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The Lonely Sense: The Autobiography of a Psychic Detective, by Robert Cracknell

Publication Details: 
Anomalist Books. ISBN: 1933665513
Publish date: 
March, 2011

This is not a case book, and psychic detection arrives fairly late on in Robert Cracknell’s career.  We begin at the beginning, in 1935, and trace his fractured childhood, including an unhappy period as an evacuee in Nottingham.  After an abortive stint in the RAF he became a tramp, living on the edges of society.  He had trouble finding a niche, and drifted for many years; as Colin Wilson says in his introduction, Cracknell falls into the category of outsider.  This part of the book could very easily have veered into misery memoir territory, but Cracknell’s inner strength and lack of self-pity, plus a determination to learn from every situation in which he finds himself, allow him to write dispassionately about this period.  The implication is that his challenging experiences assisted the development of psychic abilities, though he is adamant that these are possessed by all, not a select few, and what he does can be done by anybody.

Cracknell’s explorations of the psychic side of his life make for interesting reading. He tells us about the profound influence Meher Baba had on him, brushes with black magic, a meeting with the witch Alex Sanders, another with a security-obsessed Uri Geller, in love with his own celebrity.  A visit to the set of Coronation Street to meet William Roache may have had a calming influence on the place, but clearly not enough, as there were still phenomena there for the Most Haunted team to investigate later.

Psychic detection is less prominent than is promised by the subtitle.  There are confidentiality issues, but Cracknell concedes that police forces do not admit to using psychics.  Unfortunately this means that there is no independent corroboration of his statements concerning his involvement (and the cynical sceptic will also notice the repeated references to his associations with downmarket newspapers like The News of the World and most notably The Sunday People).  He hints that he has been involved in far more cases than he details, but it is unclear why he presents these ones rather than others, and to what extent the ones he does mention were materially assisted by his efforts.  Since the police aren’t saying, it is impossible to assess his claims.  Cracknell says that some of his predictions were lodged with the SPR but if they were, the files seem to have disappeared.  Going by his own accounts here, the results are decidedly patchy, even though he claims something like an 80% success rate overall.

The section on Genette Tate, who vanished in August 1978, age 13, is brief and not particularly informative.  After accusing Genette’s father John of abusing Genette, Cracknell says he was “astonished” that John Tate, who “seemingly had an alibi” for the time of her disappearance, was not charged with abuse.  The “seemingly” suggests that the alibi was not a strong one, but in his book Genette is Missing, John Tate states that he was in Exeter that afternoon with his wife Violet, Genette’s step-mother.  That seems fairly robust.  Psychics, including Gerard Croiset and Nella Jones, swarmed all over the case, to the extent that the ubiquitous Colin Wilson contributed a chapter to Tate’s book specifically on the involvement of psychic detectives.  Wilson was keen for Cracknell to solve the mystery as he was trying to place Cracknell’s autobiography for him and success would have guaranteed a sale.  Business is business.

Wilson devotes rather more space to Genette in The Psychic Detectives than Cracknell does in his book.  According to Wilson, Cracknell predicted that Genette’s body would be found within ten days, a prediction missing from Cracknell’s book.  Cracknell also omits the information, which Wilson includes, that Violet told Cracknell that her husband was having an affair.  This person, it transpired, was Genette’s step-sister, aged nine.  John Tate confessed to the police and the story appeared in a Sunday newspaper in May 1980.  He was not prosecuted, Wilson says, because of the distress already experienced by the family.  Rather different times, one feels.  In any case, Wilson is completely satisfied that Tate’s alibi for Genette’s disappearance was genuine, as must have the police.  He does not mention Cracknell being involved in Tate’s confession, nor is there any reference to Genette having been abused, but in Cracknell’s version, Tate went to the police as a direct result of Cracknell being hired by the News of the World to reopen the case “some years later“, and confessed to abusing both Genette and her sister.

Melvyn Harris in Sorry, You’ve Been Duped says that almost five hundred psychics supplied information on Genette‘s disappearance, and the police had to deal with some 1,200 letters.  He says that one of these individuals, left unnamed, came unbidden from Cornwall to Devon, and “shook like a leaf” at the scene of the abduction.  This person said that Genette would be found in two days and the murderer caught the day after that.  When these predictions failed to come to pass he disappeared, though later he claimed in a newspaper to have been called in by the police.  Cracknell was on holiday in Cornwall when the story broke, so one does wonder if he was the person being described by Harris.  Despite all this unsavoury hoopla, Genette is still missing.

