“Strange and Inexplicable Facts Should Not Be Buried”: Agatha Christie’s Dr. Edward Carstairs

“I have come across phenomena that is absolutely unexplainable from the ordinary materialistic standpoint. I am a believer in the occult.”

I’m pleased to report that the statement above comes from a character created by none other than the great Agatha Chrisite. Introduced as “the late Dr. Edward Carstairs, M.D., the eminent psychologist,” this occult detective is firmly in the doctor-detective tradition that can be traced as far back as 1817 on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. Christie now joins other well-recognized authors there: Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Willa Cather (yes, that Willa Cather!), and others.

Young Agatha
Agatha Chrisite (1890-1976)

“The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael,” presumably Dr. Carstairs’ only case, was published in a 1933 collection titled The Hound of Death and Other Stories. The book spotlights Christie’s tales of the supernatural. I’ve only dipped into some of the other stories, but it’s an intriguing collection, given that it’s something very different from an author renowned for murder mysteries written “from the ordinary materialistic standpoint.” For an excellent summary of the publication history of the book and its contents, visit Pretty Sinister Book’s review. I share the reviewer’s opinion that the tales were probably written early in Christie’s career. They sometimes call to mind other author’s work, as if Christie were in the learn-through-imitation phase through which many creative writers pass.

“The Strange Case” certainly reveals the strengths and weaknesses of a writer new at her craft. The setting is the charming country estate that figures predominantly in English “cozy” mysteries, and Sir Arthur Carmichael’s dialogue has that “I say, old mater!” slang that places us in the delightfully posh–and fantasy–world of 1920s England. Such fiction, I’m sure, helped in erasing the gloom of the previous decade’s Great War and even deadlier flu epidemic.

Unfortunately, like a lot of fiction from the era, this tale uses racism to identify the culprit early on. When Carstairs meets Sir Arthur’s evil step-mater, he recoils. “I cannot explain,” he says, “the instinctive wave of repulsion that swept over me as I took the proffered hand of this charming and stately woman who moved with the dark and languorous grace that recalled Settle’s surmise of Oriental blood.” (This moment reinforces the doctor’s fine psychic ability, which elsewhere lets him see a phantom that his medical colleague, Dr. Settle, only hears.)

Another wince-prompting moment occurs when Sir Arthur falls victim to a drowning that is pivotal yet painfully contrived. He’s said to have been “a magnificent swimmer” — but, of course, Sir Arthur hasn’t quite been himself of late. Even so, the scene reads as if Christie had to stretch and squirm to imagine a resolution to the otherwise interesting dilemma that drives the story. All it needs is a clue that the drowning might not have been accidental, but there isn’t one.

Regardless of these negatives, hunting down “The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael” is well worth the effort — if only to witness a future master of mystery-writing wetting her toes in occult detection.

Reopening the Marvellous Boxes: “Aliens Are Like Mirages”

“Well, we’ve been coming from Bohemia long enough to be called ‘bohunks’ by those who wish we hadn’t come at all. Some people say we’re not even white people. Not pure white, at least. And, yes, many Czech immigrants spurn colored people, too.” I felt a strong urge to add, “But many don’t! And one could write a history of the American struggle to achieve harmony. Along with abolition, I certainly hope Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony will be covered in that book.”

So says Ludmila Prášilová — a.k.a. Lucille Parsell, a.k.a. Lida — in Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries (1899-1909). It’s easy to focus on the negative side of ethnic relations in the history of the United States. As my great-grandaunt suggests above, I prefer to strike more of a balance. Never forget the negative, but remember the progress, too. I wonder how my ancestor would react if I could go back to the early 1900s to tell her that we’d elect a bi-racial President one day. I’m not sure, though, what I’d say if she then asked if we ever elected one with a Czech last name.

This tough movement toward overcoming the divisions of difference is the focus of “Aliens Are Like Mirages,” the last offering in my Marvellous Boxes audio drama anthology. As I mentioned last month, this play is my follow-up to “Remembering the Martians,” in which the history of the asexual Martians coming to Earth opens comically — but closes in tragedy. Interestingly and entirely inadvertently, this final episode is designed to ask the very same question asked by the very first episode, “A Demon Once Removed.” Once the terrible secret of the “Yup” generator is revealed, that question for the listener is:  “Would you push that button?

