Poetry, You’re Hiding Behind the Words You Speak*

Clues in PoetryThere are all kinds ways in which crime writers can leave clues, whether it’s clues about character or clues to a mystery. Interestingly enough, one of those ways is through poems. Poetry can be a cryptic way to leave a message, a warning, or a clue. So it gives the reader the chance to ‘match wits’ with the author.

Poetry gives characters the chance to ‘match wits,’ too. For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Musgrave Ritual, Sherlock Holmes tells Watson about one of his early cases. In that adventure, Holmes gets an invitation from an old university friend, Sir Reginald Musgrave. It seems that Musgrave’s butler, Richard Brunton, and a maid, Rachel Howell, have disappeared. The only clue to what’s happened is that, shortly before the two went missing, Musgrave caught Brunton going through some of the family papers. The paper that seemed to be of most interest to Brunton was an old poem, used in a Musgrave family ritual. Once Holmes works out what the poem means, he sees that it’s an important clue. And that leads him to the truth about Brunton and Howell.

John Dickson Carr’s first Gideon Fell novel, Hag’s Nook, also includes a cryptic poem. In that novel, Tad Rampole has taken the advice of his mentor, and come from America to pay a visit to Fell. Along the way, he meets Dorothy Starberth, who lives not far from Fell. He’s smitten with her right away, and the feeling seems mutual. Later, Fell tells Rampole the interesting history of the Starberth family. At one time, the Starberth men were Governors of nearby Chatterham Prison. Even though it’s been allowed to fall into ruins, the family still has a connection. Each Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. While there, he opens the safe, reads the paper that’s there, and follows the instructions on it. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy’s brother, Martin. But there are good reasons for him to worry. Some strange and tragic accidents have befallen the Starberths, and some say there’s a curse on the family. Still, Martin goes ahead with the ritual. Sure enough, on the night of his birthday, he dies from what looks like an accidental fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. But it’s soon clear that he was murdered. The only problem is, no-one was seen entering or leaving the property. And there’s no evidence that anyone but Martin was in the room. Rampole is, quite naturally, interested in finding out the truth, and he works with Fell to get to the truth. As it turns out, a cryptic poem gives Fell the clue he needs to get to the truth about who killed Martin Starberth and why..

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None has a poem at its core. Ten people get invitations to spend time on Indian Island. Each gets a different sort of invitation, and each has different reasons, but they all accept. When the group arrives, they settle in and wait for their host, who, strangely enough, never appears. Still, dinner is served, and everyone makes the best of the situation. After dinner, each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night, there’s another death. It’s soon clear that someone is trying to kill all of the guests, one by one. The other guests now have to find out who the killer is, and survive if they can. As it turns out, the killer uses an old nursery poem to link the deaths and warn about the ones to come.

Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace introduces Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She’s a skilled professional, but she deeply grieves the loss of her beloved husband, Stefan, and she’s had a hard time coping. One day, she gets a letter that makes it clear that someone is watching her. It’s not long, too, before she learns that that person has access to her client records. As if that’s not enough, whoever is stalking Bergman seems bent on sabotaging both her professional life and her personal life. Matters come to a head when the body of a client, Sara Matteus, is found in the water on Bergman’s property. There’s a suicide note that blames the suicide on Bergman. When it becomes clear that this wasn’t a suicide, Bergman even becomes a suspect for a time. So she has to clear her name, and find out who really killed Sara Matteus. All along, Bergman’s struggling to understand and accept Stefan’s death. An important clue to it comes from Erik Blomberg’s Var inte rädd för mörkret (Do Not Fear the Darkness), a poem that Stefan left for her. When Bergman comes to understand that message, she also gets a better understanding of her husband’s death.

There’s also Andrea Camilleri’s Treasure Hunt. Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano makes the news when he gets involved in a bizarre case that involves him climbing up a building. Shortly after that, he gets a cryptic note and a very bad poem. The note and poem are an invitation to play a game of Treasure Hunt. This isn’t a case of some odd, but harmless, fan, though. Instead, Montalbano is drawn into a strange killer’s dangerous game.

There are plenty of other novels, too, where the clues come in the form of a cryptic poem. Even for people who aren’t much for poetry, those sorts of clues can invite the reader to engage in the story. They can also add an interesting layer of character depth. Which crime-fictional poems have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Danity Kane’s Poetry.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, John Dickson Carr

36 responses to “Poetry, You’re Hiding Behind the Words You Speak*

  1. Pingback: Poetry, You’re Hiding Behind the Words You Speak* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. Tea

    Will take my time and read this post. Interesting, trying to think of any mysteries I’ve read with a poem as a clue.

  3. Tim

    Margot, poetry within crime novels is a seductive focus. I wonder what other literary genres become tropes within crime novels. Now, off topic, I recall crossword puzzles as Morse’s obsession (and the author, Dexter’s). Perhaps your focus points to another interesting and probably unlimited area to explore: an author’s literary and hobby obsessions sneaking into the author’s creations. For example, what about your interests and obsessions in your creations?

    • That is an interesting question, Tim, about the author’s literary interests and hobbies and so on finding their way into that person’s work. I know that Cecil Day-Lewis, who was an acclaimed poet, created a sleuth who is a poet. And Edmund Crispin was a composer who included music in his Gervase Fen mysteries. I would dare say it’s hard to avoid including things one loves in one’s writing.

