A 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.