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Mediums at Large: Seven Great Books about Occult Detectives

When we talk about detective stories and the “mystery” genre now, we tend to think of the classics like Sherlock Holmes and Poirot, with their calm demeanors and reasonable approaches. Indeed, there is a general tendency for great detectives in fiction to always approach problems with a scientific rationale that first does away with the notion that anything supernatural could be happening… but what about those detective novels that are fundamentally tied up with ideas of the supernatural?

Given how often typical detective stories hinge on a case that at first appears supernatural (as in the case of books like The Hound of the Baskervilles), it can be genuinely refreshing to read a detective story in which the great detective is brought in to deal with something that does not comply with natural laws. In these instances, we are introduced to the strange logics of the supernatural as they are interpreted by each author.

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While the paranormal detective novel might seem like a modern idea, the genre has a rich history, replete with out-of-the-way classics and hidden gems. The original occult detective is often considered to be Fitz James O’Brien’s Harry Escott in his 1850s stories, though as is so often the case, there’s a nod to be made to Sheridan Le Fanu for Dr. Hesselius (through whom Le Fanu also introduced one of the first modern vampires, Carmilla). While some of these are less detective stories and more general tales of the supernatural, the genre really found its feet in the early 20th century, and it’s from there that we’ll pick things up.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what would happen if, instead of unravelling a crime with cold reason, a detective was pulled up short by a ghost, a demon, or a shambling horror, then read on.

The Dream Detective

Perhaps the occult detective novelist with the best name, Sax Rohmer had most of his success with his (deeply problematic) stories about Doctor Fu Manchu. Once one of the best known authors of the 1920s and 30s, Rohmer seems almost to have disappeared. Fortunately, his novels about the occult detective Moris Klaw tend to be less troubling than the Fu Manchu series.

In a similar mould to Stoker’s Dr. Van Helsing and Le Fanu’s Dr. Hasselius, Moris Klaw is an aging curio shop proprietor with an eclectic education and an interest in the supernatural. In The Dream Detective, we are introduced to Klaw’s unique approach to problems. Where other investigators may meditate on a case, Klaw’s method calls for him to sleep at the scene of a crime. There, his sensitive mind can produce an after-image of the crime in much the same way as a photographic print might. In most cases, Klaw uses supernatural means to describe less-than-supernatural crimes.

Part of the fun of these stories is in the sense of uncertainty surrounding so many elements of the stories. Even when Klaw himself is introduced, we are told that he might easily be an old man who looks younger than his years, or a young man who has been prematurely aged. It's vague and unusual, but that's part of what makes it all work so well.

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Carnacki, Supernatural Detective and Others

William Hope Hodgson is probably better known for his fantasy than for his mysteries, but it is his series of stories about the occult detective Thomas Carnacki that we recommend to anyone with an interest. In many ways, Carnacki reads a lot like Sherlock Holmes, a rather reserved individual who seems also to be a gifted detective. Rather than bringing a Watson with him, Carnacki invites friends to share dinner with him, and it is at these dinners that he relates the stories of his often supernatural cases. In this, it mirrors the structure more normally associated with ghost stories than detective stories.

While it might seem like part of the point of an occult detective is to eschew scientific reason in favour of a more generally supernatural understanding, Carnacki goes in the opposite direction. A huge part of the joy of the series is the inventions that our heroic detective devises to help him in the course of his investigations. Perhaps the most instantly recognisable of these is the “electric pentacle,” a complex arrangement of vacuum tubes and cabling designed to keep those within it safe from supernatural influence.

Perhaps the best thing about the Carnacki stories is that the resolution to some of the cases are not paranormal in any way. The end result is a reading experience that is often uncertain and always at least a little fantastical. 

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The Coroner's Lunch

Colin Cotterill’s series of novels about Dr. Siri Paiboun splits the difference between cosy crime and paranormal investigation. The series begins with The Coroner’s Lunch, in which Paiboun, an unsuspecting septuagenarian doctor, is appointed coroner of socialist Laos. This puts Siri Paiboun in a similar category to our other paranormal investigators, Dr. Van Helsing and Dr. Hasselius, but there’s one important difference.

Where Paiboun differs from these other investigators is in the fact that he is himself a medium. This can lead to strange entanglements with shamanic figures, ghostly apparitions, and more, but the methodical approach never quite feels compromised by these things. Instead, Paiboun's investigations feel grounded in spite of the paranormal influences, and the proceedings tend to be described in precisely the kind of matter-of-fact terms that suit an ageing medical doctor who just happens to have had the spirit world thrust on him.

If that doesn’t take your fancy, the whole thing is carried off with an excellent sense of wry humour that often pokes fun at its own investigators. It’s entirely charming.

