"Psychic detectives" are very much in vogue again on television these days. Shows such as Medium and Ghost Whisperer try and entertain viewers with psychic-types attempting to solve crimes and right past wrongs using their supernatural abilities.
The idea of a professional supernatural stalker in fiction is much older, though, and can be traced back to the mid-1800s. I recently decided to go on a "psychic detective" reading binge, and below the fold I summarize a bit of the history of the concept and rate the skills of the various investigators...
The psychic detective was truly popularized with the appearance of Sherlock Holmes. In 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published the first story of the brilliant and eccentric detective and his sidekick Watson. Soon after, the character had grown tremendously in popularity and, although Doyle didn't invent the detective story, he brought them into the limelight. It was inevitable for others to be inspired to introduce their own dilettante detectives.
It was perhaps just as inevitable to imagine one of these detectives investigating supernatural phenomena, either through their own psychic abilities or through science. Spiritualism - the belief in communication with the dead- had grown in popularity from the 1840s and was astonishingly popular by the late 1800s (Wikipedia suggests 8 million followers in the U.S. and Europe).
Around the same time, science was discovering an invisible and mysterious world. In 1887, for instance, Heinrich Hertz had made waves with the first credited radio wave transmitter and detector. In 1895 Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays and took pictures of the interior of his wife's hand. Some time later, in 1909, Ernest Rutherford, together with Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, would experimentally discover the existence of the atomic nucleus, demonstrating that the atom is mostly 'empty space'. And, of course, we should not fail to mention Albert Einstein's development of the theories of relativity, the special theory in 1905 and the general theory in 1911, which twisted (in a sense literally) mankind's notions of space and time.
In this period of rapid and amazing scientific discovery, it was probably natural to think that science would inevitably prove the existence of the supernatural and that bold, intelligent, rational researchers would help ordinary folk navigate this treacherous new world. Of course, it didn't pan out that way, but various authors blessed us with a collection of charming characters and creepy supernatural mysteries anyway!
The first of these investigators was probably Martin Hesselius, a German 'metaphysical doctor' who was introduced by Sheridan LeFanu in 1869 in the story Green Tea. He doesn't play a particularly active role in most stories, though, and we won't dwell on him (I also have a hard time reading LeFanu's work, for some reason - probably ADD). Another early investigator is, of course, Professor Van Helsing of Bram Stoker's Dracula. He only officially appears in that one famous tale.
The first active and prolific psychic researcher is Algernon Blackwood's John Silence, introduced in 1908. He is to a large extent the measure by which all other psychic detectives are ranked, so we begin with him. For amusement, we present the various researchers in a 'baseball card' format. We'll start with the investigators of the early 1900s and conclude with a few of the more modern examples:
1. John Silence
Title: Psychic Doctor
Chronicler: Algernon Blackwood
First Appearance: 1908
Preferred tools: psychic abilities, ancient texts
Opponents: Traditional demons and monsters of folklore, mostly
Success rate: Very high
Affectations: Remarkable calmness, irritating habit of being always right, impossibly insightful guesses
Quotation: "If you knew anything of magic, you would know that thought is dynamic, and that it may call into existence forms and pictures that may well exist for hundreds of years. For, not far removed from the region of our human life is another region where float the waste and drift of all the centuries, the limbo of the shells of the dead; a densely populated region crammed with horror and abomination of all descriptions, and sometimes galvanised into active life again by the will of a trained manipulator, a mind versed in the practices of lower magic."
Assessment: The shining crown of psychic investigators. The John Silence stories are typical Blackwood: the unease and horror of each tale builds slowly, over 40-50 pages. My favorites are The Nemesis of Fire, in which Silence investigates a strange case of pyrokinesis, and Secret Worship, in which a man returning to visit his boyhood school encounters more than he bargained for. In Ancient Sorceries, Silence is a passive character, merely recounting the tale of another man who makes an impulsive stop in a small town that he finds he cannot leave. In A Victim of Higher Space, Silence treats someone with a problem that is positively Einsteinian. In nearly all cases, Silence's calm certain demeanor leads to a happy conclusion.
