Saturday, December 5, 2015

A-Haunting We Will Go: Supernatural Elements in G. M. Wilson's Detective Novels

I have ghosts on my mind lately, as many of you probably can guess, so I thought I'd take the time to write up two effective examples of the use of ghosts and the supernatural in murder mysteries. G. M. Wilson, whose work I've discussed before, wrote books I find to be of striking originality. Her fascination for occult and eerie events shows up frequently -- sometimes ingeniously -- in her detective novels.

Through sheer luck I managed to come across a copy of Wilson's first attempt at a supernatural detective novel, an extremely scarce book to come by no matter where you live. Bury That Poker (1957) is not only her debut as a mystery novelist it is one of the rare examples of a detective novel that incorporates genuine supernatural content rather than a rationalized explanation of the ghost activity and hauntings. Quite aptly Wilson subtitles her book "A Detective Story in a Haunted House" and from the very first paragraph she sets up an ominous atmosphere:
It hung by the living-room fireplace, an ordinary domestic iron poker. Well, not ordinary, perhaps; its age alone lifted it out of the commonplace. [...] It's chief claim to distinction was the handle, which the maker--a grim Puritan craftsman with analogies of hell-fire on his mind--had hammered into the likeness of a grinning Satanic face.
How can you stop reading, right? A diabolic fireplace poker with a handle carved to resemble the face of Satan? Give me more, I say.

We then learn of the history of the poker and the horrible fate that befell the Venner family. A cursed object, the poker was used as a weapon in three murders, one of which was dubbed the "Cain and Abel" murder because the victim was named Abel and the killer was his brother. The poker contuse to hold power over anyone who comes in contact with it it. An old woman dying in prison summons inspector John Crawford in order to make a deathbed confession and mumbles something to him about a poker.  A painter named Paul who claims to have "psychometric ability" has flashbacks to the 17th century when he handles the poker.  Knowing all this about the poker the title begins to make a lot of sense. No one should have that horrible thing around their house.

Wilson manages to incorporate her usual crime in the past to complicate matters, all sorts of family secrets, and a young girl who is triggering poltergeist activity into the intriguing plot. The detective aspects are very well done with some nicely imagined fair play clueing like the alarm clock in the attic business. Still as a first book it is not without some minor faults the most telling is her indecision about which of her policemen characters (Crawford and Lovick) she wants to be her leading man.

She wavers between the two as primary sleuths - Crawford acting as the Fox Mulder half of this duo being more willing to accept paranormal activity than the skeptical Lovick who can't be bothered with ghosts and poltergeist and cursed objects. Oddly, though Crawford is Lovick's equal he is treated almost like the brilliant amateur whose theories are dismissed if not entirely ignored. The strengths of the story lie in the intensity of Wilson's treatment of the supernatural sequences which are genuine and not fraudulent. The denouement of Bury That Poker is rather spinetingling. This is one book I'd like to see turned into a movie.

It Rained That Friday (1960) was her fifth detective novel and it is much more accomplished.  This time Wilson turns to the world of psychic phenomena rather than ghosts as the springboard for one of her more original and well thought plots. In the middle of a blistering summer Rose Todd sees and feels rain, autumnal weather and remembers a specific afternoon in October. Once again the opening paragraph sets the tone perfectly:

It was the name that did it. When you're looking for a quiet cottage to retire to, and you find one for sale on an island called Todd's island, and your own name happens -- quite fortuitously -- to be Todd, too, why then you can be excused for looking on it as the finger of Fate.

Rose and her sister Charlotte end up buying Todd House where fifty years ago Mary Todd ran away and was never seen again. The strange thing is that Mary disappeared in July. Why then is Rose having visions of a rainy Friday in October? Is Rose having delusional hallucinations? Can she really see into the past? Or is she having visions of events yet to come?

A few weeks after moving into their new home their neighbor and Mary's sister, Louise, is found stabbed to death in a glade. Lovick and Crawford are on the case again and almost immediately they turn up a puzzling piece of information: there is no official record of Rose Todd being a sister of Charlotte. As the investigation continues there are a number of accidental deaths and the uncovering of more secrets in the past, a favorite Wilson plot device. The key to understanding the motive for all the killings is hidden among all those secrets. Crawford and Lovick ferret out the truth with a little help from Rose and her psychic skills.

The characters in It Rained that Friday are just are well drawn and individual as Bury that Poker. Wilson tends to be fond of populating her books with eccentric spinsters though Jem Roker, the troubled groundskeeper of Todd House, is one of her better fully dimensional male characters. The Norfolk settings in both novels are always a highlight with all the sights, scents and sounds that make for an immersive reading experience. Like P. M. Hubbard, whose books feature settings so alive they become integral characters, Wilson has a similar talent in evoking places that are vital and breathing as any human character.

G. M. Wilson's Mystery & Detective Novels
(Books with known supernatural or occult content are marked with *.  Books reviewed on this blog have hyperlinks.)

