Saturday, September 12, 2020

Copper Mines and Soap Kettles: Money and the Making of Mystery Writer Margaret Erskine (1901-1984)

Landed wealth was such a common feature of between-the-wars British mystery that ever since, despite periodic efforts to delimit this formalization, between-the-wars British mystery and "country house mystery" frequently have been considered virtually synonymous.  (See the 2001 film Gosford Park and its reviews, for example.)  Sometimes we will find some parvenu crashing the country house gates who is "new money"--meaning that they are descended from some pushing nineteenth-century commoner who made a fortune not in land but rather something exquisitely undignified like patent cough medicine or corn plasters. (It's the latter, I believe, in Agatha Christie's After the Funeral.)  But whether it's about old money or new, how many British mystery writers actually had much experience personally with what they were writing?  Not that many, I think.  Most of them were solidly, if not always virtuously, middle class.

The monumental neoclassical Temple House, home of Margaret Erskine's
flinty ancestor, copper baron Thomas Williams of Llanidan (1737-1802)
razed in the Roaring Twenties

One definite exception to this rule, who represented old money (or sufficiently old, anyway), is Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, a landed gentleman and the son of a baronet (and later one himself), who wrote classic crime fiction as Henry Wade.  Another, representing new money (or comparatively new, anyway), is Margaret Erskine, a descendant of extremely wealthy copper mine owners and soap manufacturers from the Georgian and Victorian Ages.

Until now, biographical information on Margaret Erksine (aka Margaret Doris Wetherby Williams), who wrote 21 Septimus Finch detective novels between 1938 and 1977 (all but the first of them between 1947 and 1977), has been sparse.  She does have a Wikipedia entry, which tells us that she was born on May 2, 1901 and died on July 9, 1984; that she was born in the city of Kingston, Ontario, Canada and raised in Devon, England; that her parents were Thomas Wetherby Williams and Elizabeth Erskine; that she was privately educated; and that she was a member of the Crime Writers Association (though not the Detection Club).  Happily I am able to add a good deal to this rather limited biography.  

Through Margaret's father, Thomas Wetherby Williams, who was born in England in 1854, Margaret was descended from Thomas Williams (1737-1802), the great copper baron from Llanidan on the isle of Anglesey in Wales.  (Her father was a civil engineer, while her paternal grandfather, also named Thomas Williams, was simply what was known as a gentleman, a "proprietor of mines.")  Like my own Evans ancestors (it will surprise no one to learn), Margaret Erskine's paternal ancestry was predominantly Welsh, although mine were Quakers who left Wales for Pennsylvania in the late seventeenth century.  Thomas Williams, on the other hand, stayed in Wales--and made a mint in so doing.  

Thomas Williams of Llanidan was a figure of note in Britain's industrial revolution.  Befitting any such figure worth his salt--or copper--Williams was denounced by Matthew Boulton, business partner of James Watt, as "the despotick sovereign of the copper trade" and a "perfect tyrant and not over tenacious of his word [who] will screw damn hard when he has got anybody in his vice."  Of the mine owners of Cornwall, who were being ground by Williams, Boulton wrote colorfully, "They would not have consented to be kicked and piss'd on by me as they have by [Williams and his partner]."  Sounds like Boulton was pretty envious!

ruined windmill at the former Parys Copper Mine, Anglesey, Wales, 
which closed in 1904--this was the source of Thomas Williams' fortune

Williams, a lawyer, became the managing partner of the Parys Copper Mine on the Isle of Anglesey, which during the 1780s was the largest copper mine in Europe, employing 1200 people.  (The mine finally closed in 1904, leaving a pockmarked alien landscape.)  Copper from the mine was used to sheath the ships of the British navy's men of war (and apparently the ships of other countries as well).  Unhappily Williams' copper was also used to make trinkets to trade in Africa for enslaved humans, who were sold to plantations in the West Indies.  Out of his own financial interest, Williams opposed the abolition of slavery after he became a member of parliament.  No William Wilberforce like conversion for him!

In 1788, Williams bought the Temple Mills near Great Marlow, Buckinghamshire and began using the mills for smelting copper from his mines.  He built a great mansion in the area, which he predictably called Temple House, and became, unfortunately (see above), Marlow's M.P.  Temple House was demolished around 1922.  Coincidentally my Buffington ancestors came from Great Marlow, but Richard Buffington left the mother country for the colony of Pennsylvania in the seventeenth century, so you can't pin this on him.  Besides he was a devout Baptist and opposed slavery.

