Tag Archives: good reads

At Last – CSI: Edinburgh

OK, who can tell me what connects Silence of the Lambs with Edinburgh Old Town in the 1830s? Yes, the girl at the back, with the green hair and the switch-blade. No, sorry, it’s nothing to do with butchers this time. Not directly, anyway.

It’s the actor Brian Cox, of course.

So, that’s the end of another blog, and next time, we’ll…

What? You want to know why I asked? Oh, alright.

You see, I love Inspector McLevy. I think anyone who likes crime and detective stories, or police procedurals, would enjoy McLevy. He isn’t occult, psychic or any of those weird things you’ve come to expect from me. He’s a tough cop in a tough city. Rebus without a Saab.

And he was a real person, whose history I came across a while ago when I was looking for Victorian period detail. You know, like what brands of mobile phones they had in 1850, that sort of thing. I’m a meticulous writer.

James McLevy (1796-1875) was, by many accounts, the first proper police detective in Edinburgh, in the cheery old days of hanging and transportation.

Magistrate: Why did you steal that loaf of bread, you little vermin?
Street Urchin: ‘Cos I wanted to be a-feedin’ of them kangi-roos dahn under, guv’nor.
Magistrate: Oh God, just string him up anyway.

After time as a nightwatchman with the Edinburgh police, McLevy was given the rank of detective in 1833, and had a successful career which spanned thirty years and a reported 2,220 cases.

This might all have ended up as a minor historical note, except for two things:

1) McLevy wrote up his cases in a number of books from 1860 onwards, around his retirement. How much of what he recounts is true, we can’t tell, but they are not wildly exaggerated tales. They cover the ups and downs of policing Edinburgh Old Town, with its slums and theatres, cobblers and cut-throats. Dickens without the silly names, so to speak.

2) Actor/writer David Ashton decided to create a series of radio plays about McLevy’s fictionalised exploits. These are quite superbly done, terrific fun, and occasionally rather moving. There are TEN series of McLevy now, most of which can be tracked down via the wonderful web (Ashton has written four novels in the same vein, as well).

The real McLevy was a hard worker. He had an insight into criminology, employing stings and forensic techniques. He seems to have had a certain sympathy for the miscreants in his parish, and was not without mercy at times. Eventually he became well enough known to be consulted by parliament and social reformers on the subject of how to deal with criminality.

51NOiJnpXuL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Some claim that because he consulted the medical school of the University of Edinburgh, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle later studied, he might have influenced Conan Doyle’s creation Sherlock Holmes. Pushing it a bit, maybe, but McLevy was better known back then. Conan Doyle might at least have considered some of the cases when constructing his own stories.

On the radio, Brian Cox gives what I believe is one of his best performances yet as Jamie McLevy, thief-taker in the Parish of Leith. He brings humour and humanity into what can be quite brutal tales, covering such diverse subjects as:

  • Revenge tragedies;
  • The horrors of the Crimean war;
  • Women’s rights;
  • Deadly rivalry between brothels, and
  • Victorian pornography.

Ashton’s McLevy is instantly accessible. Don’t think “Oh no, boring historical detective with archaic foibles.” He’s dedicated to his job, cranky and occasionally eccentric. He needs his coffee. He has a dry wit, and he eats too many sugary sweets.

The good Inspector (not as high a rank as it is now) has a love-hate relationship with Jean Brash (played by Siobhan Redmond), the owner of a body house, or brothel, called the Happy Land. I’m guessing that there is intended irony from Ashton here, as the real Happy Land was a tenement/slum area in Victorian Edinburgh.

The National Galleries of Scotland
The National Galleries of Scotland

If I wanted to sound really mock-academic, I could point out that it’s also referenced in an 1838 hymn:

There is a happy land, far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand, bright, bright as day

‘The Happy Land’ was therefore sometimes mentioned by spiritualists as where the souls of the departed would end up – if they were lucky.

Curiously, while James McLevy was an Irishman who came to Scotland as an immigrant in his teens, Brian Cox is himself a descendant of Irish immigrants to Scotland. A match born in… well, somewhere up there. David Ashton, for fun, plays Lieutenant Roach, McLevy’s superior.

The other notable character on the radio is Constable Mulholland, McLevy’s assistant, who spends his time getting exasperated with his Inspector, fishing, keeping bees and hitting people with a big stick. And he likes the ladies, but is not the luckiest of fellows. Mulholland is supposed to have been a real contemporary of McLevy’s, but I can’t prove that bit.

