As I discussed earlier, my current approach to unearthing early occult detectives is to proceed on an author-by-author basis. In other words, I read and read about specific authors celebrated for their contributions to supernatural literature. Exploring Algernon Blackwood, for example, led me to “A Woman’s Ghost Story,” which features an occult detective.
Blackwood’s works also include four stories that spotlight a character named Jim Shorthouse. Jim keeps bumping into things that go bump in the night, so I wondered if he qualifies as an occult detective. In “The Empty House,” it almost seems like his Aunt Julia will do the detecting. After all, she’s the one with “a mania for psychical research,” and she’s the one who asks Jim to join her on a ghost hunt. Very quickly, though, we see that Jim takes charge — that he’s the one with the mental fortitude to handle what they confront.
Jim’s struggle to keep panic in check is a central tension in all the Shorthouse stories. He’s also psychically sensitive. For instance, in “A Case of Eavesdropping,” his landlady describes him as “kind of quick and sensitive” to explain why he had a ghostly encounter when others didn’t. This story is the least “detective-ish” in that Jim happens upon a haunting and doesn’t quite know what to do about it. That landlady does all the explaining-the-mystery work at the end. Likewise, in “The Strange Adventures of a Private Secretary in New York” Jim unintentionally finds himself in the company of a were-beast — but this time he’s surprisingly skilled at managing the situation. In terms of the character’s chronology, “With Intent to Steal” seems to be the final in the sequence in that Jim has become a seasoned occult detective, one who may well be past his prime.
All four stories are collected in The Empty House and Other Stories (1906), but oddly enough, they’re placed in a different order than I put them above. And they’re not placed beside one another. And there are inconsistencies in narrative perspective. And there are more inconsistencies — or, at least, gaps — in Jim’s character development. Was this a series character Blackwood never finished? Did the author figure he could fill in those gaps with additional stories, but he lost interest? We’ll probably never know.
While Diana Marburg’s characterization is more consistent than Jim Shorthouse’s, she has a similarly “unfinished” air about her. Diana uses palm-reading to identify criminals, a neat twist on the clairvoyant detective. Since she has a fairly easy time identifying the culprit, these stories become how-dunits as Diana uses old-fashioned detective work to prove her palmistry. Despite the promise of this premise, so far as I know, L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace penned only three Marburg cases. This is even though they had previously collaborated on a full book’s worth of John Bell stories. (Bell is under 1897 on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives.)
I’m still looking into the Marburg series, hoping to find more of Diana’s cases. After magazine publication, the stories were collected in the book The Oracle of Maddox Street (1904). The tales I know about are “The Dead Hand,” “Finger Tips,” and “Sir Penn Caryll’s Engagement,” the first three titles in the Table of Contents of this hard-to-find collection. One of the later stories is “The Secret of Emu Plain,” another John Bell story, so not all of the works are about Marburg. Help with this would be greatly appreciated!
The final “incomplete” occult detective is A.M. Burrage’s Derek Scarpe. His two cases probably never made it into a book until Ash-Tree Press published The Occult Files of Francis Chard: Some Ghost Stories by A.M. Burrage (1996). On his Lovecraft Is Missing website, Larry Latham theorizes that only two Scarpe stories were written because of their poor quality. The stories do suffer from Victorian restraint, especially unfortunate since they were published in 1920 — a decade after John Silence and Carnacki had given up the ghost-hunting for far more insidious monsters.
To be fair, though, I offer these scans of the two Scarpe tales: “The Severed Head” and “The House of Treburyan.” In his favor, when Derek confronts a spectral severed head on a billiards table, his first response is to grab a pool cue. So, at least, there is that.