Williams' descendant Thomas Williams, Margaret Erskine's paternal grandfather, married Louisa Thomas, who was the daughter of Charles Thomas, a wealthy soap manufacturer of Bristol who came originally from Carmenthenshire, Wales.  When he died in 1909 his estate was valued at, in modern worth, around 15 million U. S. dollars.  That's a lot of bubbles!

formerly the Christopher Thomas and Brothers Soap and Candle Works, which
Margaret Erskine's great-grandfather Charles Thomas managed in the late 19th century

Margaret Erskine's father was, as I have mentioned, a civil engineer; and I presume it was in connection with work that he moved for a time out to Kingston, Ontario, where in 1898 he married Elizabeth Erskine, whom Margaret later claimed was descended from a martial lowland Scots family that was "connected to the Stuarts."  Could Margaret Erskine the author have been claiming a relationship to Margaret Erskine, the favorite mistress of King James V of Scotland, father of Mary, Queen of Scots?  Sounds like it, especially since she adopted the same name for her pseudonym.

Not long after Margaret's birth, her father returned to England with her (and presumably her mother, though I don't know this), settling three miles from the city of Plymouth, Devon at a great manor  house, Widey Court.  The mansion, which had been offered to let for a term of five or ten years, recently had been "thoroughly renovated and modernized," according to a 1900 newspaper notice.

Located near Widey Court were the villages of Crownhill and Eggbuckland.  The former was originally known as Knackersknowle, and I can't help wishing that it had retained this splendid olde English name.  With Knackersknowle,  Eggbuckland and Widey Court, I couldn't think of  a better setting for a vintage English mystery!

St. Edwards' Church, Eggbuckland
(fifteenth century, with additions,
including the clock!)
The 1900 to let notice described Widey Court as

beautifully situated in a well-timbered lawn on rising ground, with highly picturesque views.  Fine  timber trees shelter the house, which has a southern aspect, and the Dartmoor hills are in the background.  On the ground floor are an entrance hall and billiard room, spacious dining room and drawing room communicating with a conservatory 68 feet in length, a breakfast room, and library.  On the the first floor are a morning room, a bed room, and two dressing rooms; eight other excellent bed rooms in two galleries; and eight good attics; eight stall-stables, double coach-house, laundry, etc., with the higher lodge and two other cottages, a large walled garden, paddock of four acres, with shippen for cows, and lawn tennis court.

"The parish church of Egg Buckland is less than a mile," the notice added, and "hunting and fishing are to be had in the immediate neighborhood."

The notice termed Widey Court a "historic mansion," most justifiably.  King Charles I stayed for a time at Widey Court during the English Civil War (hence the addition of "court" to its name).  From the house he issued a proclamation calling on Plymouth to surrender to the Royalist forces commanded by the King's nephew Prince Maurice.  The ballroom of the manor house was used as a care ward for casualties during the siege of the city, and the King Charles' suite of rooms were carefully preserved by later owners. 

Sadly, this history was not enough to save the house.  Requisitioned during the Second World War and left in a derelict state, Widey Court was demolished in 1954, long after Margaret Erskine had departed from the vicinity.  Evidently the contents, incredibly it seems to me, were destroyed, including even the King's bed.  Apparently no plans or photographs of the mansion were made at the time.  One individual rescued a couple of fragments from a marble fireplace.  A rather unattractive school, built in 1963 and named for the manor, stands on the cite today.  

marble fragment salvaged from the 1954 demolition
of Widey Court
The Erskines had left Widey Court over two decades earlier, when the great mansion was put up for sale.  The house and  its grounds were described in 1921 as 

Commanding a South aspect and a sheltered site at an elevation of about 330 feet above sea level standing in a beautifully timbered miniature park and approached by two carriage drives above a mile long, guarded by two picturesque lodges and embracing an area of about 53 acres.....

The house itself consisted of, on the ground floor, an outer hall, an inner hall, corridor, two conservatories, a drawing room, a dining room, a morning room, a library, a billiard room with entrance from the library, cloak room, lavatory, water closet, main and secondary staircases, servery, servants' hall, kitchen, scullery, larder, pantry, boot hole, store room, and a laundry composing three rooms and servants' water closets

The first floor had eight bedrooms, three dressing rooms, a bathroom, a water closet, day and night nurseries, a housemaid's room and a linen room, while the attic had eight additional bedrooms, a box room and a storeroom.  There were cellars in the basement for wine, coal and wood.  All totaled, there were 21 bedrooms, which, like in classic English mysteries, seem to have been severely under supported by bathrooms.

On the grounds there were stables and a harness room with loft, a coach house, dairy and dog kennel, flower and vegetable gardens, a tennis lawn and summer house, a rookery and extensive woodland paths.  

Widey Court, probably around time of 1921 sale

Like modern pupils at the school, Margaret Erskine received her education at Widey Court, where in 1910 her father employed as her governess native Englishwoman Ada Annie Mckenzie, a former music teacher and daughter of sail maker and Royal Navy quartermaster Murdo Mackenzie and sister of Arthur Murdo Mackenzie, a Captain in the Royal Engineers who perished in the Great War.  Born in 1881, Ada grew up in the town of Stoke not far from Widey Court.  With a father from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland (Ballalan, on the Isle of Lewis) and a mother from Cornwall, Ada presumably had a powerful Celtic imagination.

