“Is there a chemical in chocolate that reduces a toddler’s skill at facial mapping to no more than 63% efficiency?” — Finbar Kelly
To recover long-lost occult detective fiction, I’ve waded through some pretty rancid waters and slashed through many a thorny bramble. But I deserve some heartfelt appreciation for enduring what I’m convinced is the worst novel ever published, The Mystery of Ashton Hall (1910), by Benjamin Nitsua.
The novel does promise an occult detective. After establishing the murder and prime suspects via tediously long mock newspaper clippings, Nitsua introduces Thomas Jaffery. The character isn’t a member of the police force “but a man whose aid is much sought after in difficult and mysterious cases.” Great! A consulting detective! Hardly original but intriguing! Furthermore, Jaffery is well-read, well-spoken, and has “very strange views on many subjects and [is] exceedingly peculiar also in much of his conduct.” Excellent! Who doesn’t love an eccentric crime-solver?
Enter the supernatural angle. According to Nitsua, Jaffery was alleged to have “the gift of prophecy, but his special gift and crowning achievement was in his ability to ‘dream true,’ an ability he was able to utilize in criminal cases.” To illustrate, our narrator tells of a case in which Jaffery located a criminal by going “into a sleep that lasted nearly twenty hours,” having only studied a photograph of that man before entering his trance state. In other words, Jaffery is a dream detective, one appearing fifteen years before Sax Rhomer’s far more famous Moris Klaw, a.k.a. The Dream Detective. On the other hand, Harold Begbie’s dream detective Andrew Latter had already appeared in London Magazine six years before Nitsua’s novel was published. Still, Thomas Jaffery seems to be in pretty good company when it comes to what I call the clairvoyant-detective branch of occult detection fiction.
That is, he would be in good company if, at some point in The Mystery of Ashton Hall, Jaffery used this incredible power the author attributes to him. Alas, no dream detecting. Jaffery has a single, terribly brief moment of what seems like psychic intuition when, at the scene of the murder, he proclaims, “The criminal is a foreigner. I shall know where to find him and shall do so as soon as we collect enough evidence to convict him.” Exciting, yes? Encouraging, no?
Nitsua never explains what shoved Jaffery — fully awake, mind you — toward identifying the criminal as a foreigner. The detective turns out to be right, and given that there’s really only one foreigner among the suspects, the story’s tension is punctured with a rude pfffffffffft. In fact, Jaffery gradually disappears from the novel altogether after playing a hunch and tricking the criminal into confessing. And this is well before the end of the novel, which rambles on and on and on about a romance between a falsely accused suspect and the murder victim’s daughter.
Oh yeah, and the murder victim doesn’t die. Apparently, Nitsua needed him to be resuscitated (which, by the way, is clumsily signaled at the beginning) in order to make everything work out in the end between the romantic leads. It’s the ridiculous number of pages devoted to this weepy, star-crossed-lovers plot thread that especially makes The Mystery of Ashton Hall read like a bad novel from an earlier era. Even the language seems far too flowery for 1910, such as when the male romantic lead writes:
Hope was dead within me. Blinded and bewildered by her praise of him she loved I started again, to leave the arbor. A speechless agony robbed me of all utterance. I had seized my violin — my one true friend — and pushing rudely past her as she stood, with a hoarse farewell on my lips was stepping from the arbor when I heard a little cry of pain and the single word, ‘Herman!’
Robbed him of all utterance??? I wish! Imagine pages and pages, chapters and chapters, of this stuff!
So, yeah, I spoiled the ending here. But you might have sensed that I’m not nudging anyone toward reading Nitsua’s novel. Benjamin Nitsua, as it turns out, is a pen name of Benjamin Fish Austin, who wrote a good deal about religious matters and advocated Spiritualism for a while. But he was not skilled at writing fiction and, especially, mystery fiction. In fact, this novel was published by the Austin Publishing Company, located in Rochester, New York. Benjamin Fish Austin lived part of his life in Rochester, so one can deduce (without dreaming) that the author published his own mystery novel. I suspect no other publisher would touch it.
Run! Flee! Retreat! I cannot recommend The Mystery of Ashton Hall, and though Thomas Jaffery sure looked promising, this character does not belong on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives.
As I was preparing to re-listen to “Facing Cydonia” three years after it debuted at the Decoder Ring Theatre website, I worried that I hadn’t been able to tell the story — and portray the very human foible at its heart — convincingly. I was out of my comfort zone when I wrote it, what with it probably being the most serious, intense, and saddest of the Marvellous Boxes plays.
