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September 1999
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"The Strange Case of Cyril Bycourt" by Ernest Bramah (In Max Carrados Mysteries, 1927)

In the old days of fair-play mystery writing, there was a stern rule against invoking the supernatural. Rules are fun to break, though, and some Golden Age detectives had the occasional weird, eldritch encounter.

Ernest Bramah's blind sleuth Max Carrados isn't far from being a fantasy character himself. He effortlessly reads newspapers by touch, and aims his pistol at villains by ear: "He fired now into the centre of the `Damn!' " Not only can his sensitive fingertips detect a forged coin, but from stylistic evidence he then deduces who forged it.

Mostly Carrados tackled rational mysteries. But in his second oddest case, "The Eastern Mystery" (in The Eyes of Max Carrados, 1923), he explains a lucky talisman that actually seems to work, by pointing out that although the thing is supposed to be a tooth of the god Hanuman it's actually a rusty nail, nearly 1900 years old. . . .

Strangest of all is the affair of Cyril Bycourt, a boy heir who's being terrified into an early grave by nightmares of a veiled man waiting to haul him away on a plague-cart. "Bring out your dead!" After checking that the lad hasn't been morbidly reading Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, Carrados investigates---to find that this house has its own electrical generator in an outbuilding, and there's a power outlet right by Cyril's bed.

The solution is an obvious manifestation of what the Encyclopedia of Fantasy calls "technofantasy." That generator shed was built over an ancient plague-burial pit, and evil emanations are travelling along the wires to leak (just as James Thurber's mother thought electricity behaved) out of the socket and into Cyril's dreams. Elementary!

Bramah also famously created the Oriental raconteur Kai Lung . . . but that's another story.

—Dave Langford

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