Tag Archives: Mystery fiction

Inherent Vice

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Inherent Vice [Amazon, Bookshop, Libro.fm, Publisher, Local Library] by Thomas Pynchon.

Pynchon Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice is the sixth Pynchon novel I’ve read. (Well, I’ve also read to the exact midpoint of Against the Day, so maybe it counts as number 6.5?) It has been on my shelf for a long while, but I sort of felt like I was up against a deadline, because I certainly wanted to have read it already when the movie hits theaters a few months from now. I read it fast, finishing it in under a week. It lacks the lovely sprawl so characteristic of books like VGravity’s Rainbow, and Mason & Dixon, but it is highly engaging. 

Larry “Doc” Sportello is the pothead gumshoe who is the protagonist of this 1970 LA set-piece. As is typical for Pynchon, there are a cavalcade of quirky characters, a thickly-layered conspiratorial plot, and a narrative nose for injustice. Comments on the forthcoming movie have compared it to The Big Lebowski, which isn’t terminally off-the-mark, and in fact cued me in to what is perhaps a certain kindred spirit between Pynchon and the Coen brothers. (The movie, however, is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose fondness for big casts equips him to handle a Pynchon story.)

I was a few dozen pages in when I realized with a start that this, to me, breezy and often hilarious book presumed so heavily on the cultural knowledge of the reader that it might be entirely impenetrable to some younger (or more quadrangular) readers. Now, it’s easy to make fun of stoners, but Doc’s humane wisdom and sublime presence of mind (when he could maintain consciousness) kept me laughing with him, rather than at him. 

None of which is to dismiss the book’s darker aspects. There is real menace about the obscure villains of the book, and fitting paranoia about Doc’s closest friends and allies. Another comparandum might be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for the book’s elegiac contemplation of the hippie counterculture and the ultimate futility of its aspirations — and an actual trip to Las Vegas in the course of the beach-based adventure. 

This book certainly didn’t eclipse any of the other Pynchon novels, but it is a fine work regardless, enjoyable and reflective in its own off-beat way.

The Adventures of Jules de Grandin

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Adventures of Jules de Grandin [Amazon, Local Library] by Seabury Quinn, introduction by Lin Carter. (See instead: The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin series.)

Quinn Carter The Adventures of Jules de Grandin

This first volume of the 1970s paperback series reprints seven out of the ninety-three Jules de Grandin stories by Seabury Quinn, including several of the earliest. These began in the 1920s and quickly became a staple of Weird Tales, where they appeared nearly every other month. They were not a serial, however. There is no overarching plot nor development over time of the central characters, who are stock types of an occult investigator and his medical doctor amanuensis. In general, the stories rely on broadly-drawn characters and stereotypes in order to maintain a high tempo and to create a quotidian background for shocking crimes and supernatural menaces.

The sleuth de Grandin himself is an amusingly exaggerated, sword-cane-wielding, mustachioed, gallic scientist of diminutive stature. Most of his adventures take place in the hometown of his host and colleague Doctor Trowbridge, Harrisonville, New Jersey. Being a European in America allows de Grandin to make amusing asides castigating Prohibition, religious bigotry, and other forms of American provincialism. “Today your American courts convict high school-teachers for heresy far less grave than that charged against our Jeanne [d’Arc]. We may yet see the bones of your so estimable Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin exhumed from their graves and publicly burned by your heretic-baiters of this today” (53, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!).

The narrator Trowbridge maintains a naïve skepticism in the face of exotic events that grows less believable with each passing tale. One of the strengths of the stories is their use of menaces drawn from folk traditions and popular culture (vampires and werewolves, for instance) while allowing that the common lore may be inaccurate in its details. Thus the reader can see where de Grandin’s hypotheses are leading him–while Trowbridge refuses even to consider such fanciful notions–but the tension of the unknown is maintained, along with a sense of the “scientific.”

In those points where de Grandin explains or employs occultism as such, the details tend to be fairly flawed. For example, Trowbridge describes a hexagram (and the book even supplies a diagram) but de Grandin calls it a “pentagram” (182). In another adventure, de Grandin calls elemental spirits “Neutrarians,” a term I hadn’t previously encountered, but which appears to have been coined by Elliot O’Donnell in his Twenty Years Experiences as a Ghost Hunter.

These stories are not great works of literature, and it doesn’t seem that anyone has ever mistaken them for such. They are pulp paragons, and one of their attractions is their great variety, from the piracy-and-cannibalism yarn of “The Isle of Missing Ships” to the parapsychological crime mystery of “The Dead Hand.” Quinn’s de Grandin stories frequently served as the basis for the cover illustrations of the numbers of Weird Tales in which they appeared. Even reading them in this mass market paperback reprint, it is easy to spot the moments in the stories that would be chosen for this honor. They usually featured a naked woman in peril. “The Tenants of Broussac” (scene on page 67) and “The Man Who Cast No Shadow” (153-4) are the two stories in this collection that were realized as cover art in their magazine appearances, and it is easy to note Quinn offering similarly “graphic” climaxes in every tale.