But having listened to it this morning, I was relieved. No doubt, its success is largely due to the two fine actors who carry the bulk of the drama on their shoulders. This play asks a lot of its main actors, and both Andrea Lyons and Chris Mott did wonderfully. Once again, I was reminded of how I wish audio drama better allowed for workshopping a play before production. I might get an opportunity to polish the clunky and heavy-handed lines, though, by adapting this script for the stage. Its confined set certainly makes this a possibility.
As to the construction of the play, I was happy with how I dropped hints along the way to nudge listeners to discover that 1) while there actually is what’s called a Mars Analog Research Station on Devon Island these days, this story isn’t set during these days and 2) the disappearing team members from that station might not be a component of a stress test. Hopefully, I laid a firm but subtle groundwork to make the Big Reveal acceptable. But I’ve already said too much.
Something that I had forgotten since this play debuted is that I’m in it. That’s my voice you hear in the introduction — over music I composed and sequenced. In fact, the music heard later, in the lab, is also mine. Oh, what an ego!
Nina at the always-interesting Multo (Ghost) site has been a good friend to my efforts here to explore and expand the history of occult detective fiction. Once I figured I had rocked the world by pushing that history back before Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Hessellius (1869) to Fitz-James O’Brien’s Harry Escott (1855), she pointed out that Henry William Herbert’s Dirk Ericson (1840) takes things back even earlier.
Nina also graciously wrote reviews of Help for the Haunted at Multo (Ghost) and at Amazon. (If you find you like the book, too, please post your review at Amazon. I hear those reviews help sell books!) Toward the end of the review on her blog, Nina says she “caught a name-check to a character in the 1970s occult detective TV series Kolchak, which I believe is Tim’s favorite show.”
That’s mostly true. I don’t really care for the Kolchak: The Night Stalker series, though I do like the two made-for-TV movies that preceded it: The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973). And I did wink at all of these stories in Help for the Haunted. “Vampire Particles” has many such allusions. Even before that story, though, journalist Vera Van Slyke meets a character named Vitellius Berry, who spends a lot of his time down in the archives of a Pittsburgh newspaper office. In The Night Strangler, journalist Carl Kolchak meets a very similar character named Titus Berry. This story, titled “A Burden that Burns” is available for download this month at the Complimentary Haunting page of my Ghostly Mysteries site.
But my references to other occult detective adventures go further. There are a brother and sister mentioned throughout Help for the Haunted whose last name is Morley. They’re both wealthy, coming from tobacco money. Some of my readers already recognize the nod to the brand of cigarettes smoked by The X-Files‘ cigarette-smoking man. Next month, I’ll be offering a free story titled “An Unanchored Man,” which features a character nicknamed Scully. And he’s turns out to be a bit of a skeptic. Wink!
The references to Buffy the Vampire Slayer are tougher to catch. “Houdini Slept Here” introduces a character named Alexander Lavelle. He wears an eye-patch. Xander Harris’s middle name, Lavelle, is mentioned in a first-season episode called “Teacher’s Pet,” and by the end of the series, he wears an eye-patch. In addition, toward the close of Help for the Haunted, Vera mentions that her mentor, Harry Escott, once went to Cleveland on an important case. Diehard Buffy fans know that there are other Hellmouths beside the one in Sunnydale. Yep, according to that series, there’s one in Cleveland. Wink!
The mention of Harry Escott shows that I also borrow from prose fiction, including O’Brien’s “The Pot of Tulips” and “What Was It?,” the two stories featuring Harry. Those rich siblings, the Morleys, are named Roderick and Madeline, an indiscreet nod to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” My first story, “The Minister’s Unveiling,” takes its name from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and there are other references to Hawthorne’s works sprinkled throughout it. Reading Sui Sin Far’s “The Wisdom of the New” will put a twist on my own story “Ghosts and Other Immigrants” and on the life of Wou Sankwei. There are a few other references to literary works, sometimes overtly and sometimes not.
As Nina points out, I’ve also “peppered the narrative with authentic historical details about people and places in Chicago, and other cities, too. . . . Harry Houdini makes a guest appearance as one of Vera’s clients. Vera’s trusty reference tome, Catherine Crowe’s The Night-Side of Nature; Or Ghosts and Ghost-Seers, is a real book.” I’d say the actual history woven into the tales significantly outweighs the references to other writers’ inventions.
