Mea Culpa: The first printing had the author's name spelled incorrectly on the Title Page and on the Cover! GAV
An Introduction by Douglas G. Greene
I. Emma-Brother and Susie-Brother
II. The Green Parrakeet
III. Mademoiselle Lamotte of the Mantles
IV. The Lovers of St. Lys
V. The Mother’s Heart
VI. What Happened at Bout-du-Monde
VII. The Sanatorium
VII. The Pedlar
IX. The Reprieve
X. The Canary
XI. Lot’s Wife
XII. The Black Veil
XIII. The Railway Carriage
Introduction by Douglas Greene
"This agency stands flat-footed on the ground," Sherlock Holmes famously remarked. "The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply." And despite the fact that his creator was a spiritualist, Holmes was basically correct that a detective (whether genuine or fictional) bases his or her investigation on material evidence. And yet the occult detective story (as well as its cousin, the psychic detective story) has been an important sub-genre of detective fiction. A claim can be made that the first occult sleuth was Dr. Martin Hesselius who recounts his investigations in Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly (1872), but the five stories were originally independent, with Hesselius added as a framing device for book publication. A stronger case can be made for K[ate] and Hesketh Prichard’s Ghosts, Being the Experiences of Flaxman Low (1899) in which Flaxman Low investigates haunted houses. The Prichards’ book was followed by stories featuring other investigations into the occult. Most important were Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, Physician Extraordinary (1908) and William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, The Ghost-Finder (1913).
Among the finest stories that combine the occult with human crimes are F. Tennyson Jesse’s tales of Solange Fontaine, who is able to sense the presence of evil and to act on that sense; "she has an extraordinarily delicate mechanism for becoming aware of evil where blunter-natured people do not feel it till too late." Jesse was born Wynifried Margaret Jesse in 1888, the daughter of the Reverend Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt Jesse (a nephew of Alfred Lord Tennyson) and his wife Edith James. (She inverted her first name of "Wynifried" into "Fryniwid," which she shortened to "Fryn.") With inherited wealth, the family lived in Chislehurst, which was dominated by Victorian mansions built in the 1870’s and the 1880’s—including Holly Bowers, where Fryn Jesse was born and lived during her early years. The house sat on seven and a half acres of land, and was staffed by gardeners, maids, and an old and shambling butler. Fryn’s father was a gentle and ineffectual man, not suited for parish ministry (at which he failed), who had a series of temporary posts in the colonies, before withdrawing from work when he could live off his successful daughter. Her mother’s orientation was Sapphic, and she had her compliant husband put a lock on her bedroom door so that he would not longer bother her for marital attention. The tensions in her parents’ lives were certainly related to F. Tennyson Jesse’s equivocal attitude toward sexuality in her stories.
Rebecca West said that as a young woman Fryn Jesse "was one of the loveliest girls of her time, far surpassing all the more advertised beauties," and her photographs confirm her exceptional beauty. But she was also a tragic figure, subject to disabling migraines and addicted to morphine which she first used as a painkiller when her hand was maimed in a freak accident with an airplane propeller. Her husband, the dramatist H.M. Harwood, whom she married in 1918, could never be certain whether she would be bright and bubbly or so depressed that she would try to commit suicide, which she attempted multiple times.
But in spite of the demons which haunted her, she had a productive life, eventually becoming a celebrated novelist and expert on criminology. Her first piece of fiction, "The Mask," was published in 1912, and her first book, an episodic novel The Milky Way, followed two years later. Meanwhile, she made what she called her "descent upon Fleet Street," and wrote for The Times. Around 1913 or early in 1914, she made a journey to America. She had become friends-by-correspondence with the editor and sub-editor of The Metropolitan Magazine, which had republished some of her stories from English periodicals. During the early and middle months of 1914, Jesse traveled about the Caribbean—Barbados, St. Vincent, Haiti, Cuba. Returning to London, she persuaded The Daily Mail to send her to France as a war correspondent, one of the few women to spend time on the front.
The Solange stories were directly related to Fryn Jesse’s growing interest in murder and criminals. The Premier Magazine introduced the series with a letter from Jesse: "I’ve always been very interested in criminology, and when in the USA used to visit prisons, night courts, etc. a great deal. I have sat in the death-chair of Sing-Sing Prison. Murder, to my mind, is the most fascinating of all phenomena, because it is the one in which the game can never be worth the candle, also because it has behind it a more endless combination of motive than any other act."
