Fitz James O’Brien’s character Harry Escott is a contender for first occult detective in fiction. A specialist in supernatural phenomena, Escott investigates a ghost in "The Pot of Tulips" (1855) and an invisible entity in "What Was It? A Mystery" (1859). The narrator of Robert Bulwer-Lytton’s novella "The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain" (1859) is another student of the supernatural who probes a mystery involving a culprit with paranormal abilities.
Sheridan Le Fanu's Dr. Martin Hesselius appeared in "Green Tea" (1869) and later became a framing device for Le Fanu's short story collection In a Glass Darkly (1872).
For most of its plot, The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of Sherlock Holmes's most well-known adventures, seems to belong in this genre - though in the end the villain turns out to be completely human and mundane, who deliberately created this misleading impression.
The next prominent figure in this tradition was Dr. Abraham Van Helsing in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), followed closely by E. and H. Heron's Flaxman Low, featured in a series of stories in Pearson's Magazine (1898–99), Algernon Blackwood's
Dr. John Silence, and William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki the Ghost Finder. Other supernatural sleuths in fiction dating to the late nineteenth century include Alice & Claude Askew's Aylmer Vance and Champion de Crespigny's Norton Vyse.
Thomas Carnacki may well be considered one of the first true occult detectives, as he combined both knowledge and experience of what he calls “the ab-natural” with scientific deductive method and equipment. The adventures of Carnacki have been continued by a number of writers, including A. F. Kidd in collaboration with Rick Kennett in 472 Cheyne Walk: Carnacki, the Untold Stories (2000), William Meikle in Carnacki: Heaven and Hell (Colusa, CA: Ghost House Press, 2011), Brandon Barrows in The Castle-Town Tragedy (Dunhams Manor, 2016), and others. In addition, writers Joshua M Reynolds and John Linwood Grant have each produced a separate series of stories which follow on from Carnacki's death, and feature occult detectives whose work relates to the original tales - The Adventures of the Royal Occultist and Tales of the Last Edwardian respectively.
Sax Rohmer's collection The Dream Detective features the occult detective Moris Klaw, who utilises "odic force" in his investigations. The occultist Dion Fortune made her contribution to the genre with The Secrets of Dr Taverner (1926), consisting of psychic adventures of the Holmes–like Taverner as narrated by his assistant, Dr Rhodes. Aleister Crowley's Simon Iff featured in a series of stories, some of which have been collected in book form. Dennis Wheatley's occult detective was Neils Orsen.
Though never large, the occult detective subgenre grew to include such writers as Seabury Quinn (with his character Jules de Grandin); Manly Wade Wellman, whose character John Thunstone investigated occult events through short stories in the pulps, collected in The Third Cry to Legba and Other Invocations (2000) and in the novels What Dreams May Come (1983) and
The School of Darkness (1985); and "Jack Mann" (E. C. Vivian), who chronicled the adventure of his occult detective Gregory Gordon George Green, known as "Gees", in a series of novels. Pulp writer Robert E. Howard created stories about Steve Harrison, an occult detective, in the Strange Detective Stories magazine. Margery Lawrence created the character Miles Pennoyer in her occult detective stories collected in Number Seven, Queer Street.
Modern writers who have used the occult detective theme as a basis for supernatural adventures include Peter Saxon (The Guardians series), John Burke (Dr Alex Caspian),
Frank Lauria (Dr Owen Orient), Lin Carter (Anton Zarnak), and Joseph Payne Brennan (Lucius Leffing).
The occult detective theme has also been used with series characters devised by such contemporary writers as Douglas Adams (Dirk Gently), F. Paul Wilson (the Repairman Jack series), Steve Rasnic Tem (Charlie Goode), Jessica Amanda Salmonson (Miss Penelope Pettiweather), David Rowlands (Father O'Connor), Rick Kennett (Ernie Pine), Brian Lumley (Titus Crow), Robert Weinberg (Sydney Taine), Simon R. Green (John Taylor), Steve Niles (Cal McDonald), Mike Carey (Felix Castor), Mercedes Lackey (Diana Tregarde), Laurell K. Hamilton (Anita Blake), Brian Keene (Levi Stoltzfus), Jonathan L. Howard (Johannes Cabal), and Jonathan Maberry (Sam Hunter). Jim Butcher's best-selling book series The Dresden Files is another well-known example. Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy stories and Dean Koontz's The Haunted Earth are examples in which occult detectives operate in a world where the occult is simply an accepted part of mundane life.
