A character known only as Mr. Curtis appears in Sarah P.E. Hawthorne’s 1888 short story “The Ghost of the Grate.” He’s one of the very few occult detectives from the 1800s who’s also a professional detective (albeit in the crime-solving business). In fact, for a moment, I wondered if he might be the first professional detective on my Chronological Bibliography. But, no, this honor belongs to Mr. Burton from Seeley Regester’s The Dead Letter, which was published in 1866.
Still, Burton falls under the heading of a divining-detective due to his using his daughter’s clairvoyance and his own semi-psychic abilities to conduct a criminal investigation. Curtis, on the other hand, confronts a supernatural manifestation — and he accepts the reality of it before solving the mystery. In fact, in the concluding paragraph of his first-person narrative, he says: “I had never been a believer in the supernatural, and this was my first and only experience with the great unexplainable.” As such, Hawthorne’s Mr. Curtis stands as very fitting example of the novice occult detective.
Though the story itself is a bit lackluster and conventional, it works well to illustrate how occult detective fiction challenges traditional mystery fiction by having its key investigator character confront a mystery that goes beyond the physical and the rational. This, of course, has philosophic implications regarding whether or not we can understand the whole of our world through scientific exploration.
Curtis mentions an earlier case he had handled, and I wondered if Hawthorne might’ve written that story or any others with this detective. I don’t think she did. In fact, I couldn’t dig up much information at all on the author herself. Some cursory research reveals she lived in Maine. She was a “regular contributor” to a magazine called Success with Flowers and had regional fiction published in Peterson’s and Demorest’s. There’s a brief biography in The Literary World that says Hawthorne wrote humorous pieces known as the “Simon Ciders” letters. It doesn’t appear that she specialized in supernatural or mystery fiction, so “The Ghost of the Grate” was probably a one-time lark. About the most curious thing I discovered is that her maiden name is the same as her detective’s: Curtis.
“The Ghost of the Grate” is not a great story. If it’s predictable, it’s also short. For students and fans of early occult detective fiction, it’s likely worth fifteen minutes of your time.