My 50th Occult Detective: The Narrator of Ralph Adams Cram’s “Sister Maddelena”

There is a story about the ghostly nun, who was only a novice, and even that unwillingly, which gives an interest to an otherwise very commonplace and uninteresting ghost.

– “Sister Maddelena,” by Ralph Adams Cram

I was hoping to announce something spectacular as my fiftieth fictional occult detective from before 1926. A famous author, for instance, unrecognized for dabbling in occult detective fiction. Or a forgotten author with a tragically overlooked character.

Well, after I read Ralph Adams Cram’s “Sister Maddelena,” I decided to be pleased that I managed to find a fiftieth occult detective at all.

Ralph Adams Cram (1863 – 1942)

Do an image search for Ralph Adams Cram (1863 – 1942), and you’ll find that he never ever smiled.

It’s the anonymous narrator of this tale who serves as the supernatural sleuth. This character and his adventure aren’t terrible, mind you. But they’re not exactly dazzling, either. Maybe the most interesting thing about the narrator is that he’s a serial character, appearing in the first four stories of Cram’s Black Spirits and White: A Book of Ghost Stories (1895).

The collection’s first story is good. The narrator is attacked by a proto-Lovecraftian vampire thingy. Despite starting the story with wizards and curses, though, Cram provides no solution to the mystery of exactly what that thingy is. The second story is weaker, a tale told to the narrator about two ghost-debunkers who learn a hard lesson in a haunted castle. In the third, our narrator again becomes the hauntee — and Cram does provide an explanation for the phenomenon — but his narrator does no detective work to figure it out.

It’s the fourth story, “Sister Maddelena,” where the narrator blossoms into what can rightfully be termed a detective. All of these ghostly experiences have emerged from his tour of European architecture, which he takes with a fellow architect named Tom Rendel (though it would be a stretch to call Rendel his Watson). This knowledge of building construction becomes key when the narrator is haunted yet again, this time by a far less terrifying hobgoblin than the previous two. Yes, far less scary — despite the fact that, in life, the specter had been a nun!

A legend tells that Sister Maddelena went missing and was very likely murdered, resulting in her unquiet spirit. The narrator’s earlier experiences with the occult seem to have prepared him to take action when this spirit appears. He follows her to a locked door through which she disappears.

Black Spirits and WhiteNow, at this point, I worried that Sister Maddelena was simply going to lead the narrator to her moldering-but-never-discovered corpse. Voilà, the haunting/mystery would be resolved. But no — this is when the plot shifts to some pretty solid detection! The current owner of what once had been a convent tells the sad and perplexing history of Sister Maddelena, adding that he had thoroughly investigated the cell behind that locked door. Still, he encourages the narrator to give it another go — and, well, I’ve already said too much.

Suffice to say, the narrator’s special interest solves the puzzle of what had become of Sister Maddelena. At last, her wandering spirit can find rest in conventional 19th-century fashion. In addition, a skeptic is forced to rethink his narrow views in the end. This leaves readers with the feeling that the story is less an intriguing supernatural mystery story and more a preachy parable about retaining one’s faith in a universe that’s grander than mundane science suggests.

Of course, one could argue that that same lesson underlies virtually all works of occult detective fiction. Yet “Sister Maddelena” is insistent about it. Since it features elements of Gothic stories dating back to the mid-1700s — star-crossed lovers, tyrannical fathers, dangerous Catholics — it’s thick with the musk of traditional, didactic ghost stories.

As I say, though, Cram’s anonymous narrator joins 49 other occult detectives who prove that these characters were fairly prominent in 19th- and early 20th-century fiction. So there’s that!

There are two more stories in Black Spirits and White, including “The Dead Valley, which H.P. Lovecraft described as having “a memorably potent degree of vague regional horror.” Neither of these tales involves the anonymous architect, though, and so he never develops into a more solid specialist-detective. Instead, I list him on my Chronological Bibliography as a novice — in keeping with the tragic Sister Maddelena.

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Proactively Provocative

“The trick is to provoke thinking without provoking the thinker. This is especially true if there’s a good chance you’re married to the thinker.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 5

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In the Shadow of Rathbone: Peter Cushing in The Hound of the Baskervilles

holmes-basil-rathboneLast weekend, I introduced my plan to review Sherlock Holmes films released after the fourteen movies staring Basil Rathbone. Dressed to Kill, the last of the Rathbone series, was released in 1946. Not until 1959 did another major film featuring Holmes appear (though a few actors played the part on radio and TV in the interim). The movie was an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring Peter Cushing as Holmes and André Morell as Watson. It was produced by Hammer Films, and along with Cushing, it features that other Hammer great, Christopher Lee.