Margaret Erskine later recalled, "I was brought up in an old country house in Devonshire, complete with a ghost who had his being in the nursery wing.  I was educated by a governess but, like the mock turtle in Alice, with extras'."  These extras included "the vast resources of her father's library."  It isn't hard to see how Margaret developed a vivid imagination in this atmosphere.

Actually there are said to have been two ghosts who haunted Widey Court: a proverbial lady in white and a Cavalier soldier.  Supposedly the latter sat down at dinner next to a woman guest and rudely never spoke to her during the entire time.  Perhaps he wasn't the bookish sort and stayed out of the library.
                                                                 
Widey Court in its pastoral heyday--it was later town down in 1954,
with not even King Charles's bed being rescued for posterity


                                                                      *******

Why did Margaret Erskine, then well into her Thirties, start writing detective fiction in 1937?  Mystery scholar Ellen Nehr, writing shortly after Erskine's death in 1984 (it's not clear Nehr knew that Erskine was dead), claimed that Margaret Erskine once asserted that she had done so as a form of revolt against her high-toned family.  Nehr noted that Erskine specialized in "eccentric British families with long-held secrets, social pretensions, and heads of household with streaks of cunning," though she added disparagingly that Erskine "wrote the same book...twenty-one times."  

the poor thing will catch her death
running round half-naked like that 
--or my name ain't Ommanney!
Of course this is the same charge that has been leveled against mystery master Ross Macdonald, for example.  Yet whether you like Erskine or not, I think that, having learned something of his family history, you can see why she wrote what she wrote.  Erskine definitely wrote what she knew.  And a lot of mystery fans in both the US and UK enjoyed both her milieu and her mysteries.  In the US, where she particularly benefited from the Gothic craze of the Sixties and Seventies (you recall all those pretty ladies fearfully wandering around mansion grounds at midnight in their white nightgowns), she was reprinted in paperback in multiple editions.  Yet this misleading, as Erskine's books are more true detective novels than Gothics, despite the trappings.

Nehr might have added as well that above all Erskine, like the Gothic writers, wrote about great mansions.  (Donald Westlake famously said that Gothic novels are about a girl who gets a house.)  These mansions appear over and over in her books and are one of the things I, who have long been fascinated with old houses, find engaging about Erskine.  

Perhaps in crafting her mysteries the author was recreating parts of her past in her novels.  She died at the age of 83 on August 10, 1984 (not July 9) at Greathead Lodge, a senior care home in St. John's Wood, London, long after the golden ages of the detective novel and the great country houses had passed.  Greathed Lodge was named for Mrs. Mary Greathed, who founded "The Ladies' Home" there in 1859.  The property formerly had been a single family dwelling, the residence of one Alexander Tod, Esquire (excluding the wings, which were added later).

An 1867 article on The Ladies' Home explained that the institution was opened 

for the benefit of a very suffering, uncomplaining, and unfortunately numerous class: namely, ladies who have been reduced by reverses of fortune to a state of penury and privation; and who, unfitted by early habits and education to cope with hardships and trials, are yet more unwilling than any other class to make their distresses known.

Applicants from this uncomplaining class, sadly "unfitted by early habits and education to cope with hardships and trials," had to be "gentlewomen of good education, between 60 and 75 years of age."  I'm reminded of Dorothy Bowers 1941 detective novel Fear and Miss Betony and its memorably named Toplady Endowed Homes for Decayed Gentlewomen, which looks dubiously upon daughters of greengrocers (however well-educated).  

Greathed Lodge (formerly The Ladies Home), unoccupied today, at 41 Abbey Road
where Margaret Erskine passed away in 1984, one of the last of Britain's 
Golden Age mystery writers

Earlier in her life Margaret Erskine was known to have been active as a volunteer with the Women's Royal Voluntary Services and the Friends of Guy's Hospital; perhaps she was familiar, in such a capacity, with The Ladies' Home as well.  Interestingly one of the inhabitants of the Ladies' Home in the Thirties was the twice widowed Marian Laura Hampson Simpson (1846-1937), a daughter of Mercer Hampton Simpson, the celebrated Victorian-era impresario of Birmingham's highly-regarded Theatre Royal.  Marian Simpson successively married two Anglo-Indian army officers, John Gannon, by whom she had a son who predeceased her, and Edmund Pipon Ommanney (1841-1910), who came from a distinguished family of army and navy officers and was a grandson of Sir Francis Molyneux Ommanney.  Was there ever someone named Molyneux who wasn't from the upper class?  A relative of Edmund's, Manaton Collingwood Ommanney (Those are some handles!) was rather gruesomely slain in 1857 at the siege of Lucknow during what was then known as the Sepoy Mutiny.

