The Compleat Adventures of Jules De Grandin
The Compleat Adventures of Jules De Grandin Capsule Review by Jeremy Harper on 08/03/02
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 3 (Average)
An interesting and entertaining collection of stories from Weird Tales' forgotten superstar, but the steep price point bars it from the casual fan.
Product: The Compleat Adventures of Jules De Grandin
Author: Seabury Quinn
Company/Publisher: Battered Silicon Dispatch Box Publishers
Line: The Seabury Quinn Library
Cost: 250.00 (For All Three Volumes)
Page count: 424
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Jeremy Harper on 08/03/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Historical Horror
This is the first of an open-ended series of reviews, examining the works of fantasy and horror writers. Especial attention will be given to writers from and of the Weird Tales tradition.
At A Glance:
This book (the first of a three volume set) is a handsome, sturdy coffee-table folio, complete with a red cloth bookmark tassel. The dust-jacket bears color reproductions of eleven Weird Tales cover illustrations featuring scenes from the collected stories, along with portraits of the good doctors Jules de Grandin and Samuel Trowbridge. Black and white versions of these reproductions accompany their corresponding stories within the volume. In addition to the thirty-five tales, Robert Weinburg provides a new foreword along with his after words written for the Jules de Grandin paperbacks he edited for Popular Library back in the Seventies. Also, a short introduction from the author (originally published in the Arkham House book The Phantom Fighter) is reprinted. This introduction can be found in all three volumes of the Compleat Jules de Grandin.
Seabury Quinn (1889-1969), though little known today, was undoubtedly the most popular writer ever to grace the pages of the legendary fantasy and horror pulp Weird Tales. During the course of the magazine’s initial thirty-two year run Quinn published 154 stories. He garnered more cover illustrations than any other writer in the Weird Tales stable (which included such luminaries as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith) and his tales routinely won the popularity polls conducted in the letter column.
The bulk of Quinn’s popularity rested on his stories of Doctor Jules de Grandin, an expatriate French detective who delved deeply into strange and supernatural mysteries. This series was the most successful ever published by Weird Tales, outstripping all others, including Lovecraft’s loosely linked horror stories and Howard’s Conan tales. An absence of three months between de Grandin stories would often bring about a flurry worried inquires from readers. Ninety-three de Grandin mysteries were written in all, starting with The Horror on the Links in 1925 and finishing with The Ring of Bastet in 1951.
For better or worse, Quinn’s popularity faded after the demise of Weird Tales. He did not have champions likes August Derleth, L. Sprague de Camp or Lin Carter to help keep his work alive in the minds of fantasy and horror fans. Save for an Arkham House collection - The Phantom Fighter, a series of six paperbacks from Popular Library and the occasional anthology, the de Grandin stories, Quinn’s major contribution to weird fiction, have languished in obscurity. This situation changed in the fall of 2001 when Battered Silicon Dispatch Box Publishers released The Compleat Adventures of Jules de Grandin, a three-volume set containing every de Grandin mystery published in Weird Tales. This review examines the first volume, containing the first thirty-five de Grandin stories. published from 1925 to 1930.
The de Grandin stories concern the adventures of the eponymous Jules de Grandin, native of France, renowned occultist, physician, detective, honored member of the la Surete General and la Faculte de Medicine Legal de Paris, and all around polymath, as seen through the eyes of his good friend and amanuensis Doctor Samuel Trowbridge of Harrisonville, New Jersey. We first meet de Grandin and Trowbridge in The Horror on the Links, where they aid the police in solving the brutal murder of a young woman on the golf links of a local country club. The next two stories, The Tenants of Broussac and The Isle of Missing Ships, take place in France and the oceans of Polynesia respectively, before the series settles down in Harrisonville, where de Grandin becomes a permanent guest of Trowbridge’s.
The de Grandin mysteries are competently and firmly written in the tradition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, being narrated by a man who - though fairly intelligent – lacks the vast erudition and deductive skills of his companion. In general they read smoothly and flow quickly, though Quinn is not afraid of using long descriptive paragraphs when he feels they are needed. Especial detail is usually given to the numerous lovely young women who populate the stories and the strange and sinister beings who menace them.
