“I Felt that I Might at Last Solve the Mystery”: Ellen Glasgow’s Margaret Randolph

Ellen Glasgow’s short story “The Shadowy Third” (1916) features a nurse named Margaret Randolph. While caring for a woman diagnosed as having hallucinations that her dead daughter, Dorothea, still roams the house, Randolph sees the enigmatic girl, too. And yet none of the other medical staff involved in the case can. A medical mystery transforms into a supernatural one, and like a good detective, Randolph begins “seeking a gleam of light in the midst of obscurity.” In fact, several signs throughout the work suggest that, in the end, Randolph might be what I call a novice-detective on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. Unfortunately, she never quite arrives there.

Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945)
Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945)

The nurse tells her own story, which raises the issue of reliability. Glasgow gives us no concrete reason to suspect that Randolph is as mad as her patient, though. Yes, early in the story, the character is accused of exhibiting the sympathy and imagination of a young nurse, and her crush on Dr. Maradick implies she might be easily swept away by romantic notions. Nonetheless, it would take a complex bit of Freudian denial to explain why her visions turn her against that dreamy doctor over the course of the story.

Instead of being clued in to doubt the tale we’re being told, readers are given reason to trust that Randolph really is experiencing something supernatural. She might be sharing the patient’s hallucination via clairvoyance, for instance, and the possibility of second sight is suggested a few times. For instance, there’s an aged butler who has claimed to see the dead daughter, too, and while he’s given almost no credence, he’s also rumored to have psychic abilities. Trying to explain her ability to see what the patient sees when most others cannot, Randolph wonders if “the power of sympathy enabled me to penetrate the web of material fact and see the spiritual form of the child.” Is her sympathy so strong that she can perceive her patient’s delusions?

Let’s consider the fact that, when Randolph first sees the girl, the ghostly figure is “dressed in Scotch plaid.” At this point, though, the nurse has no idea that the child had died two months earlier. It’s only after Randolph is told about that death that she learns how Dorothea made a lovely picture, “skipping along in her dress of Scotch plaid. . . .” How could she have known about the Scotch plaid? Despite such questions, by the end, Glasgow leads readers to conclude that Randolph’s gift of sympathy allows her to be en rapport with spirits of the dead rather than the troubled minds of the living. Rather than psychically sharing a hallucination, Randolph is probably a ghost-seer in the tradition of, say, Almer Vance or Sheila Crerar.

So here’s what makes Randolph appear like she might qualify for my list of occult detectives. First, she’s a nurse, which would make her a nice compliment to the many doctor-detectives on that list. Second, she investigates a supernatural mystery, taking advantage of her own psychic powers as some other occult detectives do. Third, Randolph traces the ghostly manifestation to a hidden crime, and numerous occult detective stories employ this relationship between natural and criminal laws. Finally, the character seems to accept the reality of the supernatural, which is a definitive sign of a novice-detective in this cross-genre.

However, that ending showing that Randolph is a ghost-seer, not a psychic sharer of hallucinations, also prevents me from dubbing her an occult detective. In a twist, justice is served and the mystery is solved by someone other than the nurse. Margaret Randolph isn’t the agent of resolution. Instead, she’s left as more the chronicler of the mystery — the Watson, so to speak, instead of the Holmes.

It’s too bad. I would’ve liked adding an author of Glasgow’s reputation to my list. It would’ve been nice to include another female detective character, too, since there are so few. Nonetheless, “The Shadowy Third” is a very interesting story, one likely to appeal to fans of early occult detection.

Reopening the Marvellous Boxes: “Frozen Words Thawed”

“Frozen Words Thawed” just might be my favorite story in the Marvellous Boxes series. It certainly takes advantage of being an audio drama in its use of shifting voices to mark shifting eras. And as audio or stage drama ought, I think, it puts a bit of pressure on the audience to figure out exactly what’s going on.

For instance, when Conor Beatty (a character I invented for “Thinking in Ternary”) begins to read the long-unread words of Mark Twain, Ellen Terry, and Sigmund Freud, we hear the voices of those historical figures instead of Conor’s. One isn’t to assume that the young professor is doing remarkable impersonations of those people. Rather, like Flannery in that frozen cave, the listener is hearing old words being spoken again.

I hope that comes across.

Edison's Marvelous BoxAnother aspect of this play that I like is its lack of fantasy. No returning dead, no messages from the future or from outer space, no apocalypse. The marvelous box here is an Edison wax cylinder recorder, a contraption very much of the real world. Of course, the idea that spoken words could remain frozen for millennia is a bit far-fetched — but that’s the point. This play is much more like listening to a tall tale than one that asks us to suspend our disbelief. Here, we’re supposed to simply enjoy the fib.

I hope that you do.

A final word. After this play was originally posted, I was contacted by a few people who said they really, really wanted the Flannery Recording to be as historically authentic as Twain, Terry, and Freud.

But isn’t it?

