rosemary edghill: Murder by Magic

Murder by Magic


Murder by Magic
edited by Rosemary Edghill
Warner Books (October 2004)
ISBN: 0-446-67962-3


It's a truism of Publishing that sooner or later, every author wants to commit murder, and I have proof: a new take on the mean streets from Laura Resnick, a charmingly chilling story from Carole Nelson Douglas, alternate police procedurals from Josepha Sherman and Keith deCandido -- detectives amateur, private, and decidedly outside the law, in settings ranging from the haunted galleries of Elizabethan England to the worlds of the Eraasian Hegemony. And from Jennifer Roberson, perhaps the strangest detective of all.

But why these murders? Why murders at all, for that matter? Why mix murder and magic?

It's a long story.

In one sense, every story is a mystery -- at least to its author, even if it isn't intended to be a mystery for the reader. How do you get the characters from here to there, and the story from "Chapter One" to "The End"? So I suppose an interest in unraveling that sort of puzzle leads naturally to an interest in mysteries, but in point of cold hard fact, I was a mystery reader long before I began the daunting process of becoming a writer. I suppose it's a circular argument in a way. Writers like puzzles and mysteries because they spend so much of their professional life solving them.

As for why occult mysteries, well . . . there's a basic rule of fiction that I've always followed.

If you want to keep a reader's attention, keep raising the stakes.

It's like this.

Murder is the most unnatural act, a crime that often requires the keenest and most insightful investigator, whether official or amateur, to solve it. The investigations, and the theories, are bounded by the laws of possibility, if not probability, and so the murderer is eventually identified and brought to justice.

But what if, once you eliminated the impossible, what you had left were still impossible? What if a killer could be in two places at once, kill from a distance, or enter a locked room without a trace? What if, in a world where magic was a fact of everyday life, a killer were to commit a crime by purely mechanical means?

I'm not the first person to have thought of this, of course. Crime and the supernatural have long been a popular mix. Nearly every detective worth the name has at least dabbled in a case touching on the occult at some point in his career -- even Lord Peter Wimsey, in The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey undertook to solve a case of supposed witchcraft and demonic possession.

To do even the sketchiest history of the occult detectives would require a full book, not just a few pages. I'll try to hit one or two of the high points here, but in order to even begin to winnow things out, I need to stick to series where most of the detective's adventures focus on the occult, and to leave out single-title works entirely. So Dracula isn't here, or The Exorcist, although you could make a strong case for both Dr. Abraham Van Helsing and Fr. Lancaster Merrin being occult detectives.

Nor to I have the space to get into movies, comics, or television, though that means I have to leave out Ghostbusters, Exorcist-the-movie; Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts; The Sixth Sense; Kolchack: The Night Stalker; The X-Files; Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Charmed; and many more that would certainly otherwise be worth mentioning for their influence on the field.


The Occult Detective -- often called a ghosthunter or Ghost Breaker -- found his (almost always "his" in those early days) first true flowering in the world of the pulps and the proto-pulps, in an era when there were hundreds of magazines on the newsstands every month, and thousands of stories published every year. And now, a few pages from our "angels gallery". . . .

Dr. John Silence was the creation of Algernon Blackwood, perhaps best remembered today as a horror writer. Silence first appears in 1908, with a final adventure dated 1914, though the early adventures may only have appeared in book form. Silence is an archetypal OD: like many of his successors, he is independently wealthy, a member of the professions, and possesses psychic powers himself, gained through rigorous years of study.

Jules de Grandin was the brainchild of pulp master Seabury Quinn, and appeared almost exclusively in the original incarnation of the magazine Weird Tales. Unlike Silence, de Grandin is all flamboyance and quirks, rather like a ramped-up Poirot. He's referred to as "The Sherlock Holmes of the Supernatural", and he makes his way with great verve and an immoderate body count through a host of zombies, vampires, and other ghoulies in the 93 adventures that appeared from 1925 through 1951. De Grandin is notable for having both connections to French Intelligence and a military background, both of which he exploits in his fight for good.

Carnacki the Ghost-Finder is the OD of William Hope Hodgson, who is best remembered today for his classic dark fantasy The House On The Borderland. Carnacki's first adventure appeared in 1912, and he flourished in various British and American magazines through 1947, his career overlapping those of both Doctor Silence and de Grandin. Like Doctor Silence, Carnacki is a psychic investigator, called in to investigate occult disturbances, but unlike other occult detectives, he always attempts to eliminate any mundane cause through the scientific method before turning to the "Black Arts" to solve the crime.

Dr. Taverner, who appears in twelve stories originally published in Royal Magazine at unknown dates, and first collected in 1926 as a book titled The Secrets of Dr. Taverner, is the creation of Violet Mary Firth, who wrote under the pen name Dion Fortune, a pen-name taken from her family motto, dio et fortuna. Possibly unique among the ranks of the creators of the ODs, Fortune was herself a practicing occultist, a member of the Golden Dawn. She claimed to have based Taverner on her mentor, Dr. William Moriarty, and said that her Taverner stories were "studies in little-known aspects of psychology put in the form of fiction because, if published as a serious contribution to science, they would have no chance of a hearing."