One of the stories, "Mademoiselle Lamont of the Mantles," was published in the August 1918 of The Metropolitan Magazine, to be followed by the entire series in The Premier Magazine of London beginning with an introductory story, "Emma-Brother and Susie-Sister," in November 1918. Solange Fontaine is the daughter of an English mother and a French father, Professor Fontaine, who has a laboratory in their house in southern France near Nice. He is a criminologist but what exactly he does is not made clear in the first series of stories, though in one of the stories he is unexpectedly described as "investigating the vagaries of a disease he supposed to be brought on by a venomous insect." Solange herself has written a book on criminology, and discussions of what makes a murderer tie several of the stories together. The background is the theories of Cesare Lombroso who argued that born criminals differ physically from the general population. Criminals, he believed, were atavistic, regressing to the state of primitive humans. In "The Green Parrakeet," we find that "Solange and her father, Professor Fontaine, were occupied in compiling a treatise upon the relative amount of convolutions in the brains of apes, of moral imbeciles, and in normal human brains." She claims not to be a complete follower of Lombroso, but says that "there are certain signs which are fairly unfailing," among them "the great length of the thumbs which came up to top joint of the first finger. Any criminologist will tell you that is an interesting sign." She believes that some people are born to be murderers, or at least have a strong predilection to commit murder. "Emma-Brother and Susie-Sister" seems to argue that types and "double types" exist no matter the environmental influences.
Several of the stories in the first series take place in southern France, where the Reverend Jesse had been a chaplain, but more occur in the Caribbean, which Fryn Jesse had visited at about the time of the outbreak of the Great War. Many of the comments will impress modern readers as racist, though some of them are simply descriptions of race relations in Cuba and the Caribbean; it is difficult, however, to justify the passages in "Mademoiselle Lamont of the Mantles" as simply part of the era. The idea that a person with a smidgeon of black blood could revert to primitivism— "a savage beast, drunken with blood, incapable of thought"—was an expression of Lombroso’s emphasis on atavism but the wholesale attack on Blacks, especially in Haiti ("if you killed the niggers and buried ’em they’d turn the soil sour") was even more racist than general ideas of the time.
The stories as stories (as opposed to racial commentary) in the first series are often quite good. Michael Grost comments, "Her technique and approach remind one greatly of Somerset Maugham. Like him, she features exotic settings populated by English characters. Also like him, her characters are deeply embroiled in complex and often unconventional romantic relationships, which can lead to murder. Solange, the detective and point of view character, often intrudes on the lives of these characters just as Maugham himself does in his own stories, socializing with them, observing them, learning their secrets and watching their tragedies." (http://mikegrost.com/literary.htm#Jesse). The tragic relationships are often between husband and wife or parent and child, whether biological, adopted, or ward. It is tempting to find in these dynamics Jesse’s relationships with her own parents, perhaps in seeing marriage and sexuality as destructive, as it often was for Eustace and Edith Jesse.
Some of Jesse’s Solange stories express a fear, even a repugnance, of sexuality. The first series ends with Solange deciding whether to allow herself to fall in love. Jesse explains it in these words: "She had always recognised that her nicely balanced instincts would not only be upset, but probably destroyed by the intrusion of ‘falling in love.’ Just as a woman who is an artist is bound to lose her artistry—for all but the art of living—as long as the madness lasts, even if her art of creation be enriched afterwards, so Solange would lose that instinct for being aware of evil, together with the science with which it was allied, as soon as she allowed herself to be swept away by the common lot of women." Despite the discussion of "nicely balanced instincts" and "art of creation," the meaning is clearly that physical sex can ruin higher abilities. In "The Canary," a story in the second series, a young woman has married an older man for security without understanding the physical demands that will be made on a wife: "He was one of those men whose idea of love-making resembles Swedish massage; was always running his hand down her arm, or caressing her neck when a third party such as me was present. I can tell you I’ve seen her flesh creep with distaste." "The dreams had not lasted beyond the honeymoon. To begin with, that difficult experiment had taught Marjorie, who till then had preserved an innocence in thought and deed which is rather rare, that one could pay too highly for the material comforts of four meals a day. She did not have to earn them behind a counter, but she earned them nevertheless." Even more striking is a comment in "The Reprieve," a very strong story in the second series: "This farmyard world of sex, how nauseating it was!" Jesse’s attitude toward sexuality was not, however, as straightforward as this comment might indicate. In the same story, a man who can understand but not experience sex and love is effectively dead.