In the Shadow of Rathbone: Michael Caine in Without a Clue

holmes-basil-rathboneWhen American playwright/actor William Gillette sought permission to have Sherlock Holmes get married at the end of a play he was writing, apparently Arthur Conan Doyle responded: “You may marry him or murder him or do whatever you like with him.” This is sometimes cited as a sign of Doyle’s ambivalence, if not scorn, towards his most popular creation.

Now, imagine that Dr. John Watson was the real genius at crime-solving. Imagine that he invented a fictional character named Sherlock  Holmes for a series of mysteries penned for The Strand Magazine. Imagine pressure to prove that Holmes is a real person growing so strong that Watson hires a bumbling, boozing actor to play the role of the great detective. And imagine that decision coming to haunt and completely frustrate poor Watson, much as Doyle became haunted and frustrated by his own Sherlock Holmes.

That’s the comic premise of Without a Clue (1988), directed by Thom Eberhart and written by Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther. The premise works, too, not just to get laughs but also to turn an otherwise fairly light comedy into something more clever and witty.

Straddling Sherlock’s Shadow

Michael Caine is given the challenge of playing Reginald Kincaid, an actor of acutely limited intelligence who must impersonate the brilliant Sherlock Holmes in public. In a sense, Caine has to be half in and half out of the shadow of Basil Rathbone — and he has to borrow a bit from Nigel Bruce’s Watson-as-doofus routine. Caine juggles it all quite well, even bringing a few hints of Stan Laurel to this indefatigable-dolt character.

Michael Caine as Holmes SortaI do wish, though, that Kincaid had been given a slightly richer background, perhaps another scene or two revealing more about his life on the stage and his fall from it. Is alcohol to blame? Did he simply lack talent? Yes, Kincaid is intended to be a comic character, almost a caricature. But he also shares top billing with Watson. Coaxing the audience to feel some sympathy for such a focal character can spice the funny moments with a pinch of pity, much as Charlie Chaplin did with his little tramp.

Watching Watson

Ben Kingsley as WatsonThe richer character is Watson. He’s a man caught between his own genius for solving crimes and his dumb mistake of hiring Kincaid to bolster the lie that his Holmes character is real. Ben Kingsley’s remarkable range shows itself here. The actor who played a determinedly peaceful man in Gandhi (1982) and a relentlessly horrible man in Sexy Beast (2000) shows off that he’s just as adept at comedy. In fact, Kingsley gets many laughs simply by underplaying reactions to Caine’s much broader performance.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

It’s clear that writers Murphy and Strawther knew that the secret to Holmes and Watson is their enduring friendship. Their running gag, after all, is that this Holmes and Watson can barely stand one another. (Allan Cubitt attempted to seriously explore a mostly antagonistic “friendship” between the famous duo in his scripts for The Hound of the Baskervilles [2002] and Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking [2004]. Without a Clue offers good evidence that such things should be reserved for comedy.)

As I suggest at the start of this review, the film also shows an understanding of the coolness Doyle felt toward Holmes. It’s fairly easy to assume that Dr. Watson was Dr. Doyle’s fictional projection of himself, if only in terms of them both being physicians and scribes of popular adventures. Playing with this relationship is perhaps the most covertly clever aspect of the film. For instance, much as Doyle killed off Holmes in “The Final Problem” (before resurrecting the character to appease his public and his publisher), this film’s Watson proposes to end the Holmes series by starting a new one spotlighting “The Crime Doctor,” a.k.a. himself. This occurs during a meeting with the editor at The Strand, who is named Norman Greenhough, a tip-of-the-bowler to Herbert Greenhough Smith, the real editor at The Strand when the Holmes stories first appeared.

Beyond that, the crime involving stolen treasury plates and counterfeiting is little more than a vehicle to keep Watson and Kincaid working together. There is a canonical villain at work behind this, and Holmes fans might have enjoyed a few more winks at other famous cases — or at even Doyle’s real life. Still, for the sake of the film’s widespread appeal, it made good sense to strictly ration such inside jokes.

And that might be one of this film’s most attractive features. Along with its genuinely funny situations and lines, its admirable performances by Caine and Kingsley, and its smart dramatization of Doyle’s personal relationship with Holmes, there’s the popular appeal of Without a Clue. A Holmes fan can watch it with newbies as a way to convert them to the congregation — to invite them to Baker Street and make them irregular, so to speak.

For a list of — and links to — my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.

The Next FREE Ghostly Mystery Is Available!

In 1901, Vera Van Slyke and her assistant, Lucille Parsell, accepted an invitation to speak before the Nunda Township Psychical Society. Vera was to speak about her newly released book, Spirits Shouldn’t Sneeze: A Decade of Defrauding Mediums. However, the subject of phony psychics turned quickly to the possibility of  very real ghosts haunting a nearby house. The strange architecture of this house, called Stickney House, made it the focus of many local stories.

The house is real. It still stands in what is now called Bull Valley, Illinois. The stories explaining its rounded corners persist to this day.

