This first volume of The Complete tales of Jules de Grandin, French detective of the occult, contains 23 stories published between 1925 and 1928. Seabury Quinn was brought to my attention on the GAD Facebook group as an author who, like William Hope Hodgson, would mix in rational solutions to apparently supernatural problems so that you’re never sure what you’re getting. Sounds like fun? Let’s see how these stories stand up to scrutiny.
Opener ‘The Horror on the Links’ (1925) introduces Dr. Samuel Trowbridge who, little though he suspects it, is about to become a Watson-alike to Professor Jules de Grandin, himself not of an entirely unfamiliar aspect even at this first encounter with his sparkling eyes, waxed moustache, step “as lithe and soft as a cat’s”. One feels that Professor de Grandin is very much what he appears, even though he is rather kinder to Trowbridge than any sleuth has ever been to their Watson ever:
“Oft times you gentlemen of general practice see things that we specialists cannot see because we wear the blinders of our specialties, n’est-ce-pas?”
One also feels that these stories run the risk of taking on a familiar aspect even though this is the first one I’ve ever read. A man is attacked, raves about “the ape-thing!”, and it turns out he was attacked by…a giant ape-thing. It all gets very, very much more Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004) than anyone could possibly have intended (this is, almost beat for beat, the fourth episode ‘The Apes of Wrath’) and then it ends. An inauspicious debut, but this is the first blush of a pulp character who would go on to appear in 93 tales, so doubtless things improve. I hope.
At their best, Quinn’s stories are unsettling horror-laden tales that exploit well the unpleasantness which lingers just outside of where we choose to look on a daily basis. ‘The House of Horror’ (1926) is probably a wonderful tale if you’re into this sort of thing, but I found it grotesque in the way that puts me off so much modern horror…yet only because it’s so damn well written, and so creepily effective in how its piling of tropes builds to something I’m not keen to think about too deeply. There can be little doubt, then, that it does what it sets out to in exemplary fashion, and equally little doubt that I’m much more interested in this type of story for the mysterious elements — hopefully rationally resolved — than for the horrific ones, which it is to be hoped do have a supernatural explanation behind them. Something this grim being the result of a human mind as shown here is simply disturbing to me, and not an experience I’m keen to repeat.
Equally, ‘The Tenants of Broussac’ (1925) might be a masterpiece of the genre, but I’m too poorly-versed to know. Exquisitely written and full of fascinatingly nightmarish imagery, this story of a wealthy family renting out their chateau to a succession of inhabitants who are in place only a short time before tragedy befalls them is completely delightful…but stumbles once the giant snake comes into things (very early, that’s hardly a spoiler) and then starts to run along very predictable rails which don’t exactly compel it to the detection aficionado.
It’s in his deployment of tropes that Quinn becomes somewhat uneven, and starts showing his pulp roots. Opening with a lawyer looking for someone who can demonstrate “indomitable bravery and absolute fearlessness in the face of seemingly supernatural manifestations”, the scariest aspect of ‘Ancient Fires’ (1926) is probably the “gipsy” accent which no man has ever spoken with (“You tella me pulla da freight? You keek my fire out?”). I appreciate that Quinn is simply repurposing the expectations of the genre, which is the point of genre classification, but even I — no large consumer of horror and supernatural tales, as I say — feel these must surely be stale scraps, and the sudden, unwarranted trip to a sanatorium to join up the various points (Haunted House, Expository Letter, “My God You Look Exactly Like That Painting Of Your Ancestor”) reveals Quinn’s plotting as loose and ill-focussed again. I’m not a fan of this sort of drawn out, low energy stuff, which is severely lacking the fun which had appeared perhaps by accident before, and it was about here that I began to find my patience tested.
Oh, and that phonetic rendering of accents is apparently something Quinn feels he excels at, given the following “Irish”rendering:
“There’s two gintelmen to see ye, sor…’Tis Sergeant Costello an’ a Frinchman, or Eyetalian, or sumpin. They do be wantin’ ter ax ye questions about th’ murder of th’ pore little Humphreys gurl.”
‘The Isle of Missing Ships’ (1926), which asks how several ships can all go missing in the same stretch of water and answers it with island “savages” ruled over by a racist white man who has condescended to join their cannibal ways, is also the point where the difficulties here become hard to ignore. It shows de Grandin at a surprisingly violent pitch, eager for self-preservation above all else in a way that probably came across as heroic at the time but now reads like he’s trying to sate a kink in his psychology. If you’re able to ignore all the -isms one could throw around, this is still tediously overlong, not even leavened by the appearance of a giant octopus, and it was at this point that I began to suspect that the remaining 20 stories in this volume very much weren’t for me.
One question, though: when recognising the dire straits in which they find themselves, de Grandin says to Trowbridge “As your so splendid soldiers were wont to say during the war, we are, of a surety, S.O.L., my friend”. Anyone any ideas what the means?
Hopefully learning a lesson about pacing from his editors, ‘The Vengeance of India’ (1926) is half the length of its antecedents and much more fun as a result, mixing in reincarnation, hypnotism, mysticism, and some doubtlessly problematic perspectives on Indian culture, shared with ‘Ancient Fires’. You can be annoyed that de Grandin engages in Edwardian detection by finding out a lot that is relevant off the page, but given the tendency of Quinn to dwell on tedious details I’m just happy that this got on with things without seeking to play fair and take five times as long to get to the point. And ‘The Dead Hand’ (1926) is equally (relatively) brief and shows remarkable ingenuity in giving as much explanation for an inexplicable event as a terrestrial one, but there’s an air of unintended comedy which makes this rather more akin now to something out of The Addams Family than any tale of supernatural dread.
Throughout all of this, with perhaps the exception of ‘The Isle of Missing Ships’, de Grandin is an undeniably enjoyable presence, clearly a highly respected man in his field…
Educated for the profession of medicine, one of the foremost anatomists and physiologists of his generation, and a shining light in the University of Paris faculty, this restless, energetic little scientist had chosen criminology and occult investigation as a recreation from his vocational work, and had gained almost as much fame in these activities as he had in the medical world.
…whose exclamations take on an increasingly Poirot-esque air (“My friend, this plot, it acquires the thickness.”) which won’t hurt any Golden Age Detection fans who takes the dive on these. True, Trowbridge does exhibit a most unbecoming reluctance to get swept up in the little man’s adventures but, since he frequently finds himself swept up in the world of the occult, a willingness to jump in with both feet might be a little unseemly.
My main takeaway from these stories, though, is how much the investment of the reader in a genre’s tropes really matters. Detective fiction has its tropes and leans into them just as hard as these tales of horror, but something about detection works for me where the lack of rigour, or the tendency for characters to jump to conclusions as they do in ‘The Great God Pan’ (1926) and ‘The Grinning Mummy’ (1926) just wears me down. The lack of rigour, too, is something that’s wrong to hold against this genre, but I enjoyed how Hodgson used science in the pursuit of the occult in his Carnacki the Ghost-Finder stories, where Quinn just has de Grandin declare that something is so and we’re encouraged to think no more about it.
It was in realising this that my interest in these tales suddenly plateau’d…well, no, more sort of crashed and burned, and I found myself singularly unable to care about ‘The Man Who Cast No Shadow’ (1927) or anything that came afterwards since this mix of mysticism and ipsedixitism really isn’t the droid I’m looking for in my fiction. I won’t deny that there’s some fun to be had in seeing possibly supernatural events explained rationally, but when those rational explanations border on the mystical for how little detail they give…count me out.