Philip Kennicott, the senior art and architecture critic of The Washington Post, is author of the forthcoming memoir, “Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning.”

Plagued
by Fire

The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright

By Paul Hendrickson

Knopf.
600 pp. $35

On Aug. 15, 1914, a servant set fire to Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s sprawling estate in Spring Green, Wis. Julian Carlton also took up an ax and murdered seven people, among them Wright’s mistress, Mamah Cheney, and her two children. Wright was already famous, as this country’s preeminent architect, and notorious, for leaving his wife and children for Cheney, with whom he lived openly and, by contemporary standards, shamelessly. The massacre made headlines around the country, and though Carlton’s motives remain obscure and unknowable to this day, the carnage was held up by many as divine retribution for Wright’s marital misbehavior.

Paul Hendrickson, who has written an acclaimed biography of Ernest Hemingway, wants to get to the bottom of the abiding mystery of that tragedy. Why did Carlton do it? The author’s relentless pursuit gives his new Wright biography, “Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright,” a curiously obsessive quality, returning again and again not just to the events of 1914 but to other fires that bedeviled Wright’s career. Hendrickson is a dogged researcher and pursues every lead, even spending time in the jail cell where Carlton was imprisoned after his crimes and on empty lots where demolished Wright buildings once stood. He reaches as far back into Carlton’s past as documentary evidence will allow, looking to census accounts and tracking down an 1869 marriage certificate for his parents. He pursues every trail: from Alabama, where Carlton was born, to Chicago, where he lived for a while before heading to Wisconsin. Hendrickson even visits the site of Carlton’s home in Chicago, now torn down, and describes the house next door, which is still standing.

The result is a curious and at times exhausting book. Few subjects in American architecture have been more thoroughly studied than Wright, whose career spanned the end of the 19th century through the middle of the last one. The fire at Taliesin and Wright’s affair with Cheney have been the subjects of several books and at least one opera, and the larger trajectory of Wright’s life (he was married three times and lived to age 91) has been covered in multiple biographies, of varying degrees of scholarship and readability. Wright also wrote his own memoirs, as did his son and several people intimately connected to him, including his troubled and erratic second wife, Miriam. The problem with Wright is not a lack of material but a lack of answers.

Hendrickson’s efforts to turn new ground are sporadically successful. He writes sensitively about Wright’s emotional life, especially an early and deep friendship with a slightly older but more sophisticated Chicago colleague named Cecil Corwin. Based on a photo of the two men together, on passages in Wright’s writings and on Corwin’s personal history (he lived as a bachelor until fairly late in life, when he married an older heiress), Hendrickson senses powerful erotic tension. Of Corwin, he writes: “From all that can be gathered about this shadowed, alluring figure — and I’ve gone some ways to try to gather it — I can only believe that his was an erotic desire unfulfilled. And that Wright himself sooner than later came to understand it as such.”

Wright rapidly surpassed his early mentor and friend, and Corwin died poor and obscure. The two men fell out of touch for decades, before a touching reconnection by letter in the 1930s. Hendrickson’s speculation about their possible relationship helps construct the larger argument of the book: that Wright, a colossal egoist, needy, arrogant and reckless in his emotional life, was not quite the monster that emerges from other biographies. He had some delicacy and decency underneath the swagger and solipsism, and the affection and discretion with which he discussed his relationship with Corwin in his memoirs are proof of his finer qualities.

Hendrickson also pursues tangential threads to make larger cultural and historical connections. After the terrible fire and murders at Taliesin, Wright took a slow train from Chicago (where he was working) back to Wisconsin, where his house was still smoldering. Meeting him on the platform at Spring Green was his cousin, Richard Lloyd Jones, six years his junior. Jones was a journalist and the owner (at the time) of the Wisconsin State Journal. A long, complex chapter traces what Hendrickson argues is one of the darker collateral effects of the Taliesin fire: its corruption of Jones’s political worldview. In 1919, Jones purchased a newspaper in Tulsa, which published an editorial that may have instigated the 1921 Greenwood Massacre (often called the Tulsa Race Riot, though it was effectively a pogrom of white mobs against African Americans).

Hendrickson convincingly argues for a disturbing change in Jones’s human sympathies, for his callousness, hypocrisy and racism. But then he tries to make even bigger connections. “And so you wish to know how any of this long, interrupting, but not-interrupting fable connects directly to the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, other than the entirely self-evident fact (by now) that Wright was the close and complex blood relation of the morally catastrophic Richard Lloyd Jones?” he asks, rhetorically. His answer is that Wright probably dwelled on a chain of links between disparate events: his abandonment of his first wife and children, the fire at Taliesin, and the blood lust of racism in Tulsa seven years later. At the bottom of all of this is a Gothic sense of almost supernatural threads tying the architect’s personal life to larger, more sinister forces of history.

Sometimes, however, the author’s tangents are merely tangential, and he often finishes following a dead end with a cavalier dismissal: “Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t.” These dead ends pile up, as does the minutiae about clients and the children of clients. Of the sheriff who watched over the incarcerated Julian Carlton (who drank hydrochloric acid before he was captured and died seven weeks later), the author speculates: “Somehow, I can’t help thinking of him as Julian Carlton’s last friend on earth — or semi-friend. I keep imaging him addressing his prisoner as ‘son.’ ” From there we get an imagined jailhouse conversation between the two, and then the author’s larger conclusion, which like many of his conclusions doesn’t quite justify the volume of prose that buttresses it: “I do believe that swarming ghosts of a Deep South past are at least part of the answer. Let it be. All theories are suspect, in a sense.”

This is maddening after a while. So too the prose style, which is what journalists would call “muscular,” teeming with sentence fragments, sentences without verbs, forced colloquialisms (jails are called the “hoosegow” and the nose is the “schnozzola”), and a tendency to throw out a statement and then retract it, as if we’re following the author as he improvises his text. Also, he likes to throw in “damn” as an all-purpose intensifier: Cheney’s husband, for example, made “damn good money,” and Brendan Gill’s 1987 biography of Wright is a “damn good” book.

At some point, the author’s deft use of local color becomes merely clutter, and the reader wishes a 600-page book had been trimmed to about 300. If one cut the speculation and digressions, that could probably be reduced to about 150 pages. But at their best, those pages are, well, damn good.

Plagued by Fire

The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright

By Paul Hendrickson

Knopf. 600 pp. $35