If you are looking for Halloween reading that includes hauntings, disturbing unexplained events and the occasional atmospheric séance, detective novels from the 1920s and 30s will not disappoint.
After the apocalyptic tolls of the Great War and the Spanish Flu pandemic, interest in spiritualism soared as a cultural response to mass bereavement; families and communities turned to table-rapping, creakings, automatic writing and Oujia boards in the hope of once more communicating with their loved ones. Contemporary crime authors capitalized on this interest, incorporating elements of the occult without actually abandoning the puzzle-based approach of the classic whodunit. Often the supernatural was revealed as charlatanry; a superb example can be seen in Dorothy L Sayers’ Strong Poison (1930), where Lord Peter Wimsey’s right-hand woman, Miss Climpson reinvents herself as a fake medium and conducts a successful séance, equipped with garters, a metal soapbox, wires and a flimsy table. Christopher St John Sprigg took the unexplained and chaotic spectral action at a sitting as the mechanism to reveal a grisly clue in Crime in Kensington (1933).
Agatha Christie also used the séance to good effect in several books; in Peril at End House (1932) Poirot’s steady, conventional companion Hastings plays a fake medium to help solve the case. Most impressive were the stories where Christie used spiritual interference to cloud the view of witnesses and make the job of detection harder. In The Sittaford Mystery (1931), a ‘table turning’ party in a remote Dartmoor village turns frightening when a genuine spirit seems to show up and declare an absent friend has been murdered. Readers’ preconceptions about spiritualism (real or fake?) are confounding factors in Dumb Witness, where the implications of wealthy Emily Arundell’s participation in a séance on the day of her death is investigated by a forensic Poirot.
Another dramatic example is John Dickson Carr’s The Plague Court Murders (1934) where a psychic and his medium are invited to hold a séance at a family estate supposedly haunted by the original owner, a hangman. Venerated as a classic of the ‘impossible crime’ genre, the psychic is found stabbed with a dagger owned by the deceased hangman in a cottage with the doors and windows locked; all possible suspects were conducting a séance at the time of death – and therefore holding hands.
Occasionally, the rules of golden age detection fiction were suspended and ghostly phenomena were an additional mystery that the protagonists simply could not fathom. Christie wrote a short The Last Séance (1926), in which a medium reluctantly agrees to sit for a desperate grieving client one final time, with tragic results. In Dorothy Bower’s Fear for Miss Betony (1941), the eponymous heroine visits a medium, The Great Ambrosio, who appears to be equal parts charlatan and authentic. At their sitting, Ambrosio has an opaque vision that is linked to subsequent events.
One of the most memorable endings to a detective novel occurs in Margery Allingham’s Look to the Lady (1931), where the cold-blooded villain is undone by an unearthly (and unexplained) sight witnessed through a turret window. Pondering on this turn of events, detective Albert Campion is advised “It doesn’t do to dwell on these things.”
But if dwelling is your preference, a Golden Age detective novel may be just the ticket.