Some of Us Believe in Spiritualism*

SpiritualismFor a very long time, people have been fascinated by what I’ll call spiritualism (mostly for convenience’s sake). Strictly speaking, spiritualism is usually used to refer to the belief in communicating with the dead. And that possibility has certainly intrigued humans. But it’s taken on a wider meaning, too, and now often includes interest in psychics, prescience and so on.  And it’s interesting to see how that way of thinking about spiritualism has been woven into crime fiction.

You’ll notice as I go on today that I won’t be mentioning paranormal stories or fantasy stories. Those certainly have their places for readers who enjoy them. But fascination with spiritualism is also there in other crime fiction as well.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include spiritualism, and it’s interesting to speculate on what she might have thought of it. An interesting conversation with Moira at the excellent Clothes in Books got me thinking about Christie’s views, so thanks for that inspiration, Moira.

In Dumb Witness, for instance, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings visit the village of Market Basing. They’re there at the request of Miss Emily Arundell, who wrote to Poirot, asking him to advise her on a ‘delicate matter.’ By the time they get to Market Basing, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died. At first, her death is put down to liver failure. But it’s proven in the end that she was poisoned. And there are several suspects, too, as she had a large fortune to leave, and several greedy/desperate relatives. One of the characters in this novel is Miss Arundell’s companion Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson. Miss Lawson is a dedicated believer in spiritualism, and often attends séances and other such events. Her good friends, Julia and Isabel Tripp, are just as fascinated by mysticism, and often share those experiences with Miss Lawson. Miss Lawson’s interest in spiritualism is not the reason for Emily Arundell’s death. But it does add an interesting layer, both to her character and to the story. And it shows how strong a belief people can have in spiritualism. For those who do believe, it’s as real as anything else is.

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine introduces readers to Ava Garrett. A self-styled medium, she’s developed quite a following. One of those believers is Benny Frayle, who’s recently lost her good friend, financial planner Dennis Brinkley. The official report is that his death was a tragic accident when one of the antique war machines he collects malfunctioned. But Benny’s not so sure of that. The police, in the form of DCI Tom Barnaby, believe they’ve done all they can do, and that there’s no need for further investigation. And, to be fair, the police have done a thorough job. But Benny still thinks it was murder. So she attends one of Ava Garrett’s séances. During the event, Ava describes the murder scene vividly, although she’s not seen it. And she makes it clear that Benny was right. That’s enough for Benny, but the police still don’t really look into the death…until Ava herself is poisoned. One the one hand, I can say without spoiling the story that Barnaby and his team don’t learn the truth through a medium or psychic. But there is an interesting twist in the story that adds a layer to it.

In Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), the small Québec town of Three Pines gets some new residents: CC de Poitiers and her family. CC is a popular lifestyle/self-help celebrity whose book, Be Calm, has sold very well. Not everyone in town is happy about the newcomers, though. For one thing, CC is egotistical, rude, manipulative, and malicious. She manages to alienate everyone in town, including Beatrice Mayer, known locally as Mother Bea. Mother Bea has a yoga and meditation center, also called Be Calm, and is, as she puts it,

‘…familiar with all spiritual paths…’

She sees beneath the ‘spiritual wellness’ touted in CC’s hype, and is not happy at what she finds. When CC dies of electrocution, there’s no question that it’s murder. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec investigates with his team. They find that more than one person had a strong motive for murder. Admittedly, spiritualism doesn’t solve the mystery here. And it’s not the reason for the murder. But it’s an interesting look at the way spiritualism – or what’s hyped as spiritualism – impacts people.

We see that in Tarquin Hall’s The Man Who Died Laughing, too. Dr. Suresh Jha has made a career out of unmasking spiritual charlatans. He is the founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (DIRE); and, as such, does everything he can to stop those who prey on others’ fascination with spiritualism. One morning, he’s attending a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when, according to witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and stabs Jha. Believers say that she is punishing him for being an infidel. But Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri thinks this death has a more prosaic explanation. Jha was a onetime client, so Puri takes a special interest in this case, and decides to investigate it. One part of the trail leads to Maharaj Swami, a well-known spiritualist and advisor. He’s set up his own ashram, which has become quite popular, and seems to have quite a hold on his followers. Spiritualism doesn’t really solve this mystery. But it’s interesting to see how many people want to believe in the things Swami says and does.

There are other sorts of spiritualism in its very broadest sense in crime fiction, too. For example, both David Rosenberg’s The Junction Chronicles and Spencer Cope’s Collecting the Dead feature characters who are synthaesthetes. Their protagonists can sense things accurately that most of us can’t. Rosenberg’s Decker Roberts is able to tell whether someone is lying or not. And Cope’s Steps Craig can sense people’s essence – he calls it their ‘shine’ – on things they’ve touched. I confess I’ve not read the Cope (yet). But it’s a good example of the sort of almost paranormal ability that some characters seem to possess. Many people believe that there are real-life instances of such things, too.

