Nurse Mary Rinehart, Mystery Writer

Profiles in Nursing

Nurse Mary Rinehart, Mystery Writer

She often cast nurses as lead characters in her novels

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Profiles of Nursing: Rinehart, RNSome nurses change the profession through new teaching methods, some restructure nursing curricula, others propose fresh theoretical approaches, and still others work for better pay and legal recognition. Not so for Mary Roberts Rinehart. Yet she’s often cited as an influential nurse who improved the lot of nurses. How did she do it? She wrote mystery novels!

One of her first books, The Man in Lower Ten, penned in 1906, was the first American detective story to crack a best-seller list. Ms. Rinehart wrote more than 60 books and remained a top-selling author for almost 50 years.

What’s that got to do with nursing? At first glance, not much. But the truth is, many of Ms. Rinehart’s novels drew heavily on her hospital and nursing experience to flesh out plots, enrich narrative detail, and, most importantly, to portray characters so real they became favorites of the reading public.

One of her most enduring fictional characters was the redoubtable nurse Hilda Adams, a.k.a. “Miss Pinkerton.” Through the struggles of Miss Pinkerton, Ms. Rinehart conveyed her deep respect for the profession and helped move the public perception of nurses from quasi-servants to full-fledged professionals.

In Ms. Rinehart’s hands, nurses are capable, trustworthy, and, most tellingly, independent thinkers —even as they adhere to doctors’ orders. Ethical dilemmas peculiar to the work often plague Miss Pinkerton, especially when her boss, Inspector Patton, places her in private duty cases to ferret out information that families withhold from the police. To whom, then, does she owe more loyalty, the patient or society, as represented by Patton?

Hilda Adams’ nursing — alcohol back rubs, cots at the foot of the patients bed (for the nurse, not the family), eight weeks of work with one afternoon off — differs from ours. She fixes interminable cups of eggnog or broth for her invalids, in between tiptoeing around the back servant stairs. Everywhere she encounters butlers and pantry maids, suspects all. In fact, Ms. Rinehart is often thought of as the writer who came up with the phrase “The butler did it.” (In fact he didn’t, and she never said that.)

Her favorite insight was that “illness follows crime — it does not always follow the criminal; but somebody goes down where a few years ago there were only two, now each crisis, mental or physical finds three [the doctor, the clergyman] and the trained nurse.”

Ms. Rinehart graduated from the Pittsburgh Training School for Nurses in 1896, a time when there were all of 500 registered nurses in the country. She found it hard-going, describing her first duty night as “plain hell.” Later she took an advanced surgical course and spent several years working with her husband, a surgeon.

When she took up writing seriously, it was to ease financial pressures on her family, which eventually included three boys. After her death, in 1958, her sons continued her legacy through publishing companies, variously Farrar and Rinehart, and Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Public recognition of nursing as a serious profession gained immeasurably from her writing. Much of it’s easily available in your local library.

Elizabeth Hanink RN, BSN, PHN is a freelance writer with extensive hospital and community based nursing experience.

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