Beginning in the 'thirties, Manley Wade Wellman gave us three classic ODs: Judge Keith Hilary Pursuivant (1938-1982), a retired judge who has devoted himself to a study of the occult; John Thunstone (1943-1985), a renowned scholar of independent means whose passion is the occult (and who, oddly enough, possesses a blessed silver-bladed sword cane identical to Judge Pursuivant's); and Silver John (1946-1987), sometimes known as John the Balladeer. Of the three, Silver John, a soft-spoken countryman who plays a silver-strung guitar and whose adventures are drawn from the folklore and mysticism of the American South, is perhaps best known. All three characters shared the same universe, and met each other at various times.

Marion Zimmer Bradley was best known for her fantasy and science fiction novels, but she also authored quite a large body of occult and gothic novels and stories. Colin MacLaren is her occult detective, who appears with his psychic partner Claire Moffat in four books: Witch Hill, Dark Satanic, The Inheritor, and the collaboration Heartlight, which was written with yours truly.

With the diminishing of the pulp market and the rise of the paperback novel at the end of WWII, the classic OD became less prevalent. But you certainly can't keep a good man (or woman) down, and the OD quickly found a new home in the SF and Fantasy field, shedding much of his pulp-horror background in the process.

A distinct sub-genre of the OD is the tale set in an alternate universe where the ground-rules are decidedly different, but the problems of detection and justice remain the same. Three examples:

Lord Darcy, whose original adventures appeared from 1964 to 1980, is the creation of SF master Randall Garrett. Darcy is an investigator for Richard, Duke of Normandy, in an alternate universe where magic works and the Plantagenet dynasty rules to this day over a low-tech Anglo-Norman Empire. Garrett gave us classic puzzle-based mysteries, sticking firmly to the rules of his "scientific" magic and filled with allusions to the classics of the mystery field.

Glen Cook provides an archetypal hard-luck hard-boiled gumshoe, also (coincidentally) named Garrett. Garrett has appeared in ten novels since 1987, and doesn't seem to have a first name as of this writing. The difference between Garrett and the classic mean streets private eye is that Garrett hangs his hat in another world: the city of TunFaire, a decaying outpost of the Karentine Empire, a corrupt (in all senses of the word) city populated by elves, giants, centaurs, pixies, wizards, and just about anything else that ever escaped from a fairy tale. In a tip of the hat to Rex Stout, Garret shares his lodgings with The Dead Man, a massive creature who isn't a man but is certainly dead. And quite grumpy about it. Philip Marlowe would certainly recognize Garrett's problems, if not their packages.

Anita Blake, vampire executioner, is the creation of Laurel K. Hamilton, and has appeared in nine novels since 1993. Anita lives in a world where vampires and other supernatural creatures have come "out of the closet" and into the mundane world, much in the tradition of Dean R. Koontz' 1973 classic The Haunted Earth. Anita, who has the innate ability to animate the dead, executes rogue vampires for the State of Missouri. And to her surprise, she finds that the supernatural community has begun coming to her to investigate crimes.

And that brings us to the modern day, and the wonderful assortment of choices, both traditional and non-traditional, awaiting the connoisseur of the OD. Just a few more examples . . . .

If the strong Doctor Silence type is your meat and drink, Katherine Kurtz and Deborah Turner Harris have chronicled the cases of Adam Sinclair, the Adept, who has appeared in five novels since 1991. Sinclair is a member of a British "Hunting Lodge", a magickal fraternity whose job is to find Black Magicians and neutralize them.

Vicky (for Victory, not Victoria) Nelson is the creation of SF and Fantasy writer Tanya Huff. Vicky is a former cop now working as a PI, who finds herself investigating the paranormal side of Toronto with the help of vampire Henry Fitzroy in five books written from 1991-1997. Though apparently there are to be no more Vicky Nelson books, Vicky's adventures have continued in a series of short stories.

Diana Tregarde (1989-1999) is the creation of fantasy author Mercedes Lackey -- who you'll find represented in Murder By Magic by a story from her Elemental Masters series. Diana is a romance writer by day and a member of an elite supernatural occult sentry force called the Guardians just about all the time. Unlike many other ODs, Tregarde has to juggle limited time and limited money with the demands of her occult calling to make ends meet.

Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald both have separate stories in Murder by Magic, though they are better known for their collaborations on Mageworlds and other popular series. Peter Crossman, Templar secret agent and priest (1998-present), has appeared in three collaborative short stories in Katherine Kurtz's Tales of the Knights Templar anthologies, and one solo novel authored by Macdonald, The Apocalypse Door. Peter generally finds that his assignments for the Inner Temple deal with the Ungodly in all senses of the word, and we can certainly hope to see more of him in the future.

I owe Peter Crossman (and his amanuenses) a personal debt of gratitude as well, because without Debra Doyle, you would not be holding this anthology in your hands at all. A few years back, she and I were both guests at a DarkoverCon together, discussing, as writers will, the Great Unwritten Stories we wanted to write and never would, simply because there just didn't seem to be a home for stories that blurred the lines between fantasy and mystery. She mentioned a story she'd always wanted to write, about a "country house" murder in the Mageworlds universe, where magic was a fact of life. A mystery that -- literally -- could not have occurred -- or been solved -- anywhere else.

"But who would publish an occult mystery set in an SF universe?" she said, shrugging.

"You write it," I said. "I'll edit the anthology."

And so Murder By Magic was born. Thanks, Debra. I owe it all to you, and to the other fine writers who came along to play.

We all hope you'll enjoy your foray into the shadows, where impossible crimes are commonplace. I've gotten you some excellent guides.

Take my hand.
There's nothing to fear.
Or nothing much. . . .