Mrs. E. P. Ommanney, as she was known after her second marriage, died at The Ladies Home at the age of 91 in 1937, by which time Erskine was, I believe, living in London.  (Widey Court had been out of her father's hands at least since 1921.)  Had Erskine known her?  I ask, because one of her detective novels, set in Devon, was titled, in the United States, Old Mrs. Ommanney Is Dead (1955).  In England the title was changed to the more hackneyed Fatal Relations, perhaps because "Ommanney" surely was not that common a surname? 

dashing Charles Ommanney whom
George W. Bush nicknamed "Lion King"
on account of his hair--his most dangerous ground, 
however, was on Real Housewives of DC
Ironically Ommanney became familiar to American watchers of reality television though Cat Ommanney, once one of the fabled Real Housewives of D. C.  Reality TV stars being our modern gentry, I suppose.  Yes, Cat's ex, Charles Ommanney, an award-winning photo journalist who covered the White House, is a relation of THE Ommanneys (Are there any others?), as this New York Timearticle points out.  Charles whimsically noted that once, had "you Googled Ommanney, you would have discovered three centuries of naval admirals all going back to his great, great great grandfather.  Now you find rumors about the marriage breakup and snarky tattling on the show."

The Ladies Home could have served as the inspiration for the house in Erskine's detective novel No. 9 Belmont Square (1963), one of several I shall review here soon.

Sadly, the dignified structure, so long beneficently devoted to elder care, became derelict about a quarter century after the author's death, after the care home closed.  In 2013 residents of St. John's Wood complained of "squatters who had turned the five storeys [of the house] into a giant marijuana nursery."  Plans were afoot, at least before Covid struck, to put the building again into use as a senior care center, but these plans entail demolishing all but the building's facade.  If you want to see the house where Margaret Erskine died, better schedule a day trip!

There are a couple of Margaret Erskine's former residences which are still standing, very much so indeed: one at 16 St. James' Gardens in Holland Park and another at 58 Rutland Gate in Knightsbridge. 

At the latter location you can get a lovely one bedroom one bath flat for only 650 pounds a week! It may not be Temple House or Widey Court, but it sure ain't slumming.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

How Fell of Bell to Blue the Jews: The China Roundabout (1956), by Josephine Bell

How odd of God/To choose the Jews--William Norman Ewer (attributed)

The presence of antisemitism in the Golden Age British detective novel is well-established (for example, see my post on it here), but it's comes as a jolt to come across it as late as 1956, in Josephine Bell's fifteenth or sixteenth detective novel, The China Roundabout, which seems to have been one of her best reviewed books.  (For examples, see Nick Fuller's page on the novel at his vintage mystery blog.)

Bell's publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, was particularly fortunate in being able to "blurb" a seeming rave review from highly regarded Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen.  Perhaps the ellipses left out some negative criticism, but what's quoted is pretty damn ecstatic: 

With an opening demure, domestic as a page from Jane Austen, The China Roundabout has an end like an Elizabethan tragedy.  More and more mystery, tinged with violence, accumulated in what seemed, that first afternoon, a drab but highly respectable Hampstead house...Full marks for atmosphere.

For his part longtime mystery reviewer Maurice Richardson pronounced that the novel was "[n]icely written as usual in Miss Bell's careful, concise style" and "in its best moments" had "affinities with the Victorian mystery masters, even the great Wilkie Collins."  Wow!

The person who threw the stink bomb into this praise party was Christopher Pym, who while conceding that "Miss Bell writes competently, and sometimes beautifully," nevertheless expressed "pity that her plot should be quite so old-fashionably improbable, and that she should make it so patent that such of her own creations who aren't English, upper-middle-class, Gentile and chaste are 'horrors,' 'curious' or 'abnormal.'"

While the novel is well-written, it's also the most dismayingly antisemitic classic British detective novel from the hand of an intelligent crime writer that I have encountered from the Fifties, a time when there really should have been no excuse for it to exist at all in such a form.  What in the world was publisher Hodder & Stoughton thinking when it published Josephine's parade of hateful stereotypes?  (Of course H&S gave us Sapper, but even he somewhat cleaned up his racist act before his premature death in the Thirties.)  Or, frightening thought, had they actually toned Bell's book down before publishing it?

I say this as someone who likes Josephine Bell's mysteries, while recognizing that she was a wildly inconsistent writer and that even some of her best books have notable flaws.  Setting the antisemitism aside (if you can), you might well enjoy The China Roundabout.  But it's a shame that it had to be there in the first place.  

