The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Selecting a Ghost" (1883)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Selecting a Ghost” was written by Arthur Conan Doyle and first appeared in London Society (Dec. 1883). Although Doyle (1859-1930) is known today primarily for The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, he was a competent professional writer who produced a range of material, his best work being his historical adventures rather than his mysteries.
Jack Brocket is a type of hustler, doing whatever he must to make money: “He was a rakish, clever young fellow, who had tried his hand at many things, but wanted perseverance to succeed at any. He was, at that time, in chambers in London, professing to be a general agent, and really living, to a great extent, upon his wits.”1 Brocket, the cousin of the narrator's wife, performs little services for (among others) the narrator, Silas “Argentine” D'Odd, and charges commissions for these services. In “Selecting a Ghost” D’Odd, feeling that his feudal mansion deserves a ghost of its own—the brutish Jorrocks of neighboring Havistock Farm have a ghost of their own, and how could D'Odd do without one under those circumstances?—hires Brocket to find a ghost for him. Brocket instantly goes to his files, skims through his ledger, and produces a list of firms that will acquire and identify ghosts, as well as ones that supply mediums and love potions to the nobility and gentry, ones that carry out seances, and so on. But the person that Brocket eventually hires turns out to be a thief who robs D'Odd of several valuables, and the procession of ghosts that D'Odd sees are done for farce, as job applicants.
“Selecting a Ghost” is written as light humor and works effectively on that level, but it is most interesting as a might-have-been for Sherlock Holmes. Brocket preceded Holmes by four years, and while the two characters have little in common, it does not take much imagination to see that Conan Doyle could have decided to create, as his Great Detective, not a manic-depressive, emotionally-repressed misanthrope, but a crime-solving man-about-town, a stylish London boulevardier who takes the supernatural in stride and is closer to an occult detective than to the Holmesian Great Detective.
Print: Arthur Conan Doyle, The Captain of the ‘Pole-Star’: Weird and Imaginative Fiction. Ashcroft, BC: Ash-Tree Press, 2012.
1 Arthur Conan Doyle, “Selecting a Ghost,” in Dreamland and Ghostland, volume 3 (London: G. Redway, 1887), 125.