[Reblogged from: http://greydogtales.com/blog/the-singe-of-four-a-case-of-peculiar-detectives/#respond]
Having recently read various pieces by others (some serious, some mocking) on the nature of those who investigate the less than ordinary, we feel it only proper to share an illuminating short story which encapsulates the methods of four outstanding detectives of the late Victorian and early Edwardian period:
- Sherlock Holmes (via Arthur Conan Doyle), who considered his work to be entirely apart from the supernatural, if such a thing existed at all, and saw it as having no relevance to “this agency”, as he put it.
- Thomas Carnacki (via William Hope Hodgson), who preferred to approach cases practically, with an eye to possible hoaxes and mundane explanations, but was open to supernatural or paranromal influences having a part to play.
- John Silence (via Algernon Blackwood), who considered unusual cases from a spiritual and philosophical point of view, though he would not have chosen the epithet of ‘psychic doctor’ which some attached to him.
- Flaxman Low (via E. and H. Heron), who blended a robust mixture of science, psychic and psychological knowledge, combined with his athletic past, to confront anything brought to his attention.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Everything you read below is true. And may also be a pack of lies. You asked the wrong guard at the door.
The Singe of Four
J. Linseed Grant
(Limited edition of seventeen hand-written pamphlets, Dombey & Daughters, London, 1909)
It was typical of Carnacki that he would say nothing of his most recent adventure, or of the fact that his eyebrows appeared to have been well nigh burned away, until after we had finished our usual excellent dinner at his place. Once we were ensconced in the study with brandies and cigars, however, he gave us that wry smile of his.
“I recently had the uncommon opportunity,” he began, “To undertake a case with others of the detecting persuasion, namely no less than Sherlock Holmes himself, Dr John Silence and Mr Flaxman Low.
“Good heavens!” I exclaimed. “Perhaps the four finest experts on strange mysteries in all of England!”
He bowed his head appreciatively. “Thank you, Dodgson. I will spare you the highly improbable circumstances which led to this gathering of eminent investigators, but say only that, after some days of fervent detective work, we ended up in a disreputable and abandoned old theatre, just off Drury Lane.
“I myself would have looked for some assistance from the Constabulary, under the circumstances, but my colleagues preferred their own approaches. Besides, there was a nasty cold going around Scotland Yard that week; both Inspectors Lestrade and Bradstreet had notes from their mothers excusing them from going out without scarves. Thus the building was empty, save for ourselves and our quarry.
“And what a quarry! My fellow detectives and I had trapped – yes, trapped – a most unusual villain, whose appearance was that of a well-preserved Egyptian relict – a mummy, no less. Or it had trapped us.
“Lit by only by a medley of bulls-eye lanterns and unreliable electric torches, we saw this most ab-natural thing advancing on our position on the theatre stage. Its ruined, linen-wrapped hands rose as it came closer, and its eyes glowed with an eerie green luminescence.
“ ‘Phosphorescent paint, clearly,’ murmured Holmes. ‘I am dogged by the stuff – and you can see the brush-strokes, in the style possibly of one of Shinwell Johnson’s more accomplished–’
“ ‘I sense a psychic invasion,’ Silence interrupted.
“ ‘Hang on, just loading my revolver,’ said Low.
“Our situation was made all the more perilous by the presence of Holmes’ habitual amanuensis, Dr John Watson, who had fallen at an inopportune moment – the stage was in poor repair – and twisted his ankle. Like a girl.
“ ‘Leave me to this demon’s touch and save yourselves!’ the stout fellow cried, but Holmes would have none of that.
“ ‘Nonsense, old friend.’ The Great Detective readied himself for a display of baritsu, that obscure method of self-defence for which he is known. Either that, or he had an attack of cramp. ‘I have no doubt we can prevail. Despite my colleagues’ assertions, I reject the presence of anything supernatural. The villain has cunningly disguised himself as a relict of the reign of Amenhotep II, in order to conceal his true identity. I wrote a monograph on certain aspects of the 18th Dynasty whilst dissecting this morning’s breakfast kippers.
“ ‘From his bearing, I would say he poses as one of the priestly-caste, and from the state of his crumpled bandages, one of the lower devotees, unmarried and inclined to a sedentary life. He is left-handed, and has recently been in the vicinity of–’
“ ‘Hush now, Sherlock.’ Dr Silence gave Holmes a gentle and yet imperious glance (a trick that I’ve never mastered, personally). ‘Let us eschew your extended deductive process, and gather our psychic strength for the battle to come. If you others but contribute your purer thoughts to my own not inconsiderable will, I will utilise my fearless nature and unselfish motives to purge the creature – and these environs – of evil radiation.’
“Before I could add my own comment, Flaxman Low leapt forward, straight into the path of the shambling figure.
“ ‘If you will recall, gentlemen,’ he called out. ‘I predicted this situation at the very start of our adventure – though admittedly I neglected to inform any of you of the solution. It is obvious that the soul of a murdered Vaudeville performer has become entangled with elemental spirits dwelling beneath London, and, in seeking to become corporeal, has assumed this guise under the influence of the recent exhibition at the British Museum. Actors – dead or alive – are dreadfully inclined to mimickry.’
“So saying he shot the mummy five times in the face, kicked it between the legs, and, throwing his lantern in its general direction, set fire to the entire theatre. We were fortunate to be able to drag Dr Watson out in time, plunging through the flames with him in tow.”
I looked at Carnacki in astonishment, as did Arkright, Taylor and Jessop.
“That explains the singed eyebrows,” I said.
“John Silence lost most of his beard in the conflagration,” said my friend, with a gleam of satisfaction. “A veritable King of Spain.”
“But Carnacki, did you play no real part in the denouement of this affair, then?”
He smiled. “Dodgson, you know my fondness for practical techniques. Despite not having packed my electric pentacle, I and my trusty camera played a vital role, solving a most vexing problem to my entire satisfaction.”
“Your camera?” Arkright looked puzzled.
“Indeed.” Carnacki reached down the side of his armchair and held up a large manilla envelope. “Here I hold several dozen photographic prints, having had the foresight to take shots of the entire event, from our entry into the theatre until its collapse in a pile of burning rubble. The developed prints clearly show various stages of Holmes, Silence and Low ‘in action’.”
We examined the photographs, offering a chorus of low whistles and murmurs. The Ghost Finder had indeed captured these three great detectives at their finest. The light of knowledge and self-confidence which shone from Dr Silence’s fine features, Holmes’ hawk-like nose and deep intelligence – and Flaxman Low’s enthusiastic expression at the prospect of wrecking things.
“But what problem,” I asked, “Do these pictures solve?”
“The otherwise insuperable problem,” said Carnacki, “That my rent is due at the end of the week, and I m stony broke, as they say! Come now, chaps – three shillings a print, or a guinea for eight.”
We may have grumbled, but yes, we paid up. After all, Carnacki the Ghost Finder was our friend – and he had the only key to the locked and bolted front door…