The beliefs in Spiritualism and the occult attracted the attention of a great many people in Victorian England. For some, it was a system of religious beliefs mixed with scientific fervor, a system that might offer the possibility of finding some real basis for the manifestations of ghostly spirits allegedly taking place during seances. For others it was a convenient mask to hide all sorts of criminal activity. That is how Sergeant Cribb first became involved in A Case of Spirits: A Sergeant Cribb Investigation, which is the title of Peter Lovesey's book being reviewed today on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
Peter Lovesey is a marvelous British author who continues to turn out first rate mysteries. He began his mystery-writing career with a series of books set in the Victorian England of the 1880s. They featured Sergeant Cribb, a tough but fair and intelligent detective from Scotland Yard. The books give readers a good feel for what late-nineteenth century London must have been like, the same sense of atmosphere that we can enjoy in a Sherlock Holmes story.
And then there was Spiritualism, a belief (or at least, for some, the hope) that the spirits of the dead could communicate with the living, usually through a person acting as a medium. As we see in A Case of Spirits, Sgt. Cribb had little patience for Spiritualism - like the great magician Harry Houdini, Cribb had seen far too many frauds and charlatans to believe very much of what he observed at seances. He is sent by his superiors to investigate some peculiar burglaries and thefts at the homes of some influential people involved in psychic research. The victims whose homes were robbed were all upper-middle-class people who had been dabbling in séances and Spiritualism – and, in fact, the robberies appeared to have been timed to occur when the homeowners would be safely out of the house, attending another séance. Cribb has a pretty good idea about what has been going on - but he is confronted suddenly by a seance that ends in murder.
Lovesey writes with humor and wit, and Sergeant Cribb is a remarkably likeable investigator. The reader will also learn a good deal about some of the tricks used by less-than-scrupulous mediums to produce the effects of "spirits" at their seances. There will be some interesting and enjoyable run-ins with some of these characters before Cribb pursues his clues leading to a surprising conclusion. A Case of Spirits is available both in paper and as an e-book, and it is very much worth your time.
First published in 1975, A Case of Spirits will be my entry into the so-called "Silver" Bingo scorecard at the My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge, filling the square for "One book with a professional detective." (The Silver card covers mysteries first published between 1960 and 1980.) Once again, I urge you to visit that blog to see the many different books being submitted there.