For a Séance in the Dark*

seancesA recent post from Moira at Clothes in Books (also on the Guardian Website Book Pages) had to do with fictional séances. It’s an interesting topic, actually. If you believe that we can communicate with the dead, then you may be interested in séances anyway. If you don’t believe we can contact those who’ve died, it’s still fascinating to consider the impact that that belief has had on people. Thousands are spent each year on mediums, séances and so on. And there are people who absolutely swear by them.

Whatever you think about séances, they’re certainly woven into crime fiction. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, will know that he was fascinated by spiritualism, and attended a séance. He wrote on the topic, and joined more than one spiritualist group. It’s ironic, considering that his most famous protagonist, Sherlock Holmes, depends on science and pure reason for his deductions.

Agatha Christie used séances in more than one of her stories. Perhaps the most chilling one is her short story, The Last Séance. It’s not really a crime story, but it does have a séance as the central focus. Raoul Daubreuil pays a visit to his fiancée, Simone, who is a very successful medium. But she’s exhausted by the work, and wants to end it. She’s made one last appointment, though, with Madame Exe, who is desperate to stay in contact with her dead daughter, Amelie. Simone wants to cancel the appointment, but Raoul insists that she keep her commitment. She finally allows herself to be persuaded, with tragic consequences. You’re absolutely right, fans of Dumb Witness and The Blue Geranium.

A séance is used in a very interesting way in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison. Lord Peter Wimsey has fallen in love with mystery novelist Harriet Vane, and is determined to marry her. But she’s standing trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Wimsey decides to clear her name, so that he can pursue a romance with her. He only has thirty days, so he’ll have to work quickly. He’s helped along the way by his friend, Miss Katherine Climpson, who runs what you might call a secretarial agency. At one point, she wants to get a certain piece of information, and comes up with the ingenious device of using a séance for that purpose. I don’t want to say more, for fear of spoilers, but it’s a very clever use of that tool.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we are introduced to self-styled medium Ava Garrett. She’s become popular and well-regarded, and has quite a following. One of her devotees is Benny Frayle, who’s dealing with a recent loss. Her good friend, financial planner Dennis Brinkley, died of what looks like a tragic accident with one of the ancient weapons he collects. But Benny isn’t sure that it was an accident. In fact, she’s tried to get the police interested, but DCI Tom Barnaby hasn’t found any fault with the original police investigation. So, he’s reluctant to commit any further resources to looking into the matter. One day, Benny attends a séance led by Ava Garrett. To her shock, Ava describes the murder scene, although she never saw it. And she makes it clear that Benny was right. So, Benny redoubles her efforts to get the police involved. Then, there’s another murder. Finally convinced, Barnaby and his team link the two murders.

Louise Penny’s The Cruelest Month also features a séance. In that novel, a noted Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, pays a visit to the small Québec town of Three Pines, and is persuaded to hold a séance there. The first attempt doesn’t go very well, but another is scheduled. This one is to take place at the old Hadley place during the Easter break. During that second séance, Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies. At first, it’s thought that she was, quite literally, frightened to death. But then it’s determined that she died of an overdose of a diet drug. Now, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec investigates. He and his team find that there’s more to this case than it seems on the surface.

In Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic, we meet Cassandra James, of the English Literature Department, St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. She takes the position of Interim Head of the Department when her boss, Margaret Joplin, is found dead. The main plot of the novel concerns Cassandra’s search for the truth about Margaret’s death. But throughout the novel, we also get to know the other people in the department. One of them is Cassandra’s colleague Merfyn. He’s fascinated by spiritualism and séances, and actually believes he’s been channeling Arthur Conan Doyle. Cassandra is not convinced, but Merfyn persuades her to attend a séance. She isn’t quite sure what to expect, but brings her partner, Stephen, along. It turns out that there’s a big surprise in store for her at that event.

Whether or not you believe that we can communicate with those who’ve died, there are many, many people who do. Grief and the desire to know what it’s like ‘on the other side’ can often lead people to spiritualism and séances. That appeal can be used very effectively in a crime novel, too, for misdirection, atmosphere, character development or even clue placement in whodunits. There are other ways séances can be used, too.

Thanks for making me think of all of this, Moira. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Moira’s excellent blog, Clothes in Books. It’s the source for fictional fashion and culture, and what it all says about us.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Cry Baby Cry.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Christine Poulson, Dorothy Sayers, Louise Penny

26 responses to “For a Séance in the Dark*

  1. Col

    I’ve not encountered seances in my reading, more in films for me.

  2. I love seances in mysteries, Margot. My favorite in Christie is inThe Sittaford Mystery. I think the spookiness of the seance distracts us from what’s really going on superbly!

