Talking to the Dead

"The ingenuity of the criminal upon whose track we find ourselves is really out of the ordinary."
- Dr. Lancelot Priestley (John Rhode's The House at Tollard Ridge, 1929)
Since the dawn of modern technology and electric communication, the technological innovations of the nineteenth and twentieth century were looked upon in spiritualist circles as potential conduits to the world beyond and experiments were made in an attempt to establish a line of communications with the dearly departed – beginning with the spirit photography craze of the late 1800s. An interest in real-time communication with the dead, using technology, began to emerge in the early 1900s.

Thomas Edison was reportedly asked by Scientific American, in 1920, whether the telephone could be used to talk to the dead and the inventor did not dismiss the possibility. 

However, it would not be until the 1950s and the introduction of the first generation of portable audio recorders that people began to record, what they believed and interpreted to be, the voices of the dead. These recordings are known as Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) and these sound recordings, as I learned, are still very popular today as the countless "Spirit Box Sessions" on YouTube can attest. And these innovations were eagerly adopted by fraudsters and con-artists as tools to prey on grief-stricken people.

However, our beloved, but duplicitous, detective story was perhaps the first medium to explore the criminal possibilities of EVP long before it became a popular tool of ghost-hunters and spiritual mediums. Some of these stories date as far back as the mid-and late 1920s. John Rhode's The House on Tollard Ridge (1929) has an elderly murder victim who lived alone in a desolate house, reputedly haunted, where he spent long evenings listening to voices from the spirit world on the wireless, but the best examples were penned by two of the genre's most celebrated mystery writers – namely John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie.

The first of these two is a short story by Christie, titled "Where There's a Will," which was originally published as "Wireless" in the Sunday Chronicle Annual in December 1926 and collected in The Hound of Death and Other Stories (1933). The second tale is a dark, eerie radio-play, "The Dead Sleep Lightly," of which Carr wrote two versions. One of these versions is the well-known episode from the CBS radio-drama, Suspense, but Carr "lengthened the script by a third to include Dr. Fell and Superintendent Hadley" for the British broadcast of the story. And the script of this second version was collected in The Dead Sleep Lightly and Other Mysteries from Radio's Golden Age (1983).

These two stories work with very similar, almost identical, plot-material and ideas, which makes them interesting reads when taken back-to-back, because they beautifully mirror and even compliment one another. But the treatment of the ideas and resolution to both stories also demonstrate the differences, as mystery writers, between Carr and Christie. I think they are, aptly enough, soul revealing reads that showed that the respective writers had (slender) ties to respectively the horror and romance genre.

You can find three of Carr's short horror stories in The Door to Doom and Other Detections (1980) and Christie wrote six "bitter-sweet stories about love" under the penname of "Mary Westmacotts." I think these flirtations with the horror and romance genre are reflected in "Wireless" and "The Dead Sleep Lightly." So let's take a closer look at these stories.

Agatha Christie
The primary character in Christie's "Wireless" is an elderly lady, Mrs. Mary Hatter, who has a weak heart and her doctor pressed her to "avoid all undue exertion." As well as prescribing "plenty of distraction for the mind." An elevator was installed to prevent undue exertion and her beloved nephew, Charles, suggested the installation of a radio-set to provide the mental distraction. Initially, Mrs. Hatter was skeptical and convinced that these "newfangled notions were neither more nor less than unmitigated nuisances," but slowly she began to warm to the "repellent object" and enjoyed listening to a symphony concert or lectures – until, one evening, an unearthly, faraway voice spoke to her over the radio.

A voice that identified himself as Mrs. Hatter's late husband, Patrick, who announced that he would be coming for her soon and asked her to be ready for that moment.

Mrs. Hatter took this message from beyond the grave better than expected and muttered about all that money she wasted on putting in an elevator, but she became convinced when the voice spoke to her a second time. Once again, the voice identified himself as Patrick and announced that he would be coming "very soon now." On top of these ghostly radio-messages, Charles claims to have seen a figure in Victorian garb standing by the window of her late husband's dressing-room!

So Mrs. Hatter begins to put the final touches to the earthly matters she'll be presently be leaving behind. And then the voice comes through a third and final time. The ghostly voice of Patrick tells her to expect him on "Friday at half past nine." And the voice tells her not to be afraid and assures that "there will be no pain." However, when the time arrives her bravery and resolve deserts her as she suddenly realizes that Patrick had been died for twenty-five years and is practically a stranger to her now. But this realization came too late.

This story is a not who-dun-it, because the mind behind these supernatural phenomena is apparent from the beginning. And the why-and-how-dun-it aspects will hardly pose a challenge to the modern armchair detective. What this story does have to offer is a front-row seat to a perfect crime with a twist in the tail. The murderer was clever and devious enough to use the given circumstances as tools to commit an undetectable murder, but the final pages shows an unexpected hitch that undid all of the meticulous scheming – making the death of a Mrs. Hatter a perfect crime without a payoff. And this piece of cosmic justice made for a most delightful ending.

I always loved "Wireless." It's a criminally underrated and grossly overlooked story from Christie's legendary oeuvre that deserves to be better known.

