First, let me nudge you toward a very informative and lively series that spotlights individual occult detectives. It’s Who Are . . . THE NIGHTMARE MEN?, written by Josh Reynolds. Reynolds has an impressive résumé of fiction and non-fiction publications in the dark fantasy realm. (To top it off, he says, “I love the Vera Van Slyke stories!”)
Now, as noted in an earlier post, I’m compiling a list of early occult detectives in fiction. How did I ever miss Arthur Machen’s Dyson? Well, he’s there now.
I also added Mary Fortune‘s Constable Lumsden, who appears in “The Phantom Hearse” (1889), my list’s first Australian entry. Lumsden is a bit like Alexander M. Reynolds’ the Chief in that he’s a novice at investigating crime intertwined with the supernatural. Lumsden’s attempt to thwart an illegal still operation leads to an encounter with a ghostly apparition. The encounter seems fairly tangential to the crime, but it’s made relevant in an interesting way.
“The Phantom Hearse” includes two key elements that I’ve been using to define an occult detective story: 1) an investigation of a violation of societal and/or physical laws (i.e., a probe into something criminal and/or something paranormal) and 2) the supernatural phenomenon is confirmed, not debunked. The first criterion seems obvious, since there has to be a detective, professional or amateur. The second criterion distinguishes occult detectives from, well, virtually all other detectives. This includes the many “debunking detectives” whose solutions prove there’s really nothing occult going on at all. Think: “And if it hadn’t’ve been for you meddling kids!” Perhaps L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s John Bell is an allowable exception here, since his specialty is debunking occurrences that appear at first to be supernatural.
Given its title, I had high hopes for a short story titled “The Ghost Detective” (1865), by Mark Lemon. This tale almost qualifies in that its setting–its fictional world–allows for supernatural intrusions. There’s a ghost! And there’s a crime. But there’s really no detecting of either one. Instead, the title ghost materializes and pretty much cocks his head at “the smoking gun.” Case solved. It’s not a bad story, but there’s much more ghost than detective here. The fact that the story was reprinted in Peter Haining’s collection Supernatural Sleuths: Stories of Occult Investigators (1986) shows that “occult detective” is a debatable term.
My criteria have helped me rule out additional works that two online sources describe as fitting the occult detective cross-genre. These works are the reverse of “The Ghost Detective”–detectives, yes, but no trace of the supernatural. Not even the green-stone god in Fergus Hume’s short story “The Green-Stone God and the Stockbroker” (1896) has any special power. It just becomes a clue when the criminal drops it. The title detective in Hume’s Hagar of the Pawn-Shop (1899) is also alleged to run into otherworldly phenomenon in “The Florentine Dante,” “Amber Beads,” and “The Casket.” But there’s not even a whiff of ectoplasm. It’s almost as if you can’t trust what you find on the Internet.
I would very much like to hear what others have to say about these works and about my two criteria regarding what constitutes an occult detective story. Recommendations for my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives are, of course, also very welcome. For now, though, I’m limiting things to 1910 and earlier.