For 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.