I had high hopes for Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903). Naturally, I wanted it to be a good novel, as one should expect from the author of Dracula (1897). But I also wanted it include an occult detective, a character who could stand proudly beside the earlier novel’s slayer of mighty vampires, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing!
Maybe I was hoping for too much. Maybe that’s why Jewel was such a crashing disappointment to me. Or it might be that it’s just a very slow, talky novel. Part of the problem is there are only three key settings: the Trelawny residence in London, an Egyptian tomb, and a Cornish estate. The book feels something like a stage play, and it’s probably no coincidence that Stoker was employed as a theater agent and manager. (He even wrote a stage version of Dracula.)
Still, the novel’s claustrophobic feel doesn’t mean that there’s no occult detective among its many characters. The narrator, Malcolm Ross, emits a few glimmers in that direction. Though he opens his story by admitting that he’s sweet on Margaret Trelawny, she becomes his client in Chapter One. You see, her father was found in a comatose state with claw marks on his arm. Was he attacked? Was murder intended? Dutiful Margaret calls Ross to act as barrister.
Why call a lawyer to a crime investigation? Well, in Edwardian England, it seems that part of a lawyer’s job was to assist with such investigations alongside police detectives. We read that the two officers assigned to the case, Superintendent Dolan and Sergeant Daw of Scotland Yard, respect Ross from having worked on previous cases with him. So perhaps he’s something of a Perry Mason in terms of being both a lawyer and a detective.
Later, Ross reveals a Holmesian talent to read a man’s history from subtle clues. Sizing up a character named Corbeck, he knows that the tanning of a man’s skin can divulge where he’s been, whether the tone is from the “Far East, the Tropic Season, and the Desert. . . . But all three are quite different; and an eye which has once known, can thenceforth easily distinguish them.” Later, Ross begins pondering the investigation in the manner of a proper detective: “Hitherto, we had been in such outer darkness regarding Mr. Trelawny, and the strange visitation which had fallen on him, that anything which afforded a clue, even of the faintest and most shadowy kind, had at the outset the enlightening satisfaction of certainty. Here were two lights in our puzzle.” However, these moments are few and far between. For the most part, Ross waits for information to come to him. He doesn’t go snooping, the way a good detective would.
In fact, once Stoker has Mr. Trelawny awaken from his mysterious trance, the novel’s focus shifts away from Ross collating information supplied by others. It moves to Mr. Trelawny’s experiment to reawaken a mummy, one Queen Tera, who long ago took steps to ensure that she would one day be resurrected. Sure enough, it’s Queen Tera who put the whammy on the Egyptologist and her mummified cat who clawed the signs of violence on him. So Ross doesn’t solve the mystery. The victim does. If Jewel qualifies as a mystery novel, it’s one with no triumphant detective, occult or otherwise.
Nonetheless, Ross gets another mystery to try to solve. Margaret Trelawny starts acting, well, not like herself. It’s not too hard to figure what’s going on here — she looks suspiciously similar to Queen Tera, after all — but Ross has to methodically work through all the possibilities before suspecting that Margaret is under the thrall of the mummy. “I ground my teeth with futile rage,” he narrates, “as the ideas of horrible possibilities swept through me.” The key word there is futile. Even though he’s learned that Queen Tera is responsible for the death of nine men in her quest to be resurrected, he decides not to make a big deal out of her inhabiting his beloved’s body now and again. He explains, “If it was that [Queen Tera] meant to begin life again as a humble individual, there was something so noble in the thought that it even warmed my heart to her and turned my wishes to her success.” In other words, a centuries-old Queen defying the Laws of Nature and murdering several folks in her pursuit of immortality should be forgiven for possessing another woman if she promises to play nice afterward. Oh dear.
Not only does Ross fail to protect the woman he’s been pining for since Page One, he becomes that woman’s love puppy. Margaret barks at him to turn up the light, and he does so. A few pages later, she asks, “Where are you going?” — and he comes right back. Of course, faithfully serving one’s lady fairest is a sign of gallantry, but as noted above, this knight in legal armor fails to protect her from suspected danger. Malcolm Ross, I fear, is a big wienie.
Perhaps, Stoker was hoping to accomplish something with this character’s Hamletesque passivity. If so, I wasn’t able to figure out what it was. I suspect that Stoker wasn’t sure himself where he was taking the story. The novel’s original ending is stunningly abrupt and sadly disappointing, so much so that the author wrote a new ending for an edition published in 1912. I confess I was so unenthusiastic about the earlier version that I haven’t bothered to read even the last few chapters of the later one. I found out what I was looking for: Malcolm Ross is decidedly not an occult detective.