Enough to Unnerve the Most Hardened Investigator of the Unearthly: Henry S. Whitehead’s Gerald Canevin (and Lord Carruth)

Unearthing the UnearthlyA couple of my colleagues in detecting occult detectives suggested I take a look at Henry S. Whitehead’s Gerald Canevin. The character appears in fifteen tales. They’re very well-told stories with a fine balance of setting, character, and creepiness. Though from the U.S., Canevin is mostly found in a Caribbean milieu of Voodoo practices and local folklore, reflecting Whitehead’s own years spent on Santa Cruz. However, without much explanation, the character also springs up in England and in New England.

For the most part, Canevin is not an occult detective per se. Though he does have a strong interest in studying the supernatural, weird things just seem to pop up around him. And he chronicles them. In fact, in “The Projection of Armand Dubois” (1926), “The People of Pan” (1929), and “Passing of a God” (1931), Canevin has no real role other than narrator. I’m tempted to say he’s less an occult detective and more an occult reporter — or even an occult neighbor, since he so often unintentionally finds himself in the company of the haunted.

henry-s-whitehead
Henry S. Whitehead (1882-1932)

Still, a few of the Canevin adventures fit very neatly into the occult detective cross-genre. “The Chadbourne Episode” (1933) is probably the best example of this. There, Canevin is summoned to solve a case that he’s told is “something in your line, so to speak,” meaning it’s beyond the realm of nature and science. He becomes very much a monster hunter. Usually, though, he’s less active. He happens upon a case and becomes the one who solves the occult mystery and restores order. “The Black Beast” (1931) and “Mrs. Lorriquer” (1932) strike me as good examples of Canevin learning of a neighbor’s creepy troubles, say, over cards and then stepping up to exorcise the cause of those troubles.

“Black Tancède” (1929) illustrates how Canevin can be an “accidental” occult detective. Relatives come to visit him in the Caribbean, staying in Room 4 of the Grand Hotel. Those relatives have some odd experiences there — nothing much, mind you — and Canevin thinks little of it. This segues into backstory about a criminal named Black Tancède, who cursed those who punished him. Not surprisingly, there’s a link to Room 4. As fictional fate would have it, Canevin himself winds up staying in that very room, and he experiences a more definite manifestation there than his relatives did earlier. “If only this were a romance,” he says, “I should proceed to tell how thereafter I had applied, in the traditional method for the laying of this kind of ghost. . . . But this is not a romance, and I am not attempting to make ‘quite a tale’ of those sober facts.” Rather than consulting ancient tomes or calling upon the powers of antediluvian demi-gods, our passive and pragmatic hero makes short work of the demon and figuratively claps his palms clean.

Clearly, Whitehead’s approach to supernatural fiction is to lean heavily on realism and to avoid the elaborate clichés.

In fact, a glimmer of evidence that Whitehead is deliberately differentiating Canevin from more flamboyant occult detectives appears in an allusion to William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, the Ghost Finder (1913), one of the classics of occult detection. Importantly, this story teams Canevin with a character named James Rand, Earl of Carruth — or simply Lord Carruth — a potential rival for the great Carnacki. While in England, Canevin meets the British nobleman, and the two discuss their shared interest in the “magical beliefs and occult practices among native peoples.” The American later learns that Lord Carruth is “the world’s first authority” on that subject. Together, the two investigate a series of thefts in “The Shut Room” (1930) and a case of blackmail in “The Napier Limousine” (1933), both criminal investigations mixing with the supernatural. Still, it’s very clear that Carruth is the Holmes and Canevin is the Watson.  Sure, the latter knows quite a bit about spooky things, but Carruth remains the super-detective.

This leaves Canevin as a much more down-to-earth investigator of the Unearthly. It also leaves us with not one but two occult detectives. Both Canevin and Lord Carruth are now listed separately on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. If you’d like to read all of the Canevin stories and many, many more by Whitehead, I strongly recommend Voodoo Tales: The Ghost Stories of Henry S. Whitehead, published by Wordsworth Editions.

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