  4. Great subject, Margot. Nothing like a good riddle me this in the form of a poem and old Agatha definitely loved her rhymes 🙂

  5. It’s been a long time since I read it, but if memory serves me right Reginald Hill’s ‘Bones and Silence’ uses the York Mystery Plays, written in rhyming verse, as a plot point, with Dalziel playing the role of God! Inspired casting… 😉

  6. A.M. Pietroschek

    I wished to gift you a little contextual poem, but I am below the standards it would have needed. Hence I dedicate it to Professor Kinberg once more proving me more fool than professional. 😉

    The killing minds
    © Andrè M. Pietroschek, all rights reserved

    All bloody deeds we can’t prevent
    Or the murder we couldn’t foresee
    All those paths to a gruesome end
    Are still there, harrowing the Free
    Via that crime fiction we did read
    Until Margot inspired you and me!

  7. Interesting post, Margot. Having poems as clues is a unique way to pull the reader in even further into the story. It makes you feel a part of the story as you try to uncover the hidden clues within.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mason. And I agree with you about the use of poetic clues in crime fiction. They really can invite the reader to engage, can’t they?

  8. The one in And Then There Were None was fabulous! And eerie.

    I used to make scavenger hunts for my kids with rhyming clues. It was never easy, even with doggerel! But fun. Writing a mystery with poetic clues sounds like a fun challenge.

    • I think so, too, Elizabeth. And I love the idea of writing scavenger hunt clues in verse. A fun challenge for you, and great for your kids, too. And yes, Christie used that poem brilliantly, I thought, in And Then…..

  9. I remember a few novels where killers left strange clues, but none that were poems. Interesting post, Margot. I could see a brainy killer using haiku to send the police on a wild goose chase. Should I run with that idea? 😀

  10. There’s been some wonderful poems floating around FB from crime authors lately. Especially when paired with an image they can be really visceral. Can’t say I remember verse as clues in any recent books, but I do like the idea.

    • I’ve seen those poems, Sue, and they’re really creative as well as visceral. It’s an intriguing way to leave clues, too. At least for those authors who are comfortable with writing verse…

  11. Margot: In the Inspector Chen mysteries by Qiu Xiaolong there is poetry written by the Inspector and quotations from classic Chinese poetry. With the real life author an accomplished poet the Chen books always have excellent poetry. In Don’t Cry for Me, Tai Lake there is powerful poetry on pollution in current day China.

    • You’re absolutely right, Bill, about the poetry in the Qiu series. It adds, I think, such a fascinating layer to the series, and yes, some of it’s quite powerful. It’s an interesting case, too, of an author who weaves a particular skill/interest into his work. For you folks who don’t know, Qiu himself is a poet.

  12. Great topic, Margot! Though not always in the form of poetry, one of my favorite tropes is the (usually cryptic) message written on the mirror, which ultimately provides a crucial clue in solving the case.

    • Oh, I like that, too, Bryan! It’s cryptic, intriguing, and sometimes, well, fun. And even in grittier novels, it can increase the suspense. Thanks for that addition.

  13. kathyd

    I must try some of those books from China with some poetry in it. Sounds intriguing.
    In Fred Vargas’ works, a police lieutenant speaks in 12 syllable Alexandrine verse, some of it poetic, some not. It’s another reason to read her books, never boring, never a dull moment. There is this character, then in Ghost Riders of Ordebec, one guy speaks backwards, whatever — Vargas will do it.
    This Night’s Foul Work uses a medieval religious poem.

    • You’re quite right, Kathy, about Vargas’ Veyranc, and his use of verse. It adds to the series, and to the interesting character traits that make Vargas’ police team unique.

  14. The story, “The Musgrave Ritual” was most ingenious. I read it, and saw it with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock. Geometry, math, poetry AND history played a part in the analysis of that puzzle, and I for one LIKED IT.

    And who could NOT like “And then there was none” by Agatha? I’ve seen that redone in several different ways. Most… humorous!


    • I liked that Sherlock Holmes story, too – and the Jeremy Brett adaptation of it. It’s a great story. And so is And Then There Were None. In my opinion, it’s one of her best.

  15. I have such a good example from a 1950s crime story – but I can’t give details for spoilers. Let’s just say the poem gives away more than you are expecting…

    • Sounds intriguing, Moira! And I have to say, I know just what you mean about not being able to mention author or title. I’ve had to cut out many a title from my posts for that very reason.

  16. Col

    I’m a Luddite – I obviously don’t read the same crime fiction as you! 🙂

  17. tracybham

    A post full of books I have not read. Although I hope to get to And Then There Were None sometime soon.

  18. hi,

    I want to have a guest post in ur blog of my poetries?
    do u have such provision?.if yes,then how can I do so..& if no..then can u please suggest where I can post as a guest blogger or can u give some links of those bloggers with large no of followers & who allows guest posts


    • Thanks for your visit, AATIF. I don’t do reviews or guest posts; there are others much better qualified than I am for that. That’s especially true of poetry, since this isn’t isn’t a poetry blog. Instead, I do crime fiction. I wish you well finding the right fit for your poetry.

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