"characters human and likable"
pronounced The Times

The novel concerns a mother and daughter, Mildred and Eileen Forrestal, who have come to stay in the Hampstead house of Mildred's late brother, Major Monte Beresford, who passed away suddenly, leaving his only sibling the house and its belongings and a substantial amount of money.  There's also a much beloved object from Mildred's youth, an exotic family heirloom: a china roundabout, a miniature music box and merry-go-round, as we would say in the States, which was gifted to a nineteenth-century Beresford Indian Army ancestor by a certain maharajah whom he had served.

Unfortunately, the china roundabout proves to be of great interest as well to all the tenants of Monte's large Hampstead house, which he had divided into flats.  These tenants are:

Advertising model and kept woman Amanda Powell

Mrs. Pickard, whose mostly absent husband is in something by way of commercial traveling

And, most revolting of all, the Rosenbergs, mother, daughter Sarah and son Heime.  ("He is in the National Service call-up, poor Heime," explains Mrs. Rosenberg, disloyally, of his absence.)  There's also an uncle, Ernst Meyer, who owns a local antique shop.  

Mrs. Pickard seems okay to the genteel Forrestals, and the very smartly dressed and heavily made up Amanda Powell, though "a bit tartish" looking is not "repellant, like Mrs. Rosenberg."  Oh! that Rosenberg clan!  Here is how Josephine describes that first meeting, seen though the discriminating eyes of Eileen Forrestal:

As she opened the first door she came to, which she took to be the kitchen, the door next to it opened, and a short, stout, greasy-haired woman came out.

"Oh," said Eileen, and she could not think how to go on.

But her visitor was not at a loss.  She offered a plump, dirty hand, bowed jerkily from the waist, and said, in a markedly foreign accent, "Rosenberg."

Eileen avoided the hand by stepping back a little.  

Remember, Eileen is the supposedly sympathetic "nice girl" focal character.  Her mother, admittedly, is presented as not all that likable (but still genteel and proper, which are all-important things in Bell's world).  So when the mother scoffs, "What a dreadful name, Heime!" maybe we should let that pass. 

The problem is that Eileen sticks her nose up in the air nearly as much as her mother, always deeming people, in her words, repellent and revolting, like Mrs. Rosenberg.  It's interesting that an author who was a doctor, who must occasionally have dealt with unclean, poorly groomed and smelly people, should present her ostensibly sympathetic focal character this way.  Josephine must have hated her day job!  Of course she relocated from London to Guildford, Surrey in 1936.  (Maybe there weren't any Jews there.)  Freeman Wills Crofts, who grew to hate the big city too, was a neighbor. 

Some of Bell's experience as a doctor in London went into her Thirties crime novels Murder in Hospital (1937) and The Port of London Murders (1938), which are better books.  The latter book, which as I recollect is an impressive example of Thirties social realism in the detective novel, is being reprinted by the British Library.

Back to Roundabout, however, here are the adjectives associated with the book's Jewish characters so far:

short, stout, greasy, dirty, foreign

Mrs. Rosenberg's daughter, Sarah, is better, but not much: "She had a handsome, sulky face, framed by too much dark, curly hair."  Her accent is "Cockney, overlaid with traces of B. B. C."  A "vicious flash of rage" appears in her "dark eyes" when Eileen asks her a question she doesn't like, then she summons her mother, who appears, "rubbing her hands on a dirty apron."

Heime of the National Service call-up never appears in the book, but old Uncle Ernst does; and though he looks better than his niece, he's obviously a scheming crook too.  As is Amanda Powell's Jewish sugar daddy, upon whom Bell lavishes the most hostile description of all:

Mrs. Forrestal introduced the stranger.  A Mr. Mackenzie; obviously from that branch of the clan whose chief headquarters originally were from Palestine.  His suit fitted his well-fed figure too closely, and its pin-stripe was too wide.  He wore three rings.  His blue-black hair was carefully oiled.  Eileen, passing thoughtfully to the windward of him, put down the tray near her mother.  

Later he flashes a smile full of "well-fitted" teeth.

Well-fed, flashily-dressed, rings, oiled hair, false teeth--Josephine really got them all in here!  Well, she did leave off his wearing a fur coat, but then the book is set in late summer.

One has to wonder whether Bell chose the surname "Rosenberg" as a nod to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been executed for pro-Soviet espionage in the United States in 1953.  I mean, would she really have chosen that surname coincidentally, when she was writing the novel but two years later?

To be fair to Eileen, she's repelled by a non-Jewish character as well, a shady lawyer named Mr. Digby, whom she finds a "frightful little tike."  Eileen realizes to her abject horror that Mr. Digby bites his nails (!) and she make a strenuous effort "not to look at Mr. Digby's fingers."

