Stranger Than Fiction

August 2021

Deck-chair Detectives

By Dean Jobb

What could be a better summertime diversion than unraveling a real-life mystery? Pull up the nearest deck chair and check out these recent books that explore the world of mystery-solving and crime detection, from an illustrated guide that chronicles a century of forensic advances to a Canadian psychic who investigated murders and the curious tale of a ghost hunter at work in 1930s London.

 

STF-Aug21_The-Haunting-of-Alma-FieldingWho you gonna call? For London residents living in haunted houses or being tormented by poltergeists on the eve of World War Two, the answer was Nandor Fodor, ghostbuster-in-chief for the grandly named International Institute for Psychical Research. Acclaimed British writer Kate Summerscale—author of the Victorian Era true crime bestsellers The Wicked Boy and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher—immerses readers in Fodor’s strange world and a detective tale like no other in The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story (Penguin Press).

In 1938, Fielding and her household seemed to be under attack from a particularly rowdy and destructive ghost. Cups, saucers, and other objects flew through the air, apparently on their own, shattering against walls and narrowly missing occupants and visitors alike. An unseen hand reputedly pushed a boarder down a flight of stairs. Their son was lucky not to have been in his room when a wardrobe crashed onto his bed.

As soon as these strange events were reported in the press, Fodor was on the case. A Hungarian-born journalist, he had happened upon a book years before that explored what were then termed “supernormal” phenomenon and was hooked. He interviewed the sceptical Houdini and the true believer Conan Doyle, attended seances, and was certain his dead father had spoken to him. He became obsessed with proving that spirits and hauntings were real.

Fielding’s poltergeist, however, sent the ghost hunter in a new direction. Summerscale found Fodor’s file on the case, preserved in an archive in Cambridge and complete with interview transcripts and photographs. The trove of evidence allows the author to vividly recreate the haunting and its investigation. Fodor became convinced, Summerscale writes, that Fielding’s bizarre experiences established a link “between suffering and the supernatural” and showed that “repressed traumatic experiences could generate terrifying physical events.” In a twist worthy of a Hollywood movie, his amateur psychoanalysis won the endorsement of none other than Sigmund Freud.

Summerscale skillfully sets this tale of paranormal detection in its time and place, capturing the anxieties and spiritualist fervor that gripped Britons as their world teetered on the brink of another terrible war. Fodor unmasked phonies who claimed to be able to levitate flowers or make objects appear out of thin air, but the Fielding case would be his greatest challenge. Was she a supernormal superstar, a woman haunted by her past, or yet another publicity-seeking huckster? Find out in the pages of this riveting book.

 

Even the skeptical Fodor would no doubt have been impressed with the clairvoyant powers of Geraldine Smith. During the 1970s and 1980s the Ontario woman was Canada’s most famous and successful psychic, earning an international reputation for reading people and predicting the future. Her premonitions and insights into the lives of strangers, it was claimed, were accurate more than nine times out of ten.

STF-Aug21_The-Scientist-and-The-PsychicIn The Scientist and the Psychic: A Son’s Exploration of His Mother’s Gift (Random House Canada), Christian Smith combines a memoir of growing up in a strange household—imagine evening seances instead of family board games—with a personal quest to understand whether his mother’s psychic powers are real. Smith, who has a doctorate in molecular and cellular biology and manages a cancer research center in Toronto, brings a scientist’s objectivity to his review of an array of lab and control-group studies that have explored psychic phenomenon.

Given Geraldine’s reputation for accuracy, it was only a matter of time before families of missing persons and crime victims enlisted her as a “psychic sleuth” when police investigations hit a dead end. One of her first visions was of the spirit of a slain police officer, who begged her to warn his family of an impending house fire—a premonition that appears to have averted a potential disaster. Later, she pinpointed the location of the body of a missing child and provided eerily correct information that allowed police to find a twelve-year-old runaway who was hundreds of miles from her home.

Police forces in Toronto and later in Los Angeles, where Geraldine worked briefly in the early 1980s, rebuffed her offers to help with investigations. But while in California she helped bring closure to families who feared their sons were victims of L.A.’s “Freeway Killer” and was retained in one of the many failed bids to exonerate Jeffrey R. MacDonald, the army surgeon convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters in 1979.

While only a slice of Smith’s book delves into true crime, this is a fascinating detective-story-within-a-detective-story, as the author documents his mother’s formidable psychic powers while running a parallel investigation into how science struggles to explain the unexplainable.

