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“The Master of Mysteries,” Latest in Library’s Crime Classics Series

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Book cover with 1920s-style illustration of a man holding a skull with ghost-like figures swirling in the air
“The Man of Mysteries,” the newest title in the Library’s Crime Classics series.

This is a guest post by Polina Lopez, Widening the Path intern in the Library’s Publishing Office.

Can one detective successfully solve kidnapping, espionage and murder cases, uncover social poseurs and secret love affairs, all while maintaining the guise of psychic powers? In the newest addition to the Library of Congress Crime Classics series, Gelett Burgess’ Astro the Seer does all that and more, proving he is “The Master of Mysteries.”

In this collection of short stories, victims bring their troubles to Astro, who, they believe, finds solutions by consulting their auras and vibrations. In reality, as soon as his clients leave, Astro sheds his turban and robe and assumes the role of a private detective. He interviews witnesses, follows suspects, stakes out hideouts and uses scientific methods of the day. However, Astro’s most effective weapon is his attention to minute details of his clients’ appearance and behavior.

Astro’s methods bring to mind another fictional sleuth: Sherlock Holmes, the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle. The appearance of Doyle’s genre-defining detective launched what Crime Classics editor Leslie S. Klinger calls “a tsunami of Holmes imitators,” of which Astro is a notable representative. Like Holmes, Astro demonstrates a wealth of expertise in many fields, employs a specific meditating method to organize his thoughts and heavily relies on his companion, Valeska Wynne. Unlike Holmes, however, Astro trusts his sidekick with serious tasks and occasionally gives Valeska credit, though he never misses a chance to tease her.

Black and white photo portrait of Gelett Burgess. Head and shoulders shot. Burgess, a white man in his 30s, a receding hairline, wearing a three piece suit and wire-framed glasses, his cupped right hand by his jaw, a faint smile
Gelett Burgess, 1910. Photo: Unknown. Public domain from The Bancroft Library Portrait Collection.

Given Burgess’s background, such humor is not unexpected. Born in 1866 into a conservative Boston family, he was educated at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology before fleeing for the artistic freedoms of San Francisco. He worked as a draftsman for a railroad and taught technical drawing at the University of California, Berkeley. He resigned after apparently taking part in the silliness of knocking over a campus statue of a temperance leader. In 1895, he launched a humorous literary magazine, The Lark. The first issue featured Burgess’s famous nonsense verse, “The Purple Cow”:

I never saw a Purple Cow,

I never hope to see one;

But I can tell you, anyhow,

I’d rather see than be one.

Burgess also invented the Goops, quirky little creatures who exemplified ill-mannered children; he produced five books about them. Another literary bon mot: He coined the the term “blurb,” a short testimonial for book advertising. His papers are at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

Burgess ventured into crime writing, producing more than 20 tales about Astro the Seer for the Associated Sunday Magazine between 1908 and 1909 under the pen name of Alan Braghampton. The series achieved success, but when in 1912 the Astro stories were produced in book form, titled “The Master of Mysteries,” Burgess published it anonymously.

These stories, consciously or not, played upon a key debate of the day: Were psychic powers a new frontier that humanity was just beginning to tap into, or were they so much stuff and nonsense?

While Astro used his mystical persona to disguise his shoe-leather detective work, his contemporary, the real-life magician Harry Houdini, not only rejected any claims that he possessed supernatural powers, but debunked fraudulent mediums and their ilk.

In 1927, through Houdini’s bequest, the Library received nearly 4,000 items from his personal library, forming the Harry Houdini Collection.

Photo taken from several stories up looks down at Harry Houdini hanging upside down from a cable, bound in restraints, high above a crowd on the street
Another day at the office for Harry Houdini in 1906. Photo: Unknown. Prints and Photographs Division.

Houdini had become famous in the late 1890s as an escape artist, magician and stunt performer. In one of his stunts, he had himself bound into a straitjacket and suspended by his ankles from a tall structure, escaping in full view of fascinated onlookers. Proud of his craft, he readily revealed his methods.

As a professional tradesman, he ridiculed fellow magicians who professed special powers or psychic gifts. He loathed those who capitalized on the distressed and grief-stricken. In the 1920s, Houdini embarked on a mission to debunk psychics and put them out of business. He published books and articles, naming the charlatans and exposing their tricks. He testified before Congress in support of criminalizing fortune-telling for fees in the District of Columbia, and he sacrificed friendships for his cause (for example, with the aforementioned Arthur Conan Doyle, an ardent spiritualist).

Houdini (seated, left) exposes techniques used by fraudulent mediums on the stage of the New York Hippodrome. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Houdini delivered his final piece of evidence posthumously. Bess, his wife, held annual séances for ten years after his death, attempting to contact him, waiting for a secret message they had agreed on before his death. No such message arrived,  thereby confirming, anecdotally, that spirits could not communicate with the living.

A 1909 poster advertising Harry Houdini’s exposé performance. McManus-Young Collection, Prints & Photographs Division.

With “The Master of Mysteries,” the Library’s Crime Classics series continues its mission of bringing back to light some of the finest, albeit lesser-known, American crime writing from the 1860s to the 1960s. Drawn from the Library’s collections, each volume includes the original text, an introduction, author biography, notes, recommendations for further reading and suggested discussion questions from mystery expert Leslie S. Klinger.

Crime Classics are published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks, in association with the Library of Congress. “The Master of Mysteries,” published on January 3, is available in softcover ($14.99) from booksellers worldwide, including the Library of Congress shop.

Comments (4)

  1. How can I get story book!?

    • Hi,

      You can order it from most any bookseller, including the Library’s shop. The link is at the bottom of the story.


  2. Wows-and-attention-holds.

    The-Pictures-really-grasped-my-attention. Bright-Colors-and-The Stories

  3. I am fascinated by dust jackets on books and how well they portray the actual subject matter within the book. Would you consider crediting the artist/designer of the dust jacket that you show, or actual book cover as is generally the case with children’s books, as part of your coverage?

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