I’m always mithering on about occult detectives and period crime, so I look out for spooky references in everything I read or listen to. The radio series does have a subtle, unsettling element sometimes – odd presentiments, a sense of the violence and death which follows McLevy, and a prophetic vision or two from the locals – but the original James McLevy gives little shrift to spookiness. The best you get is the ending of The Cobbler’s Knife:

“This is the only dream-case in my book; and I’m not sorry for it, otherwise I might have glided into the supernatural, as others have done who have had more education than I, and are better able to separate the world of dreams from the stern world of realities.”

And to finish, you’ll have guessed the connections by now. If not…

The brilliant Brian Cox plays Inspector McLevy, but he also played Hannibal Lecter in the original 1986 movie Manhunter, the film adaptation of the book Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, who wrote Silence of the Lambs. In Manhunter, the lead FBI agent/profiler hunting Hannibal was played by William Petersen, who, of course, was Gil Grissom in CSI.

And none of the above are actually from Edinburgh.

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Flaxman Low: Ghost Wrecker

I think it’s fair to say that if you are called Hesketh Vernon Hesketh-Prichard (1876-1922) and nicknamed ‘Hex’ at school, you ought to do something interesting with your life.

The fascinating HVH-P did not let anyone down. He hunted for (probably) extinct giant sloths in South America, helped counter German snipers on the Great War, played a mean game of cricket and explored the world. Through Trackless Labrador is one of his, for example, and he is supposed to have brought back some of the first reports of vodoun from the interior of Haiti. He could have been invented for the Boy’s Own Library.

And he loved his mum. At least, I presume he did, because with his mother Kate O’Brien Ryall Prichard, he wrote a series of occult detective stories. She also accompanied him on some of his travels, but that’s another matter.

The Flaxman Low adventures were attributed to E and H Heron, probably because the printers couldn’t fit both their full names on the covers. Published 1898-99, there were twelve stories in total, stories which brought his character onto the occult detective roll of honour. These tales are interesting, unusual and come with a twist of the new science of psychology (these are the 1890s, remember). But wait…

I had intended to write my usual gentle introductory ramble. Then I re-read the Heron family this summer, and realised that this stuff is, in fact, nuts. Enjoyable, but nuts.

The detective himself is “one of the leading scientists of the day”, whose real name is not disclosed. He is also an accomplished sportsman, and a record-breaking hammer-thrower, strong and lean with a high forehead, long neck and thin moustache. We learn this early on, which gets us all a-quiver and ready for the horrors.

And boy did I have trouble picking which horrors to feature here. So much gold in the river. I have rarely felt so dumbfounded when I put a book down. Here are two of Flaxman Low’s discoveries, to give you the idea:

  • A dead black servant found mouldering in a tiny cupboard in a Scottish manor house, after growing poisonous fungi, derived from deadly African spores, in there. Helpfully we are told: “how or why he made use of them are questions that can never be cleared up now”.
  • A ghost which eventually turns into a vampire which decides to inhabit the remains of an Egyptian mummy. As an extra, the ghost/vampire/mummy may have come originally from an ancient English barrow-mound. It’s like the entire Hammer Horror catalogue in twelve pages.

I do wish I had thought of these.

mummy2Flaxman Low the Man has a number of noble characteristics, apart from his high forehead.

Firstly, he attributes his findings to his advanced knowledge of psychology and study of psychic manifestations. When he can’t really answer someone’s question, he replies:

“Everybody who…. investigates the phenomena of spiritism will, sooner or later, meet in them some perplexing element, which is not to be explained by any of the ordinary theories. For reasons into which I need not now enter, this present case appears to me to be one of these.”

A wonderful paragraph, which in my own humbler stories would have been rendered thus:

Inspector Chiltern: What was that, then?
Henry: Haven’t the faintest, old chap.

Secondly, he decides for quite unknown reasons to put everyone in danger (except himself) by declaring halfway through most stories that he has pretty much solved the case but won’t give them the answer until lots more harm has been done. I felt very Miss Marple sometimes, even at the end:

“But Aunt Jane, you still haven’t explained how the one-armed werewolf which killed Colonel Smythe knew that the spectral squid would be blamed…”

Thirdly, he likes burning/shooting/knocking things down as a quick end to the matter. If he had been written with a touch more Indiana Jones, the stories would be perfect. I feel I have to commend to you the final scene with the barrow-wight/ghost/vampire/mummy, in which it is despatched by putting the bullet-riddled and beaten remains into a boat and giving them a Viking funeral. You couldn’t make this up – except the Heron family did.

To finish this piece I want to ruin one particular tale in more detail, to illustrate the general approach. The Story of the Spaniards, Hammersmith is the first Low appearance. It starts with the traditional motif of Flaxman Low being called in by a chum. The chum has inherited a house, and surprisingly, the house can’t be let for long because the tenants run away or shoot out the skirting boards (I’m serious). Financially embarrassed, the chum asks for help, and…

The story is wonderful, especially as it veers into Lovecraft before Lovecraft in its descriptions:

“The sensation he experienced as it moved was of some ponderous, pulpy body, not crawling or creeping, but spreading… then he became conscious of a pair of glassy eyes, with livid, everted lids, looking into his own… they were watery, like the eyes of a dead fish, and gleamed with a pale, internal lustre.”

