MARY ROBERTS RINEHART, the mother of the detective novel in America, was born in 1876 in Pennsylvania.After graduating from high school, she trained as a nurse and married a doctor, Stanley Rinehart, with whom she had three sons. She began writing mystery stories in secret (embarrassed because her husband and their friends did not read "cheap thrillers") in the early 1900s, while also working in her husband's medical office. Her short stories led an editor at Munsey's Magazine to suggest that she try her hand at a novel that would combine mystery, suspense, and romance; his suggestion led to Rinehart's first serialized full-length novel, The Man in Lower Ten ( 1906). The combination of mystery and romance, characterized by Ogden Nash (among others) as the "Had-I-But-Known" genre proved enduringly popular and Rinehart became the first mystery writer to have a novel make annual best-seller lists. The play she cowrote with Avery Hopwood, Seven Days, was a long-running Broadway hit, as were the two other plays she wrote with Hopwood, Spanish Love ( 1920) and The Bat ( 1920).
Rinehart was also a frontline correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post in 1915, writing articles about the fighting in France and Belgium. The War Department, impressed with her abilities, asked her to return to France in late 1918. She stayed there until January 1919, writing her impressions and observations about France in wartime and after.
Her mystery stories became increasingly popular during the '20s and '30s, earning unprecedentedly large sums of money—particularly for a woman writer. In 1938, for instance, the Saturday Evening Post paid over sixty thousand dollars to serialize her novel The Wall. In 1929, Rinehart's sons formed a publishing company, Farrar and Rinehart, and they published their mother's detective fiction until her death, including the novel that many critics think her finest, The Door ( 1930). Rinehart's novels are characterized by multiple subplots (and often, multiple murders), emotional undercurrents, and usually a spinster narrator who solves the mysteries or to whom the mysteries are revealed at the last minute. One of Rinehart's most famous spinsters, Tish Carberry, was the subject of a series of short stories—sometimes solving mysteries, sometimes simply offering observations about her small town and its inhabitants. Rinehart's spinster detectives are detec