Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Zombies from the Pulps!: The Corpse Master - Seabury Quinn

Unlike H.P. Lovecraft, who authored only a few stories that I've read so far, and Henry S. Whitehead, who I hadn't read at all, I'm pretty familiar with the work of Seabury Quinn, the next author in ZOMBIES FROM THEPULPS! I've read probably two dozen of the stories in his long-running series about occult detective Jules de Grandin, maybe more. I'm pretty sure I hadn't read "The Corpse-Master", the de Grandin story in this collection, though.

This yarn, originally published in the June 1929 issue of WEIRD TALES, finds de Grandin, his friend/narrator Dr. Trowbridge, and police detective Lt. Costello investigating a series of brutal murders. The first of these is thought to be a suicide, but de Grandin disposes of that theory pretty quickly. A piece of evidence in a later killing points to a particular criminal, but there's a problem with that: said criminal was executed several weeks earlier. Then de Grandin discovers a previously undetected link between the victims, and that leads him to the killer.

The de Grandin stories are never any great shakes as mysteries, and this one is no exception. But Quinn was pretty good at pacing, and "The Corpse-Master" moves along at a nice clip. He could write atmospherically creepy scenes, too. The de Grandin/Trowbridge relationship is reminiscent of Holmes and Watson, but I've always felt that Quinn was influenced even more by Agatha Christie. Jules de Grandin reminds me very much of Hercule Poirot, and Dr. Trowbridge is a virtual clone of Dr. Hastings, the narrator of many of the Poirot novels.

"The Corpse-Master" is an entertaining tale with a very effective final line. I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Walker Martin said...

I've read many Jules de Grandin stories in my WEIRD TALES set but I have to be careful and not read too many in a row otherwise I become annoyed by de Grandin's mannerisms. I've read that he was Weird Tales most popular writer with the readers and I believe there were a total of over 90 in the magazine.

James Reasoner said...

Yeah, like a lot of series, it's certainly best to space out the de Grandin stories.

Sleepy said...

When I was a kid I devoured a paperback series of de Grandin stories. More recent revisits indicate very small doses are better.

I laugh that after 90 plus enocunters with the superenatural, Trowbridge still scoffs EVERY STORY at a supernatural solution.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've generally liked the Quinn stuff I've read but am not really what I'd consider a big fan of his work.

Keith West said...

I agree that de Grandin is best in small doses, but I can see how Seabury Quinn was as popular as Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith during his heyday. Supposedly, at times it was Quinn's fiction that kept circulation up enough to continue publication. Don't know if that's true or not.

Battered Silicon Dispatch published all of the de Grandin stories in a 3 volume set about a decade ago, but they're pretty expensive. They've also collected most of Quinn's other fiction. And Black Dog books recently issued a collection of early stories by Quinn, many not supernatural. They were interesting, but I'm glad he changed to weird fiction.

And James, all of Whitehead's supernatural fiction is available in ebook form fairly cheaply if you're interested:

Anonymous said...

The Christie characer who played Watson to Poiret's Holmes was a Captain Hastings (not Doctor Hastings). He was never depicted as bright enough to have become a doctor (unless 1920s UK had diploma mills that sold you degrees if you responded to ads in matchbooks). Bad enough that the poor British army had to claim him. // Denny Lien

James Reasoner said...

You're absolutely right about Captain Hastings, Denny. My memory has failed me yet again. But at least I got the character's last name right, which is pretty good for me these days!