Last month Horror on the Links, a collection of Seabury Quinn’s detective stories featuring Jules de Grandin, went on sale on Amazon for an amazingly low price. As a fan of Weird Tales and pulp fiction in general, of course I’d heard of Quinn, but his works are hard to find and have been out of print for awhile. The book starts with a little essay, as most of these collections do, which goes over the history of Quinn’s works and the rationale for why they’ve fallen out of favor while Howard and Lovecraft saw their fame grow. The fact is Quinn was more in demand at the time of the pulp heyday, and more of the magazine covers featured his works than either of his more famous contemporaries.
For those not familiar with the character, as I was not until reading this book, Jules de Grandin is a French doctor who has taken up residence in a Harrisonville, New Jersey. He becomes friends with an American, Dr. Samuel Trowbridge, a neighbor in town. Trowbridge is Watson to de Grandin’s Holmes. While de Grandin is often compared now to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, I think the better comparison is to Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Where de Grandin’s stories really diverge from the more literary ancestors and contemporaries is that many of the cases de Grandin investigates are actually of an occult nature, often including demon worship, vengeful spirits, or mad doctors with goals similar to H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau.
The stories are formulaic as all heck, making even the Poirot series seem positively eclectic. Quinn pumped out so many words each month it’s no wonder he had to resort to such repetition. He’d have made a fine television writer for contemporary detective shows, and I mean it both as a compliment and a criticism. Each individual short story is entertaining and hard to stop reading, so formula or not, they are fun reads. However, they are not what you would call enlightened.
Robert Howard gets accused of racism in his stories, and there is some evidence of it, particularly in “Beyond the Black River.” H.P. Lovecraft gets an even worse reputation, well deserved, for his virulent anti-minority sentiments. But for all the bluster about those authors, Quinn demonstrates some of the worst negative racial stereotypes I’ve read from the mainstream pulps of the era. His characters are unapologetic colonialists, which doesn’t have to mean xenophobic narcissists. (I call attention to Allan Quatermain who was a colonialist but not racist.) De Grandin, however, is both, and Quinn’s depictions of people from different cultures is painful to read. And the excuse of being of his time doesn’t work because even Lovecraft’s works aren’t as explicitly white supremacist. (Lovecraft’s personal letters are far worse than his fiction).
I have a hard time recommending people read the de Grandin stories because even though they can be fun, they have numerous flaws. Even outside the formula and racism, they rely on deus ex machinas, feature a main character who is a Mary Sue in every way, and as a reader you never really get the feeling that de Grandin himself is in any great danger. James Bond seems more vulnerable. I can understand the appeal, but I’d rather read Holmes, Poirot, The Continental Op, Philip Marlowe, or Sam Spade. That said, for the low price I paid for the collection (I paid 64 cents, including tax. It’s currently listed for $9.99) I feel like I got my money’s worth.
If you can pick up the ebook for a similar deal, buy a used print copy at a second hand store, or borrow it from a library, it’s probably worth your time just to read more of the historical works of pulp, but I wouldn’t go out of my way or pay more than a couple dollars for the collection. There are two other books in the series in print now with two more available for preorder. Maybe the stories got better as society advanced through the 30s and 40s, but I’m not in a rush to run out and read them.