Arabella Kenealy’s Lord Syfret: A Nebulous and Wayward Occult Detective

I’ve been working on the Introduction to Eerie Cases and Early Graves: 5 Short-Lived Occult Detective Series, and to doublecheck one of my points, I needed to reread Arabella Kenealy’s “Some Experiences of Lord Syfret” series. To be clear, this series is not a short one — and it won’t appear in the anthology — because there are eleven tales in all. That could fill a book all on their own.

As far as I know, no such book featuring all the Syfret adventures has ever been published (and the reason for that will probably become apparent as you continue to read this post). After the eleven tales appeared in Ludgate Magazine from June, 1896, to April, 1897, only seven of them were collected along with seven more, unrelated pieces in Kenealy’s Belinda’s Beaux and Other Stories (Bliss, Sands, 1897), a book that’s very tough to find.

At times, Syfret fits my criteria for being an occult detective pretty well. Or well enough. At other times, he does not at all. It is as if Kenealy were hoping to capture some of the magic of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, which had burst on the scene about ten years earlier. Unfortunately, Kenealy wasn’t able to pin down a fictional world or even a central character as distinctive, as consistent, or as clearly drawn as Holmes.

As a result, the series wanders, and Syfret remains obscure. Some stories involve the supernatural. Some are more conventional criminal mysteries. Some might be categorized as psychological mysteries, but some aren’t really mysteries at all. Some barely involve Syfret! Most of the stories are fairly good individually, but Kenealy’s series lacks the cohesion needed for a proper series.

Kenealy’s Lord Syfret

Here are my notes on each of the stories:

“The Haunted Child”: There’s a ghost and reincarnation, so the story is decidedly supernatural. Syfret solves the mystery — making this tale probably the one that most accomodates the occult detective genre — but he isn’t able to vanquish or appease the ghost. In terms of character, we learn that Syfret has an estate, and he says, “I was a magistrate. . . .” But there are almost no other details to describe him.

“In a Terrible Grip”: This is a bit like Agatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington in that Syfret sees something strange in a house that he passes on a train and then investigates it. It’s also a bit like Edgar Allan Poe’s “Berenice” in that teeth become a key motif. No supernatural elements appear, and again, we learn next to nothing about Syfret as a character.

“The Villa of Simpkins”: This is a howdunit murder mystery, and Syfret takes the lead in solving it. The tale opens with him experiencing a precognitive sense of tragedy regarding a particular house, but that’s as supernatural as this one gets. Again, Syfret is presented as the lord of a landed estate. And he dislikes publicity, and he has a yacht. I suppose that’s something.

“The Wolf and the Stork”: Syfret watches — and often tries to avoid — the main players in this story of a wealthy mother hoping to “marry off” her ditzy daughter. Nothing supernatural here, and no insights into Syfret’s source of income (though his wealth becomes apparent). He’s happy as a bachelor.

“Stronheim’s Extremity”: Again, Syfret assumes the role of an observant bystander during an incident involving a precious coin. Nothing supernatural. Nothing new about Syfret’s character.

“A Beautiful Vampire”: A nice, if somewhat predictable, tale of psychic vampire — so we’re definitely back on supernatural terrain. If you like this kind of thing, consider also reading Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “Luella Miller.” Again, Syfret stays at a distance in this adventure — Nurse Marian does the actual legwork — and the only new thing we learn about him comes when he says, “Among my clientèle I numbered several trained nurses.” But what does that mean?

“Honoria’s Hero”: Wow, here’s a confusing story! Uhm, as far as I can tell, there are crazy people doing crazy things and criminals trying to do criminal things. No supernatural.

“Prince Ranjichatterjee’s Vengeance”: One thing that can be said about Syfret’s character is he sure likes to pry into other people’s business. Here, he forces himself into a situation with an unhappy marriage and a missing/stolen diamond necklace. Be aware that Kenealy presents Indian and Jewish characters with very demeaning stereotypes. Nothing supernatural to see here.

“The Metamorphosis of Peter Humby”: This feels like it was never meant to be a Syfret piece. So far, Syfret has acted as narrator, but this one opens with third-person narration and then presents information that Syfret never could’ve known (such as specific dialog). Well into the story, a first-person narrator arrives. We presume that’s Syfret. Even then he doesn’t have much of anything to do with what happens. Maybe this tale is a spoof of realism, which is presented as turning ugliness into art — a very limited understanding of realism, indeed! Then again, this might be a generous interpretation.

“The Beautiful Mrs. Tompkins”: With supernatural and criminal mysteries long behind us, Kenealy presents what amounts to a tragic love story. Syfret only appears in a short preface, saying he got the manuscript from “a medical woman.” Oh, it’s a fine story, I guess — by itself. But it’s easy to assume that the author and the editor of Ludgate never should have agreed to a series.

“An Ogre in Tweeds”: Another tragic love story with no supernatural, no crime, and no mystery. As with “The Metamorphosis of Peter Humby,” Kenealy spotlights a physically ugly man. An interesting topic, perhaps, especially in a culture that put a high price on beauty — both female and male — but there’s no lesson in inner beauty here. Ugly men, says Kenealy, are ugly people. Wow.

As I say, Kennealy didn’t seem to have a very clear vision for Syfret, beyond his being a member of the gentry with time and money enough to poke around in other people’s lives. Unless there’s a shelf for Busybody Fiction, that’s a pretty wide umbrella, and it makes the Syfret series a tough one to box into any particular genre. At times, defying genre constraints is a good thing! I’m not so sure it is here, though.

Needless to say, I’m glad the series doesn’t fit into Eerie Cases and Early Graves: 5 Short-Lived Occult Detective Series. Not numerically. Not generically. Not in terms of consistency or quality. To find out what is in my next anthology, visit its page. It should be available well before Halloween.

— Tim

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