Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1926)

The play came first (1920), then the book was back-written from it (1926). Wikipedia states in its article The Bat that "the The Bat is a three-act play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood that was first produced by Lincoln Wagenhals and Collin Kemper in 1920." It was remade into film several times as well.

Major characters:

  • Courtleigh Fleming, bank president
  • Richard Fleming, nephew and heir to Courtleigh Fleming
  • Miss Cornelia Van Gorder, spinster
  • Sally Van Gorder Ogden, her sister
  • Dale Ogden, Sally's daughter
  • Jack Bailey, a.k.a. Brooks, the missing bank cashier
  • Lizzie Allen, the frenzied maid
  • Billy, the Japanese butler
  • Reginald Beresford, a young lawyer
  • Dr. Wells, family physician
  • "The Unknown", a mysterious amnesiac
  • Detective Anderson

Locale: a country place near New York City

Synopsis: A master criminal, "The Bat", is at large in New York; having committed countless burglaries and a few murders. Newspaper reporters are eager o chase down The Bat in order to get the exclusive story. Police Detective Wentworth had tried to do so earlier, and wound up shot for his trouble.

Meanwhile, Union Bank has gone belly up (this predates the FDIC), and president Courtleigh Fleming passed away, along with the knowledge of where the missing funds went. Jack Bailey, the cashier is missing too. 

Spinster Miss Cornelia Van Gorder wants to rent a summer place in the country to get away from New York City, and seizes the chance to rent the now-vacant home of Courtleigh Fleming; making arrangements with Fleming's nephew, Richard Fleming. No sooner does she settle in than an anonymous letter tells her the house is "unhealthy for strangers."

Suspicion about the missing funds turns to Courtleigh Fleming (although dead). Many people have an interest in getting into his house, and the blueprints show a secret room somewhere. Could the money be there? To complicate matters, Cornelia's niece, Dale Ogden, is engaged to missing cashier Jack Bailey. Detective Anderson is installed in the house to figure it all out.


This book was back-written from the stage play, and it shows (not a criticism), but it easy to see this presented on stage as is; since all the action takes place in one room. I have seen the stage version, a nice period mystery. 

The middle portion of the book gets a bit tedious as the characters explore motives at length, point fingers at each other, and generally flail around as the lights regularly go on and off - expected in a stage version but a bit repetitive in a novel. The amnesiac "Unknown" stumbles, bleeding, into the house and yet no one seems too concerned about him and he is left to wander around unsupervised. 

There are a few comic episodes. Miss Cornelia's tricky interview of Brooks for the gardener position is hilarious, as she outwits him in her knowledge of gardening. At this point, it looks like Cornelia will be the one sharp enough to solve the mystery; since Detective Anderson just seems to harass people needlessly. Hysterical maid Lizzie brings laughs on the stage, but her mania is a bit tiring in print. The obligatory (real) bat makes an appearance too.

One loose end: chapter one is about an unnamed newspaperman itching to have a go at catching The Bat, and being turned loose by his editor to do so. I expected him to show up later in the story, but this story line is dropped and we do not hear from the newspaper angle again. 

The fascinating part of this book is that there is a person named "The Bat" who cannot be found, and a real person sitting among them whom they call "The Unknown". Could he be The Bat? No, that would be too simple. How these two are reconciled is a clever twist, although flirting with the standards of fair play.

Several instances of a light beam shining with a bat stencil applied to it to make a shadow must have been the inspiration for Batman's bat-signal. Wikipedia states Batman was created in 1939, so perhaps!

Also see this review by Bev Hankins on My Reader's Block.

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