The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Divinations of Kala Persad, and Other Stories (1895)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Divinations of Kala Persad, and Other Stories was written by “Headon Hill,” the pseudonym of Francis Edward Grainger (1857-1924), a freelance journalist for newspapers and magazines and a writer of mysteries.
Kala Persad is a wizened old Indian man, “at least sixty...he must have been a grown man as far back as the Mutiny days.”1 Persad is being pursued by a trio of “bad Mahometan budmásh”2 when he stumbles across Mark Poignand, an Englishman who has come to India to investigate possible murder attempts against a friend. Poignand, an overly-self-assured young man, does not do much to save Persad. Poignand simply stands there and watches as the murderers, “seeing that they had a Sahib to deal with, vanished without more ado across the adjoining fields.”3 Persad is so grateful for Poignand's “help” that he solves the mystery of who was trying to kill Poignand's friend. After that, Poignand presumes on Persad's gratitude and returns to England with him. Poignand sets up a “Confidential Advice” agency and begins solving mysteries. He uses Persad's intellect to find the answer to the mysteries and catch the criminals, and then claims all the credit for solving the case. The division of labor between Poignand and Persad is simple: Persad explains who is committing the crime, and then Poignand does the legwork, assembling the evidence and confronting the wrongdoer.
Persad is smart. He is a Hindu and snake charmer from the “hills below Mahabuleshwar” who, before meeting Poignand, was a combination of village detective and wise man.
Kala Persad can read darker riddles than a man's face. In my own gaum in the hills below Mahabuleshwar my words were much sought by those who wish to learn secrets. When any person killed, or bullock stolen...patel come to me and I give him khabar--news--of the bad man. Plenty people hanged in Tanna jail through Kala Persad's talk.4
Persad is equally successful in his crime-solving in London. His method is to simply apply “common sense” and a few simply dictums to the crime, and then reason out the criminal from there. The phrases he uses to guide him include: “Where there is a wound on the black heart of man, there is the place to look for crime,”5 “From the still adder comes the most danger,”6 and “When two curious things happen close together, they bound to have to do with each other.”7
The Persad stories are Grainger’s best work. Poignand is unlikable, perhaps deliberately written so by Grainger, but Persad is clever, and the ways in which the crimes are solved are usually entertaining.
Persad is the first detective of color in mainstream detective fiction, and the first to appear in more than one story. Dime novels occasionally featured non-white detectives, such as Prentiss Ingraham’s “Darkie Dan, the Colored Detective” (from Beadle’s Dime Library no. 134 [May 18, 1881]), but they only ever appeared once. The next recurring detective of color was John Edward Bruce’s Sadipe Okekenu (1907-1909), with a number of others following in the 1910s. Charles J. Rzepka is correct in labeling Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan (1925-1932) the “first nonwhite popular detective hero in literary history”8 [emphasis mine]—The Divinations of Kala Persad caused a small stir on publication but cannot be described as popular—but Kala Persad precedes Chan and was the first detective of color in mainstream detective fiction.
Print: Headon Hill, The Divinations of Kala Persad, and Other Stories. London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1895.
1 Headon Hill, “The Divination of the Afghan Kukhri,” The Divinations of Kala Persad, and Other Stories (London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1895), 18.
2 Hill, “The Divination of the Afghan Kukhri,” 18.
3 Hill, “The Divination of the Afghan Kukhri,” 17.
4 Hill, “The Divination of the Afghan Kukhri,” 20.
5 Hill, “The Divination of the Zagury Capsules,” 61.
6 Hill, “The Divination of the Vagus Nerve,” 95.
7 Hill, “The Divination of the Kodak Films,” 125.
8 Charles J. Rzepka, “Race, Region, Rule: Genre and the Case of Charlie Chan,” PMLA 122, no. 5 (Oct. 2007): 1465.