My Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives now covers 70 years, from Fitz-James O’Brien’s Harry Escott, who first appeared in Harper’s Monthly in 1855, to Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin, who first appeared in Weird Tales in 1925. While Semi-Dual had an impressive career — 32 adventures over 13 years — he doesn’t compare to de Grandin, who appears in 93 adventures over 26 years! In addition, de Grandin brings the occult detective figure back to the U.S., after decades of clear British dominance. This character marks a good place to stop — at least, until I decide to go for a full century.
Meanwhile, the 1855 to 1925 time span let me add several other significant occult detectives to the list: from Moris Klaw and Simon Iff to Shiela Crerar and Luna Bartendale. And I will continue to “fill in” characters from these 70 years as I discover and double-check them.
I’ve also noted when an occult detective seems to fit within three sub-categories: the novice-detective, the doctor-detective, and/or the clairvoyant-detective. The first group is comprised of detectives who confront the supernatural for the first time, such as Constable Lumsden in W.W.’s short story “The Phantom Hearse” (1889) or “Mr. Perseus” in Rudyard Kipling’s “The House Surgeon” (1909).
The second group is more crowded. These are doctors who find themselves engaged in detecting the occult phenomenon ailing their clients/patients. In fiction, this group can be traced back at least as far as Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Martin Hesselius (1872). The figure of a medical doctor investigating the occult goes back further, however, in non-fiction. Dr. Samual Hibbert, for example, examines ghostly visions through a skeptical, psychological lens in Sketches of the Philosophies of Apparitions (1825). Dr. Justinus Kerner is more of a believer in his report on The Seeress of Prevorst (1829/translated into English in 1855). Hibbert and Kerner are among a fair number of doctors who acted as the very first, very real occult detectives.
The clairvoyant-detectives, the third group, are interesting less for what they tell us about the past and more for what they say about later developments. These are detectives who have supernatural powers — specifically, some form of clairvoyance — either for combating supernatural foes or for solving entirely “natural” crimes. One sees the roots of superheroes here. Think of Doctor Occult, created by Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster, who also invented Superman. In addition, Walter B. Gibson’s The Shadow used his hypnotic mental powers to fight crime and became a model for Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Batman. We might also see the beginnings of the urban fantasy genre — including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Anita Blake, Harry Dresden, and a short, pale parade of vampire-detectives — all of whom battle the supernatural with their own supernatural abilities.
As always, I am eager to hear your comments about or recommendations for my project of compiling early occult detectives!