A Psychical Diagnosis
[I]t’s possible that you’ve inherited some psychic tradition. There are families, for instance, that hand down from generation to generation the clairvoyant tendency we know by the name of second sight.
This speculative diagnosis is made by Dr. Philip Fosdick in Louis Joseph Vance’s 1920 novel The Dark Mirror. The doctor fits my definition of an occult detective by accepting the reality of clairvoyance and, specifically, teleæsthetia. The latter is perceiving things without the usual sense organs, such as seeing something going on miles and miles away. Think of having a television inside your head. A psychoanalyst, Fosdick is a member of the doctor-detective tradition that includes such key occult detective figures as Drs. Taverner, Silence, Van Helsing, and Hesselius. He also uses fairly standard detective methods — including hiring a professional private detective to assist — in order to successfully solve the novel’s central mystery.
That said, the doctor is almost a minor character, working in the background as the reader follows the strange story of his patient/client much more closely. He pops in now and again, and is granted “the big reveal” at the end, but this is not a step-by-step account of the investigation itself. Instead, the novel spotlights his patient, Priscilla Maine. She’s a painter living a double life through frighteningly real dreams. At first, one wonders if the artistic Priscilla might be having artistic delusions. But then Vance does quite well at complicating things as Maine’s waking life crosses paths with her more dangerous yet very romantic dream life. Promising stuff.
Prepare to Leap and Bring a Machete
Unfortunately, there are some plot holes. (How did Inez just happen to know where Mario was living?) In addition, some parts of the final solution are very predictable and show up in similar novels from well into the previous century.
There’s Vance’s overwrought language, too. Here’s an example of the thick wordage a reader must slash with a machete:
And insidiously the tranquil surface of that contentment was flawed by apprehensions of nameless danger, of peril latent, stealthy and implacable; as though the swimmer surmised some monstrous shape of evil skulking unseen in those opaque deeps — or felt herself subtly ensnared by a current whose irresistible set was altogether toward destruction.
Remember, this is 1920. Granted, the spare prose of, say, Ernest Hemingway hadn’t quite arrived yet, but Vance’s countrymen Mark Twain, Frank Norris, and other writers had been battling against such florid narrative style for decades.
Still, Worth the Effort
Despite those flaws, I enjoyed the novel. It’s hokey, and it’s melodramatic — yet Vance is not afraid to kill off characters, preventing a conventional happy ending. And it’s always a pleasure to meet criminal characters named Charlie the Coke or Harry the Nut, and to hear them talk the talk that Vance imagines New York street folks talk. Meanwhile, Priscilla — the uptown star of the show — is resourceful, daring, smart, and not at all a lackluster damsel in distress. There are narrow escapes aplenty, and poor Priscilla is usually the one escaping.
In fact, The Dark Mirror feels much like a Perils of Pauline-style silent-movie thriller, and it was quickly adapted to exactly that medium. (I wonder if Vance had this in mind when he was writing it.) The film still exists according to this and this source, but I haven’t found an online or a DVD copy of it. In the end, The Dark Mirror is far from top-notch occult detective fiction, but it would be interesting to see what the early movies did with this cross-genre.