 

STF-Aug21_Murder-Maps-Crime-Scenes-RevistedDrew Gray calls it “the geography of killing”—documenting the precise location where murders occurred as well as who killed, who was killed, when these tragedies happened, and how the police and the courts dealt with the perpetrators. And in Murder Maps: Crime Scenes Revisited. Phrenology to Fingerprint. 1811-1911 (Thames and Hudson), Gray—a British author and historian who specializes in Victorian crime—puts a century of murders in Britain, Europe, the United States, and Australia under the cartographic microscope.

“Mapping murder,” he explains, “allows us to explore homicides on both a micro and macro level.” He plots where individual murders occurred within major cities and on the American and Australian frontiers as well as the bloody trails left behind by serial killers, the new breed of monster that emerged during the nineteenth century. Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel is here, of course, as is Thomas Neill Cream’s Lambeth (the London neighbourhood where the Canadian doctor poisoned four women in the early 1890s) and the Auvergne region of southern France, where Joseph Vacher murdered as many as twenty-five young women and men before his arrest in 1897. Other maps record crimes committed by Italian bandits between 1805 and 1863, the addresses where men murdered their wives in Chicago in the late 1800s, and the scenes of twenty-one “murders for financial gain” committed in Paris before 1910.

More than 700 vintage photographs, mug shots, drawings, newspaper illustrations, streetscapes, and period maps are reproduced in its 224 pages, making this a harbinger of what may become a new subgenre of true crime: the coffee-table book for connoisseurs of murder and forensics. It also may be the ultimate reference guide to a century of murder and its investigation, with concise accounts of more than a hundred crimes and a handy spreadsheet listing killers alphabetically, from France’s Louis Allain to New York City saloonkeeper Thomas Young (who both murdered their estranged wives).

This deeply researched book is an engrossing journey into the macabre world of crime and punishment, exploring the origins of press sensationalism, the public’s insatiable appetite for lurid accounts of murders, the rise of forensic science, and the development of modern methods of detection. The crime-scene photographs of French forensics pioneer Alphonse Bertillon are stunning; the story-panel artists’ depictions of major crimes, published in London’s Illustrated Police News, echo today’s graphic novels. My only quibble? As a Canadian, I wanted Gray to turn northward during his historical road trip to the United States, to investigate Canada’s roster of lurid murders in this era.

 

STF-Aug21_Agatha-Christie-PoirotWho’s the best fictional detective of them all? If you said Hercule Poirot in the drawing room with the “little gray cells,” you’ll want to dive into Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World (HarperCollins), Mark Aldridge’s homage to the Belgian detective who never met a puzzle he couldn’t solve.

“Any attempt to create a conclusive biography of the detective is a futile task,” Aldridge notes at the outset. Even Christie, who deployed Poirot and his sleuthing skills in more than thirty novels and dozens of short stories, sometimes lost track of what she had written about his quirks and backstory, creating gaps and inconsistencies. Instead, Aldridge treats readers to a decade-by-decade review of Poirot’s starring turns on the page, onstage, on television, and in movies, from his debut a century ago in the novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles to the BBC’s 2018 mini-series The ABC Murders, with John Malkovich delivering a dark version of the detective. 

Along the way Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, and most recently Kenneth Branagh have portrayed Poirot on the screen as well, but to many Christie fans only David Suchet has managed to fully define and inhabit the character. His prissy, obsessive-compulsive, and utterly brilliant Poirot, in the television series that aired between 1989 and 2013, has become the iconic image. Suchet, who was determined to “bring the true Poirot to life,” read every novel and story featuring the detective to glean his mannerisms, how he talked, and even how he walked.

Aldridge, the author of a previous book on the television and film adaptations of Christie’s stories, had access to the writer’s archives and provides fascinating insights into how zealously her heirs and trustees have guarded the integrity of her work as producers lobbied for film rights (even subjecting Suchet to an interview to ensure he planned to present the character “in a properly authentic way”). The book is packed with enough facts, anecdotes, Poirot trivia, and backstory insights to please Christie fans as well as anyone who enjoys the mystery genre. The text is peppered with reproductions of book covers, promotional posters, and artists’ depictions of Poirot over the years. And it’s all presented spoiler-free, so newcomers to Poirot’s world can go on to enjoy the novels and stories they discover.

Actor and screenwriter Mark Gatiss, who appeared alongside Suchet in a 2008 version of Appointment with Death, contributes a foreword that praises the book as “delightful, detailed and compulsively readable.” In other words, it’s the perfect stimulation for the “little gray cells” on a lazy summer’s day.

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Dean Jobb’s new book The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream, released by Algonquin Books in July, recreates the crimes of a Victorian Era serial killer who preyed on women in Chicago, Canada, and England and became known as London’s feared Lambeth Poisoner. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb

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