Peter Cushing looking a good deal like the popular image of Holmes.

Shining in the Sherlock’s Shadow

As I say in that introduction, probably more than any other actor, Peter Cushing stood in the shadow of Rathbone, since no other Holmes films had been made since 1946. Cushing certainly fits the popular image of Holmes. Given the inevitable comparisons to Rathbone that would be made, it might have been too daring to attempt to “re-image” Holmes. But Cushing does a fine job with the role: meditative, aloof, good-spirited, abrasive (when it gets results), and even self-effacing (when he hasn’t been a genius quite quickly enough).

If anything negative could be said, it might be that Cushing isn’t daring enough in his interpretation. His Sherlock seems a bit routine, almost too “by the book” (though we’ll see that the script isn’t). At the same time, his fulfilling expectations rather than teasing them might explain why, in 1968, Cushing took over the Holmes role from Douglas Wilmer on BBC TV. His surviving episodes are now available on DVD. It’s tougher to find a quality recording of Cushing’s return to Baker Street in the BBC TV movie The Masks of Death (1984), but it’s worth investigating this fun outing featuring Holmes in his retirement years. John Mills is a very charming Watson. Anne Baxter plays a somewhat lackluster character who happens to be named Irene Adler.

André Morell's Watson began to erase the bumbler image.

André Morell’s Watson took several steps toward erasing the bumbler that Nigel Bruce had played.

Watching Watson

Perhaps the most daring decision made for this version of The Hound of the Baskervilles was to reject the doofus-Watson character that Nigel Bruce had perfected in the Rathbone series. Instead, André Morell’s Watson is far more competent — if a bit invisible.

An odd thing about Hound is how little we see of the guy with the funny cap. Since Holmes spends so much time secretly patrolling the moors, it’s largely Watson’s story. That is — in the novel.

Also in the novel, Holmes sends Watson off to keep Henry Baskerville safe with the order: “Keep your revolver near you night and day, and never relax your precautions.” In this film, though, Holmes carries his own revolver — and appears out in the open a lot more. Watson simply isn’t given much to do, and except for a few glimpses, the friendship he shares with Holmes is neglected.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

It’s tricky to try to adapt what is probably the most popular Holmes story. Should one be stringently faithful to the novel, knowing that a significant portion of the audience already knows who the culprit is? Or should the filmmakers play with the audience? It seems that screenwriter Peter Bryan and director Terence Fisher attempted the latter — but did they go far enough?

In the novel, the investigation’s very first suspect rushes by in a cab, revealing only his piercing eyes and his black beard. It becomes significant, then, when Watson later describes the butler of Baskerville Hall as “a remarkable-looking man, tall, handsome, with a square black beard. . . .” In the 1959 adaptation, this butler has no beard at all. However, Dr. Mortimer does! In addition, he’s a formidably large man with a bit of a temper. (In the novel, this character is described as being a lanky, poorly dressed man with glasses and a slouch.) Since Mortimer introduces Holmes to the case, right from the start, audience members who have read the novel are given an extra challenge: since the filmmakers are clearly altering the story, should we suspect Mortimer?vlcsnap-2014-04-06-16h52m37s57

There are other changes in the film, too, from tarantulas to cave-ins. The novel’s entomologist is now a comic-relief vicar. The late Charles Baskerville goes out on the moor at night, not to offer help, but because he’s a cad. The two suffering female characters are now one feisty female character. All of these are nice ways to keep well-read Holmes fans guessing how things will work out . . .

I wish, though, that the film had taken this even a bit further when arriving at the end. Granted, it’s not quite the same ending as the novel’s, but it almost comes too close. Almost — too close.

Perhaps it was too soon to deviate too much from the source material.

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Arriving Before You Get There?

“From a child’s perspective, ‘Why didn’t you go before we left?’ must be a troublesome inquiry.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 4

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In the Shadow of Rathbone: An Introduction

holmes-basil-rathboneAs suggested in “The Ghost of Banquo’s Ghost,” there are certain resemblances between Vera Van Slyke and Lucille Parsell — and Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Of course, my detective team is female, American, of the Progressive Era instead of the Victorian — and Vera and Lucille investigate hauntings more so than crimes.