Whether or not things such as psychic ability or spiritualism actually exist, people are fascinated by them. And that in itself is really interesting. Little wonder Arthur Conan Doyle was so intrigued by spiritualism.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Donovan’s Children of the World.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, David Rosenberg, Louise Penny, Spencer Cope, Tarquin Hall

52 responses to “Some of Us Believe in Spiritualism*

  1. One recent example of this which comes to mind is Belinda Bauer’s The Shut Eye, which features a psychic or medium, whom the desperate mother of a missing child turns to in her hour of need. What the author does very cleverly there is that we are never quite sure if that person is a charlatan or actually does have some unexplained powers.

    • That’s a perfect example, Marina Sofia, so thank you. It does take talent to offer just hint of possibility that the psychic/medium may actually have that ability, but at the same time be realistic. But Bauer has that talent, doesn’t she?

  2. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Very interesting post on Spiritualism by mystery writer/blogger Margot Kinberg. Check it out!

  3. Great topic, Moira! And then there is the Sittaford Mystery, which begins with table-turning, doesn’t it? That is such a feature of GA crime fiction. It’s also an element in Patricia Moyes’s Who Saw Her Die?, written much later but in the spirit of the GA. It is still a useful thing for a writer to have in her arsenal. I had a lot of fun with a seance in my first novel.

    • Thanks so much, Christine. And you’re absolutely right about Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery, too. It does start with table-turning. Thanks for filling in that gap. I’m glad you mentioned the Moyes, too. I really do like her series. And I’m also really glad you mentioned Murder is Academic. You did a great job with the séance in that story, and I should’ve mentioned it *embarrassed.* Folks, do try Christine’s Cambridge mysteries. Solid plots, a terrific uni setting, and some fine characters await you.

  4. Ooh, this one is right down my alley, Margot. I’ve been fascinated with this subject for a long as I can remember. In “Deadly Spirits,” my next Mac McClellan Mystery (Jan. ’17), Mac is reluctantly drawn into the world of the paranormal. Mac is a big skeptic about such matters, but will he be by the time the case ends? Thanks much for a VERY interesting post! 🙂

    • Oh, now I am intrigued, Michael! And spiritualism, psychics, and all the rest of it are interesting topics, whether or not you believe that such things really happen. Those contexts can be really effective for a mystery, too, so I’m looking forward to seeing your story when it comes out. Glad you enjoyed this post.

  5. Kate Laity’s White Rabbit and the film Seance On A Wet Afternoon come to mind.

  6. Spiritualism and seances play important roles in a lot of “classic” mysteries, as you know, Margot. My favorite remains Hake Talbot’s marvelous Rim of the Pit, in which a seance held at a remote, snowed-in hunting lodge appears to release an evil and murderous spirit. This book, like many of the others from the period, offers some fascinating details on how fake mediums achieve their effects.

    By the way, readers interested in learning more of the tricks of the trade might enjoy a book by the great stage magician, Harry Houdini. In The Right Way to Do Wrong, Houdini, who spent much of his career exposing fraudulent mediums, explains how a lot of the tricks – including many of his own – were done. The book’s still available on Amazon.

    • I’m very glad you mentioned Houdini, Les. As you say, he was deeply dedicated to unmasking charlatans, and his knowledge of illusions made him a formidable opponent. Want to know more, folks? The Right Way to Do Wrong sounds like an excellent place to start.

      You’re right, too, Les, that a lot of classic/GA novels have spiritualism as one of their topics. There was a real interest in it at the time, so it’s not surprising. And Rim of the Pit exemplifies that. Thanks for mentioning it.

  7. Keishon

    I know you can’t list them all but remember in Dorothy L. Sayer’s, Strong Poison, that seance scene? (think it was a seance scene). Hilarious.

  8. Not a crime story and definitely with a supernatural element, but your post brought to mind Agatha Christie’s The Last Séance – one of the scariest stories of all time. And I second MarinaSofia – the spiritualism element in The Shut Eye was handled really well to keep the reader unsure whether it was genuine or fakery. A great book!

    • I’m so glad you mentioned The Last Séance, FictionFan. It is a truly creepy story, even if it isn’t, per se, a crime story. And I think Belinda Bauer is really good at evoking atmosphere and layering characters. So it didn’t surprise me that she did that séance scene effectively. If you’ve not read this one, folks, you’ll want to check it out.

  9. The protagonist of Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham works as a psychic / spiritualist for much of the novel. The scene where he causes an isolated scale to register a weight, including the section leading up to it, is a great example of “show, don’t tell” writing.

    • That sounds like a really effective example of what I had in mind with this post, Bill. Thanks. I’m glad you mentioned ‘show, don’t tell’ writing, too. Scenes like that (well, just about all scenes, actually) are crisper and more engaging if their narrative is only ‘as needed.

  10. A.M. Pietroschek

    I once more throw-in my hopes with a hint I gave before:

    Ben wrote us a ‘Fake Psychic’ and did keep it all crime fiction instead of fantasy or occult-detective genre.

    Thanks for all your efforts, Margot.

