Book Review: Dark Detectives

Dark Detectives: An Anthology of Supernatural Mysteries

Dark Detectives: An Anthology of Supernatural Mysteries
Edited by Stephen Jones
Illustrations by Randy Broecker
Published by Titan Books

I’m a big fan of the investigator of the supernatural element – see my previous blog posts about Mike Carey’s Felix Castor and Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt – so I was delighted to get the chance to read an anthology dedicated to the concept. In the extensive introduction by editor Stephen Jones, in which he details the origins of the dark detectives (from Dupin and Holmes through the psychic and occult investigators, including the wonderfully named Dr Silence), he doesn’t mention Castor or Pitt but he does list a bunch of stories that I now want to read, among them Simon Ark, a 2,000-year-old Coptic priest cursed at Christ’s crucifixion, and Lord Darcy, Investigator-in-Chief for the court of good King John and assisted by a forensic sorcerer. Fortunately, he does mention John Constantine, so I can forgive him. Jones also gets bonus points for including a primer on each character for every short story in the book, so you can jump in and not feel lost.

The stories in this anthology are presented in a loose chronology, so Jones advises not dipping in and out, especially with Kim Newman’s multi-part story written especially for the anthology, Seven Stars, which weaves in and out of the other stories at the appropriate era. The prologue starts in Egypt, with a real historical figure called Pai-net’em during the 10 biblical curses and the Jewel of the Seven Stars (a novel by Bram Stoker, from which Newman has borrowed bits, as he did more famously in the excellent Anno Dracula with Stoker’s more famous novel). Each successive story develops the narrative at different junctures in time and with a different character as the focus. The Mummy’s Heart is the next part of the story, starring Charles Beauregard (also in Anno Dracula, but this is a different timeline), a gentleman who works for the Diogenes Club; he is in the British Museum because of the Jewel of the Seven Stars, discovered in the Valley of the Sorcerer in the mummy of Pai-net’em the previous year but nine men have died since in connection with it. Now it has been stolen, and Mycroft Holmes has asked Beauregard to investigate. The next part of the story is The Magician and the Matinee Idol, a tale of Edwin Winthrop and Catriona Kaye (the former the lead character in The Bloody Red Baron), who have been employed by Beauregard to ensure that all traces of the Diogenes Club are expunged from the ‘photoplay’ of Sherlock Holmes being filmed in London and starring John Barrymore, by acting as ‘advisers’ to the film company. (Mycroft wasn’t happy that Watson had mentioned the club in print) In The Trouble with Barrymore, the third episode, our narrator is a nameless private investigator who is visited by Peter Lorre with a case involving John Barrymore’s corpse, which is now missing; others are after it, including Edwin Thorp and Geneviève Dieudonné, in a tale involving a prophecy of Nostradamus, zombies and a ritual involving ‘the White House’ (the reveal of the last made me laugh out loud in the middle of a commuter train). The fourth episode is The Biafran Bank Manager, a Richard Jeperson story – he’s a tall, thin, bony amnesiac in multi-coloured outfits who investigates the strange and the bizarre for the Diogenes Club. Jeperson is called to the West Country to see Edwin Winthrop, who is in trouble (Jeperson had been an assistant to Winthrop, who has retired from the ruling cabal), called by Catriona Kaye. There is a black human shape moving under the carpets of their home, and it is related to Winthrop’s use of the jewel to stop the War (the occult war that had used the Second World War for its own purpose) and the ramifications of that decision. Episode five is Mimsy, a Sally Rhodes story, who is a private investigator of darker worlds, tasked with finding Mimsy, who took the Seven Stars with her when she disappeared. The Dog Story is the sixth part, starring Jerome Rhodes, son of Sally, and set in 2026 (with some very interesting futuristic language – monad, stay-at-homes, meat-lives, gunmints, piedater), with Jerome being asked to find a ghost, specifically the terrorist-corps called Seven Stars, while dogs go crazy and attacking owners leading to an official cull … The final part is The Duel of Seven Stars, starring Geneviève Dieudonné (with a different surname to the equivalent in Newman’s Anno Dracula series), where the world has changed (The Plagues, The Wars, The Collapse, the boiling point of water is now 78°C, monsters coming from the sea, the end of electronic communications), and can only be saved by seven lives twice-lost …

The other short stories vary in length and style. Our Lady of Death by Peter Tremayne is about Sister Fidelma, the youngest daughter of the King of Ireland and a member of the Celtic church, who stops at a hostel due to a severe snowstorm where the innkeepers believe they are haunted by the ghost of the woman’s first husband. The story is easy to work out, and there are lots of Gaelic words and phrases that are then immediately explained, which is an odd way to imbue Irish language in the prose, and Fidelma is not an overly warm character, but it is an interesting tale.

