I love Fiona’s Poppy Denby Investigates series, and have interviewed her and had guest posts from her when each new book has come out. Having already asked her about how she goes about writing a series, I asked whether she would come up with an idea for a guest blog, so that I could help her celebrate the latest title: The Cairo Brief. I wasn’t expecting what she sent through, but here is a fascinating explanation as to why she decided to include a séance in the book…
“Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, you might see and hear things that have no apparent explanation. Do not… I repeat, do not… try to apply a scientific mind to them. […] There are some things you need to take on faith. The metaphysical world is one of them…” Lady Ursula at the start of a séance in The Cairo Brief, book 4 in the Poppy Denby Investigates series.
I spent my early Christian years in a community that treated even the slightest whiff of the occult – even comic depictions of it – with immense suspicion. I remember as a teenager walking out of the film Beatle Juice because I feared the devil would get his clutches into me. When I discovered that Arthur Conan Doyle was a leading spiritualist, I burned my treasured copy of the Complete Sherlock Holmes; something that to this day I regret.
Since those fearful times in the 1980s my faith has changed, and the paranoia about a demon behind every bush has all but gone. This does not mean that I do not believe in the reality of satanic forces in the world – and I still won’t watch a full-on horror film such as The Omen – but my views on how those satanic forces operate, and whether or not they can ‘get their clutches into you’ if you read or watch certain things, have matured.
Nonetheless, I’m aware that there is a broad spectrum of views on this in the Church and that it would be prudent, in a book from a Christian publisher, that my editor and I pause to consider whether or not the depiction of a séance would be appropriate. We both did.
Firstly, séances were a marked cultural expression of the time. From the mid-1800s to the early 20th century, the spiritualist movement was in its heyday. For some it took the place of conventional religion with spiritualist churches (starting in the USA) soon spreading around the world. Academics and leading literary figures – like Arthur Conan Doyle – attempted to prove the existence of the paranormal, using quasi-scientific methodologies. Then there were those who didn’t take it very seriously at all, simply going along with the ‘fashion’ of playing occult parlour games.
Like my heroine Poppy – and many others of the time – Arthur Conan Doyle had lost loved ones during the war. It was as a result of that that he started trying to contact the dead, and, along with his second wife Lady Jean (an automatic writer), began leading séances. This was useful for me as one of the recurring themes of the Poppy Denby books is the dark shadow cast by the Great War and how individuals and society have been cut to the core by the horrors it unleashed.
The second reason we decided to include the séance was that the rise of alternative spiritualities in the 1920s was a result of the loosening of power of the established Church. That was something that I have been exploring through all of the Poppy Denby books. Poppy, the daughter of Methodist ministers, questions what it means to be a Christian in the new ‘modern’ world.
The post-WWI years saw the breakdown of cultural Christianity and the increasing separation of Church and State. As the State’s role as a provider of education, healthcare etc grew, the Church’s social function – as a welfare institution – began to diminish. As suffrage expanded to include the lower classes, the power they had to demand the government meet social needs meant that the Church no longer had a clearly defined role to play. People began to ask: ‘What, actually, is the point of church?’
Faith became an issue of personal choice. That’s why the evangelical movement did so well; because it was down to the individual and their ‘personal relationship with God’. In my Poppy books, the heroine is set adrift from Church as an institution and needs to re-align her faith. Is it a personal faith? Is it a family faith? Is it a communal faith? What role does a God of love have to play in a world blighted by horror?
The Twenties was a decade where God’s credibility was being challenged. It was no longer a matter of ‘we believe because the church tells us to’, it was: do ‘I’ believe it? People were increasingly emboldened to turn their backs on religious faith by the growing understanding of science, which some believed gave a legitimate alternative to the question of how the world came to be. People were no longer just asking ‘what’s the point of the Church?’ But: ‘what’s the point of God himself?’ In the 1920s universal suffrage put political power into the hands of individuals. The question of whether to believe in God or not was now in their hands too.
And so we have Poppy going into a séance. What will she make of it? Will the devil get his claws into her? Will she think it’s all a bit of harmless fun? Or, is something more serious, and ultimately, more sinister going on…? You’ll have to read it to see.
Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and university lecturer, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. Her 1920s mystery novel The Jazz Files, the first in the Poppy Denby Investigates Series (Lion Fiction), was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger award in 2016. The second book, The Kill Fee, was a finalist for the Foreword Review mystery novel of the year 2016/17. Book four in the series, The Cairo Brief, has been shortlisted for the People’s Book Prize, which you can vote for on the prize’s website. For more on the series visit www.poppydenby.com