There 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.