Supernatural mysteries form a significant subsection of the annals of detective fiction, and may or may not be considered to include that rarified class of stories in which an apparently supernatural mystery – an “impossible crime” – is revealed as being nothing of the sort. The progenitor of the “ghost-exposer” sub-genre may well be this series of short stories co-authored by L.T. Meade (Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith, 1844–
Their protagonist, John Bell, is – it must be said – a fairly generic late-Victorian sleuth, and not an especially vivid character. He is of independent means, a robust constitution and a staunchly skeptical frame of mind; his most distinguishing feature being his knack for cracking mysteries that seem to admit no natural solution. In each case, the plot hinges on a more-or-less plausible, albeit baroque, application of cutting-edge (late-Victorian) technology; the reader’s investment, meanwhile, being sustained by action-adventure elements (Bell being not at all averse to putting himself in harm’s way if required) and in trying to figure out exactly how the villain(s) have pulled off their audacious “supernatural” scheme.
Bell’s exploits were collated in the 1898 anthology A Master of Mysteries: The Adventures of John Bell, Ghost-Exposer and followed by a stand-alone short story, The Secret of Emu Plain. The latter tale ended on a cliffhanger, with Bell admitting that, for once, he could not puzzle out the mystery, and inviting readers to contribute their own solutions. A cash prize of one shilling would be awarded to each of the ten entries that most closely matched the authors’ solution, or else most pleased them in their ingenuity; three hundred and eighty-six readers responded and the authors had their work cut out for them in selecting the winners.
John Bell, thus, stands as an early predecessor of fictional “ghost exposers” including Jonathan Creek, Mystery, Inc., Encyclopedia Brown and the Mad Scientists Club.