This description follows the sighting of a bladder-like object regularly going into one of the rooms, but never to be found when pursued. “The bladder-like object may be the key to the mystery.” Low pronounces before any real investigation has started. There’s a detective for you.

After a simple experiment, Low decides (on thin evidence) that a leprous curmudgeon died in the house, and is haunting it. Flaxman Low has a novel solution – they pull the house down. In doing so they find a malformed skeleton “under the boarding at an angle of the landing”. Low reveals that the leper’s spirit has been intermittently animating its remains, at which point I knelt before Hesketh Vernon Hesketh Pritchard (and his mum) in awe.

You see, the bladder object was a bandaged, leprous foot, strangely visible when the rest of the body was not; marks on a landing deliberately strewn with sand (a common psychologist trick) were caused by walking sticks – lame ghost, apparently; the spirit had somehow become huge and pulpy despite animating a wrecked skeleton, and anyway, the leprous chap who could hardly move had for some reason hidden himself ingeniously under the landing floorboards before he died!

Wow. I so got it.

And there you have him, Flaxman Low, the occult detective with a difference. You have been warned…

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Of Gods and Garden Rollers

Last time I was rattling on about some neglected writers of early ghost stories. We’d reached, rather oddly, Edgar Wallace and his questionable character Sanders of the River. You’ll have to bear with me whilst I navigate back to my actual subject here.

One thing I always liked about the Sanders stories is the coverage of complex local beliefs, especially those which centre round the evocatively-named deity or demon M’shimba M’shamba.

“M’shimba M’shamba was abroad, walking with his devastating feet through the forest, plucking up great trees by their roots and tossing them aside…”

Intrigued, I hunted for any more information on this West African God of Storms. The web was not helpful. One of the only references I could find was to M’shimba M’shamba of Houghton Hill. Sounds encouraging, doesn’t it? Perhaps a chilling tale of African power wreaking havoc in wherever Houghton Hill is (Cambridgeshire, apparently), only to be laid to rest by a brave young curate who has recently returned from a Mission in the Congo? Well, it’s even better than you think.

Yes, you guessed it. M’shimba M’shamba of Houghton Hill is, according to Google, someone’s pedigree Shetland Sheepdog, a little fawny-brown dog which yelps a lot. I had a sheltie just like it when I was little.

Not quite a real God, then.

The writer Henry S Whitehead was a real minister, though, as mentioned last time. Some of his Gerald Canevin stories include the value of having faith in the Christian God, but it isn’t a dominant theme. Two of my other favourite writers, William Hope Hodgson and H P Lovecraft, were less enthusiastic in their support for the established churches.

Lovecraft’s stories depicted the universe as a mostly empty void ruled by hostile or indifferent nightmares, with mankind at the mercy of the unknowable. And probably doomed. Nice. He described his own religious feelings in his correspondence:

“Personally, I am intensely moral and intensely irreligious… What the honest thinker wishes to know, has nothing to do with complex human conduct. He simply demands a scientific explanation of the things he sees. His only animus toward the church concerns its deliberate inculcation of demonstrable untruths in the community.” (Letters, 1918)

WHH, although the son of an Anglican minister, seems to have abandoned his father’s faith, or pushed it well to one side. His occult detective Carnacki was a scientist above all, although he at least thought there were benevolent forces which might occasionally intervene to protect the human soul. I don’t remember him packing crucifixes in his kitbag, and The Exorcist would probably have appalled him. No electric pentacle, for starters.

So we have to turn to the wonderful Mr Batchel, E G Swain’s creation, for good old fashioned vicar power. See, I did get there.

I don’t know how Mr Batchel drifted out of favour. E G Swain was a friend of M R James, and chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge. His short collection, Stoneground Ghost Tales, originally published in 1912, contains what might be described as utterly English ghost stories, gentle and redolent of place, of a long, slow sort of history rambling along its way.147989

If they fail to deliver the sense of incipient horror that marks some M R James stories, they succeed by providing the most genial of protagonists, a man who potters enthusiastically through life. James never pulled off this aspect in the same way. Mr Batchel himself is a treasure.

“Now Mr Batchel… was not much at home with young ladies, to whom he knew that, in the nature of things, he could be but imperfectly acceptable. With infinite good will towards them, and a genuine liking for their presence, he felt that he had but little to offer them in exchange.” (The Rockery)

He is mild without being characterless, personable in a way which can delight. He has an ongoing dispute over his shrubs with his gardener, and a love of odd objects which turn up in the soil. He believes in what I would call a very Church of England God – important and always around, but not given to crushing forests with His devastating feet.