Throughout the adventures de Grandin and Trowbridge run through a large gamut of unusual adversaries and encounter every sort of weird phenomenon imaginable. Ghosts, demons, foreign assassins, mad doctors and scientists, vampires, werewolves and sundry others pitted their malice against the good doctors and were all vanquished one way or the other. Quinn understood that repetitive supernatural threats would eventually grow stale with the reader, so he would vary the nature of his villains from one story to the next. For example, in The Tenants of Broussac de Grandin thwarts the depredations of an evil revenant, which had taken the form of a giant serpent, while in The Vengeance of India he brings East Indian assassins to harsh justice, and then deals with a mad woman practicing cannibalism on her hapless charges in The White Lady of the Orphanage a few stories later. Sometimes de Grandin and Trowbridge take on the role of passive observers, either unable (in The House of Horror) or unwilling to interfere with the events unfolding before them (such as the reunion of re-incarnated lovers in Ancient Fires, a surprisingly gentle story for the de Grandin oeuvre, though not without a moment or two of violence). This variation in antagonists and activity helps keep the series fresh. Much of the fun of reading the de Grandin stories is trying to figure out the nature of what the little Frenchman is up against and how he’ll defeat it. Also noteworthy are the methods de Grandin often employs against the supernatural. As Robert Weinburg pointed out in his introductions, while de Grandin is not the first supernatural detective, (Algeron Blackwood’s John Silence and William Hope Hodgson’s Carnaki the Ghost Finder antedate him by a good several years) he is the first ghost breaker to use modern and scientific solutions to complete his unusual cases. De Grandin is just as likely to use a radioactive isotope, an electrified screen or high caliber ordinance against a spirit or monster, as he is holy water, an ancient ritual or a consecrated sword. This conversation between de Grandin and Trowbridge (from The Blood Flower) perhaps best illustrates the point:
“And wasn’t there some old legend to the effect that a werewolf could only be killed with a silver bullet?”
“Ah, bah,” (de Grandin) replied with a laugh. “What did those old legend-mongers know of the power of modern firearms? …When I did shoot that wolfman, my friend, I had something more powerful than superstition in my hand. Morbleu, but I did shoot a hole in him large enough for him to have walked through.”
Unfortunately, Quinn did not possess the same skill in developing characterizations that he had in devising and researching menaces. De Grandin and Trowbridge are inevitably the best-defined characters in the series. De Grandin is at times arrogant (perhaps rightly so, considering his vast and varied areas of expertise) but he is also a good and passionate man. He is very voluble in his affections towards his friends, and is kind and charitable to poor souls in distress, no matter what their station in life. Conversely he is ruthless to evildoers who attract his attention and is swift to dole out justice, many times of a savage sort. I, personally, like de Grandin very much. Trowbridge is more reserved, and sometimes curmudgeonly in his attitudes. He is forever skeptically of de Grandin’s fantastic theories of the strange enigmas that they so often confront, but has enough faith in his best friend to follow his lead. And like the little Frenchman, Dr. Trowbridge is a Good Samaritan, who is will to do the right thing when it is needed, despite the cost.
However, despite their virtues de Grandin and Trowbridge are incredibly static characters, changing very little over the course of a story or even the series. After reading just a few of the mysteries one will probably be able to safely predict how they will act in any given situation. The Jules de Grandin first seen in The Horror on the Links is exactly the same as the de Grandin in the last story of volume one, The Dust of Egypt, despite intervening events. And I’m willing to be money he’ll be the same when I finish reading the final story in volume three. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism on my part; both characters are in their forties when the series begins, well set in their habits and quirks. Also, Conan and John Thunstone (to name two characters from series contemporary to the de Grandin cycle) did not change perceptibly through the course of their adventures, either. But for some reason Thunstone and Conan’s staticity did not irk me as much. Of particular annoyance is Trowbridge’s continual disbelief in the weird and the supernatural. You’d think after encountering the second vampire, the third werewolf and the fifth mad genius he’d accept de Grandin’s speculations at face value!
Another annoyance is the fact that de Grandin is a superman. No matter how esoteric or obscure a skill is chances are that he knows of it and can perform it quite well. He is a virtual encyclopedia of knowledge, has traveled to every corner of the earth and is expert in savate, fencing and marksmanship. No matter how dire the situation, how deadly the opposition, de Grandin is never at a lost or put off balance. You never feel that he is ever truly in mortal peril. Jules de Grandin (though it pains me to say it) is a munchkin character with class and manners.