Vera never found a satisfactory explanation for the rounded corners. However, after finding the house truly was haunted, the next mystery Vera faced was how to coax the ghost — or ghosts — lurking there to move on.

“Dark and Dirty Corners” is now available for download in .pdf, .epub., or .mobi (Kindle) formats on the Complimentary Haunting page of my Vera Van Slyke ~ Ghostly Mysteries site. This is just one of the thirteen ghostly mysteries recounted in Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Mysteries (1899-1909), available at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

“The Strangest Case I Ever Touched”: Sax Rohmer’s Jack Addison

Arthur Henry Ward, a.k.a. Sax Rohmer (1883-1959)
Arthur Henry Ward, a.k.a. Sax Rohmer (1883-1959)

Sax Rohmer is probably best remembered as the creator of the Fu Manchu series. In 1920, his novel The Green Eyes of Bast and his novella “The Haunting of Low Fennel” were published, and both spotlight a character named Addison. If this is not exactly one and the same character, it’s pretty clear that Rohmer was at least toying with the idea of creating yet another series character, one something like his occult detective, Moris Klaw. (Klaw is the title character of The Dream Detective, also published in 1920.)

While Klaw relies on an occult method of solving crimes — the dream detective gleans psychic residue left by criminals by sleeping at crime scenes — Addison is a self-proclaimed debunker of cases alleged to involve the occult. In Green Eyes, he explains that he’s a free-lance reporter, one with money enough to be picky about what he writes and with time enough to indulge his “inherent weakness for obscure studies.” A few pages later, he adds, “Criminology was one of my hobbies, and in several instances I had traced cases of alleged haunting and other supposedly supernatural happenings to a criminal source. . . .” “Low Fennel” makes no mention of his reporting — nor of his first name, Jack. However, “Mr. Addison” again serves as narrator and says that he has “investigated several cases of haunting” that were traced to physical, often geological sources. In one story, he investigates crimes disguised as supernatural; in the other, he investigates the science beneath supernatural-seeming occurrences. So is this the same Addison?

If we proceed on the idea that it is the same character, it should be noted that Addison sums up the “Low Fennel” case “in my study in London,” and in Green Eyes, he explains that he has left London for an “odd little backwater where my only link with Fleet Street, with the land of theaters and clubs and noise and glitter, was the telephone.” Though the suburban setting is important to the plot of the novel, we still might use this clue to put the novella first chronologically. To be honest, though, they can be read in either order.


One thing that certainly ties the two works together is they both ultimately debunk what appears to supernatural activity. Yes, I’ve just spoiled the endings, but it’s at least as entertaining to see how Rohmer misdirects his readers as it is to be misdirected. In “Low Fennel,” we’re given all the signs of ghostly activity: a sinister history attached to the property, a series of reports describing a devilish entity, a panicked dog, even a mysterious strangling! Still, a strange, psychotropic gas that rises from the ground during hot weather becomes the culprit. (A dangerous gas also figures into the the novel, reminding us how scary such things were to readers after the gas warfare of the Great War.)  Green Eyes first tantalizes readers with a mysterious woman who seems to possess feline eyes and agility! However, there, the author winds up pinning the mysterious events on weird science, not occult phenomenon. In fact, a prime suspect admits that he had become “a second Frankenstein,” and Addison concludes that this character, “a victim of one of his own devilish inventions, was no more than a brilliant madman.” Even so, by the last chapter, Addison agrees that the motives of this madman as well as his devilish invention are better traced to insanity than to science run amok.Cat_with_green_eyes2

In terms of telling a tale that leads readers to believe the supernatural is involved — and then providing a perfectly reasonable, perfectly natural explanation — both tales stretch credulity very, very thinly. It’s Sax Rohmer, after all. Green Eyes is downright disappointing when it comes to Addison solving the mystery. Because he doesn’t. In fact, he plays second fiddle to a Scotland Yard official named Inspector Gatton throughout the novel. I was reminded Watson in Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) in that Addison narrates his own unspectacular efforts to unravel the puzzle while Gatton is offstage doing most of the useful fact finding. Despite their best efforts, the crime is solved for them instead of by them, albeit in a tentative manner. In the end, the professional and the amateur detective aren’t entirely sure exactly what happened.

“Low Fennel” puts Addison much more in charge of solving the case, but given the gaseous resolution noted above . . . well, I would’ve preferred confirmation of the supernatural scenario that’s sketched earlier.

Jack Addison, in the end, does not qualify for my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. Though his cases do blend conventions of mystery fiction with those of supernatural fiction, ultimately, this detective is not compelled to accept the reality of the occult. Instead, he discovers himself in a world invaded by cryptic science. Addison, then, follows the tradition of Mr. Utterson, the lawyer who serves as detective in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).

Both of Addison’s cases make for fairly mediocre reading, too. Perhaps he becomes more interesting when read in light of Rohmer intentionally skirting the occult detective tradition. By 1920, it seems, this tradition had been well enough established that authors were varying, challenging, and teasingly sidestepping it.