All this brings to my mind, minus the actual antisemitism, Ngaio Marsh, who often seemed more appalled by poor breeding and physical appearances (see her epic fat-shaming in Black as He's Painted) than the moral fact of murder.  Seemingly bad manners, in the eyes of these hyper-sensitive and desperately superior British mystery authors, are worse than an evil character.  This may be one reason why many writers in the hard-boiled school, like Raymond Chandler, had no use for genteel mystery.

No doubt Josephine Bell would have countered that she just "called things like they are." (Donald Trump's supporters say the same thing today.).  However, when you include several Jewish characters in your novel and make them all highly objectionable, in many respects drawing them in the most "repellent" stereotypical fashion, and you're doing all this not long after World War Two and the Holocaust, to me it seems not a matter of overzealous "political correctness," but rather something that is simply, well, repellent.  Even Bell herself seems to recognize that there may be an issue here, only to immediately dismiss it, in a conversation between two of her characters, old Mother Forrestal and Mrs. Pickard:

You mean the Rosenbergs?  Not quite--Refugees, originally, I believe.  Her husband was left behind, and died in a concentration camp.  You can't help feeling sorry, but all the same--"

"Exactly."

Amid all those delicate pauses and polite hesitations, I get the feeling that these two "nice" ladies are thinking maybe Hitler wasn't all that far on the wrong track, actually.

Score one for Old England
Miss Pross vs. Madame Defarge

If you can get past all this revolting garbage, there's actually a decent little story here.  The mystery around the roundabout is compellingly presented and Bell maintains a high level of suspense throughout the first half of the novel, when a memorable death occurs.  "It sound like the worst kind of Victorian melodrama," pronounces one character, but if you are a mystery fancier, Victorian melodrama can be a lot of good fun.  I'm not surprised that at least one critic invoked the spirit of The Moonstone

There's a plateau in the second half of the novel, as Bell gets a little tangled up in complications (as she often does), yet all is brought to an enjoyable finish, when a valiant, old, sensible Englishwoman (Mildred's old friend and companion, Amy Henderson) faces down the deepest-dyed villainy, like Miss Pross valiantly fending off Madame Defarge in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.  With the appearance of Bell's amateur detective, David Wintringham, to help sorts things out, this is a lot more like a Thirties mystery than a Fifties police procedural, although Bell's presiding policeman, Superintendent Steve Mitchell, is on hand and active as well. 

Admittedly it doesn't help the case for authenticity when David, after a crazed drug addict tries to beat his head in with a paperweight, attributes this attack to "a typical advanced case of marijuana poisoning."  Bell would get better on modern crime and police procedure after she exiled David Wintringham from her books.  As for the antisemitism, I hope Bell bade it adieu by the 1960s.  It really was way past time for it.  A a person on another blog post of mine commented of Bell, "She's a good writer, but in some ways she makes even Christie look like a free-loving liberal."  Too true!  Christie in her books seems to me to have been much less hidebound than Bell.

The China Roundabout, incidentally, was not published until 1965 in the United States, in a paperback edition by Ballantine, under the title Murder on the Merry-Go-Round.  It's an awful title, but obviously "roundabout" was a no-go in the United States.  I don't know what was done with the rampant antisemitism.  I will have to get a copy someday and see.

Friday, September 4, 2020

The Merape Papers: The Crippled Muse (1951), by Hugh Wheeler

After his 1951 publication, under his own name, of The Crippled Muse, a novel about a "poetess" (as many reviewers insisted on calling her) who has "gone silent," if you will, for some thirty-five years, Hugh Wheeler as such went silent himself, not publishing again under his own name until his first two plays were performed in 1961.  During this ten-year gap there came, rather than anything under his own name, seven Patrick Quentin crime novels, which were written by Hugh solo, his partner of nearly two decades, Richard "Rickie" Webb, having left their home and the United States in 1951, the same year that The Crippled Muse, ironically dedicated to Rickie, was published.  After the success of Hugh's first play, Big Fish, Little Fish, he published only one additional Patrick Quentin crime novel, in 1965; after Rickie's death the next year no more original Patrick Quentins were ever to appear again.  Hugh, now in his fifties, had won the favor of a munificent new muse and devoted himself, in the writing line, solely to play and screen writing, with astonishing success in the Seventies, when his books for a variety of smash Broadway musicals netted him three Tony Awards.  

American edition
Back in 1951, however, Hugh must have found the critical response to The Crippled Muse somewhat disappointing, and perhaps this led to his multi-year silence.  Muse was published as a mainstream novel and reviewed as such, although notices in the heavyweight Saturday Review and New York Times Book Review essentially dismissed it as just a slick piece of mystery fiction.  The reviewer in NYTBR even went so far as casually to "spoil" the central mystery of the plot (Don't you hate that?), while in the Saturday Review English professor Walter Havinghurst complained that the novel's "meaning...is all but crowded out by its plot" (though he allowed that "no one is likely to put this novel down.")