  11. Great topic as much because I tend to avoid books with these kind of themes and I’m not quite sure why I have such an aversion to them. Like other commenters the only one I’ve read recently was Shut Eye and only then because Belinda Bauer is such a talented writer…

    • Spiritualism and other such topics are certainly not everyone’s cuppa, Cleo. You’re by no means the only one who feels that way about books that include that theme. But yes, there are some authors (and Bauer is one of them) who can get readers to enjoy a topic they otherwise wouldn’t.

  12. Margot, I love reading nonfiction books about spirituality. In fact, I have been reading them since I was a kid, thanks to the family which placed a premium on matters of faith. I have noticed spiritualism—in the main, the search for answers to questions like “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”—in the classics, particularly in “Robinson Crusoe” where Defoe actually questions the purpose and futility of life through the voice of his marooned character. I find philosophy elevating.

    • You’re absolutely right, Prashant, that those bigger philosophical questions are addressed in a lot of literature (and Robinson Crusoe is one example).I can see why you’re fascinated with those questions, too. I think a lot of people are.

  13. I also read a lot of nonfiction on this topic and spent an hour with one of our local psychics, a much-loved member of our writing community. It’s fascinating to explore and study spiritualism, and intriguing to read crime fiction where the police employ psychics to help solve crimes. I miss the TV show “Medium” — I thought the characters and stories were excellent.

    • It is fascinating, isn’t it, Pat, to learn about spiritualism. It must have been really interesting to get some background first-hand from someone who has extensive knowledge of it, and can offer you ‘behind the scenes’ insights. And there are some terrific fiction and non-fiction books about how the police work with psychics.

  14. Thanks for the shoutout Margot, and of course I share your interest – Christie’s use of spiritualism is always thought-provoking. I recently read Victor Canning’s 70s thriller The Rainbird Pattern, and that made superb use of a kindly medium who wasn’t above using a bit of extra info in her readings. It was my ideal kind of book.

    • It’s a pleasure to mention you and your blog, Moira, and I’m grateful for the inspiration. I agree with you about Christie, too. So fascinating the way she uses spiritualism in her stories. One does wonder what she thought of it all. Thanks for mentioning the Canning. I remember your excellent review of that book. Glad you brought it up here, because it fits.

  15. The only book I remember reading that involves spiritualism is Murder at Hazelmoor, aka The Sittaford Mystery. Which Christine mentioned. But I have read a couple of the others mentioned in your post, and I had forgotten about the connection there. It seems like there was a bit of spiritualism in The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny, also?

  16. I think there was a Phryne Fisher mystery about charlatan mediums—but I can’t remember which one it was!

    • I wonder if you’re thinking of Blood and Circuses, Caron? Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think that has a charlatan in it. Someone please put me right if I’m wrong.

      • Tim

        “Charlatan mediums” — I really like the redundancy in that word pairing!
        Also, whenever I read and think about Doyle’s (or anyone’s ) engagement with spiritualism, I make the leap and think instead about people’s belief in ghosts, and then I think, “Poor Hamlet! His should have been more rational, like Horatio, and he could have then avoided so many problems!” And then that one word serves to put it all in perspective: rational.

        • And there it is, Tim: rational. But the thing is, when people believe in something, that something is as real as the sofa you sit on, the tea or coffee you drink, or the book you hold in your hand. Whether you believe in spiritualism or not, it’s fascinating to look at the way it impacts people.

      • Yes, I thought it might be Blood and Circuses, but I’ve had a quick look through and can’t find anything: I might be missing it though!

  17. kathyd

    There is a seance in Mari Strachan’s book, “Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers,” set in Britain post WWI.
    Perhaps someone knows which Christie story it is where a woman character, perhaps Ariadne Oliver, goes to a village, and tricks a housekeeper with a ouija board.

  18. Immediately I thought of Roy Johansen’s Deadly Visions and J.D. Robb’s Visions of Death, where psychic abilities played a major roll. Both books have been around a while, but I’d hate to ruin them for anyone interested in reading them. Both excellent, too. Then there’s Garry Rodgers’ No Witnesses To Nothing where Native American spiritualism caused a paranormal incident that saved the author’s life.

    • Oh, all of those are terrific examples, Sue! Thank you. It’s so interesting to see just how many times psychics and other paranormal types make their way into crime fiction – even crime fiction that’s not, per se, paranormal.

  19. kathyd

    Spiritualism was a way women could earn a living and also speak their minds. I recall that Victoria Woodhull and her sister ran seances. She also ran for president after the Civil War while sitting in jail; Frederick Douglass was her vice-presidential candidate — she named him for that office.

  20. Great post, Margot, on one of the more enduring and interesting tropes in mystery fiction. I can’t help recalling the fake psychic and blackmailer Jules Amthor in Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely.

    • Thanks, Bryan; glad you enjoyed the post. And yes, it is one of those tropes, isn’t it? Thanks, also for reminding us of Farewell, My Lovely. It’s a good example of what I had in mind here. Trust you to add a rich bit of Chandler.

  21. Col

    Not really an aspect that draws me in or attracts me to a book if I’m honest.

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