Gentle readers, you are witnessing peak blog efficiency: not only am I about to contribute another post to this month’s Tuesday Night Bloggers topic of Crime in Costume, I’m also going to contribute to the Crimes of the Century over at Past Offences which is going all 1907 this month, and I’m going to work in yet another plug for Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums (due out later this month, most likely). If I can work out a way to cross another item of my Vintage Bingo Scavenger Hunt, too, I’ll probably have to retire out of sheer awesomeness.
And how am I going to do all this at once? One word: ghosts.
YOBoLRC contains two stories from 1907 — ‘Plague of Ghosts’ by Rafael Sabatini and ‘The Mystery of the Flaming Phantom’ by Jacques Futrelle — both of which, by sheer coincidence, happen to concern hauntings and/or the appearance of vengeful and ghostly figures threatening presumably some sort of nasty comeuppance if those present don’t get orf my laaaaand. I trust that it spoils nothing to reveal that such otherworldly manifestations in detective fiction are always the work of some waggish cad, not always necessarily predisposed to some odious means or intent, but always at the end unmasked by the phlegmatic common sense of our detective.
The distinction must be made here between these sorts of stories and others that utilise the “tell, don’t show” aspect of hauntings — three examples that spring most readily to mind are The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940) by John Dickson Carr, Too Many Ghosts (1959) by Paul Gallico, and Mr. Splitfoot (1968) by Helen McCloy — wherein mysterious happenings are attributed to a ghostly presence without the ghosts or spirits themselves ever actually being seen by anyone. Things go bump in the night, chandeliers swing under sinister manipulation, clocks start and stop at random, guns shoot people without an earthly hand upon them, a freezing cold hand tries to smother someone in their bed, a demon is invoked to, er, tap on the walls or something…but never at any point is the leering face of a sinister creature from beyond glimpsed, never can the cause of this bevy of ghostly happenings be drawn or the reader troubled with a physical description.
Compare this to the floating manifestation that appears at the séance in Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot, or the sylvan horror conjured up with such adroitness of atmosphere in The Border Line (1937) by Walter S. Masterman and it’s clear where the idea of costume comes in, as these need to stand up to at least a vague scrutiny by some credulous witnesses in order to get the rumours rolling…even if, with the benefit of sixty or seventy years’ perspective, these descriptions sometimes need to be taken with a pinch of salt (or Pepper).
There are benefits both ways round, of course: a nebulous, unseen threat does far more to work on the psychology without the need for actual evidence — in many ways making the unseen ghost very much the nemesis of our Scions of the Rational — and the physical realisation of such a concept may lessen its impact. Witness how the hound of the Baskervilles becomes immediately less of a threat once Watson is able to shoot the thing; I mean, sure, it’s still a bloodthirsty dog that appears to be murdering people out on the moor but, as a philosopher once said, “If it bleeds, we can kill it”. The historical nature of most detective fiction means these stories positively bristle with ex-soldiers, the groundsmen of wealthy squires, and your common-or-garden policemen who are often armed to the teeth and happy to go in shooting. Safer, then, for the criminal not to get in the way when lead is likely to be flying.
But the physical appearance of a ghost goes a long way to giving the mind something to fixate on, and both ‘Plague of Ghosts’ and ‘The Mystery of the Flaming Phantom’ have these spirits in front of a gun and fired upon without any seeming effect (in one case, the ghost catches the bullets and flings them back at its would-be assailant…who ya gonna call now, hm?). This also adds the requirement of such eventualities being explained away rationally, to go with the composition of the ghostly apparition itself, and thus the complexity and requirements of such stories are ramped up accordingly. It must be said that one of these two stories is a little guilty in its explanation of going “and well, that other thing was clearly achieved quite easily” when in truth this explains absolutely bloody nothing about the effect under discussion. So, yeah, the difficulties of such a story are there for all to see.
And then of course there’s not simply the mystery of the ghost itself — even the Three Investigators wouldn’t stop there — but the additional element of the reason for the ghost. Conventionally (and, with their staring skulls and ominous glowing these ghosts are nothing if not conventional) ghosts = scary, and so typically the presence of ghosts usually results from the need to scare someone away. Now there’s something more than a little Scooby Doo-ish about this, because usually people are drawn to the scene of a haunting precisely because of the haunting, and so the ingenuity displayed by the criminals in devising these illusions is usually the current that turns everything awry.
But that, of course, is to lose sight of the intent of these stories — in detective fiction we’re all about the slaying of ghosts, both figurative and literal (well, quasi-literal). In spite of their flaws, these two stories demonstrate the reach of detective fiction, how it has the freedom to move beyond the conventional crime-and-solution and into more speculative ground and still come back with the answers. It is this richness in range which keeps bringing us back, and has been for well over a century now, and I’m greatly looking forward to sharing these tales with you all…watch this space!