The second story is the British version of Carr's most well-known radio-play, "The Dead Speak Slightly," which begins when Dr. Fell's manservant, Hoskins, wakes his dozing employer with the announcement that there's "a lunatic downstairs." The madman in question turns out to be a publisher, George Pendleton, who's considered to be "a very celebrated and successful man." However, the man seems to be badly shaken and deadly afraid of clay, or soil, of "the sort you often find in graveyards."

John Dickson Carr
On the previous day, Pendleton had attended a funeral of "a fellow club-member" with his secretary, Miss Pamela Bennett, but on their way out of the cemetery they passed a neglected grave with a little stone grave and the publisher recognized it as the final resting place of a person from his own past – a woman by the name of Mary Ellen Kimball. Pendleton briefly reflects on his past and it becomes evident that he had not treated the woman, who rested there, very well when she had been alive.

So his secretary suggested to have the grave tidied up and writes down the identifying number that is cut on the side of the gravestone, which is "Kensal Green 1-9-3-3." They remark how the number sounds like a telephone number and that will come back to haunt the publisher later that evening.

Pendleton returned to his home in St. John's Wood, but he was in process of moving to flat closer to the West End and everything was practically packed up. The house was all but empty. So he decided to give a friend a telephone call and ask him if he wanted to go out for a dinner, but when the switchboard operated asked for a number he blurted out the gravestone number, Kensal Green 1-9-3-3, without thinking and the voice of a woman answered – a woman who identified herself as Mary Ellen!

And when Pendleton screams that she's dead, the voice answers with one of my favorite lines in all of detective-fiction: "Yes, dear," but "the dead sleep lightly" and "they can be lonely too." I don't know why these lines have such an appeal to me, but they never fail to make my soul shiver in absolute delight. Anyway, the voice of Mary Ellen promises to leave her grave and visit him when at his home when "the clock strikes seven." Interestingly, this ghostly phone-call poses somewhat of an impossible problem, because the phone had been disconnected that morning. A man from the telephone company had disconnected all the wires and had taken "the metal box off the baseboard of the wall." It simply was not possible to have made that telephone call.

So the publisher left cartoon smoke, as he bolted out of there, but Dr. Fell refuses to help him as he was not told him the full story. Regardless, Dr. Fell decided to venture outside and follow Pendleton back home, which is where he bumps into Superintendent Hadley. And what they discover is the man lying on the floor of the library with the telephone besides him. His face has an awful color, as if he had a stroke, but even more disturbing is "the clay track across the floor." There's even wet clay on Pendleton "as though somebody covered with clay had tried to hold him."

A fantastic story with a shuddery atmosphere, but, once again, the technical aspect of this seemingly impossible and apparently supernatural problem won't pose too much of a problem to readers in the twenty-first century. But the effects created with the telephone gadget and the simple power of suggestion is absolutely superb! Typically, Dr. Fell sympathizes with the perpetrators of this ghostly plot and covers up the whole business right under Hadley's nose!

I simply can't recommend this radio-play enough, but, if you don't have copy of the previously mentioned The Dead Sleep Lightly knocking about, you can just as easily listen to the equally fantastic Suspense version. It lacks the presence of Dr. Fell and Hadley, but the play can be found all over the internet (like here) and the plot is exactly the same as the British version. And the upside is that you can listen to those marvelous, haunting lines being spoken and get an extra pound of goose-flesh out of it.

So, there you have it, two short detective stories that are, in some regards, mirror-images of one another. Stories with plots that were built and constructed with the same plot-ideas and material, but their respective authors each delivered a very different kind of yarn of haunted murder.

For example, the victim of Christie's "Wireless" is an elderly lady who, initially, faces the possibility of being reunited with her dead husband bravely. Only to crumble when realizing at the last moment she had lived a quarter of a century without him and had become estranged from the dead man who she expected to see any moment. This is the bitter that comes after the sweet that apparently can be found in her romance novels. On a whole, this is a domestic crime story. Carr, on the other hand, showed he sometimes could be very closely related to the ghost story and picked a harsh, cold-hearted businessman as his victim who immediately lost his cool when a skeleton from his past appeared to stir from her grave – with a promise to pay him a visit. And he gave a detective story spin the horror genre's avenger-from-the-grave motif.

There are also the similarities in tricks for the ghostly voices and the fact that the perpetrators are, legally, untouchable, but only Carr lets his perpetrators off the hook.

So these stories show that Christie and Carr, while known for their intricately plotted and fair-play detective stories, were very different mystery writers at heart. And yet, they beautifully compliment one another when read back-to-back. These stories ought to be reissued as a single booklet or anthologized together in some kind of themed anthology with other detective stories involving fraudulant mediums, reputedly haunted crime-scenes and supernormal creatures who belong on the pages of a horror story. Such an anthology would make a for a great read and these two would definitely be the main event of such a collection of short stories! 


  1. It should not be surprising that there are elements of romance and horror in the detective story. Its progenitor Poe was highly influenced by the earlier gothic horror novel, which contains elements of mystery, horror and romance, such as in Mrs. Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. The detective story just selected certain elements from the gothic horror novel to become a separate genre. In fact much of our popular culture, such as science fiction and the historical novel, ultimately derives from the gothic horror novel.

    1. I'm not surprised that there are horror and romance elements in detective stories.

      I just think it's noteworthy to point out that in these two stories, which work with very similar ideas, Christie showed that bitter-sweet side of her romantic novels and Carr allowed to horror writer in him to roam free for a bit. They revealed something of the soul of their respective authors.