Despite those differences, there is a whiff of Holmes’ pipe in my series. You see, I grew up reading the Holmes stories and watching the Basil Rathbone movies on TV. And, recently, I’ve become interested in Holmes movies made after the Rathbone series.

Holmes has been played by a wide array of actors: from William Gillette on Broadway in 1899 to Bumblethwait Cabbagepatch in the current BBC series. Some of the notables and oddities in between them include Raymond Massey, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, George C. Scott, Leonard Nimoy, John Cleese, Charlton Heston, even Larry Hagman. There are the ongoing debates over which actor towers as the best Sherlock with some saying it’s Rathbone, others championing Jeremy Brett, and a new generation embracing Robert Downey Jr. and Benedril Copperpot.

I’m particularly interested in the films following the fourteen-film Rathbone series, which ran from 1939 to 1946, because Rathbone created such an enduring image for and interpretation of the character — one that lingers even today. In a sense, any actor playing Holmes does so in the shadow of Rathbone. In weeks to come, on a fittingly irregular schedule, I’ll be reviewing some of these movies.

I hope I’ll take a fresh approach in my reviews. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon of Holmes stories are often disappointed when a film deviates from or takes liberties with the originals. In the case of pastiches (i.e., tales of Holmes and Watson not included in Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels), there’s still a reasonable expectation that the film makers will remain true to the characters and the spirit of the canon. And yet playing with the Holmes mythos — such as Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffit do with the BBC series featuring Bibbledee Crumblecake — has proven to result in some very good, very smart, and very fun “re-imagining.” As with James Bond or Captain James Kirk, sometimes, it’s good to try something new.

Of course, it’s risky, too.

Sidney Paget's illustration of Sherlock Holmes punching Theodore Roosevelt

Sidney Paget’s illustration of Sherlock Holmes pummeling U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt

Nonetheless, with the idea that it’s variation — something new along with something old — that makes a Holmes movie interesting, I’ll break my reviews down into these three sections:

Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow. We have definite ideas about how Holmes should look based on images sketched by Doyle but solidified by Sidney Paget’s illustrations, William Gillette’s costume choices, and Rathbone’s physiognomy. We also have expectations of how Holmes should behave. My first section will explore how the actor playing Holmes brings a distinctive — but not wildly distinctive — quality to the character.

Watching Watson. One of the main appeals of the Holmes stories, at least for me, is the relationship between Holmes and Watson. This key element is sometimes neglected in the movies. My second section will look at how that relationship is portrayed and, specifically, how Watson himself is presented — a bumbling oaf? a gung-ho former-military man? a lackluster sidekick?

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle. Here, I’ll consider the story overall and how it spins or spit-shines or otherwise shapes the spirit of Doyle’s remarkable series. After all, if one wants to enjoy, say, The Hound of the Baskervilles exactly as it’s told in the novel . . . well, read the novel. If you’re looking for an interesting interpretation of and, yes, variation on The Hound of the Baskervilles, then a movie version might suit you better.

In fact, this weekend, I’ll write about the 1959 Hammer Studios version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring Peter Cushing as Holmes. Perhaps more than any other actor, Cushing stood in the shadow of Rathbone. I contend, though, that he shined there, too.

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The Return of Vera Van Slyke!

It’s been a while since I’ve offered one of my Vera Van Slyke chronicles, so let me remind you what these are all about.

Vera & Lida Oval on white

I inherited a wooden box filled with jumbled manuscripts and other documents from my great-grandaunt. Her birth name was Ludmila Prášilová. (The “ova” suffix indicates a woman in Czech tradition.) However, she had adopted the more Anglo-American name Lucille Parsell by the time she met Vera Van Slyke in 1899.

Vera Van Slyke (1868-1941) was a journalist who stood beside Ida Tarbell and Nellie Bly in terms of being an unconventional woman of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Vera might have been a bit more unconventional. She was also a ghost hunter! And my ancestor assisted in several of the investigations, which she chronicled. And I’m now editing her chronicles.

You can download “The Ghost of Banquo’s Ghost,” the second Vera Van Slyke ghostly mystery in .epub, .mobi (for Kindle), or .pdf format by visiting my Snazzy Downloads page. After having met in Boston about a year earlier, Vera and Lucille meet again in Chicago. It seems there’s poltergeist-like activity in one of the theaters there. Amid theatrical illusion, Vera must discover if it really is a poltergeist — or some other form of supernatural manifestation!

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“Succinctness is rare among those with nothing worth saying.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 3

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