Graham and his father realize — though they don’t say it to each other — that Graham may escape moral destruction only by volunteering to die.

Rinehart follows the bored people around the opening chapter dinner table through to Armistice Day, revealing them to be anything but boring. She masterfully combines deft characterizations, historical episodes such as the communists’ helping American draft-dodgers escape into Mexico, and intricate plots within her main plot.

There’s a certain flag-waving bravado about the novel — all the characters but Natalie do their bit in the war — but the complexity of the characters and the realness of their confusions make this page-turner a novel you won’t soon forget.

Dangerous Days
by Mary Roberts Rinehart
1919 bestseller #4
Project Gutenberg e-book #1693
My grade: A-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni


When a Man Marries Is Madcap Mystery

Needles and pins
Needles and pins,
When a man marries
His trouble begins.

Forget suspense and horror.

In When a Man Marries, novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart ladles out a rollicking mix of suspense and humor.

To cheer up Jimmy Wilson, who’s been divorced by his wife, Bella, Kit McNair arranges an impromptu dinner at Jim’s house. Jim learns his Aunt Selina is also coming that evening, expecting to meet Bella. Since Aunt Selina, who is Jim’s meal ticket, abhors divorce, his friends decide Kit should pretend to be Jim’s wife for the evening.

While Kit is impersonating Bella, Bella sneaks into the house to hire away the butler. The butler, however, has been hospitalized with smallpox. The other servants have fled, and the house is quarantined.

The dinner guests are rich socialites, incapable of making toast. Fortunately, a policeman discovered asleep in the cellar is willing to cook and do dishes, and a engineer brought along as a potential husband for Kit can do nearly everything else.

While the house is quarantined and guarded by police, Anne Brown’s pearl collar, Bella’s diamond bracelet, and Aunt Selina’s cash and jewelry are stolen. The thief has to be someone in the house, but who?

And who kissed Kit on the dark stairway?

Get the answers and several good laughs in When a Man Marries.

When a Man Marries
By Mary Roberts Rinehart
1910 bestseller #10
Project Gutenberg eBook #1671

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Window at the White Cat Is a Classic Mystery

revolver pointed at viewer

When Margery Fleming walks into his law office seeking help finding her father, Jack Knox falls in love.

Mr. Fleming is a successful—and reputedly criminal—state treasurer with equally criminal colleagues and opponents.

Margery goes to stay with her elderly aunts. Almost immediately, one aunt reports her pearls stolen. Then Miss Jane, the other aunt, disappears from her bedroom. Next Harry Waldron, Fleming’s aid and Margery’s finacé, has cash and sensatitve documents stolen from the aunt’s home.

Jack’s investigation finds Fleming hiding at the White Cat, a private club where politicians and their cronies hang out.

Jack gets inside the White Cat in time to discover Fleming’s body.

With his detective is scared off, Jack appeals to a reporter for help. Together they work at solving the mysteries of who murdered Fleming, who stole the pearls, and what happened to Miss Jane.

Jack has enough self-deprecating humor to make him an appealing narrator. Margery is less convincing as the female lead.

Mary Roberts Rinehart shortchanges some other characters who should have had more rounded roles. Fortunately, her skill at plotting and pacing the mystery render its deficiencies almost unnoticeable.

The Window at the White Cat
By Mary Roberts Rinehart
Triangle Books Edition, 1940
1910 bestseller # 8
Project Gutenberg EBook #34020

 Photo credit:  Revolver by blary54


© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni