Aug 232013
 
“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 by almost ten years. Did Williams perhaps read this book and pick up on its theme either consciously or subconsciously?  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 contrasted with 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.
 Posted by at 4:53 am
Jul 262013
 
I have this idea that Richard Wilson Webb still hadn't recovered from his intensely lurid thrill ride with his writing partner Mary Aswell when the two of them concocted the brutal and savage crimes depicted in The Grindle Nightmare. One year later in what appears to be his first collaboration with his partner (in more ways than one) Hugh Wheeler he once more delved into noir territory in creating the murders in The Dogs Do Bark (1936). Oddly enough the book first appeared in England under the title Murder Gone to Earth before it was published by the estimable Doubleday Doran Crime Club under the title reviewed here. Although the level of violence never reaches the heights (depths?) of the butchery in The Grindle Nightmare this is definitely a book anyone would describe as grisly.

A nude woman's dismembered corpse is uncovered in a fox burrow at the tail end of a hunting expedition in the Massachusetts town of Kenmore. The body has been decapitated and is missing both arms. While the head does not turn up until the penultimate chapter the arm bones are soon found in the kennel that houses the bloodhounds for a hunt club. The flesh had been completely devoured by the ravenous dogs the night before. All this happens in the first two chapters. Grisly enough for you? But there's more.

Dr. Hugh Westlake, in his debut as Stagge's series detective, is promptly deputized by the local policeman giving him the chance to turn amateur detective with some authority. Prior to the discovery of the murdered woman Westlake had been consulted by Louella (Aunt Lulu) Howell, one of those garrulous fearful invalids that turns up in mysteries of this era. She is fearful of the baying hounds a sure omen of horrible things to come. Nurse Leonard who had been caring for the Aunt Lulu has recently been fired for indiscretions observed on the job. She was convinced the nurse was dallying with her husband, an unattractive dumpy man who Westlake has hard time envisioning as an object of desire. But could the nude corpse be Nurse Leonard?

Then there's Elias Grimshawe. A Bible thumping fundamentalist of the worst kind (yes, they had them back in the 30s, too) he has been battling with the horsey crowd and their obsession with fox hunting for a long time. That the body is found on his property during another of their bloody hunts angers him beyond reason. His daughter Anne who is rumored to have been carrying on with several men, some of them married, has also gone missing. Grimshawe startles Westlake and Inspector Cobb when in referring to the murder victim he quotes an Old Testament passage about Jezebel being fed to the dogs. No one but the the detective duo knew about the dog kennel business. They ask Grimshawe to go to the morgue to identity the body. Grimshawe is adamant that the victim is Anne.

The atmosphere builds to one of Gothic dread set up perfectly with the opening paragraph in which Dawn, Westlake's ten year-old daughter, is seen chanting an old nursery rhyme ("Hark, hark, the dogs to bark/The beggars are coming to town...") while standing at an open window and listening to the howling bloodhounds. Little does she know exactly why they are howling, but her precocious allusion is just as chilling as Aunt Lulu's prediction of horrible events to come. Once again as in The Grindle Nightmare animals are at the mercy of the murderous fiend on the loose and soon a horse is killed by an unusual method nearly killing its owner in the process.

Horses and hunting will play a prominent role throughout the story. So too will the Grimshawe property which Westlake and Cobb learn Anne would have received on her twenty-fifth birthday. The property is of interest to several characters in the book and provides an obvious motive, especially for Walter, Anne's handsome and athletic brother.

Handsome men with athletic builds are another recurring motif in the book and in others in the series. The descriptions of male physique stand out like posing gym boys in comparison to how the women are described and signal to me another kind of fascination of the authors. At times the rhapsodic physical accounts approach the kind of recitals of male beauty you would expect to find in the pages of a bodice ripper. I wouldn't exactly call these passages homoerotic, but they are very noticeable and perhaps revealing of the two men who wrote the book.

Dawn, who will later become more active in the series, is depicted here as a cute little prop used mostly for comic effect. For the most part she behaves like a kid but often she has an oddly precocious and inconsistent vocabulary. In one scene Webb and Wheeler have her confuse the word distinguished for extinguished. Then later she will correctly use the word ominous in sentence. She has a kind of schizoid role -- at times a mysterious oracle as in the opening paragraph and later when she helps her father with offhand comments, at other times a goofy awkward kid obsessed with rabbits. Dawn has always a problem for me in these books. It doesn't help matters much that Westlake refers to her by the ironic endearment "brat" and rarely calls her by name. Still in this first appearance the relationship between father and a daughter is honest and affectionate. Dawn didn't annoy as much as she does in other books.

The Dr. Westlake books would go on to feature equally bizarre and unusual crimes with a tendency towards the Gothic. Turn of the Table has a murderer who might be a vampire. The Stars Spell Death uses astrology and superstition as a springboard for the plot. In The Yellow Taxi the writers recycled the equestrian themes found in the first book as well as lifting the climactic barn fire towards the end of The Dogs Do Bark and duplicating it even to the point of Westlake's escape through an upper level window. Perhaps the most haunting and chilling entry is The Scarlet Circle with its unearthed graves, corpses daubed with lipsticked circles, and the creepy Talisman Inn.

