Seeley Regester’s Mr. Burton counts on clairvoyance to solve a case. L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s Diana Marburg reads palms to identify criminals. Such divining-detective characters are probably not most occult detective fans’ first choice in reading. They tend to like it when the culprit or the case involves the supernatural, and if the detective uses supernatural means to solve the mystery, well, that’s okay. (But it’s still pretty cool when they have to rely more on their own human wits to win the day. Or, should I say, to win the night?)
Nonetheless, when occult detection is seen as a cross-genre of traditional mystery fiction and supernatural fiction, a detective who solves “natural” crimes with the aid of supernatural powers seems to have a rightful place in that cross-genre.
Now, what happens when the source of mystery is as much the clairvoyant character as the crime?
This is the premise of B.L. Farjeon’s Devlin the Barber (1888). The title character, as his name suggests, has a devilishness about him. Indeed, his landlady is convinced this demon barber is luring her husband toward ruination. The unnamed narrator, though, sees Devlin — and especially his ability to read the minds of those whose hair he cuts — differently. When the mystery of Devlin intersects with a murder mystery this narrator has been hired to investigate, the prospect of working with an assistant who can read minds becomes, well, very tempting indeed.
Herein lies the beauty of Devlin the Barber as well as the twist that makes this novel something other than a murder mystery with a contrived, clairvoyant cheat. Is this a Faustian story of an amateur detective tempted into using sinister if not sinful, supernatural means to solve his case? He is recently unemployed, after all, and he has been offered a lot of money to solve the murder. In this regard, Farjeon’s contribution to the tradition of what I’ve termed the divining-detective is particularly inventive.
Unfortunately, I found the novel’s pacing to be a problem. The landlady’s testimony of her dealings with Devlin takes up chapter after chapter after chapter . . . delaying the heart of the story, which is the relationship between the narrator/detective and Devlin. Once the detective forms a pact with Devlin, though, things pick up. The murder mystery is fairly easily solved and resolved, and it’s a touch goofy, too. However, the Devlin mystery provides a counterbalance to this that’s, well, rather hard to resist.