Dr. Watson convinces Sherlock Holmes to take a relaxing trip to Surrey in “The Reigate Squires” (1894) and another one to Cornwall in “The Devil’s Foot” (1910). Ellery Queen planned to take a break on the coast in The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935). Hercule Poirot is on holiday in Devon in Evil Under the Sun (1941). Miss Marple’s sunny get-away is interrupted in The Caribbean Mystery (1964) as is her quite likely foggy get-away to London in At Bertran’s Hotel (1965). Needless to say, even on vacation, a detective can’t say no to investigating a good mystery.
This is the case in Marie Corelli’s Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul (1897), in which Dr. Maxwell Dean lounges among the British leisure-class as they travel through Egypt. It’s there that he uncovers a clandestine plot for revenge! The interesting part is that the original injustice being avenged happened a few millennium in the past.
Dr. Dean works on the theory that the cosmos finds a way to re-balance the scales of justice regardless of how long it takes, and this idea underlies the supernatural events of the novel. While I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, be aware that Corelli hardly bothers to do the same. Among other things, Dr. Dean’s frequent conversations about his theories make the ending pretty easy to predict. Unfortunately, he does not practice what he preaches: “There are certain subjects connected with psychic phenomena on which it is best to be silent.”
Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable novel. Corelli’s narrator has a humorously satirical tone, targeting upper-class British customs, values, and ethnocentrism. There’s almost a drawing-room comedy feel to some of the scenes, and the characters are engaging. For instance, while Dr. Dean is a distinctively drawn and likeable occult detective, the otherworldly figure in Ziska is much more mysterious than monstrous, even stirring readers’ sympathy. It becomes interesting to compare and contrast the English hero and the decidedly not English villain in this novel to those in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, both of which were published in the same year. In fact, 1897 was a banner year for occult detective fiction!
Despite his title, Dr. Dean is not among those occult detective characters I classify as “doctor-detective.” He’s not a medical doctor. Instead, he says, “I am a doctor of laws and literature,–a humble student of philosophy and science generally.” He seems fascinated by virtually everything, but he has specific experience in things supernatural. Along with having formulated theories about “scientific ghosts,” he is well-versed in “the discoveries of psychic science” and is “an investigator in psychic forms.” He says the case of Princess Ziska is “the most interesting problem I have had the chance of studying!” This implies he’s investigated other such problems, and all of this adds up to his being a specialist-detective.
At the same time, Dr. Dean is unusually passive for an occult detective. Sure, he detects a lot and solves puzzles and knows things that no one else seems to know. However, unlike Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula or Augustus Champnell in The Beetle, Dr. Dean takes no real action against the novel’s supernatural entity even after he’s figured out its dangerous, if not deadly, intentions.
This probably grows from Corelli’s efforts to affirm that there’s a realm beyond the physical world. Arguably, that’s the goal of any writer spinning a supernatural story, but it’s handled in an overt and downright heavy-handed way here. Corelli clearly wants to deflate the arrogance accompanying the notions that the vast universe is limited to the mere mundane and that puny humans are large and in charge. As Dr. Dean pontificates:
More wills than one have the working out of our destinies. . . . Man is not by any means supreme. He imagines he is but that is only one of his many little delusions. You think you will have your way; Gervase thinks he will have his way; I think I will have my way; but as a matter of fact there is only one person in this affair whose ‘way’ will be absolute, and that person is the Princess Ziska.
Princess Ziska, we learn, is not the unholy and unnatural foreign invader found in Dracula or The Beetle. No, she’s a supernatural “agent” tasked with — or, possibly, granted the opportunity to — right a crime left long unaddressed. Dr. Dean’s job is not to thwart that act of justice but to try to explain it to people living an age of materialism and skepticism.
As such, Corelli’s Ziska is not the usual occult detective versus scary monster story. Instead, it’s an occult detective versus fin de siècle secularization parable. If read with this mind, the novel becomes a clever twist on standard supernatural fiction.