Thursday, August 22, 2013

FFB: The Crippled Muse - Hugh Wheeler

“Merape is a charming woman and distinguished poet. […] She is also a beautiful ruin. Ruins have gaping cracks in their battlements, rats in their armouries, jackdaws in their bell towers. And this, too, is true of Merape. You must beware, my dear sir…”

-- Professor Fishbourne-Grant in The Crippled Muse

Merape Sloane is a mysterious reclusive poet with a mystical aura and a coterie of protective sycophants. Horace Beddoes has traveled to the Isle of Capri where Merape lives in a sort of exile of retirement where he hopes to meet her, gain an interview and propose that he write her definitive biography. He happens to be an expert on Merape’s poetry having completed his Ph.D. thesis on her work which he titled "The Last Flowering of the Romantic Age". But when he meets Mike McDermott, a hack writer of sleazy potboilers, Horace is appalled to learn that McDermott has beaten him to the punch. Somehow McDermott managed to convince Merape Sloane that he would be the perfect man to write her biography and he has already a collection of notebooks with spicy gossip.

McDermott has also decided to title his book The Crippled Muse, alluding to Merape Sloane’s lifelong battle with illness that left her lame. This further upsets Horace because not only is it a near duplicate of his own planned title (The Crippled Corinna), the change of single word makes it a much better title in his estimation. Horace finds himself festering in jealousy and anger, struggling to keep from exploding with rage. A sex writer in charge of the life story of the genius Merape Sloane! What a cruel irony it all is.

Horace proceeds to drown his sorrows and sublimate his furor by getting blissfully drunk at a party where Merape is the guest of honor. In his besotted state he makes a fool of himself by introducing himself to Merape and groveling in her presence while slurring his drunken praise and admiration for her work. Shortly thereafter while stumbling home he comes across a bloody champagne bottle. Simultaneously he learns that Mike McDermott has disappeared from the party and not returned to his lodging. The next morning McDermott’s battered body is found at the foot of a cliff. It is thought that he too got carried with away with drinking, slipped and fell to his death. But the bloody bottle leads Horace to suspect foul play.


Soon Horace finds himself inextricably implicated in McDermott's death. He was seen holding the bottle by at least one person the previous night who then witnessed him throwing the bottle into the ocean. How will he prevent himself from being named McDermott’s murderer? But the novel is not simply another riff on the oft used wrong man theme. The crime plot serves only as background to Hugh Wheeler’s highly literate, allusion filled, languorous novel which touches on so many themes: love vs. desire, the importance of art in one’s life, the transcendent nature of lyrical poetry, the need to belong, the importance of finding home. The story defies categorization. It's a mixture of a literary detective novel, murder mystery and metaphysical exploration of attraction between all the sexes; a triple play mystery novel incorporating all connotations of the word mystery.

It's difficult not to find similarities in this book with some of Tennessee Williams' more recognizable plays about the sexual tension between a virile young Adonis and an artistic grand dame (Sweet Bird of Youth, Orpheus Descending, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore) until you realize that Wheeler's novel predates all of those plays, the earliest by seven years. Did Williams perhaps read this book and pick up on its theme either consciously or subconsciously? More likely is that Wheeler knew his Williams and either borrowed or was influenced by the playwright's trademarks.

The similarities in this one book to Williams favorite motifs are amazing -- the erotic temptations of Girlie and Loretta; the Duchessa who has a keen insight into the closeted homosexuality of McDermott and her sad resignation to being attracted to men who prefer men; Horace's repellent attitude towards the menacing pansexual Latvian gigolo Askold who attempts to blackmail Horace with sexual favors; Horace's admiration (attraction?) and envy for the brawny physiques of the Swedish masseurs who remind me of the athletic German couple and their overt sexuality in Williams' Night of the Iguana. The book is drowning with Williamsian desires whether they are forbidden, fantasized, or unrequited. Horace not only has the mystery of Merape's life to solve and clear his name of McDermott's murder he must confront the mystery of human sexuality in all its varied and nuanced guises. Horace's feverish confusion of sexual desire and love culminate in this lament:
Was this the way love operated--like a staphylococcus, one moment drowsing latent in the bloodstream, the next moment flaring up with renewed violence? [...] I'm a man and I don't know whether or not I'm in love--or with whom.
Isle of Capri by Jasper Francis Crospey (1893)
More than any of the Patrick Quentin or Jonathan Stagge books The Crippled Muse shows off Wheeler's gift for dramatic monologue. The sections with Clara Pott, Horace's landlady with a closetful of secrets, in particular foreshadow Wheeler's later success as an award winning playwright. There is a classic moment when Clara delivers a lengthy monologue detailing how Merape robbed her of her husband and her comfortable her life in Ohio. Her words are polite and contradictory to her actions. As she speaks Horace notices a flower in her hand that she continues to twist and crumple.  "No, I didn't dislike Merape," she says tossing the utterly destroyed flower to the ground. The book is replete with dazzling moments like that.

