Every spring, the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh overflows its banks and floods the first floor of Mrs. Pitman’s rooming-house in the low-rent section of town. The water-ravaged streets that surround the house, together with the atmosphere of frantic retreat to points high and dry, provide a fine setting for suspicious activity—and a good excuse for suspicious minds to entertain pesky thoughts. In March 1907, as the flood-tide ebbs and as clues turn up in its wake (there’s a broken kitchen knife, a blood-soaked towel, a missing onyx clock, and much else besides), Mrs. Pitman comes to suspect that one of her boarders has killed his wife, also a boarder. The wife, an actress named Jennie Brice, has indeed gone missing. Before long, moreover, police discover the headless body of a woman amid the flotsam and jetsam of the river.
Into the brief tale that unfolds from that evocative premise, Rinehart packs a great deal: a story of thwarted young love, a melodramatic subplot about a proud woman shunned by her family, a twist-laden courtroom sequence, and a murder puzzle of better-than-average ingenuity. It’s all a little too much for Mrs. Pitman, who narrates this adventure in the meandering, sentimental style for which Ogden Nash coined the term “Had I But Known.” She (which is to say Rinehart) brings no more discipline to her overbrimming narrative than the Allegheny does to its roiling waters.