I think the problem was that The Crippled Muse really is a crime or mystery novel, after all, misleadingly marketed as a "straight" novel.  There are two mysteries, a literary one and a murder one (which becomes one of double murder before the story is over), but they are intertwined and the mystery problems are the most interesting part of the book. 

There is a great deal of literary name dropping in this novel, most notably, I think, to the great American fiction writer Henry James, whose novella The Aspern Papers, about an academic trying to wheedle letters from a famous dead writer out of an old woman, seems to me an obvious influence on The Crippled Muse.  But when I was reading Muse I soon found my visions of The Aspern Papers departing, because Muse simply does not have that sort of power and serious intent.  As a crime novel, The Crippled Muse is quite good; as a "serious" novel, it's, well, a good crime novel.  It was not until Hugh started writing plays that he made a real break from the demanding muse of popular mystery.

The Crippled Muse depicts five hectic days spent on the Italian isle of Capri by Horace Beddoes, a priggish young professor of English at Wentworth College in Ohio.  A couple of mysteries concern Horace right from the get-go.  How on earth, at age 28, has Horace "for some time" been a full professor at Wentworth?  And, is Wentworth College the same Wentworth College in Rickie and Hugh's  Q. Patrick mystery Death and the Maiden (1939), and, if so, how did the school move from New York to Ohio?

Capri

Horace is at Capri because he hopes to meet reclusive expatriate Ohio poet Merape Sloane, the subject of his dissertation (which Hugh calls a thesis) and write her authorized biography.  And what a story there is to tell about Merape!  A young, tubercular, lame woman, Merape had been taken to Capri in the 1910s by a beneficent believer in her poems in order to restore her health.  At Capri Merape made an improbable  recovery and her poems became world-renowned.  However she soon stopped writing and largely withdrew from the world.  When the novel takes place at the mid-century, she is attended by two women, a lesbian couple, Liz Lewis and Loretta Crane, who act as Merape's gatekeepers.  Horace hopes to crash through and solve the central mystery of Merape's life: why she stopped writing at the very height of her success.

In Capri, however, Horace is crushed to find that Merape has authorized another man to write her biography.  Worse yet, this individual is Michael McDermott, the author of "two novels of the fashionable-dirty school which Horace had not read, but which had mushroomed to success from ecstatic critical acclaim.  His latest novel, Horace believed, dealt with a delicate twelve-year-old boy's infatuation for a one-armed Mexican field-worker."  When Horace first meets Mike he sees a "young man, dressed in a black shirt and black pants," with "startling red hair worn in bangs and the round disingenuous eyes and face of a very clever and corrupt baby."  

Three guesses on this one.  Or how about two.  Surely it's no other than Truman Capote, who had variously awed and outraged the literary world with his debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, which was published in 1948, when Capote was only 23.  Much of the notoriety of the outre southern Gothic novel had to do with the photograph on the back of the dust jacket, which is provocative to say the least (see below).  Rooms made the New York Times bestseller list, sold more than 26,000 copies in hardcover and gained Capote a great deal of publicity, drawing the ire of rival gay author Gore Vidal, who took a potshot at Capote in his Edgar Box mystery Death Before Bedtime in 1953 (reviewed by me here).  So here's Hugh Wheeler doing the same thing two years earlier in Muse.  Jealous much, boys?

literary prodigy Truman Capote


I don't have any evidence that Hugh and Tru knew each other, although Rickie Webb's former collaborator Mary Lou Aswell was an editor and friend of Capote--and an important person in his life.  In any event, karma got Hugh in the end re: Capote.  In 1963, dancer, choreographer and director Bob Fosse and Hugh were staying in Jamaica, where for two months they had been working on a script for a stage musical version of Truman Capote's short novel Breakfast at Tiffany's, when Fosse was informed that Capote had decided that stage star Gwen Verdon, playing the beloved lead character of Holly Golightly, was too old for the part.  (Verdon, Fosse's wife, was thirty-eight.)  When Fosse returned from Jamaica, he and Gwen had Tru over for breakfast to give Gwen the once-over, as it were, but all to no avail.  The project was shelved, to be revived a few years later, sans Hugh and Fosse and Vardon, in a production starring 30-year-old Mary Tyler Moore (!) as Holly Golightly and a new book by Edward Albee (!); it ignominiously closed during previews.  

Interestingly Hugh also worked on the screenplay for Bob Fosse's Cabaret, both in its stage and film incarnations.  In his own words Fosse considered Hugh's doctoring of Jay Presson Allen's screenplay "close to a total rewrite" and was impassioned about Hugh getting shared credit for the screenplay, but Allen refused to share credit with Hugh and had the technicalities on her side, as the basic structure of the film had not been changed, even if everything had been rewritten.  So Hugh missed his chance at an Oscar nomination and had to content himself, poor boy, with his three Tonys.  (And let's face it, nothing ever was going to beat The Godfather for the adapted screenplay award that year.)

