What If Dr. Watson Could Read Minds? B.J. Farjeon’s Devlin the Barber

Unearthing the UnearthlyIt seems easy to dislike clairvoyant detectives — at least, when the crimes they investigate are entirely earthbound. These detectives are sometimes deemed cheats when looked at with traditional mystery fiction in mind. It’s as if the writer couldn’t figure out how the detective would actually unravel the case and, so, resorted to using a clairvoyant to glean key information.

Clairvoyant detectives such as Seeley Regester’s Mr. Burton or L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s Diana Marburg, who rely on powers of divination to solve earthly crimes, are probably not what most occult detective fans seek, either. They tend to like it when the culprit or the case involves the supernatural, and if the detective uses supernatural means to solve the mystery, well, that’s okay. (But it’s still pretty cool when they have to rely more on their own human wits to win the day. Or, should I say, to win the night?)

Nonetheless, when occult detection is seen as a cross-genre of traditional mystery fiction and supernatural fiction, a detective who solves “natural” crimes with the aid of supernatural powers is a more comfortable fit.

Now, what happens when the clairvoyant character is more of a mystery than the traditional whodunit storyline?

devlinThis is the premise of B.L. Farjeon’s Devlin the Barber (1888). The title character, as his name suggests, has a devilishness about him. Indeed, his landlady is convinced this demon barber is luring her husband toward ruination. The unnamed narrator, though, sees Devlin — and especially his ability to read the minds of those whose hair he cuts — differently. When the mystery of Devlin intersects with a murder mystery this narrator has been hired to investigate, the prospect of working with an assistant who can read minds becomes, well, too tempting to resist.

Herein lies the beauty of Devlin the Barber as well as the twist that makes this novel something other than a murder mystery with a contrived, clairvoyant cheat. Is this a Faustian story of an amateur detective tempted into using sinister if not sinful, supernatural means to solve his case? He is recently unemployed, after all, and he has been offered a lot of money to solve the murder. In this regard, Farjeon’s contribution to the tradition of what I’ve termed the clairvoyant-detective is particularly inventive in how it crosses the detective and the supernatural genres.

Unfortunately, I found the novel’s pacing to be a problem. The landlady’s testimony of her dealings with Devlin takes up chapter after chapter after chapter . . . delaying the heart of the story, which is the relationship between the narrator/detective and Devlin. Once the detective forms a pact with Devlin, though, things pick up. The murder mystery is fairly easily solved and resolved, and it’s a touch goofy, too. The Devlin mystery nicely distracts, though — and it lingers. . . .

Farjeon’s anonymous narrator now stands at the ready among the nearly 90 entries on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives.

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