“Crime and mystery have always held my interest closely; and I have studied the subject most carefully from the scientific, the analytic, the human, and every other point of view.”
So says Lincoln Osgood, protagonist and chief narrator in Gerald Biss‘s novel The Door of the Unreal (1919). Osgood is a man of leisure with a love of travel and, especially, of England. It’s in that country where his previous experiences in rural Eastern Europe and Russia help him solve a mystery stumping the finest detectives of Scotland Yard. As in the novel Dracula (1897), a clear influence on The Door of the Unreal, modern-day Brits are simply too, too modern-day to recognize threats easily identified by those from the regions of the Continent mislabeled as “backward.”
Curiously, though, Osgood isn’t from the Continent as is Abraham Van Helsing, from whom he inherited a stalwart sense of mission and the leadership skills needed to succeed. No, Osgood is American! This makes him an interesting choice to serve as the novel’s Sherlock Holmes. And lest readers fail to see him as such, Biss makes it very clear. When Osgood arrives in the town where motorists are inexplicably disappearing, he “immediately became the cynosure of all eyes — a figure of mystery, the latest importation from Scotland Yard, an unofficial Sherlock Holmes or what not!”
And some pages later, it’s implied that Osgood is “some Sherlock Holmes . . . sent from Heaven.” Not a subtle writer, this Gerald Biss.
Yet Osgood is far more open to possibilities than grumpy, ol’ Sherlock. Osgood accepts the fact that some culprits are supernatural — and he knows just what to do when they are! He is very much an occult detective, in other words, and he’s on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives.
That said, let me add that readers should approach The Door of the Unreal with the right frame of mind. It’s historically important because this novel features one of the earliest appearances in modern fiction of a particular kind of supernatural culprit. It won’t be hard to figure out what I mean here because of that lack of subtlety that marks Biss’s writing. One might say he foreshadows to a fault.
Of course, early in Dracula, readers know that the title character has more than a few unsavory habits. Nonetheless, this book ain’t Dracula. Instead of the chase across Europe in Bram Stoker’s famous novel, Biss employs an ambush to defeat the enemy. The novel’s pacing is fine at first. When we prepare for the ambush, though, there’s a lot of stiff-upper-lip, brandy-toasting male bonding afoot. Pages of it. Chapters of it. This is instead of the story speeding to a gallop and crashing into things gone terribly wrong and picking itself up and dusting itself off and getting back on the path and speeding to a gallop again.
In fact, when the ambush finally does occur, everything goes remarkably smoothly. That’s good for the characters but pretty disappointing for the reader.
The novel is also annoyingly Anglocentric and xenophobic. Even the American Osgood is decidedly Anglo-American. Again, keeping the historical context of post-war England in mind can help.
In the end, Osgood is nicely situated for more occult adventures, and it would have been nice to learn more about his background or about who exactly he is. Unfortunately, Biss never returned to the character. In fact, the author died only a few years after The Door of the Unreal was published. It’s too bad because, despite its shortcomings, this novel actually does have a lot of promise to it.