For quite a while, I’ve known about “Mr. Perseus,” a nickname given to an otherwise anonymous occult detective Rudyard Kipling’s 1909 short story “The House Surgeon.” I only recent learned about another of Kipling’s characters who comes close enough to my definition of an occult detective to join my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. This new character is named Strickland, and Kipling gave him an interesting history in a series of short stories.
Let me begin with “Mr. Perseus.” Kipling’s main character in this story is not especially well-versed in supernatural investigation. So far as readers can tell, he’s not a crime investigator, either. While many occult detectives are medical doctors, this fellow is only mistaken for one. Perhaps Kipling was having a bit of fun with the tradition.
However, I’m convinced this is a legitimate occult detective story. When given the task of figuring out why a house casts a cloud of despair over people who stay in it, Kipling’s protagonist takes on the role quite seriously! (At least, he does after he’s felt swallowed by the sudden gloom of the place himself.) And he approaches the mystery very much in terms of detective work. Narrating his own adventure, he says:
I am less calculated to make a Sherlock Holmes than any man I know, for I lack both method and patience, yet the idea of following up the trouble [of the haunted house] to its source fascinated me.
Later, he almost apologizes for detailing an interrogation “because I am so proud of my first attempt at detective work.” This, then, is a novice occult detective — but an occult detective nonetheless, and his role is reinforced by being twice referred to as “Mr. Perseus” by the homeowner’s Greek wife, alluding to the monster-hunter of ancient myth.
In the end, our man succeeds at exorcising “the dumb Thing that filled the house with its desire to speak.” The method of exorcism, though, is revealing. Since the manifestation involves psychological depression, it’s fitting that the “cure” for the haunting be a kind of intervention. In fact, the problem is as much the house’s former inhabitants, who are still living, as the ghost.
Strickland, Kipling’s other occult detective, was first introduced to readers as a police officer in a tale called “Miss Youghal’s Sais” (1887). It’s basically a love story, though, in which Strickland finds a way to woo and win Miss Youghal. No supernatural stuff here. He next appeared in another non-occult story, “The Bronkhorst Divorce Case” (1888). It’s in the next two Strickland stories where the character appears as a detective who grapples with a supernatural reality: “The Mark of the Beast” (1890) and “The Return of Imray” (1891). Curiously, Kipling places the two occult stories earlier in Strickland’s life, before he ever met Miss Youghal. (The website of the Kipling Society suggests there are additional Strickland stories, but I believe only the two noted above involve the supernatural. One might also toss “By Word of Mouth” (1887) into this fictional universe, since it’s the story of Dr. Dumoise’s otherworldly death that’s mentioned in “The Mark of the Beast.”)
Even though Strickland is a police officer, I think “Mr. Perseus” is the more traditional detective — at least, in terms of how they’re presented in these tales. In “The Mark of the Beast” and “The Return of Imray,” the case and the solution seem to more or less fall into Strickland’s lap. They’re great stories — they’re just not especially great detective stories. In a sense, the amateur status of “Mr. Perseus” heightens the challenge of his investigating and ultimately solving the case. That said, I suspect many readers will find “The Mark of the Beast” the most gripping in terms of horror.
All the stories are worth a look, though, if only because of the fame of the author. When I first learned that Kipling had dabbled in the occult detective cross-genre with one story, I was surprised. I’m now a bit astonished to learn that he was drawn to create such fiction repeatedly.
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