The Crippled Muse (1952) is Wheeler’s only novel published under his real name and it appears to have been a very personal work for him. He dedicates the book to Rickie – no doubt Richard Webb, his collaborator on dozens of detective novels using their pseudonyms Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge. Webb had retired from writing in 1951 and Wheeler continued writing the mystery novels under those pen names alone. Unlike his mystery novels, as good as they are, in The Crippled Muse we discover another side of Hugh Wheeler. He gives us another gripping and suspenseful crime plot, but there is also a greater display of Wheeler's love of literature, his love/hate affair with American culture and Americans, his fascination with exotic locales and even more exotic people. Perhaps, too, if we read a little deeper into the story of Horace's self-discovery we find a  revelation of the enigmatic writer himself.

13 comments:

  1. This sounds wonderful - thanks John. Much as I admire the plotting in many of the collaborations with Webb, it's the characterisation of the solo Wheeler books that really got me into the 'Quentin' books (sic) and this sounds really marvellous - love the sound of the near-Williams quality (everybody's favourite dramatist from that era, surely?) - been really looking forward to rwading your review - well done sir!

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  2. This sounds great. I love stories of literary rivalry and jealousy. (Martin Amis' The Information is one of my favorites.) Thanks for the review.

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  3. Isn't this, tragically fitting the book, judging by your review, also one of the rarest titles associated with the Patrick Quentin-team?

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    1. Yes, it apparently it is rather hard to find or being sold for exhorbitant prices by sellers offering a copy for sale online. I found a copy at the Chicago Public Library. The book gods were smiling on me that day.

      Last night when I went looking (and desperately crossing my fingers) for any DJ photos on the internet I discovered one copy of the UK 1st ediiton with an undamaged DJ for sale through the OxFam Charity website. Sorry, but I immediately bought it. How could I pass it up at £10? Utter luck.

      If all goes well you may see a reprint of this book next year from Raven's Head Press, an indie publisher where I am currently the selections editor.

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    2. More updayes about Raven's Head Press please John - any chance of a collection of the many uncollected 'Q Patrick' stories?

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    3. I have enough of them collected from issues of The American Magazine that it might be doable provided that we don't run into the "rights brick wall."

      The first book from Raven's Head will be out next month with any luck. I can finally write a post about my association with this new indie press and promote our first book which was reviewed here. In fact, many of the selections were reviewed here.

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  4. Wow, that sounds like a great book, and your review really brings it to life. (It sounds a little Barbara Vine-ish to me.) Best of luck in getting back into print.

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    1. Barbara Vine is an excellent analogy, Mike. I got stuck on the Williams similarities primarily because of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. It's also set on Capri and though the grand dame in the play is an actress not a poet and there is no murder plot (though Death is ever present) it has much in common in tone, atmosphere and theme.

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  5. John, I've just read this very fine post for a third time. I'm very much hoping that a reissue will be coming from Raven's Head. You have a sale in me.

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  6. I do not know this novel, John. To my knowledge, it was published in Italy by a small publishing house in 1954, and since then never printed.
    The curious thing is that it is set in Italy.
    Just as in the early Ellery Queen, it was said that Ellery was married and lived in Italy. Why would own the Americans choose to live in Italy, between all the countries of the world, I do not know.
    But see Clooney ...
    The strange thing is that all novels by Quentin Patrick, Patrick Quentin, Jonathan Stagge are been published in Italy by Mondadori. But this novel, by one between the two writers, instead...

    Pietro

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  7. Hoping you can get this back into print, John. It sounds like a winner for me.

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  8. Sounds good, John. Another fabulous post about a book I've never heard of but will want to read. I'll wait for your re-print and this way we both benefit. :)

    An aside: Delano Ames, I just ordered a couple of books of his from Abe. THE MAN IN THE TRICORN HAT and CORPSE DIPOLOMATIQUE. Are you familiar with them at all? I'm hoping you'll review SHE SHALL HAVE MURDER at some point. Just to see what you think of this author. :)

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    1. I have at least one Delano Ames book and I'm in the mood for lighthearted fare forht eentire month of September. I'll have to put it on the list for the few posts I'll be putting up this month.

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