Michelle D'Allesandro-Hatt
Michelle D’Allesandro-Hatt, the voice of Pam Dorry

I have a strong feeling that the majority of Earthlings of the 21th century would reply “no” in regard to the button offered in “Mirages.” I wanted to reflect that in this play, though I know full well that some Earthlings would answer, well, “yup.”

Probably more than any other Marvellous Boxes play, I toyed with narration in “Mirages,” trying to capture the mental documentary that Pam Dorry experiences in her head the instant before she recounts her story aloud. I wonder if it worked, that swirl of co-narrators and flashbacks. Too many voices? Too many ideas? Too many clear parallels between Pam’s science-fiction world and our real one? Is “Mirages” too one-sided or too preachy? (It is framed as a sermon!) Does it end too optimistically? I confess this is not my favorite of the series’ six plays.

Still, I’m glad I tried something that wasn’t safe and that didn’t follow the conventions of stage drama (which “Demon” very much does) or those of a typical single-narrator-with-flashbacks audio drama. I’m glad the versatile Michelle D’Allesandro Hatt was cast in the lead, creating a fitting variation on her role of academic historian in “Martians.” I’m glad that I spotlighted a character — a female chaplain — that I don’t recall ever seeing portrayed before. And, yes, my naming her Pam Dorry was meant to call Pandora to mind, what with their respective boxes of chaos . . . and hope.

I began this blog three-and-a-half years ago, when the Marvellous Boxes were first being made available to the public. The series introduced me to many kind, interesting people working in audio drama and listening to it. Two of the plays were chosen for airing by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, an unexpected and very great honor. They mark a turning point in my writing and in my life. As Gregg Taylor, the last voice you hear in this play, implies:  whether or not the Boxes have actually been closed has yet to be determined.

Bloodcurdling or Simply Curdled: Wirt Gerrare’s Horace Vesley

“[B]lood-curdling” — The Literary World
“[S]ometimes really blood-curdling” — The Review of Reviews
“[N]either better nor worse than the ordinary run of this class of fiction” — British Books
“Meh” — Tim Prasil: Inventor of Persons

In its day, Wirt Gerrare’s Phantasms: Original Stories Illustrating Posthumous Personality and Character (1895) got some good reviews. I must have missed something, though. I felt the collection of short stories — thinly unified as being cases involving a character named Horace Vesey — remains uneven. The narration is choppy. The characterization is practically non-existent. The chills and thrills struck me as a horror parallel to a poorly delivered joke: one sees it was meant to be funny and so laughs politely.  Two or three of the stories stand out as exceptions, but I suspect that many readers of Phantasms today — even ardent fans of Victorian ghost stories — will find this book pretty run-of-the-mill if not downright disappointing. This is especially the case if it’s read in the hopes of finding something like occult detection fiction, and that may be a major source of my reaction: my own unfair expectations.

An illustration from Phantasms

Yet those expectations are created by Gerrare, too, in a long, discursive introduction. Vesey is painted as sort of a Holmesian “consulting occultist” by the anonymous, Watsonian narrator. He says: “My first experience of Vesey’s mystic world was one dull November afternoon; a thick fog had turned to rain, and his cheerful fireside was an oasis in London wretchedness. Comfortably resting in a chair by the fire, the narrator describes Vesey as languishing on a divan while smoking a narghile. That introduction finally ends with the promise of presenting “stories which reached us, the experiences we ourselves had, and the cases in which Vesey was consulted. . . .” Quickly, though, we discover that Vesey has little to no role in the bulk of the stories. Instead, he’s being used in the same way that Dr. Martin Hesselius is in Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly (1872): a device to make a collection of separate supernatural tales feel a bit more like a novel.

After an opening tale that seems to have nothing to do with Vesey, he’s given a prominent role in one called “Retribution.” The story begins with a flashback to a historical scene that then resurfaces generations later. That’s a neat little trick. It’s up to Vesey to unravel how those past events are echoing and affecting a patient of Dr. Victor Colquhon, who consults with the occult expert. Unravel the medical mystery he does — and with tension-squashing swiftness. In fact, Vesey doesn’t even need to leave the room. If this character could be deemed an occult detective, this story would be key. However, one would need to argue that pulling a book off a shelf and flipping to the relevant page constitutes detective work. Granted, Sherlock Holmes has his handy reference works, but he utilizes quite a bit more to solve a case. Otherwise, “Retribution” is a fairly good adventure of reincarnation and a possible witch’s curse that misdirected me nicely.

