“Strange and Inexplicable Facts Should Not Be Buried”: Agatha Christie’s Dr. Edward Carstairs

Unearthing the Unearthly“I have come across phenomena that is absolutely unexplainable from the ordinary materialistic standpoint. I am a believer in the occult.”

The statement above comes from a character created by none other than the great Agatha Chrisite. Introduced as “the late Dr. Edward Carstairs, M.D., the eminent psychologist,” this occult detective is firmly in the doctor-detective tradition that can be traced as far back as 1817 on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. Christie joins other well-recognized authors there: Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Willa Cather (yes, that Willa Cather!), and others.

“The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael,” presumably Dr. Carstairs’ only case, was published in a 1933 collection titled The Hound of Death and Other Stories. The book spotlights Christie’s tales of the supernatural. I’ve only dipped into some of the other stories, but it’s an intriguing collection, given that it’s something very different from an author renowned for murder mysteries written “from the ordinary materialistic standpoint.” For an excellent summary of the publication history of the book and its contents, visit Pretty Sinister Book’s review. I share the reviewer’s opinion that the tales were probably written early in Christie’s career. They sometimes call to mind other authors’ work, as if Christie were in the learn-through-imitation phase through which many creative writers pass.

young-agatha
Agatha Christie (1890-1976)

“The Strange Case” certainly reveals the strengths and weaknesses of a writer new at her craft. The setting is the charming country estate that figures predominantly in English “cozy” mysteries, and Sir Arthur Carmichael’s dialogue has that “I say, old mater!” slang that places us in the delightfully posh — and fantasy — world of 1920s England. Such fiction, I’m sure, helped in erasing the gloom of the previous decade’s Great War and even deadlier flu epidemic.

Unfortunately, like a lot of fiction from the era, this tale uses racism to identify the culprit early on. When Carstairs meets Sir Arthur’s evil step-mater, he recoils. “I cannot explain,” he says, “the instinctive wave of repulsion that swept over me as I took the proffered hand of this charming and stately woman who moved with the dark and languorous grace that recalled Settle’s surmise of Oriental blood.” (This moment reinforces the doctor’s fine psychic ability, which elsewhere lets him see a phantom that his medical colleague, Dr. Settle, only hears.)

Another wince-prompting moment occurs when Sir Arthur falls victim to a drowning that is pivotal yet painfully contrived. He’s said to have been “a magnificent swimmer” — but, of course, Sir Arthur hasn’t quite been himself of late. Even so, the scene reads as if Christie had to stretch and squirm to imagine a resolution to the otherwise interesting dilemma that drives the story. All it needs is a clue that the drowning might not have been accidental, but there isn’t one.

Regardless of these negatives, hunting down “The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael” is well worth the effort — if only to witness a future master of mystery-writing wetting her toes in occult detection.

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