Another claim concerns the Yorkshire Ripper.  Cracknell says that following an eighteen month lull in murders he was having dinner with Colin Wilson and unspecified others.  He told his fellow diners that there would be a final murder, after which the killer would be arrested.  The eighteen month figure is wrong: Sutcliffe murdered Barbara Leach on 2 September 1979.  The next and penultimate murder victim (others survived in between) was Marguerite Walls, murdered on 20 August 1980.  She was not initially considered a Ripper victim as he had changed his MO.  Sutcliffe’s last murder victim was Jacqueline Hill, on 17 November 1980.  The gap between the deaths of Barbara Leach and Jacqueline Hill was not eighteen months, but was a considerable period.  Someone would only think though that the Ripper had not killed in the interval if they were relying on newspapers for their information and missed the death of Marguerite Walls.

At the dinner, Cracknell said that the Ripper would murder again “very soon”, which, he says, is precisely what happened.  Colin Wilson’s account in The Psychic Detectives is slightly different.  Cracknell is vague on details, but Wilson dates the meal to November 1980, actually with the sales director of the publisher which had accepted Cracknell’s autobiography, and in his version Cracknell specifically predicted that the next murder would be in two weeks.  It was actually six days, Wilson says.  Melvin Harris has a chapter fittingly entitled ‘The Yorkshire Ripper and the Psychic Circus’ describing the contributions made by psychics to solving the case.  Despite Cracknell saying that he will always be associated with the Ripper investigation, Harris seems to have missed him completely.

The longest chapter devoted to a case is that of the kidnap of the eighteen-year old daughter of Oscar Maerth, Gaby.  This was Oscar Kiss Maerth, author of the repulsive 1971 book The Beginning was the End, which postulated that human intelligence was caused as a by-product of apes eating the brains of their fellows to increase their sex drive.  The family lived in some style on the shores of Lake Como and Cracknell was flown out to try to help find Gaby.  Cracknell says that she had been kidnapped six months earlier.  He did not like Maerth, whom he found self-absorbed and selfish, pleading that he was not a rich man when he seemed to have substantial wealth.  Cracknell says he provided pertinent information, though Gaby’s freedom was not obtained by his efforts or those of the local police, and she was released in rather murky circumstances.

Cracknell tends to be vague about dates anyway, but here he manages to get the year completely wrong.  He says the kidnap occurred in 1980, but Gaby was abducted on 7 May 1982 and was released at the beginning of October, five months later.  The report in the Times (4 October) said that initially a ransom of £2.2m was demanded but was later reduced to £550,000.  A police source suggested that about £70,000 was paid, though an accurate figure was not available.  Gaby claimed, somewhat implausibly one feels, that she had been kept drugged in a tent the whole time by her captors.  As Cracknell suggests, there is surely a lot here that was never made public, but at least he managed to obtain a nice fee from the Sunday People for his trouble.

This is an expanded version of the autobiography published in 1981, Clues to the Unknown, but some of the text has not been altered since the first edition.  We learn that Sue Blackmore is about to take her PhD, and Cracknell wonders if she will follow the sorts of ideas he propounds.  The intervening thirty years have shown Blackmore following a very different path to the one that might have been predicted as she put the finishing touches to her thesis on Extrasensory Perception as a Cognitive Process.  Uri Geller is referred to as a “relatively” young man, which he must find ’fairly’ flattering.  Cracknell is pretty contemptuous of Gordon Higginson, president of the Spiritualists’ National Union for over two decades, but there is now no reason to withhold his name as he died in 1993 (not that his identity was difficult to work out).  Cracknell’s hostility to the Spiritualist movement is repeatedly expressed, and from what he says it is mutual.  He is an individualist, not suited to the constraints of a movement.

He comes across as a strong personality who has weathered adverse circumstances and emerged stronger for it.  Whether he deserves the (presumably self-proclaimed) accolade of being the No 1 Psychic Detective Agency is an open question, as there is not enough here to be able to make an adequate judgment, and no opportunity to evaluate claims from competing psychic detectives who covet the top spot.  Given the woeful track records of many psychics in crime detection, particularly considering the high stakes, it is wise to be cautious.  But leaving aside uncertainty over Cracknell’s hit rate, this is a very readable account of one person’s spiritual journey.

As I was writing this review, news arrived of the death of Osama Bin Laden, hiding not in a mountain cave but in a suburban compound not too far from Islamabad.  This is definitely one situation where accurate information would have been useful, but as far as I am aware, not one psychic detective – including Cracknell – made a firm, unambiguous and verifiable prediction about what was an unlikely location.  In Renée Scheltema’s film Something Unknown is Doing We Don't Know What, Nancy Myer was asked where he was and responded that she would not answer on camera as it would get her killed, presumably by vengeful Al-Qaeda operatives, and Stephan Schwartz was surprisingly uninterested in such a project.  Hard information derived psychically that made sense beforehand, and not retrospectively, would have been invaluable.  An opportunity to demonstrate the existence of the blue sense lost.