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The Devil You Know

The Devil You Know might seem like something of a strange fit for this list, given that it’s protagonist isn’t, strictly speaking, a detective. Instead, Felix Castor is a contract-exorcist working the much-haunted streets of London, but the format is very much that of a detective story, and so we don’t hesitate to recommend it here.

Just as a private eye is always at risk of running afoul of a conspiracy too big to handle alone, Felix’s time as an exorcist could be brought to an abrupt conclusion if he were to tangle with too powerful a supernatural manifestation. Of course, there’s no way to know what you’re dealing with before you take the case, so the whole affair is laden with a kind of low-level dread that suits its character well. As is often the case with detectives, Felix has responded to this persistent threat by developing a dry sense of humour. It might seem obvious, but while many of us might be sick of hearing the same old hard-boiled detective one-liners, the context here is fresh enough to ensure that they come across as something new.

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Snake Agent

Snake Agent is the first book of Liz Williams’ series of novels following the exploits and adventures of Detective Inspector Chen. Like Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch series, the Detective Inspector Chen series focuses on characters caught up in the strange and kafkaesque bureaucracies of an otherwise unseen reality in which supernatural agencies investigate occult activities.

Detective Inspector Chen serves as the “snake agent” for the Singapore Three police, which gives him responsibility for any crimes of a supernatural nature. To ensure he can do this, he is paired up with a detective from hell’s vice squad, Seneschal Zhu Irzh. The chemistry between the two, and their respective departments, is carefully crafted and the source of much of the book’s character. Part of the joy here is that Chen is so often the same old jaded detective that we’re used to from noir movies, despite the fact that he’s also embedded in a fundamentally magic world.

The case begins with the death of the young daughter of a prominent family. This alone might not precipitate supernatural investigation, but when her ghost goes missing Chen is enlisted. It probably won’t surprise you when we say that this is a conspiracy that goes straight to the top (or the bottom?) of hell itself. 

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Proof Volume 1: Goatsucker

We know it might be a little divisive to add a graphic novel to a list like this, but Proof is just too much fun as a paranormal detective story not to mention. Set in The Lodge, an agency dedicated to the investigation of paranormal phenomena, Proof tells the story of John “Proof” Prufrock. That Prufrock is himself a hirsute sasquatch who wears a suit and has a reasonably regular job is emblematic of the kind of off-beat charm that holds the whole series together. Prufrock’s strange beastiality is emphasised by Riley Rossmo’s artwork.

For those who first fell in love with the idea of paranormal investigation in the days of Mulder and Scully, Proof falls somewhere between The X-Files and Men in Black. As in both, the story picks up when Prufrock is teamed up with his new human partner, Ginger Brown. Recently reassigned from the FBI, Brown is relatively ordinary compared to Prufrock and serves as the reader’s window into the strange world of the series. The major differentiator here is that Proof tends to steer clear of aliens in favour of cryptids and fairies. It might seem a minor choice, but one that helps to keep the whole series from straying too far into science fiction.

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Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

Following up from The Devil You Know, Jonathan Howard’s series of Johannes Cabal novels also aren’t ‘detective fiction’ in the strictest sense, but they are written in a similar enough spirit for them to have the right feel. As you might have guessed from the title of the first book in the series, The Necromancer, our protagonist is an "investigator" only in the sense that he probes the mysteries between life and death.

Years ago, we’re told that Johannes Cabal made a deal with the devil, forfeiting his eternal soul in exchange for an understanding of the laws of necromancy. As is so often the case, Cabal only realised how much he needed his soul once he had traded it away, which led him on a quest to retrieve it from the devil. Fortunately, Lucifer is forgiving, and offered Cabal a way out of their deal on condition that he harvest a hundred souls for him in the following year. To help him achieve this, Cabal was given a “dark carnival” and what follows is exactly as strange as you'd imagine.

Part of what makes the book so enjoyable is the relationship between Johannes and his brother, Horst. Despite being a vampire, Horst seems like a generally decent guy, which sometimes leaves him at odds with Johannes. It’s a weird pairing, but this is one of the places that the book really shines.

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Those of you with an interest in the genre may be wondering why your particular favourite books haven't made the list, but the simple fact is that the occult detective story is seeing something of a revival at the moment. For those of you who haven't found anything else of interest on this list, you might want to read up on Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London, China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, and even Alan Moore's excellent comic series, Providence

If you feel suddenly spoiled for choice, don't panic. Simply close your eyes and attempt to reach out with your mind. Channel the spirit world and use divination to determine the best course of action.

Professor George Edward Challenger first made a name for himself as a travelling adventurer and investigator. Unfortunately, he has never succeeded in solving the greatest mystery of all... and ... Show More

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