A lovely post by Sarah at Crimepieces has got me thinking about poetry. In the U.K. it’s National Poetry Day and I’m glad poetry is getting some attention. It’s a beautiful art form and one I must confess I’ve never mastered. Trust me. Poetry is everywhere, too, from the ‘master’ poets one reads to rap lyrics to advertising jingles. It takes many, many forms and that’s one thing I like about it. We also see it in crime fiction. Sarah made the point for instance that there’ve been poets who also wrote crime fiction. She’s right. There are also mentions of poetry throughout the genre. Space only allows me to mention a few of them; I’m sure you can think of others.
Several of Agatha Christie’s stories refer to poetry. One of them is The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). The title of the novel refers to Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott, and Christie uses both the title and if you will one of the themes of the poem in the novel. Famous actress Marina Gregg and her husband have recently bought Gossington Hall, which Christie fans will remember was the property of Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly in The Body in the Library. The new owners decide to have a fête at Gossington Hall as a charitable fundraiser and to make the locals feel more comfortable with the newcomers. Local resident Heather Badcock is especially excited about this event because she’s very much a fan of Marina Gregg and thrilled at the prospect of meeting her idol. On the day of the fête, Heather does get to talk to Marina Gregg; in fact, Marina even gives Heather her own cocktail. Shortly afterwards though, Heather becomes ill and dies from what turns out to be poison. At first, everyone believes that since the cocktail was intended for Marina, she was also intended to be the victim. And if that’s the case there are certainly suspects. But it’s not long before Miss Marple begins to believe that Heather was the intended victim all along. She and Dolly Bantry work together to find out who would have wanted to kill Heather Badcock and why.
Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is a fan of the poetry of A.E. Housman and we see that influence in this series. For instance, the title of the last Inspector Morse novel The Remorseful Day comes from a line from Houseman’s XVI – (How clear, how lovely bright). It’s a very clever choice too given Morse’s name and one major event in the story. Two years before the events in The Remorseful Day, a local nurse Yvonne Harrison was found murdered in her bed. The police investigated but could never get solid evidence to arrest anyone. Now Harry Repp, who’s just been released from prison after being convicted of burglary, is the subject of an anonymous tip to the police. The suggestion is that Repp was responsible for Harrison’s murder. Superintendent Strange gives the case to Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis, and they begin to look into it. But Morse is strangely reluctant to do a lot of work on the investigation. At one point, Lewis makes a disturbing discovery that leads him to what he thinks is the reason for Morse’s apparent apathy about this case. But as you might expect from Colin Dexter, things aren’t exactly what they seem…
Emily Dickinson (whose poetry I like very much) features in at least two crime novels. One is Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog. That title is taken from the title of Dickinson’s I Started Early, Took My Dog and themes from the poem are woven through the story. There are several threads to this novel, all of which lead back to an incident in the past. One thread follows the story of Tracy Waterhouse, a former cop and now security guard. One day she witnesses prostitute Kelly Cross behaving in an abusive way towards her small daughter Courtney. On the spur of the moment Waterhouse offers to buy the child, just to keep her out of harm’s way. Cross accepts and Waterhouse ends up with a new daughter and on a new path she hadn’t imagined. Another thread features former famous actress Tilly, who’s now battling the early signs of dementia. She witnesses the exchange between Waterhouse and Cross and, not quite understanding what’s going on, gets involved, with real consequences. And then there’s Atkinson’s protagonist Jackson Brodie, a retired police officer/PI. He’s spending some time trying to make sense of his life when he witnesses a dog being badly mistreated by its owner. He rescues the dog and ends up much more attached to his new companion than he’d thought he would be. As Atkinson fans have come to expect from her, all of these threads end up being related.
Another crime novel in which Dickinson’s poetry comes up is Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road. In that novel, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest and her team are assigned to investigate the murder of prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins at Green Swamp Well. On the surface the killing looks like the tragic result of a drunken quarrel, but Tempest believes there’s more to it than that. So she starts to ask some questions. One of the people she talks to is Ozolins’ brother Wishy, who manages a transport and works depot. In the course of her meeting with Wishy, Tempest also meets Wishy’s daughter Simone ‘Simmie.’ By accident she discovers that Simmie is reading a battered copy of a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and they discuss it. Each is pleasantly surprised that the other likes Dickinson’s work. A little later in the novel Tempest sends Simmie a leather-bound copy of Dickinson’s complete works and one poem in particular, Wild Nights, Wild Nights, reminds Simmie of Tempest. It’s not directly relevant to solving the murder (although Tempest does accomplish that), but it’s an interesting connection between the Tempest and Simmie Ozolins.
The poetry of the Lake District’s own William Wordsworth is featured in Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo. Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham hears of the discovery of a long-dead body in a pond near her Lake District home. There’s talk that the body may be that of Fletcher Christian; it’s always been rumoured that he didn’t die on Pitcairn Island but survived and returned to England. If that’s the case then Gresham reasons that he might have had contact with his great friend Wordsworth. If so what could be more natural than that Wordsworth would have written about it? There’s been talk before that there may have been an unpublished Wordsworth manuscript and the discovery of this body supports that theory. So Gresham returns from London, where she lives and works, to the Lake District to investigate the possibility of such a manuscript. When she gets there she starts to try to trace the manuscript but then one of the people she interviews dies. Then another person connected with this possible manuscript also dies. It soon looks as though these deaths are related to Gresham’s search and that she may be responsible. Now Gresham has to clear her name as well as try to find the manuscript if there is one.
And then there’s Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace. That’s the story of Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She’s still reeling from the death of her beloved husband Stefan and although she’s functioning, you couldn’t really call her functional. For example, she cannot tolerate darkness – she even sleeps with the light on. One day Bergman gets a frightening letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. Other incidents happen too that are intended to discredit Bergman and scare her too. Then one day, the body of Sara Matteus, one of Bergman’s clients, is found in a lake on Bergman’s property. At first the police think Bergman may be responsible but it’s not long before it’s proven that she is innocent and that someone is trying to frame her. Now Bergman has to clear her name and find out who killed Sara Matteus before the killer strikes again. In a few places in this novel there are references to Swedish poet Erik Blomberg’s Var inte rädd för mörkret (Do Not Fear the Darkness). The poem has special meaning for Siri Bergman, since Stefan left it for her before he died. At the end of the novel she begins to understand what Stefan’s message really was, and is able to start the slow process of healing from his loss.
Poetry really is a powerful form of expression; I wish I could write that way. And as these few examples show, it finds its way into a lot of writing, including crime fiction.
In honour of the day here are just a few poets’ blogs where you can read some fine, fine poetry:
Check ’em out. Tell ’em Margot sent you. Mostly, enjoy…
ps. The book in the ’photo is part of an 1832 edition of a collection of the poetry of William Wordsworth. I’m proud to own it.
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s The Dangling Conversation.