I wouldn’t have stitched in these references to other occult detective worlds and real-life events if they didn’t fit smoothly with — or outright enhance — the tale I was telling. I hope they provide added enjoyment, if not added layers, for the readers who catch them. I invite you to see if you can find any other authorial winks by ordering a copy of Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
“From horoscopes to personality tests, blanket statements inevitably short-sheet a lot of people.” — Finbar Kelly
Like Finbar, I’m not a fan of horoscopes or astrology. People are good enough at putting unpredictable, often contradictory humans into stable, characteristic-based groups without needing to do so based on their birth dates, using the mystique of the celestial canopy as justification. Maybe I feel this way because I’m a Scorpio. Nonetheless, in fiction, using astrology as an aid in crime-fighting makes for a neat twist on the mystery that incorporates a supernatural element. This is exactly what happens in Mitchell Scott Lewis’s Murder in the 11th House (Poisoned Pen Press, 2011), making its protagonist, David Lowell, a fresh and distinctive member of the occult detective legacy.
To be clear, David Lowell belongs to that gang of occult detectives who use their otherworldly abilities to solve crimes that are very much of the Earth. Lowell is a modern Mr. Burton from Seeley Regester’s The Dead Letter (1866), a detective who leans on his daughter’s clairvoyant trances and his own intuitive awareness to solve cases, or L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s Diana Marburg (1902), who uses palm-reading to identify criminals. Another way to think of Lowell is as a much less undead Liv Moore from TV’s I Zombie, whose sleuthing involves unveiling clues by eating the brains of dead witnesses and reliving their experiences. I call such characters “clairvoyant-detectives,” knowing it’s an imprecise term. While most are indeed outright clairvoyant, these detectives use a variety of methods to glean knowledge that most others cannot.
Despite their various occult techniques of crime-solving, Mr. Burton, Diana Marburg, and Liv Moore still depend a lot on mundane footwork and rationale to solve their cases. Likewise, astrology is just one of David Lowell’s tools, and Lewis does very well at not making the star-charting feel like a cheat. In fact, Lowell could probably do just fine without astrology, since he’s something of a Superman — or, more correctly, a Bruce Wayne. He’s a wealthy, sophisticated New Yorker. He has a chauffeur and some very cool gizmos in his car that prove to be handy when interrogating a hostile witness. He employs a man who is a genius at computer hacking and has talents as a psychic (the latter ability only quickly mentioned. Perhaps it plays a greater role later the series of novels.) Lowell even has a fourth-degree black belt in aikido. Despite all these advantages, the character must still work hard to solve the case, his kryptonite being his formidable adversary as well as his own advancing age.
The crime he confronts is a complex one, too. It’s nicely constructed and solved. Unfortunately, that tendency to rely on sweeping generations that goes with astrology also mars the outcome of the crime. At the risk of giving away too much, let me say that, in Murder in the 11th House, rich Democrats are good while rich Republicans are bad. In fact, party affiliation is spoken of so regularly by the characters, the novel takes on an unusually didactic feel for a work written after the rise of Realism in the late 1800s. An authorial disdain for state lotteries is also far from discreetly presented.
I suppose one might argue that it’s better to apply negative stereotyping to privileged Republicans than to, say, some marginalized ethnic or racial group. But there’s an odd thing about Lewis’s otherwise impressively drawn New York, namely, its surnames. Lowell, Jefferson, Colbert, Winston, Roland, Milford, Osgood, Bowman, and Rogers are conspicuously lacking in ethnic diversity for the cosmopolitan Big Apple. I think about the names in my Help for the Haunted: Van Slyke, Prášilová, Gans, Bergson, Haase, Wou, Adrastos, and Bartowski. Of course, in my book, I’m hoping to capture something of the melting pot in the early 1900s — and, sure, I do have some characters whose ancestry is British. My point is that, while reading Lewis’s novel, I felt like I was in New York in terms of its buildings but not in terms of its population.
By my count, there are two more novels in Lewis’s Starlight Detective Agency Mystery series. I haven’t read them, so I don’t know if the socio-political soap-boxing continues. I don’t know if a greater ethnic range of Americans cross David Lowell’s path. I also don’t know why the protagonist owns two turtles and wears a lot of turtlenecks. All I know is that Murder in the 11th House offers a well-narrated mystery featuring an enjoyable detective who comes with dashes of superhero pizzazz and an engaging crew of crime-solving cohorts.