Paul Gallico's Too Many Ghosts (1961), a novel with a plot filled to the brim with impossible situations, was one of the most unexpectant surprises I had in some time – and therefore will not bother with a cutesy introduction and cut right to the review:
Too Much Deviltry
"When the harp strings quiver and you hear the ghostly air, let the Paradines beware! Let the Paradines beware!"
The sands of time have not been kind to the once well-to-do Paradine family. Their vault has been drained of its wealth by modern taxes and heavy death duties, and to maintain a standard of living, their family had for generations, the poverty-stricken bluebloods turned one of the wings of their ancestral home, the illustrious Paradine Hall, into an exclusive country club – where they entertain wearisome and snooty guests, but not all of them have jotted down their names in the registry. Some of them are unregistered and more vexatious than some of the other stuck-up invitees, who, at least, have a pulse.
These other-worldly visitors try to enliven the place by making an armchair, in front of a dozen witnesses during dinner, shuffle across the floor on its own accord or strike a soulfully tune on a harp, as if the strings were being plucked by invisible hands, in the locked music room – and these are just some of the more innocent escapades of the many ghosts that haven taken up their resident at Paradine Hall. But determined to get rid of all the capricious poltergeists and the unnerving, dematerializing nun, who's the family's harbinger of ill-luck, infesting the old mansion a friend of the family turns to one of his old chums, Alexander Hero, who has made a career out of de-haunting houses and exposing frauds.
Alexander Hero is a likeable and fun character, who, despite being a skeptic, wants to believe in the supernatural, but finds that whenever he arrives at the scene of a haunting the ghosts become very reticent and he never failed in duplicating any of their tricks, making him a literary descendant of two other famous paranormal investigators and debunkers, John Bell and Thomas Carnacki.
L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898) was one of the first short story collections of seemingly impossible crimes, in which John Bell, a professional ghost breaker, tackles cases involving rooms and tunnels that kill, ancient family curses and talking statues. But unlike Hero, Bell has a strict naturalistic worldview and doesn't believe that there are supernatural agencies that intervene in human affairs – and proves his point by exposing the trickery or natural causes behind apparent supernatural events.
The occult detective Thomas Carnacki, a creation of the noted British fantasy writer William Hope Hodgson, is quite a different paranormal sleuth all together and the entries in his casebook vary from cleverly executed hoaxes to brushes with genuine supernatural forces – usually resulting in a dangerous and exhaustive exorcism to vanquish them from our plain of existence. But despite these clashes, Carnacki remains skeptical of ghosts and demons until every possible natural explanation has been eliminated, thereby paying homage, in a slightly topsy-turvy way, to Conan Doyle: "when you eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" – even if that what remains is impossible! Nice, eh?
These unique exploits are collected in a slender volume entitled, Carnacki, the Ghost Finder (1913).
But Alexander Hero is a much nicer and more rounded character than his forbearers, who's not always sure of his case and with all his knowledge on frauds and spooks gropes, at times, as much in the dark as the reader – which makes you feel a lot a closer to thim than to a detective who says, after only thirty or forty pages, "Aha! I know how this simple parlor trick was perpetrated, and only a novice or a dunce could fail to see the obvious, but I’m not going to divulge the solution until the final chapter." Even so, in the end he vindicates himself, as one of those old fashioned Great Detective of yore, by expertly explaining all the apparent supernatural phenomena, from moving chairs, self-extinguishing candles and a harp playing in a locked room (the books main event), to the apparitions of the nun and all the poltergeist activity, and neatly ties up all the loose ends in a classic drawing room scene.
The book, however, does have its fair share of problems, like its strange lack of atmosphere (the dinner scene is the sole exception). But I'm not entirely sure if that should be put done as a fault on the authors part, as he seems to have done so on purpose. He makes one of his characters observe that the lushly green grass, heavenly blue sky and the gray crumbling walls hardly evokes the horrors one expects of a massive haunting like the one going on at Paradine Hall. There are also some fair play issues, since Hero does not fairly share all his information with the reader, which somewhat mares the overall quality of the book, but again, I'm not sure if that should really count as a weakness – not in this special case, anyway.
I think the only real problem the book has, is that's neither a detective story nor a ghost yarn, but a novel about a quaint collection of mostly British characters, who just happen to have to deal with a series of inexplicable events – that are eventually solved by someone who just happens to be a detective of sorts.
It's exactly like Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907), which wasn't written as a detective story but bears all the hallmarks of a traditional locked room mystery. That's how Too Many Ghosts came across to me. It has all the features of a detective story, but at heart it felt very differently.
Still, this is a book that should definitely be read by locked room enthusiasts, since the he locked room, involving the phantom harpist, offers a fairly good and original solution that would've not shamed the pages of a story by Carr, Talbot, Commings or Rawson.
Finally, special thanks have to be given to Patrick for alerting the mystery community at large about the existence of this book. Against expectations, I really enjoyed the story and the conclusion was better than I had dared to hope.