During the decade between the publication of the first and second series of the Solange stories, Fryn Jesse’s interest in criminology continued and developed far past a simple acceptance of Lombroso. In 1924 she wrote a classic study, Murder & Its Motives, a sophisticated analysis which identified six motives for murder: gain, revenge, elimination, jealousy, conviction and lust of killing. As a result of this influential work, she was invited to edit and introduce new volumes in the Notable British Trials series, beginning with The Trial of Madeline Smith (1927) and continuing through six additional trials. Two of her introductions—the trials of Madeleine Smith and of Alma Victoria Rattenbury and Victoria Stoner—have recently been collected in Famous British Trials, edited by Rumpole-creator, John Mortimer. Together, they show Jesse’s increasing sophistication about criminality.
In 1857, Madeleine Smith was tried for the arsenic poisoning of her former lover, and the Scottish jury’s verdict was "not proven." Jesse leaves the case unresolved, though she leans slightly toward Smith’s guilt; but the main point of interest is her attitude toward Madeleine Smith herself and "the pagan side of her nature, which is perhaps its admirable quality, and which shocked most utterly her contemporaries once it became known to them. She was quite frank about her enjoyment of physical pleasures." Jesse wrote about the trial of Attenbury and Stoner in 1950; the murder itself occurred in 1935, a few years after she wrote the second series of Solange stories. Again Jesse’s emphasis was on female sexuality, and she is very negative about British attitude toward adulterers. This British attitude is reflected in the Solange story, "The Canary," in we learn that a young woman has taken a lover but wants to retain her respectability.
Jesse’s interest in murder led to what many consider her finest novel, A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934), based on the Thompson/Bywaters case. Its main character is a young woman who is caught up in her ideas of romance, the influence of sex, and the limitations of her birth and class. It is a powerful novel. In 1939, she contributed a chapter to the multi-author detective novel, Double Death. The same year, Jesse, along with mystery writers John Dickson Carr and A.E.W. Mason, novelists Hugh Walpole and Marie Belloc Lowndes (author of The Lodger, which was based on Jack the Ripper) and Harry Hodge, publisher of the Notable British Trials series, formed The Black Maria Club to discuss true-life murders. The club, however, met only once—at Jesse’s house—before World War II intervened.
A decade earlier, Jesse had written a second series of stories about Solange Fontaine; the stories began in the August 1929 issue of The London Magazine and were collected in the 1931 book The Solange Stories. Three of the five stories take place in England, which Solange treats both as a visitor and as a place to return to her childhood. "The Pedlar," the final story in the magazine series, but placed first in the book, begins with an evocative portrait of village life in England: "the England that is passing away; the divinely stupid, honest, unselfconscious because quite-sure-of-itself England." A later story, "The Canary," paints a portrait of lower-middle-class boarding-house life which was also passing away.
Professor Fontaine’s profession is described as being like that of the famous pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, and he is much more clearly a crime-scene investigator than a generic scientist. Most importantly, Solange’s psychic sense of evil is presented in a more nuanced manner: "It was a favourite axiom with Solange that the best clues to a crime were in the characters of the people connected with it, and were worth all the burnt matches, footprints, or even fingerprints in the world. Of course, she would add, twinkling a little, the drawback to the discovery of clues of character lay in the fact that no one ever really knew what anyone else was like. And that was where her own peculiar gift for ‘feeling’ a moral flaw came in with such unfailing effect. For it never played her false." Instead of a Lombroso-influenced recognition of a murderous type, Solange now senses of moral flaw. "The solution’s to be found in people, in human relationships," she says in "The Reprieve, "and they are the most difficult and complicated things in the world."
Except for Solange’s sense of evil, the first series included very little that was outside the physical world, but the second series effectively combines rational investigation of human motives with the supernatural, and thus Solange becomes definitely an occult sleuth. In "The Pedlar," Solange meets the title character: "He looked at her, she felt, from another place and time, and always with that agony that implored some help," and this leads her to prevent a crime. The psychic power of a dream dominates "The Black Veil," though Solange’s conclusion that the murdered mother saves the son is hard to fathom, as the son can hardly be described as saved. Sometimes, Fryn Jesse handles the supernatural circumstances almost as a paradox, as when in "The Canary" Solange criticizes spiritualism without seeming to realize that it is not very different from her own psychic sense of evil—and then at the conclusion a spirit has actually been summoned.
"The Railway Carriage," Jesse’s final story about Solange Fontaine, was published in The Strand a few months after The Solange Stories appeared in book form. Except for one impossibility (which Jesse admitted in a reprint of the story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1951), it is one of her finest stories. I cannot give too many details for fear of weakening the effect of the tale for new readers, but it convincingly balances the rational and the mystic, condemnation and redemption, life and death. It is a fitting conclusion to the cases of Solange Fontaine, one of the most convincing occult sleuths in the literature.
—Douglas G. Greene
Other Volumes with contributions from Douglas G. Greene
Other Volumes of Victorian Detective Fiction from The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box