Sherlock Holmes is fairly famous for waving off the merest suggestion of the supernatural. In “The Sussex Vampire,” for instance, Holmes sinks his teeth into a domestic squabble that involves neck-biting and blood-sucking. But he poohpoohs the idea that a vampire is afoot. Watson mentions he’s read of superstitious people trying to stay young by drinking blood. Holmes’s skepticism still bursts forth:
But are we to give serious attention to such things? This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.
Sure enough, Holmes proves that vampires do not account for even the slightest sparkle in the case, and — as he does in The Hound of the Baskervilles — he becomes a “debunking detective,” one who shows that mysteries can be explained through rational thinking and empirical study instead of by resorting to supernatural mumbo jumbo.
And yet Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock’s creator, was tenacious in his belief in spiritualism and in things unseen — at least, in his later years. He even went so far as to write a book bolstering the claims of two schoolgirls who said they had taken photographs of fairies. (The film Fairy Tale: A True Story is a pleasant, if somewhat sentimental, retelling of that story. It offers the odd opportunity to see Peter O’Toole as Conan Doyle sharing scenes with Harvey Keitel as Houdini.) In addition, Conan Doyle wrote a number of very good supernatural tales.
So the question rises: Did the man who gave us Sherlock Holmes ever combine his interest in detective stories with his interest in spirits and the supernatural — without debunking the latter?
There are at least two stories worth considering. The first is titled “Selecting a Ghost: The Ghosts of Goresthorpe Grange” (1883). This is not to be confused with “The Haunted Grange of Goresthorpe,” which was the first story Doyle ever wrote and which was finally published in 2000. A list of occult detectives I found online includes Conan Doyle’s Mr. Abrahams, and as far as I can tell, “Selecting a Ghost” is the only story he wrote with a character bearing this name. In addition, the Fantastic Victoriana site says this about another character: Jack Brocket “isn’t exactly an occult detective, although ‘Selecting a Ghost’ somewhat requires him to be. He’s more like a hustler, doing a little of this and a little of that to make money.”
I fear this might be misleading. Brocket isn’t at all an occult detective, and the story doesn’t even whisper for him to be one. He investigates neither crimes nor paranormal phenomenon. Instead, he “headhunts” a man who claims he can lure a ghost into haunting the castle of Silas D’Odd, the story’s protagonist. That man — more ghost-charmer than ghost-hunter — goes by the name of Mr. Abrahams, but we learn that this is an alias, since he’s a con man. The story is pure spoof, and an unexpectedly funny one. I had no idea Conan Doyle had a sense of humor. It’s well worth reading, but it’s far from eligible for my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. No real occult. No real detective.
On the other hand, Conan Doyle’s “The Brown Hand” (1899) features good, honest supernatural investigation and is now on my bibliography. In this story, we meet Dr. Hardacre. He is a medical doctor, which is a curiously common day job among occult detectives, from Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s Dr. Hesselius, through Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence and Dion Fortune’s Dr. Taverner, to Chris Carter’s Dana Scully.
Along with his doctoring, Dr. Hardacre has a special interest in “the abnormal in psychical experiences,” so strong an interest that he has gone haunt-hunting as a member of the Psychical Research Society. After a preliminary investigation into the story’s feature apparition, he consults “a recent book upon occultism,” which he has in his consulting room. In other words, the protagonist of “The Brown Hand” is not someone who stumbles across a ghost. He is a man ready to get down to bit’ness with one! Despite a somewhat comic first step at exorcising said ghost, Hardacre proves he’s the man for the job. Here, we see Conan Doyle creating a serious, full-fledged occult detective. Sadly, it appears that “The Brown Hand” was Dr. Hardacre’s only recorded case even though this story ends with him nicely positioned for future adventures.
I learned of “The Brown Hand” in a doctoral dissertation that’s available online. It is Sage Leslie-McCarthy’s The Case of the Psychic Detective: Progress, Professionalism and the Occult in Psychic Detective Fiction from the 1880s to the 1920s. This is fascinating stuff, but I only nudge those who can tolerate a lot of contextualization and in-depth analysis to read it. Dissertations tend to be dense. I know. I wrote one. Nonetheless, this source mentions several other works that I’ll be tracking down and reading. No doubt, some of them will pop up in my blog posts to come.