*Bury That Poker (1957)
*I Was Murdered (1957)
*Thirteen Stannergate (1958)
*Shadows on the Landing (1959)
*It Rained That Friday (1960)
*Witchwater (1961)
Three Fingered Death (1961)
Roberta Died (1962)
*Nightmare Cottage (1963)
*Murder on Monday (1963)
Shot at Dawn (1964)
The Devil's Skull (1965)
*The Headless Man (1967)
Cake for Caroline (1967)
Do Not Sleep (1968)
Death Is Buttercups (1969)
*A Deal Of Death Caps (1970)
The Bus Ran Late (1971)
She Kept on Dying (1972)
Gipsies Don't Have Them (1974)
She Sees Things (1975)
*Death on a Broomstick (1977)

17 comments:

  1. Interesting sounding books, John. My only experience of the cross-genre is through Carr's attempts - minor in the case of Fire, Burn and The Devil In Velvet and slightly more involved in The Burning Court. I'd be intrigued to see a more involved attempt - I'll try and keep and eye out for Wilson's work.

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    1. Sorry for mistaking you for Les Blatt, Steve. I saw "classicmystery" and immediately thought of his blog and not yours. I always think of you as "the Puzzle Doctor" and I thought that was your commenting moniker. Anyway, thanks for stopping by with the insights above and the defense below.

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    2. This is not the first time Puzzle Doctor has called himself classicmystery. For example,see your post on Groaning Spinney by Gladys Mitchell

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    3. I have two options on Blogspot - Google with my real name or WordPress with classicmystery. Hence the latter, I'm afraid. As it is, I can only seem to get a comment to appear about 1 go in 10... V frustrating.

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  2. "... an extremely scarce book to come by no matter where you live."
    What is the purpose of reviewing such a book except to......?

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    1. To inspire us to try and search it out? To give a bit of recognition to an author that most of the world has never heard of? Or to warn us off investing money in something that might not be our cup of tea? That's three reasons off the top of my head...

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    2. Thanks, Les. My reply (spoken to my partner) was not publishable on this blog. HA! The purpose of this blog is, after all, presenting "obscure, forgotten and well wroth reading" genre fiction. Sometimes that also means the books are hard to find. But there is always the interlibrary loan services that most people have forgotten about. Good ol' reliable public and university libraries are still a valuable resource to many readers in helping locate these gems.

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    3. I think the name is Steve, not Les !

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  3. John these books sound wonderful. How you find all these rare books is amazing. I LOVE the covers! Where I am moving this month there is a very large used bookstore still, amazing nowadays! Old books everywhere and I'm hopeful I'll find great books through them! Thanks for sharing!

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    1. I wish you nothing but a treasure trove of vintage mystery gems in your book hunting in your soon to be new home. Happy hunting, Peggy Ann!

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  4. Hi John, great review I have collected and read detective fiction for many years and yet through sites such as yours I am constantly being introduced to authors that I have never come across before. I will definitely keep an eye out for these. I love detective stories with ghostly elements and enjoyed RC Ashby's out went the taper which I read in the summer. Although they often have a rationalized explanation I am also a big fan of Norman Berrow's books and their spooky covers! Keep up the great work
    Clint

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    1. Ashby's other supernaturally inspired detective novel HE ARRIVED AT DUSK is far superior to OUT WENT THE TAPER. It's my favorite of her mystery novels I've read so far and I highly recommend it. In my pre-blog days I reviewed it over at Mystery*File. Mark Valentine, who wrote the foreword to the new Valancourt Books reprint of HE ARRIVED AT DUSK, kindly cited my essay that he stumbled across in doing research on Ashby (aka Ruby Ferguson).

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  5. I have read a few of Wilson's novels (and own several more), though not these two - she definitely excels at setting and atmosphere. I also rather like both Inspector Lovick and Miss Purdy. I wish I'd read these so that I'd have more to contribute here (the ones I've read so far: Death on a Broomstick, She Kept On Dying, and A Deal of Death Caps).

    It's an interesting conundrum, because I wish that Wilson's books were more readily available and better known, and yet at the same time their scarcity adds a certain enjoyment to hunting them down and reading them.

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    1. Of those you list above I've read only A Deal of Death Caps, not a particularly intriguing plot even though it had some witchcraft business, but her inclusion of racial tension with the introduction of the African couple in a predominantly white neighborhood was surprising. Very timely for the era. I found someone on eBay who had a huge Wilson library he wanted to get rid of and I bought them all. Then a dealer in the UK unearthed a trove of Wilson books in DJ and I bought most of those. I'm only missing four or five titles now and I plan to be reading more of her work next year. I'll most likely write about the unusually plotted books and those with supernatural content.

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    2. I'll look forward to the coming posts! I agree that A Deal of Death Caps wasn't the most inspired; I enjoyed it but wouldn't rave about it. The portrayal of the African couple was fairly sensitive for its time, I thought.

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  6. Sounds incredibly appealing John and I really do want to check these out. I'll see if I can get 'It Rained That Friday'

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  7. These sound delightful, John. And that first cover is particularly appealing. Would I could find it in time to count it for my Vintage Scavenger Hunt next year.

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