There is a delicious, under-played humour in most of Swain’s work:

“But there are real ghosts sometimes, surely?” said Mr Batchel.
“No,” said the policeman, “me and my wife have both looked, and there’s no such thing.”
“Looked where?” enquired Mr Batchel.
“In the ‘Police Duty Catechism’. There’s lunatics, and deserters, and dead bodies, but no ghosts.” (The Richpins)

His tales are not ones of loathsome horror, or doom to come. They include hauntings, but avoid being trite or overly romanticised. They occur in a small fenland parish, and they are of loss, longing and wistful souls, and all the better for it. Incidentally, the story that most resembles M R James is The Man with the Roller, which really does feature a garden roller. It always makes me think of James’ The Mezzotint.

There were only nine of Swain’s Mr Batchel stories, although in the eighties David Rowland did a fine job extending the canon with a set of tasteful Mr Batchel follow-up stories. These are also well worth reading. They’re included in the old Equation Chillers collection of The Stoneground Ghost Tales, but you might be able to find some of them elsewhere.

And that, dear listener, is my other recommendation for the week. E G Swain.

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Vodun Child

My dear readers will already know that, as a writer in these harsh and competitive times, I have a number of ethical rules which guide my literary career:

  • Hide or lie about my sources, especially if I’ve stolen heavily from them,
  • Keep my ideas to myself until the money’s in, and
  • Never point out that all my plots have been better handled by someone else.

These rules have been invaluable to me, and account for why I’m a penniless agoraphobic who relies on discount artisan ale to get him through even the shortest blog entries. Note the artisan bit, though. I have very high standards of moral and physical bankruptcy.

As a lover of the weird and wild, on the other hand, I like sharing everything and to hell with it. So I’m letting the longdogs loose. Instead, I want to mention two authors you may not yet have come across (or across whom you may not yet have come, if you prefer), Henry S Whitehead and E G Swain. The first I discovered only a couple of years ago, but my little Bone to His Bone collection by Swain has been a prized possession for over twenty years.

I would have described both their recurring protagonists as occult or psychic investigators in their own ways. Sadly, one of them, Swain’s Mr Batchel, has already been kicked out of the club by the writer Tim Prasil, who produced the excellent A Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives (you don’t come across that phrase very often) on his website. Do look him up, and check out his stories, because I always get the hyperlinks wrong.

So this blog entry will introduce the argument for Henry S Whitehead’s occult investigator, Gerald Canevin, a man of leisure living in the Virgin Islands in the first quarter of last century.


Just for the trivia-lovers, Whitehead (1882–1932) was a minister of the American Episcopal Church and a friend of H P Lovercraft. He had, at times, church responsibilities in the Virgin Islands, and obviously picked up a lot of local lore. His stories are, for the most part, set in the Caribbean, and a large number include Gerald Canevin’s exposure to curses, entities and events which stem from West African beliefs:

“At last it came, the clue; in a childish, piping treble; the clear-cut word, Jumbee. I had it now. The screaming woman believed, and the crowd about her believed, that some evil witchery was afoot. Some enemy had enlisted the services of the dreaded witch-doctor – the papaloi…”
(Black Terror)

Jumbees are usually malevolent, possessing spirits, and papaloi is one name for a male voodoo priest. As opposed to the mamaloi. Don’t make me explain it. Whitehead drew heavily on the fact that before a chunk of the Virgin Islands was bought by the US, it was actually the Danish West Indies, with a history of plantations, slavery and mixed race populations, creole etc. I have to confess that I didn’t even know that there was a Danish West Indies, so that was a discovery in itself.

The argument which others will raise is that Canevin isn’t enough of an investigator. He does get involved and he does seek out answers, but an awful lot of scary things happen whether or not he does anything. Still, an interesting read. My caveat to interested parties is that very occasionally Whitehead seems to become obsessed with lost Atlantis and ancient Mayan races living under the earth. These (thankfully) few excursions don’t work half as well as some of his creepy, atmospheric stories of the West Indies people and their beliefs.

I was going to end there, but thinking about voodoo, related systems of belief and their African sources reminded me of an even more tenuous claim. Sanders of the River. Edgar Wallace was, I guess, a man of his time *cough*. His Sanders stories can be very dubious, but every so often they’re leavened with a peculiar respect for African people and spiritual systems. And I can now remember at least three which involved ghosts/psychic events which he could not disprove.

Sanders, Occult Colonial Administrator – a new series coming soon.

Next time, in Part Two – Nice People: Mr Batchel and a bit of M R James. Maybe.

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