Edwardian-social-issues-of-the-week: Spiritualism and the deep emotional bond between parents and children
“Supernatural” crime: Spiritualism (?)
H&D has really hit its stride, with another strong story following last week’s lively Spring Heeled Jack caper.
We open by following the mysterious Madame Korzha as she leads a group of police constables and distraught parents through the shadowy streets of London in search of a kidnapped child named Julia. Madame Korzha certainly seems, in this scene, to possess some sort of preternatural powers, as she unerringly guides her followers into the subterranean tunnels, where they discover the girl, clutching a doll and upset but unharmed, along with a note written in blood:
Houdini, Doyle and Stratton are naturally intrigued to learn that a psychic appears to have been of actual use in a police investigation. Harry and Adelaide are sceptical of her abilities and suspect that she may have had inside knowledge of the kidnapping, but Doyle is, inevitably, more open to the possibility of spirit guidance. The enigmatic Madame Korzha further ingratiates herself with Doyle by revealing that she is a fan of his Sherlock Holmes stories.
We then meet dock worker Mitchell Pearce, the father of a girl who was kidnapped and murdered under similar circumstances about a year previously. Suspecting some connection between the two cases, the police ask Madame Korzha to investigate alongside Houdini, Doyle and Stratton.
The team learns that the message on the wall was not written in Julia’s blood and that the doll she was found clutching was not hers. After having purportedly consulted with her spirit guides, Madame Korzha then guides them to the kidnapper’s deserted lair in an abandoned doll factory. Houdini is ever more convinced that she must somehow be in cahoots with the kidnapper(s).
The normally phlegmatic Inspector Merring, who seems to be taking these abductions very much to heart, reveals that yet another girl has been kidnapped. Young Julia, fortunately, has now recovered from her ordeal enough to be able to reveal that the masked man who took her was bearded and that she had managed to scratch his face. Houdini notes darkly that Madame Korzha’s assistant has a beard …
Shortly thereafter, Doyle, Houdini and Stratton attend a seance at Madame Korzha’s residence. Despite Harry’s ability to predict some of her pronouncements via his knowledge of cold reading, she also appears to be unaccountably privy to certain details about Doyle’s life and his relationship with his wife. At the dramatic climax of the seance, Madame Korzha and her assistant appear to instantly and impossibly swap places in the room; but Houdini remains unconvinced. Later, Houdini returns to Korzha’s residence, apparently so as to expose her as a fraud, but they end up sleeping together. Houdini steals her passport, then realises that Korzha has stolen his wallet.
It turms out that Madame Korzha’s Romanian passport is a forgery and that she actually hails from Croydon; her real name is Edith Pilkie. Houdini is now almost certain that she has organised the kidnappings so as to cast herself as a heroine by rescuing the children, and so drum up more business as a psychic investigator.
However, re-examining the photographic evidence, Houdini then realises the Hargreaves and Pearce girls were bound differently – and recognises the knots used on Julia as those commonly used on London docks. The team confronts Mitchell Pearce, who has evidently gone mad with grief, and who confesses that he kidnapped Julia and the latest missing girl to draw attention to the failure of the police to solve his own daughter’s abduction and murder. During a struggle with Houdini and Doyle, Pearce accidentally shoots himself and dies.
Heading to the London docks, the team finds Pearce’s latest victim bound to a ladder and about to be drowned by the rising tide, but Houdini leaps into the frigid water and is able to release her just in the nick of time. She is revived and reunited with her parents.
Doyle, meanwhile, has deduced how “Madame Korzha” was able to function so well as an investigator – she has been using Sherlock Holmes’s methods of detection! She hands him an enigmatic note (and returns Houdini’s wallet) before disappearing into the night. Following clues in the note leads Houdini and Doyle to the London Public Records Office, and to photographic evidence that Adelaide Stratton has been hiding her real identity from them.
- The highlight of this tautly-plotted episode is definitely the mysterious Madame Korzha herself. The ultimate reveal that she is actually a genius-level detective and magician, posing as a sophisticated foreign psychic in order to help people because Edwardian Londoners would not take a working-class woman seriously as a detective, is a brilliant premise. If H&D does get a second season, we look forward to this character’s return.
- Edith Pilkie’s masquerade as the exotic Madame Korzha is reminiscent of the imposture of Mary Baker as “Princess Caraboo of Javasu” during the early 19th century.
- Harry Houdini’s love/hate sparring with Edith/Korzha may be a nod to his real-life crusade to expose the clever and wealthy Boston medium Mina Crandon, a.k.a. “Margery”, during the mid-1920s.
- It’s nice to see Inspector Merring do something other than stand gruffly behind his desk. The reveal that he lost his only son during wartime, which has especially sensitized him to missing child cases out of empathy with the parents, offers him some more depth and humanity.
- Houdini’s guilty admission that he, himself, once worked as a fraudulent medium is historically true; it was early in his magic career and he stopped doing it when he realised the potential harm he was doing to true believers.
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Eight ibangs out of a possible ten for episode five, which introduces an intriguing new character, deepens the mystery of Adelaide Stratton’s real identity and offers a solid blend of mystery and action.