2. Aylmer Vance
Chronicler: Alice and Claude Askew
First Appearance: 1914
Preferred tools: occult knowledge, Dexter's latent psychic abilities
Opponents: Restless spirits and the occasional God
Success rate: Low
Affectations: Annoying tendency to rationalize his failures
Quotation: "There was nothing really tragic about Daphne Darrell's death. It was the fate she would have chosen, I have no doubt, if she had been given her choice..."
Assessment: The Aylmer Vance stories are quite a light read: I finished the entire collection in a single evening's reading. The tales are a mixture of stories of genuinely evil spirits as well as spirits which are simply lost and confused. Aylmer attempts to help them all, but his most common solution is to raze the affected building to the ground! His failure rate is simply appalling! Aylmer is much more of a passive investigator: more often than not he ends up being a witness to events beyond his control. Dexter, the narrator of the stories, is later shown to have psychic abilities and his abilities help in the rare success. Don't hire Aylmer unless you cannot afford any of the better investigators.
3. Thomas Carnacki
Title: Ghost Finder
Chronicler: William Hope Hodgson
First Appearance: 1910
Cases: The Gateway of the Monster, The House Among the Laurels, The Whistling Room, The Horse of the Invisible, The Searcher of the End House, The Thing Invisible, The Hog, The Haunted Jarvee, The Find
Collection: The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder
Preferred tools: occult knowledge, scientific techniques (electric pentacle), revolver
Opponents: Spirits, frauds, and unspeakable demons from extra-dimensional space
Success rate: High
Affectations: Chases off his guests with an, "Off you go!"
Quotation: "I am what I might term an unprejudiced sceptic. I am not given to either believing or disbelieving things 'on principle'... I view all reported 'hauntings' as unproven until I have examined them, and I am bound to admit that ninety-nine cases in a hundred turn out to be sheer bosh and fancy. But the hundredth! Well, if it were not for the hundredth, I should have few stories to tell..."
Assessment: Carnacki is the most scientific of the psychic detectives. In investigating his cases, he always takes along a camera for photographing the evidence and a revolver for protection. He learns from past experiences and brings that knowledge to bear in a quite scientific manner: his favorite protective tool, the 'electric pentacle', was devised from observations that electric fields seem to hamper psychic activity. Because he has no inherent psychic abilities of his own that he can use to detect the presence of the supernatural, almost as often as not his cases turn out to have an explanation of material origin. In The Whistling Room, Carnacki investigates a seemingly haunted room in a house which emits a soul-draining screech. In The Thing Invisible, he takes on the case of a haunted dagger which moves on its own accord with murderous intent. In The Hog, Carnacki's very soul is put in jeopardy when he attempts to help a man whose own spirit is threatened by a malevolent creature from beyond normal space and time. The Find is a tale of no supernatural events, but is a lovely little classic detective story.
We can also mention a few modern examples of psychic detectives, carrying on the venerable tradition:
4. Harry Erskine
Chronicler: Graham Masterton
First Appearance: 1978
Cases: The Manitou, The Djinn, The Return of the Manitou, Burial, Manitou Blood
Preferred tools: connections in the psychic community, spirit guide, dumb luck
Opponents: Mostly vengeful Native American spirits, and their allies
Success rate: Above average
Affectations: Smart-ass, con man
Quotation: "I could never understand why I always attracted old ladies so much. Old ladies have gushed all over me ever since I was knee high to a high knee... By the time I was nine I suppose it had become second nature to think that old ladies = money, just like $latex E=mc^2$."
Assessment: Harry Erskine, a mundane fortune-teller, was first drawn into conflict with the real spirit world in 1978, when a new client, Karen Tandy, came to him with a genuine supernatural problem: an angry Native American wonder-worker was growing on her neck. Enlisting the aid of a living wonder-worker, Harry was able to help beat the pissed-off Misquamacus back into the void. But the shaman was not so easily beaten, and has come back several more times to plague the world of the living, sometimes with near-apocalyptic consequences. Harry is rated as only 'above average' as a psychic detective because, although he has saved the Americas from holocaust several times, his original clients in these cases more often than not end up dying in horrible ways.
