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.
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.
Now, 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.