The third and fourth tales, like the first, are not clearly established as Vesey adventures, but the fifth, “A Good Intention,” reintroduces the character. We learn that he served as a reporter. Ah ha! Maybe Horace Vesey was a professional ancestor of Carl Kolshak and he’s on the trail of his own Night Stalker! Well, there is a certain vampiric element to the story’s tragic ex-con whose misery psychically permeates the mind of the moralistic, merciless judge who imprisoned him. While Kolshak hunts down the truth about his vampire and acts on it, though, Vesey remains at a distance. He knows what’s going on — he can explain it all — but it’s not through interviews, research, or any other kind of investigative footwork. The story ends up leaning more toward social-reform than supernatural fiction.

“A New Force” is barely a story at all. Instead, it’s a character describing to Vesey a confusing and science-fictiony source of energy he’s happened upon. Vesey acts as a set of ears here — and then only as a recipient of a diary in “Mysterious Maisie,” the next offering. The diary itself tells that tale. On the plus side, it’s one of the better stories, mirroring the premise of the very first one in that a young woman arrives to care for a creepy, aging woman in a far creepier house.  After this, the final two tales join those that are not clearly related to Vesey.

In the end, Phantasms is interesting primarily for its place in history. One used book seller describes Horace Vesey as “a transitional figure between Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselius and later occult detectives.” When considering the evolution of the book-length series occult detective, it’s significant that Vesey predates E. and H. Heron’s Flaxman Low by four years. However, when considering the occult detective figure alone — a character who accepts the supernatural as real and who uses that knowledge to solve occult or criminal mysteries in a manner like “secular” detectives in fiction — Vesey fails to earn the title. There’s simply not enough detective in him.

Ghosts, Chains, and the Escape Artist: This Month’s FREE Vera Van Slyke Mystery

You’re very wise if you’ve never visited my Vera Van Slyke ~ Ghostly Mysteries site. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Each week, I post another authentic newspaper report about a haunted house, a haunted person, a haunted stretch of railroad, or — this week — a haunted jailhouse in Pittsburgh. All of the reports come from between 1865 and 1918, the years between the ends of the American Civil War and World War One. At least according to U.S. newspapers, it was a particularly ghostly era.

Houdini in ChainsYou can also read about Vera Van Slyke’s life and the ghosts she hunted. In fact, each month, I post another FREE ghostly mystery from Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries (1899-1909). For August, the tale involves none other than Harry Houdini. Famous for escaping locked trunks and locked chains, Houdini finds himself enchained by a past indiscretion. And by the threat of blackmail. He calls on Vera for help.

But is it all just part of a grand illusion being created by the up-and-coming magician?

Find out by reading “Houdini Slept Here” in .pdf, .epub, or .mobi (Kindle) formats. Of course, to find the links, you’ll have to go to A Complimentary Haunting, one of the pages on that Ghostly Mysteries site I warned you about.

Well . . . the choice is yours.

Reopening the Marvellous Boxes: “Remembering the Martians”

The fifth audio play in the Marvellous Boxes anthology let me lighten up a bit. Well, at least, at first. I confess that listening to “Remembering the Martians” three years after its debut made me chuckle — in a good way. From ruining the writing career of “Martian hate-monger” H.G. Wells to pointing out that Doctor Who, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Superman are thinly disguised re-tellings of actual history, I had some fun re-writing the first half of the 20th century.

But there’s certainly a serious side to “Martians,” one that hits home even a bit more squarely since the United States sanctioned same-sex marriage last month. I knew that parallels between Martian asexuality and Earthling homosexuality were inevitable, but I wanted to come up with something that would be truly, truly alien in terms of reproduction.

And I failed. Asexual reproduction is all around us, from tulips to strawberries as one character suggests. Why didn’t I go with parthenogenesis specifically? What was I thinking? Clearly, I must schedule more time with whiptale lizards. They’re all female, but they go about reproducing just fine, thank you kindly.Whiptale LizardThe method of narrating “Martians” was particularly fun, what with its mimicking the style of a radio documentary. (That’s my voice and music you hear in the Verbosity promos!) I knew the Decoder Ring Theatre troupe would have fun creating the old-time radio “flashbacks,” too, since that’s kind of what they do best. I’m not entirely sure why the script’s Flash Martin was changed to Flash Martian, but I suppose every playwright occasionally needs to take a deep, cleansing breath . . . and move on.

