Settling on a Definition of Occult Detective Fiction, Part 2 (of 3)

Unearthing the Unearthly“Essentially, psychic detective fiction involves the investigation of reportedly supernatural events by a character, or characters, who endeavour to understand the nature of the disturbances and facilitate possible solutions.”

Sage Leslie-McCarthy

Sage Leslie-McCarthy’s dissertation on what she calls psychic detective fiction has been very helpful to my search for what I call occult detective characters. It’s there that I found Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Hardacre and Rudyard Kipling’s “Mr. Perseus.” However, as the passage above implies, she’s more focused on the investigation itself and not quite as much on specific characteristics of the investigators. While she counts Margaret Oliphant’s story “The Open Door” (1881) as part of the cross-genre, I don’t see its protagonist, Colonel Mortimer, as being enough like traditional detectives in fiction to qualify for my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. The Colonel’s motivation for investigating is to save his son’s life, so he lacks the objectivity of a traditional detective. In the end, his neighbor’s prior knowledge resolves the haunting, not the Colonel’s own gathering of evidence, interviewing of witnesses, or logical reasoning.

Kicking out the Colonel got me wondering about those characters I had let pass. In Part 1 of these posts on defining occult detective fiction, I say that the working definition I’ve been using to compile my Bibliography was something like this: a work that puts a character whose investigative methods parallel those of tradition fictional detectives into a setting where some supernatural phenomenon is part of the reality. Fine, fine — but what did I mean by “methods paralleling traditional fictional detectives”? I’ve now settled on six characteristics:

1) analyzes physical evidence,
2) gathers information from witnesses and/or historical records,
3) surveils suspects,
4) approaches the case with some objectivity,
5) applies logical reasoning, and
6) plays a central role in solving the mystery.

An occult detective doesn’t need to exhibit all of these, but 1, 2, or 3 show up a lot, and 4, 5, and 6 are especially important.

Now, some occult detective fiction fans might want to add: 7) investigates for a living. This would fit the professional/occupational denotations in the dictionary definition of “detective.” As I say in Part 1, though, we have to be a bit lenient with fictional detectives because of the many characters who “make it their business” to solve mysteries but don’t get paid for it.

Leslie-McCarthy seems to agree. Discussing detective characters in general, she says:

In the early decades of the twentieth-century we see a movement away from the gifted amateurs like Dupin and Holmes, towards the more ‘professional’ detectives, that is, those for whom solving crimes is more than a hobby. Although at first glance a priest such as Father Brown may not seem the embodiment of a professional ‘detective’ in the same sense that policemen or a private detectives [sic] for hire can be understood as professionals, his professionalism lies not in his original calling but in the way he goes about his detective work.

father-brownThere’s a similar shift toward professionalism with occult detectives, and Leslie-McCarthy ends her study by looking at characters who might strike some as being the very model of occult detectives: Flaxman Low, Thomas Carnacki, Norton Vyse, John Silence, and Dr. Taverner.

But, of course, it’s a mistake to dismiss earlier detective characters for fitting their own generation instead of a generation or two later. Drs. Hesselius and Van Helsing, even Dirk Ericson aren’t prototypes of occult detectives because they aren’t professional occult detectives. Just as the amateur Miss Marple and the professional Sam Spade are both detectives, Harry Escott and Harry Dresden are both occult detectives.

Interestingly, at least one occult detective from long after the shift toward professionals bares a distinctive family likeness to those first- and second-generation characters. Carl Kolchak, who appeared in the early 1970s, is in fundamental ways more like the earliest occult detectives than “pros” like Carnacki and John Silence. Kolchak is neither a professional detective nor does he have special training or experience in dealing with the supernatural. Despite his being “old-school,” Kolchak stands firm as a paragon of latter-day occult detectives.

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak

I’m more familiar with the two made-for-TV movies, The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973) than with the Kolchak: The Night Stalker TV series (1974-75), and so I’ll refer to those movies. Professionally speaking, Kolchak is a newspaper reporter, not a detective. In fact, he’s very much at odds with the official police in both movies. Nonetheless, his investigation of a series of murders — he relies a lot on gathering information from witnesses and historical records — leads him to a vampire in the first movie and an alchemist in the second. In that conventional policing won’t work with these monsters, Kolchak becomes a vigilante, a one-man judge and executioner. Even though this allows the official police to run him out of town in the end, viewers know he’s done the right thing by superseding the short-sighted official police. In other words, he’s a better cop than the cops.

In the first movie, Kochak has no prior experience with confronting the supernatural. He’s what I term a novice-detective on my Bibliography, and there’s a goodly number of those among the specialist-detectives there. Silence, Carnacki, and the others from the early 20th century are almost exclusively specialists in occult detection. Leslie-McCarthy explains this by pointing out that, in the early 1900s, this body of literature began to spotlight serial characters:

If an investigator were to re-appear in numerous stories, there had to be some reason for the supernatural to keep crossing his path. Consequently, in these stories, dealing with the paranormal became a profession rather than an unfortunate accident. What began to set the professionals apart from their amateur predecessors was primarily an issue of training and vocation. These psychic detectives were prepared by way of vigorous training, detailed study and extensive experience to deal with the forces with which they came in contact. Moreover, helping others solve their paranormal problems was their vocation.

Not so with Kolchak. In The Night Strangler, Kolchak refers to his experiences in the previous film, but he doesn’t really seem any better prepared to combat another supernatural foe. (However, he does seem far more open-minded about the supernatural intruding upon the natural world, a characteristic I’ll discuss more in Part 3.)

Carl Kochak, then, was neither a professional occult detective nor even an amateur specialist in the supernatural, and this makes it a bit easier to see how those many characters from the 1800s who similarly investigate supernatural phenomenon without very impressive credentials still qualify as occult detectives.

Furthermore, in a very essential way, the earliest occult detectives established something that reappears in Carnacki, John Silence, Carl Kolchak, and occult detectives whose stories are being introduced in the early 21st century. Each one of these characters comes to see — or, in the past, has come to see — that some mysteries extend beyond the natural world. In Part 3, I’ll discuss how this will let us define occult detective fiction and do so in a way that will differentiate these characters from other fictional detectives.


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