Can it really be five years since we were first introduced to Bryan Talbot’s Grandville? It’s quickly become a tradition, an annual pleasure, a set of stories both warm and intellectually satisfying, capable of packing erudition, thrills, chills, romance and humour into usually no more than about 80 pages. For the uninitiated, Talbot has crafted a world that works in a similar fashion to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman, except Talbot riffs on the likes of Toad of Toad Hall rather than penny dreadfuls from the reign of Queen Victoria. Unlike Moore’s League, however, Talbot never forgets he has readers and never forgets the importance of keeping them entertained. Which isn’t to damn Talbot’s work with faint praise. There are subtle skeins of homage and parody at work throughout the Grandville series (his heroes, Detective Inspector LeBrock and Detective Sergeant Ratzi are, in many ways, dead ringers for Holmes and Watson, but they are Holmes and Watson in a world where the French won the Napoleonic wars and England is a socialist offshoot of Europe). Grandville Noel steps up the zingy back and forth between homage and parody higher than ever before – careful readers will see nods and winks to famous works of art in the construction of individual frames, among other wry tongue in cheek allusions.
But what about the story? Opening with a mass suicide that recalled to this reader the opening of Don DeLillo’s Mao II very much sets the scene for what follows: in many ways, this is the darkest and busiest Grandville outing. Called in to investigate the disappearance of his housekeeper’s niece Bunty Spall, it isn’t long before LeBrock (sans Ratzi for the most part this time out) is over the water in Grandville, neckdeep in intrigue. The intrigue this time out centres on a religious cult led by a charismatic young unicorn called Apollo, busy converting vulnerable sorts to the cause even as they conduct robberies in search of the true gospels. Two separate plot threads involve the humans who have always lingered in the sidelines of previous Grandvilles, busy demanding equal rights for themselves, and a crime gang that LeBrock’s Grandvillian counterpart is busy trying to break up (Talbot’s storytelling is such, we know by now that he is setting the scene for later Grandville’s – the climax of this book introduces a ferocious looking villain that we know is going to clash with LeBrock at some point in the future).
There are moments – necessary moments, it should be said, moments in which Talbot demonstrates his research for this particular story – when the facts are trowelled on a bit thick (there were maybe a couple of pages that worked in the same way as Alice in Sunderland, Talbot’s magnum opus, a book we never quite rubbed along with in its entirety), and this reader worried that perhaps this particular outing of Grandville might not hit all the buttons as the previous outings have. We needn’t have worried, though. Consummate artist that he is, he tells a tale that is standalone even as it moves the story on for those readers who have kept up from the beginning (it takes real skill to create something standalone and of a piece but Talbot absolutely knocks it out of the park on this front). The Christmas scene that closes the book is also one of the warmest scenes between LeBrock and his lady love Billie, and again – it’s good to see these characters grow and develop as the weeks and months go by (in the history of the book, it’s only been about 10 weeks from the first book to this one).
The important thing to know is that Talbot seems to be just getting better and better, and viewing his Grandville work alongside the likes of Dotter of his Father’s Eyes and Sally Heathcote Suffragette gives us a powerful sense that, both in Grandville and his other work, the best is quite possibly still to come.
Any Cop?: The only downside to having read the latest Grandville is that the satisfaction of reading is quickly replaced by the interminable anticipation of waiting for the next instalment. Still, at least we can re-read the blighters!