This play fits very well with the next and final installment of Marvellous Boxes: “Aliens Are Like Mirages.” Their connection is reinforced by the fact that the very talented Michelle D’Allesandro Hatt is highlighted in both, first as history professor Penelope Verne and later as theology student Pam Dore.  Thematically, the two plays address human tribalism and the acceptance of different groups, whether that difference is racial, sexual, religious, and on and on. In “Martians,” we listen to the failure to accept difference. In “Mirages,” we listen to the refusal to exclude difference. It’s certainly an ongoing drama in human history, but as I’ll discuss next month, I sense that we Earthlings are slowly, ever slowly moving away from tribalism.

A Case of Teleæsthetia: Louis Joseph Vance’s Dr. Philip Fosdick

“Oh, plain sleuthing, for one thing–like digging into the mystery of your parents’ marriage, finding out why they were unhappy, and especially who your mother was and what sort of family she had behind her–whether, in short, it’s possible that you’ve inherited some psychic tradition. There are families, for instance, that hand down from generation to generation the clairvoyant tendency we know by the name of second sight.”

So says Dr. Philip Fosdick in Louis Joseph Vance’s 1920 novel The Dark Mirror. Fosdick is almost a minor character, working in the background as the reader follows the strange story of his patient/client much more closely. Fosdick pops in now and again, and is granted “the big reveal” at the end, but the novel is not a step-by-step account of the investigation itself. Nonetheless, he fits my definition of an occult detective. He accepts the reality of clairvoyance and, specifically, teleæsthetia. (The latter is perceiving things without the usual sense organs, such as seeing something going on miles and miles away. Think of having a very personal television in your head.) Fosdick, a psychoanalyst, is a solid member of the doctor-detective tradition that includes such key occult detective figures as Drs. Taverner, Silence, Van Helsing, and Hesselius. He also uses fairly standard detective methods — including hiring a professional private detective to assist — in order to successfully solve the novel’s central mystery.

Dark MirrorThe mystery involves Priscilla Maine, the real focus of the book. She’s a painter living a double life through frighteningly real dreams. Vance does quite well at complicating things, having Maine’s waking life cross paths with her more dangerous yet very romantic dream life. He’s not afraid to kill off characters, preventing a conventional happy ending, too. At least at the beginning, one wonders if the artistic Priscilla might be having artistic delusions. All good stuff.

That said, there are some plot holes. (How did Inez just happen to know where Mario was living, for example?). Some parts of the final solution are very predictable and show up in similar novels from well into the previous century. And there’s Vance’s overwrought language. Here’s an example of the thick wordage a reader must slash with a machete: “And insidiously the tranquil surface of that contentment was flawed by apprehensions of nameless danger, of peril latent, stealthy and implacable; as though the swimmer surmised some monstrous shape of evil skulking unseen in those opaque deeps–or felt herself subtly ensnared by a current whose irresistible set was altogether toward destruction.” Remember, this is 1920. Granted, Ernest Hemingway hasn’t quite arrived yet, but Vance’s countrymen Mark Twain and Frank Norris and other writers winning the battle against such florid narrative style have.

Despite those flaws, I enjoyed the novel. It’s hokey, it’s melodramatic, but it’s goofy fun. It’s always a pleasure to meet criminal characters named Charlie the Coke, Harry the Nut, and English Addie and to hear them talk the talk that Vance imagines New York street folks talk. Priscilla, the uptown star of the show, is resourceful, daring, smart, and not at all the lackluster damsel in distress. There are narrow escapes aplenty, and poor Priscilla is usually the one escaping.

In fact, The Dark Mirror feels much like a Perils of Pauline-style silent-movie thriller, and it was quickly adapted in to just that. (I wonder if Vance had this in mind when he was writing it.) The film still exists according to this and this source, but I haven’t found an online or a DVD copy of it. If anyone happens to know of where I might take a look at it, please let me know. The Dark Mirror is far from top-notch occult detective fiction, but I’m interested to see what the early movies did with the early occult detectives.