  3. There’s one in K A Laity’s White Rabbit.

  4. Kind of you to mention me, Margot. I had a lot of fun with that séance! The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning (reviewed by Moira at Clothes in Books a while ago) has a medium as a central character. She certainly believes herself that at times she is in touch with the other side and she is sympathetically portrayed.

    • It’s my pleasure to mention your work, Christine. You did such a great job with that séance; it certainly seemed that you were having fun! And thanks for mentioning the Canning. It’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post.

  5. I think one of the most effective uses of a seance in fiction are in Hake Talbot’s brilliant “Rim of the Pit,” (1944) which centers around a seance – did the participants unwittingly open themselves up for a demon to come in and possess one of them? It has one of the best opening lines of any mystery – “I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.” It’s a chilling impossible crime story – one of the very few I’d compare to John Dickson Carr’s “locked room” books from the Golden Age.

    • I love that line, Les. And that is a great example of really effective – and in this case, chilling – uses of séances in crime fiction. Thanks for mentioning it.

  6. tracybham

    I haven’t read Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine in a while, Margot, I will have to reread it. I also plan to read Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic soon, and also The Rainbird Pattern that she mentioned in her comment. I have only just tried one book by Victor Canning so far.

    • Oh, I think you’d like Christie’s Cassandra James series quite a lot, Tracy. It has a solid blend of mystery, a look at academia, and some wit. At the same time, it’s not too ‘light and frothy.’ Recommended. And I always did like Caroline Graham’s novels.

  7. A great topic, Margot. Peter James uses this in his books quite a lot – in the first ones of the Roy Grace series anyway – as Grace searches for his missing wife. He visits many different spiritual people to see if anyone can offer him different information. An unusual device for a series detective. But it works for him.

    • It does, indeed, Rebecca. And James uses the device effectively, in my opinion. Grace doesn’t come across as fanciful or ‘not all there.’ It’s interesting to see how James reconciles that aspect of Graces personality with the fact that he’s a no-nonsense copper.

  8. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Don’t miss this post by mystery writer/blogger Margot Kinberg!

  9. Very interesting, Margot. Seems like British authors use seances more than those in the U.S.
    While not a seance, I had an interesting experience in my home. My two grandsons (9 & 7) love those ghost hunter TV shows. I bought a “ghost-hunting” kit, including what’s called a “ghost” or “spirit” box.
    My daughter, son-in-law, the kids, and I sat around the dining table and began inviting friendly spirits from the “other side” to communicate with us. It wasn’t long before a few voices came through very clear calling most of us by name. “They” seemed to be particularly drawn to my older grandson. Things turned downright spooky when my son-in-law asked if anyone knew my daughter’s nickname. I had totally forgotten about the nickname, and it had never been used in my and my wife’s current home of 12 years.
    A few seconds after the question, a male voice distinctly said, “Hello, Puma,” followed closely by a female’s voice saying, “Hi, Puma.” Jaws dropped around the table. I decided to end the session then and there. I thanked all the “spirits” for communicating with us, and bid them a fond farewell.
    Very strange, but true story! 🙂

    • Wow, Michael! what an experience you had! That really is strange. If it weren’t for the fact that you said it was true, I would think it sounded like a TV show. Sometimes the real things that happen to us in life are stranger than anything you’d read about or see on the big or small screen…

  10. There was an element of this in Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer which covered which was a bit of a stretch for me, but worked within the context of the story.

    • Somehow, Belinda Bauer can make that happen, can’t she, Cleo? There are just certain authors, I think, whom I forgive more than I do other authors, if that makes sense.

  11. Margot, as a kid I was lured into playing the Ouija board or planchette for harmless reasons. My friends got a kick out of inviting famous dead personalities who, having answered our inane questions, refused to go back. At the time it felt spooky; now it feels downright silly even thinking about it. Like Col, I remember seances and crystal balls in the movies.

    • I think a lot of kids do that sort of thing for fun, Prashant. Or they do it on a dare or something. And I think with the right atmosphere, it really can feel spooky, even if you look back later and see it in a very different way.

  12. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…11/7/16 – Where Genres Collide

  13. SteveHL

    Jeffrey Ford’s The Girl in the Glass is largely based on séances. I know Ford more as a fantasy writer and The Girl in the Glass is sort of on the cusp between mystery and fantasy, but it did win a Best Paperback Original Edgar.

    • Oh, interesting, SteveHL. I’ve heard of Ford, but haven’t read any of his work. This one certainly sounds as though it fits in well, though, with what I had in mind with this post. Thanks

  14. Thanks for the shoutout Margot, and I love those great additions to the list. It is an ever fruitful topic.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s