As a beginning to a short-lived series The Dogs Do Bark shows great promise. Veteran detective novel readers may catch on early to the surprise twist in the tale, but that won't ruin what is essentially a fine example of a traditional detective novel with an ample amount of puzzling plot points, intriguing characters and evocative atmosphere.
 Posted by at 7:09 am
Mar 062012
 
Sometimes I come across a book in my reading and I wonder how it was received upon it's first publication. So I trundle through the interweb looking for old book reviews. In the case of the fittingly titled The Grindle Nightmare (1935) I found these terse comments:

Animal and human killings in a mystery involving morbid psychology. A pathologist turns sleuth and ferrets out the answer. Good reading.
-- Kirkus Reviews, Aug 10, 1935
Murderous madman loose in New England valley kills animals and humans until young doctor traps him. Summing Up: Hereby awarded Malignancy Medal for 1935. More nasty people and unpleasant events you'll never find between two covers. Verdict: Ghastly
-- Saturday Review, Aug 10, 1935
The Kirkus reviewer seemed to overlook the obvious. Good reading but no warning about the violent, grisly, and over-the-top lurid events you will encounter. Saturday Review hit the nail on the head, and delivered the kind of reaction I would have expected. Near revulsion.

I have to confess that I was surprised at the level of violence in this book. It ought to have been marketed as a "shocker." When it was twice reissued in paperback editions the sales teams at Popular Library and Ballantine recognized the book for what it really is. Each publisher promised horror and "gruesome surprise" on the covers and chose ominous vultures to symbolize the violent carnage inside the pages. A nice metaphoric touch (the buzzards are mentioned only in passing and never actually appear, by the way) rather than going for a more literal depiction of the book's grisly events. I'm sure that would have revolted even the most bloodthirsty of readers at the time.

The book has more in common with the stories that filled the shudder pulps of the day rather than a puzzling detective novel. I think because of the lurid content no respectable publisher would touch it. No surprise that the hardcover edition was published, not by one of the leading houses of the time, but rather an obscure independent publisher. Hartney Press, a firm that appears to have only lasted one year, released the book and judging by their catalog that included such titles as Tough Little Trollop and Raiders of the Tonto Rim (both by utterly forgotten writers) they seemed to be attracting the readers of pulp magazines. They do have one claim to fame apart from giving us The Grindle Nightmare: one of their books has garnered cult classic status among crime fiction devotees. The Green Shadow by James Edward Grant has become one of those books with an amazing dust cover illustration that is very scarce and highly desirable (translation: outrageously priced) in the collector's market.

I like that punny use of the verb "to ferret." in the Kirkus review above. If you read the book you'll know that several of the victims are animals -- a mix of livestock and household pets -- including two dogs, a kitten, some sheep and goats, and a marmoset. [A what? I hear you say.] You know, that odd primate that fashionable 1930s women desired as an eye catching accessory. If you can't have an ocelot, go for a marmoset, right? One of the eccentric woman characters takes Queenie, her marmoset, everywhere often draping the animal around her neck like some kind of live fur. Very Charles Addams, I say. But enough of all this background and teasing. Don't you want to know what goes on in this wild book? Of course you do –- like a gawking rubbernecker at a highway accident you must be satisfied.

Grindle Oak has fallen victim to a madman on the rampage. Several animals have been mercilessly slaughtered and disemboweled over a period of weeks. Amid all the animal killings little Polly Baines has gone missing. Her father, Jo Baines, asks Dr. Douglas Swanson to help him locate the girl. He doesn't trust the police. Swanson is to meet Baines at the Old Mill Pond the next morning to start their search for Polly. But when Swanson turns up at the site he finds Baines dead, face down in the water. His body is abraded and bleeding, his hands are encased in animal traps. It appears that he has been dragged behind an automobile then his broken torn up body thrown in the creek that feeds the pond. And that's just the beginning of the human violence.

The book is a relentless assault of nightmare visions, a veritable horror show of sadistic torture perpetrated on both human and animal victims. A Sealyham terrier suffers a similar fate to Baines but is rescued before it is strangled by the cord tied around its neck. There is an arson attack, near daily discoveries of eviscerated livestock, and the constant fear that Little Polly will eventually turn up the second of the madman's human victims.

Mark Baines, the mentally challenged son of the murder victim and brother to the missing girl, is one of the more interesting characters in the book. He has a near supernatural command over animals. He can quiet a unruly dog and can run into a burning barn to rescue two horses that seem hypnotized under his guiding hands. But Mark is also known to have been somewhat cruel to some local girls and the townspeople are frightened by his uncanny love for animals and his indifference to people. It is suggested that Mark may have something to do with his sister's disappearance.

Animal research and animal abuse are at the heart of the story. Complaints from anti-vivisectionist groups and the SPCA are directed at the experimental research of Swanson and Antonio Conti, his scientific partner. They are in the process of creating hematologic sera and vaccines and use dogs and other animals as test subjects in their experiments. Both are targeted throughout the story with at least two people and the local deputy gunning for Conti as the sick mind behind the animal killings and torture.

This leads to a discussion of sadism and the possible escalation of a warped mind that finds perverse delight in harming animals to seek out humans as his targets. Abnormal psychology soon becomes the focus of Dr. Swanson's amateur investigation as he begins to suspect that his research partner may indeed have a few screws loose. Then an offhand comment about an infamous historic murder trial sends the story into an arena that is completely unexpected and a surprise ending that caught me completely offguard.

I'll spare you a summary of  the most horrific scenes in the book. You'll have to discover those on your own -- if you dare. I have two copies of this book and am willing to sell either one dirt cheap to anyone who is interested in delving further into its bleak world. But it's not for the faint of heart, as they used to say way back when. Gore hounds will love The Grindle Nightmare. All others stay far, far away.
 Posted by at 8:06 pm

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