Assaph Mehr's Stories of Togas, Daggers, and Magic combine historical mystery detective in ancient Rome with fantasy and occult elements.
A useful recent anthology collecting specimens of the genre is Mark Valentine, ed., The Black Veil & Other Tales of Supernatural Sleuths (ISBN 978-1-84022-088-9), published by Wordsworth Editions in 2009. Earlier themed anthologies include Stephen Jones, ed., Dark Detectives: Adventures of the Supernatural Sleuths (Fedogan & Bremer, 1998) and Peter Haining, ed., Supernatural Sleuths: Stories of Occult Investigators (William Kimber, 1986).
The magazine Occult Detective Quarterly (Electric Pentacle Press, 2016) specialises in presenting a wide range of new occult detective tales set in a range of time periods, with the occasional pastiche of classic figures from this branch of fiction.
Film and television
In the 1970s, there were a number of attempts at occult detective television series. While not overtly occult detectives, the heroes and heroine of the ‘60s British cult sci-fi thriller series, The Champions inherited occult powers from a Tibetan lama and used these powers to investigate crime.
Other examples include Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970), starring Louis Jourdan as psychologist David Sorrell; The Sixth Sense (TV series) (1972) starring Gary Collins as a psychic investigator; The Norliss Tapes (1973) with Roy Thinnes as a reporter investigating the supernatural; Baffled! (1973), a British production with Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire vs. an evil occult society; Spectre (1977), starring Robert Culp and Gig Young as criminologists turned demonologists; The World of Darkness (1977) and its sequel, The World Beyond (1978), starring Granville Van Dusen as a man who battles the supernatural following his own near death experience.
The most successful effort of this period was the short-lived television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), starring Darren McGavin; the weekly series was based on two backdoor pilots (The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler) produced by Dan Curtis and scripted by Richard Matheson, based on an unpublished work by
Jeff Rice. Kolchak's adventures have been continued in books by Rice and in the comic book Kolchak Tales. Matheson's Kolchak Scripts have also been published.
More recent examples include:
The Dresden Files,
The Exorcist III,
Lord of Illusions,
Special Unit 2,
The X-Files, and
Angel (1999 TV series).
Comics, manga, and anime
The comic book Hellblazer boosted the popularity and image of the occult detective fiction genre and shaped it to its modern form. Many modern examples of the genre such as Hellboy, Supernatural, Grimm, The Originals, and The Dresden Files have been influenced by it, and many imitators of both the series and its character flourished such as Criminal Macabre, Gravel, Planetary, and others. Its elements and style have been used countless of times in other works and many analogues of the cynical protagonist John Constantine have appeared.
Examples of occult detectives in comic books include Doctor Spektor from Gold Key Comics, Hellboy from the Dark Horse series of same name, Dylan Dog from the Sergio Bonelli Editore series, and
Martin Hel a character created by Robin Wood. Two Hellblazer writers have gone on to write their own occult detective characters: Sebastian O also at Vertigo by Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis' Gravel from Avatar Press. 2000 AD has featured a number over the years in their own eponymous series: Bix Barton, Devlin Waugh, Ampney Crucis Investigates and Dandridge. The occult detective team of Syd Deadlocke and Doc Martin, featured in Pulse of Darkness and other comics by Chris G.C. Sequeira, also fits into this genre. There is also the comic book series Ruse, once owned by CrossGen and now by Marvel Comics.
Examples in manga and anime include Majin Tantei Nōgami Neuro, Mushishi, YuYu Hakusho, Ghost Hunt, Mononoke, Death Note, Ghosts at School, Bakemonogatari and Nightwalker: The Midnight Detective.
Video and computer games