5. Titus Crow
Chronicler: Brian Lumley
First Appearance: 1974
Preferred tools: occult knowledge, Elder signs, space-time clock
Opponents: The Great Old Ones and their minions
Success rate: High
Affectations: No heart-beat, tendency to vanish for years without a trace
Quotation: "Yes, it's as well we're two of a kind, for how could I explain to a stranger the fantastic things I must somehow explain? And even if I could do so without finding myself put away in a padded cell, who would give the thing credit? Even you, my friend, may find it beyond belief."
Assessment: Titus Crow began his fight against the mythos late in life, and waged battle, with the help of a secret Arkham society and his friend Henri-Laurent de Marigny, against the Burrowers Beneath. With victory at hand, Crow and de Marigny were tricked and ambushed by one of the Great Old Ones, only managing to escape in Crow's antique clock which turned out to be a time machine. de Marigny was accidentally dropped off a few years in the future, but Crow embarked on a series of adventures throughout time and space in his roughly coffin-sized box which is bigger inside than out (sound familiar?). Along the way, his body was completely shattered, replaced and upgraded by an alien civilization, making him the "Six Million Dollar Mythos Buster." For Lovecraft fans, the Titus Crow stories come initially as a bit of a shock, as Lumley uses the less-scary Derleth interpretation of the mythos as the basis of his stories. This, however, makes the stories fun adventure tales, which is what I suspect is the point. If you need a psychic detective to ward off planet-scale threats, Titus Crow is your man.
6. Sherlock Holmes
Chronicler: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and others
First appearance: 1887
Cases: Almost countless conventional cases; A Study in Emerald, Tiger! Tiger!, The Case of the Wavy Black Dagger, A Case of Royal Blood, The Weeping Masks, Art in the Blood, The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone, The Adventure of the Antiquarian's Niece, The Mystery of the Worm, The Mystery of the Hanged Man's Puzzle, The Adventure of the Arab's Manuscript, The Drowned Geologist, A Case of Insomnia, The Adventure of the Voorish Sign, The Adventure of Exham Priory, Death Did Not Become Him, Nightmare in Wax
Collection: Shadows Over Baker Street
Preferred tools: occult knowledge, incredible deductive reasoning, disguise
Opponents: The Great Old Ones and their minions
Success rate: High
Affectations: Amazing attention to detail
Quotation: "I fear this particular evil is but one severed tentacle heralding much darker forces to come."
Assessment: What? How can we include Sherlock Holmes on this list? Didn't he only study conventional cases? Well, Sir A.C.D. only wrote non-supernatural Holmes stories, but he did write numerous other stories which included a great taste of the supernatural. In that vein, in 2005 a collection called Shadows Over Baker Street appeared, in which numerous modern horror authors gave their take on what encounters between Holmes and the Great Old Ones might be like. The stories are admittedly hit-or-miss, and require a fair knowledge of both Holmes and Cthulhu mythology, but there are a number of gems in the collection.
Update: I'll occasionally add additional psychic investigators, as I read their body of work:
7. Flaxman Low
Chronicler: E. and H. Heron
First appearance: 1899
Cases: The Story of the Spaniards, Hammersmith, The Story of Medhans Lea, The Story of the Moor Road, The Story of Baelbrow, The Story of the Grey House, Story of Yand Manor House
Collection: Ghost Stories
Preferred tools: encyclopedic knowledge of the supernatural, incredible observational skills
Opponents: malevolent spirits
Success rate: Above average
Affectations: Always has a theory, but hardly ever shares it
Quotation: “Yet I can assure you that if you take the trouble to glance through the pages of the psychical periodicals you will find many statements at least as wonderful.”
Assessment: Low is a moderately good psychic investigator, though a relatively passive one. He allows skeptical and unprepared bystanders to accompany him on dangerous cases far too often. Furthermore, he is often slow to act, to such an extent that people often die before the problem gets resolved. Still, he knows his supernatural phenomena, and he generally puts an end to the troubling manifestations.