Anyway, back to The Crippled Muse! On the evening of Horace Beddoes' first meeting with the dreadful Mike McDermott, Mike is bashed with a champagne bottle and pushed off a cliff into the sea. When his body is subsequently discovered the next day, it is decided that he met with an accidental death.  Horace, who happened to stumble on, and dispose of, the bloody champagne bottle, knows that Mike was murdered, but he keeps quiet, already "corrupted," as it were by the carefree Capri atmosphere.  

Happily for Horace,with Mike out of the way he is offered the chance to write Merape Sloane's biography, his dream of a lifetime.  However, there are all those Capri women about him, distracting him in various ways.  There's his nosy, cat-loving landlady, Mrs. Clara Pott, for example, the widow of the man who "rescued" Merape Sloane from rural poverty in Ohio and took her for restoration to Capri.  And then there's the charming but aging Duchesa Gordoni and her handsome kept boy, a Latvian gigolo named Askold.  ("He has another name," explains the Duchesa.  "But no Christian could pronounce it.")  

 courtesan
Vittoria Carpaccio (c.1465-1525)

In the younger set there's Pamela Fishbourne-Grant, an ingenuous English rose who first met Horace when he was doing post-graduate work in London in 1945.  She has come virtuously to Capri to take care of her dissolute father but finds the isle alien ground. 

But most of all, there's intoxicating Girlie Winters--"big-bosomed, blonde, luscious as a Carpaccio courtesan."  (To Horace "[i]t was as if his most private dream of Woman had miraculously taken on bodily form.")  How with a distraction like Girlie on his hands will Horace ever get his biography written?  Or figure out--out of Horace's own self-preservation, if for no other reason--who killed Mike McDermott?

As usual, Hugh excels with his portrayal of women characters, although the most convincing sexual episode takes place when Askold, whose tastes lie more with men than women (he had been intimate with Mike), comes on to Hugh, hoping that the American will take him back to that land of moolah, milk and honey, the good old U. S. of A.  But Horace, a literal straight man to all these colorful Capri characters, of course is not interested in that.  

Hugh Wheeler as Patrick Quentin

Which brings us back to writer Christopher Fowler's reiterated complaint of the last decade, that Hugh Wheeler was not being honest with his readers by trying to hide his "natural instincts"--i.e., his homosexuality. 

It is true, I think, that Hugh could have gone farther than he did in portraying male homosexual relationships in Muse.  Both Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms and Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar had been recently published in January 1948, for example, but there was always the danger that too frank a depiction of the" love that dare not speak its name" would limit a writer's career as someone who was "too interested" in the subject.  As a writer of popular mysteries, Hugh probably felt like there were limits.  Later in his career, his stage plays and screenplays often would deal with unorthodox sexuality, although Hugh has been recurrently accused by some of soft pedaling the subject, or, even self-hatingly presenting homosexuality in a negative light.  

The late gay scholar Drewey Wayne Gunn wrote dismissively about The Crippled Muse in his book Gay American Novels (2016), pronouncing: "It is puzzling why a gay writer should feel compelled to introduce gay characters in order to derogate them."  Of course at the time Hugh was writing Muse he was having a very hard time of it with his partner Rickie Webb.  I think it's possible that Hugh, a very handsome and much desired man, may at times have felt exploited in his relationships and friendships.  It's an attitude one finds as well in his play Look: We've Come Through (1961) and his film script for Nijinsky (1980), as I recollect. 

On the other hand, this aspect of the novel which so vexed Professor Gunn didn't seem to bother blogger  John Norris at all, when he rave reviewed Muse seven years ago.  Hugh himself was appalled by the frankness and coarseness of the controversial, pathbreaking gay film The Boys in the Band (1970), the trailer for the 2020 version of which has just been released; but he certainly dealt with the subject of homosexuality in the films Something for Everyone (1970) and Cabaret (1972), the former of which notoriously scandalized film reviewer John Simon, who penned a review oozing with disgust for homosexuality. 

In the mysteries which Hugh wrote, with Rickie and alone, homosexuality often is sublimated in depictions of relationships between older women and younger men.  Hugh himself of course was in a relationship of two decades with an older man, Rickie Webb, his former mentor, which was the pivotal relationship of his life, even though it was never acknowledged during their lifetimes, nor for long afterward.  One might argue that Hugh's dedication of The Crippled Muse to Rickie was more of a kiss-off than a kiss.  Happily, the two men achieved some measure of a reconciliation before Rickie's death, though it's doubtful that Rickie ever fully reconciled himself to his loss of the younger man as a companion.  Hugh Wheelers don't come into your life every day, or every decade, or, all too often sadly, over an entire lifetime.