The Horse of the Invisible by William Hope Hodgson is a Carnacki story about his visit to the Hisgins family in East Lancashire and the family legend where, if the first child is a girl, she would be haunted by a horse during her courtship. It’s a strange narrative, which tries to have its cake and eat it when it comes to the question of the supernatural, so comes off as a riff on Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Adventure of the Crawley Horror by Basil Cooper is a story of Solar Pons, the second most famous consulting detective in London, based in 7B Praed Street, with his chronicler Dr Lynden Parker and landlady Mrs Johnson; he has run-ins with Inspector Jamison of the Yard and with his brother Bancroft. If this sounds strangely familiar, then it’s because the Pons stories were written by August Derleth, a student at the University of Wisconsin who asked Conan Doyle if he could write Sherlock Holmes stories; Conan Doyle said no, so Derleth created his own pastiche, writing 68 stories in the process. In the late 1970s, Cooper was asked to revise the books, spending two years to fix the >3,000 factual and procedural errors, before being invited to continue Pons’ exploits. This means that the narrative follows the established formula – a letter, a visit to the detective, telling the reason for the visit (in this case, a ‘corpse figure’ coming from the Marsh around the rich miser’s manor, burning with a bluish fire). There’s a niece, a doctor, a drunk, a guest, a family secret, and a resolution – Copper writes in a clear, detailed style reminiscent of Conan Doyle but with humour as well.

Rouse Him Not by Manly Wade Wellman (a great name) is a John Thunstone story in which he investigates a circle in a yard with no grass in the back of beyond, linked to the Crett Marrowby sorcery case 200 years previously. Thunstone is an interesting character, with a silver blade forged a millennia ago by St Dunstan, and an old-fashioned chap.

De Marigny’s Clock by Brian Lumley is a Titus Crow story, who worked in the War Department to stop the occult forces of Hitler and then became an acknowledged expert on magics, antiquities, mythology and many other areas. This story sees his home invaded by two burglars in the middle of the night, who get more than they bargained for …

Someone Is Dead by R Chetwynt Hayes is a story about Francis St Clare and Frederica Masters – the world’s only practising psychic detective and his assistant, a gifted materialistic medium – in their first story, from 1974, a mix of horror and humour as they are called to a haunted home that was built on the site of a 17th-century prison …

Vultures Gather by Brian Mooney is a Reuben Calloway and Roderick Shea story – the former worked in the British Intelligence Corps and now investigates the occult while a university lecturer; the latter is an Irish priest with some psychic gifts. Calloway relates the time he visited the Yorkshire mansion on millionaire Sir Isaac Price, who asked Calloway for help – when Price dies, Calloway should investigate because Price believes he will be murdered. Twenty years later, Calloway and Shea return to the mansion after Price calls them; the next night, Price dies. Calloway doesn’t believe it was suicide …

Lost Souls by Clive Barker is a very short story about Harry Amour, New York private investigator of the occult who fights a war against demons, set at Christmas and involving a search for a demon, a pregnant woman and a theological assassin called Davrieux Marchetti.

The Man Who Shot The Man Who Shot The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence by Jay Russell is a Marty Burns story – Burns was a child actor in a biggish sitcom before becoming a minor heartthrob teen-idol, but bad films led to him becoming a low-rent private investigator in LA. It’s great opening line sums up the fun tale: ‘It started with a friendly game of strip Ouija; it ended in massive head trauma, a moderately broken heart and the pink taffeta dress that John Wayne was buried in.’

Bay Wolf by Neil Gaiman is a prose poem with a pun title (the main character is Laurence Talbot – the name of Lon Chaney’s Wolfman in the films – a lycanthropic PI) about a mythological monster, a creature calling itself Grand Al, eating beautiful young people on the beach in LA …

As with any anthology, this book is a mix of quality, style and content, but this is a very enjoyable collection with a clearly defined focus that allows for a range of adventures. The sign of a good anthology is wanting to read more stories by these authors in this genre: Dark Detectives succeeds on that measure and more. The diversity is rich, the styles are enjoyable, the characters are interesting and the narratives entertaining. Recommended.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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