Other characters in the series are stereotypes and ciphers. Detective Sergeant Costello, a constantly recurring character in the first volume, is your typical good-natured Irish cop, honest, forthright, but not particularly bright and prone to superstition. The numerous young men and women de Grandin and Trowbridge aid are bland and can be easily interchanged from story to story without affecting the plot. The same can be said with the many gruff, no-nonsense, often unpleasant businessmen and flighty, social-conscious dowagers that often approach the duo with problems of varying unpleasantness.
However, a special note should be made of the minority villains that appear from time to time. While often described as ‘sinister’ and ‘inhuman’ by Trowbridge, they are typically motivated by something far more concrete than a Fu Manchu-like need to conquer the white race. Indeed, these characters usually pursue their violent activities because of crimes committed against their countries and their people by Imperialist Europeans and Americans. Take for example Goonong Besar, the antagonist of The Isle of Lost Ships. His mother, the daughter of a Malay pirate prince who converted to Christianity, is taken advantage of by an English missionary. Both she and her newborn half-breed son are driven out of her father’s palace, returning to the missionary for sanctuary and bearing a rich dowry of jewels. This duplicitous priest happily accepts the jewels and makes the princess and her son the lowest of the servants in his house, abused and tormented by his English wife and legitimate sons. Finally, when he had reached manhood, in a fit of patriotism and yearning to be accepted by his father’s people Goonong Besar enlists in the army to fight in World War I. But this too is denied him. He meets one of his half-brothers in camp, who cruelly insults him in front of the other officers, saying, “my boots need polishing. Attend to it.” Goonong Besar beats his half-brother to a pulp and was dismissed from service. Though his ensuing acts of villainy are truly barbaric, his reasons for committing them are understandable, even if the sailors and passengers who bear the brunt of his wrath are undeserving of it. Considering the era these stories were written, such characterization is remarkable and should be lauded.
The final problem with the de Grandin series is that as you progress through it, the willing suspension of disbelief becomes more and more difficult to achieve. As noted above, the varying natures of the problems and villains de Grandin and Trowbridge face relieves this to an extent. But eventually you can’t help but think that Harrisonville is a Mecca for the bizarre and unknown. Monster after mad scientist after sorcerer makes their appearance in this small New Jersey city, and your acceptance of such buckles under the weight of these coincidences until finally it may just collapse. Robert Weinburg recognizes this weakness in his foreword and suggests that to best enjoy the de Grandin stories one should read them in small batches, perhaps one tale a week. While I don’t quite agree with the degree of frugalness, I echo his recommendation that the de Grandin mysteries are best read in small batches, over an extended period of time.
Over the years some critics have painted Seabury Quinn as a meretricious hack in the worst pulp tradition. After reading his major work for myself, I cannot concur with this assessment. Though he lacks the cosmic vision of Lovecraft and the sheer power of Howard, Quinn is a highly competent wordsmith and storyteller. The de Grandin stories are great, pulpy fun, and I’m sure anyone running a horror game can find elements in them worth utilizing, especially if you like throwing your players up against strange but non-supernatural threats. The ‘weird menace’ de Grandin mysteries were often Quinn’s most inventive, and I recommend The House of Horror, Mephistopheles and Company, Ltd. and The Drums of Damballah as the best of that category printed in the first volume.
However, while I like the de Grandin stories, The Compleat Adventures of Jules de Grandin itself is quite prohibitive in cost. Battered Silicon Dispatch Box Publishing only sells this series in a three-volume set for the price of two hundred and fifty dollars, not including shipping and handling, placing it well out of the price range of many gamers. But for those who wish to sample Quinn’s French ghost breaker without decimating their bank account, there is a cheaper alternative: Popular Library produced a series of six de Grandin paperbacks, collecting some thirty of the stories and the only de Grandin novel The Devil’s Bride. These books are commonly available on eBay and the Advanced Book Exchange for initial sums ranging from five to ten dollars.
For those interested in purchasing The Compleat Jules de Grandin go to www.charlesmckeebooks.com/~silicon/batsq.htm. But act quickly, for as of this writing (March 8, 2002) the third press run is four-fifths of the way sold out, and the fourth run will not be ready until early spring.
An interesting and entertaining collection of stories from Weird Tales' forgotten superstar, but the steep price point bars it from the casual fan.