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.
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.