Throughout this blog, we’ve looked at a wide spectrum of crime fiction. We’ve seen offshoots that relate to specific communities (e.g. Chinatown), offshoots dealing with animals, serial killers, and even cartoons and comic books. Today I’d like us to try something a little different. As good as the detectives we have discussed on these pages are, the very worst crimes they have had to deal with only represent the depths of human depravity. I say only, and what I mean by that is that some crimes are simply horrific, unacceptably so in some cases, but they only extend as far as our ability to comprehend them. What happens when crimes transcend human understanding? What happens when the natural becomes the supernatural? Like any offshoot of the crime fiction genre, the detective-versus-the-occult, or more simply exorcist noir, offshoot is as wide as it is deep. Today, I’d like to look at a few detectives who have to deal with things that go bump in the night. The list of examples I could have used is extensive, more so than perhaps you might imagine. If you’d like an exhaustive reference guide then I would suggest The Black Veil & Other Tales of Supernatural Sleuths (2009) edited by Mark Valentine. For now here are a few detectives who show this particular end of the genre at it’s best.
- Abraham Van Helsing – from Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker. Let’s begin with an absolute classic. One of the best, most enduring, most copied and most loved stories of all time, from any genre, not just this one. Dracula is the ultimate gothic horror novel and it introduced us to some of the most well-known characters in fiction, not least the Dutch professor and vampire hunter Van Helsing. The story was at the centre of the British Film Institute’s Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film season in 2013 which featured two of the legendary film adaptations of the story, Nosferatu (1922) and Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). The character of Van Helsing has been portrayed many times, some better than others. If you are going into battle against a vampire then you want him on your team. He remains box office gold.
- Thomas Carnacki – from Carnacki the Ghost Finder (1913) by William Hope Hodgson. This publication is a series of stories featuring Carnacki which appeared in The Idler magazine between 1910 and 1912. By the time of their publication, Hodgson was an established author and the stories epitomise a writer secure in his own skin. The formula that Hodgson used is subtle and reassuring without being overplayed. Carnacki invites friends to his house for dinner after which he, via a narrator, relays information about his latest investigation. As a character, Carnacki was the blueprint for many others who followed later and he is very compelling, particularly as he is very often terrified of the dark. I like that. Create a hero, make him vulnerable and let him fight the odds. Hodgson struck a rich seam with Carnacki and his publishers knew it. They wrote this disclaimer ahead of the publication of his third iteration. Complaints continue to reach us from all parts of the country to the effect that Mr W Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stories are producing a widespread epidemic of nervous prostration! So, far from being able to reassure or calm our nervous readers, we are compelled to warn them that The Whistling Room, which we publish this month, is worse than ever.
- Dirk Gently – originally from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987) by Douglas Adams and later a host of radio and television adaptations (Harry Enfield and Stephen Mangan have both brought him to life for the BBC) Dirk Gently is a psychic and a detective who believes rigidly in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. As you would expect from Adams, the stories are fascinating examples of managed chaos weaved into a satisfying whole. When the BBC cancelled Mangan’s version of the character in 2012 there was an understandable outcry. What rankles most is that the BBC said it wanted to focus more on other forms of the genre, notably The Killing from Denmark. I’d like to think there could be a place for Dirk Gently in its schedule again at some point. Until then the book will do an admirable job of filling the void.
- Anita Blake – from Guilty Pleasures (1993) by Laurell K. Hamilton. Guilty Pleasures is the first of the Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series which has so far racked up sales of over six million copies, been translated into over 16 languages and also forms the basis of a graphic novel series by Marvel Comics. Anita Blake is both a necromancer and a vampire hunter and it is rumoured that she is also Hamilton’s attempt to address the role of women in detective fiction. Whether that is true or not I find it hard to argue with lines like this, Maybe they know what I know, that the true way to a man’s heart is six inches of metal between his ribs. Sometimes four inches will do the job, but to be really sure, I like to have six. Funny how phallic objects are always more useful the bigger they are. Anyone who tells you size doesn’t matter has been seeing too many small knives.
- Felix Castor – from a growing series of books by Mike Carey which starts with The Devil You Know (2006). Felix “Fix” Castor just maybe the creator of a brand new offshoot, or at the very least the modern leader of it. I was first attracted to Carey’s work when I heard it described as “exorcist noir”. On the surface that sounds so incredibly niche, yet if you look closely you’ll see that the audience for this type of writing is vast. Carey explores a fascinating concept in the Castor books which is the fact that exorcism (for Castor is a freelance exorcist) is not a skill that can be taught. It is a genetic capability which we either have or we don’t and I think that is fascinating. Don’t be put off by the description of the genre. The books are primarily noir thrillers, and they are very well crafted. They just happen to have supernatural undertones. Come to think of it they also have hardboiled undertones. Instead of the California of Hammett or Chandler, think modern-day London, and instead of bad-guys and wise-guys think ghosts. Carey writes like this…I took a strong dislike to him right then to save time and effort later. Maybe that hardboiled undertone is more of an overtone.
If you’ve ever suspected that you may be psychic, or in tune with the other side, then these are just some of the many examples of excellent crime fiction stories just for you. But then I suspect you already knew that, didn’t you?