As this is posted, it’s 174 years since the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. And just a few days ago, we celebrated Burns Night. It’s all got me in mind of poetry. I, myself, am most definitely not a skilled poet (although I did write a few very bad poems that have mercifully been deleted). But I truly respect those who can write poetry. It’s a rich and unique form of expression that I wish got more notice than it does.
Of course, Poe wrote crime and horror stories as well as poetry, and he’s not the only one to weave poetry and other forms of writing into his work. Agatha Christie, for instance, also wrote poetry, although she is better known for her stories, plays and novels. There are plenty of crime-fictional poets, too.
For example, Nicholas Blake was a pseudonym for British Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis. Under that name, he wrote a series of novels featuring a poet, Nigel Strangeways, who is also a private investigator. Most of the mysteries he investigates do not, strictly speaking, involve poems. But mentions of poems and poets are integrated into the stories in several places.
Cat Connor’s FBI Special Agent (later Supervising Special Agent) Gabrielle ‘Ellie’ Conway Iverson is a poet, too. When that series begins (with Killerbyte), she and her partner, Cormac ‘Mac’ Connelly, moderate an online poetry group called Cobwebs. Matters turn very deadly when first one, then another of the group members are murdered, and cryptic poems left near the bodies. As the series goes on, Ellie gets more involved in her FBI work, but that doesn’t mean she stops loving poetry.
One of Julie Smith’s series features New Orleans-based private investigator Talba Wallis. She works for Eddie Valentino, who owns E.V. Anthony Investigations. Talba is also a poet, who makes time whenever she can for poetry slams and other poetry events. In fact, in Louisiana Bigshot, she gets a new case when fellow poet Clayton Robineau wants to know if her fiancé, Jason Wheeling, is cheating on her. Talba doesn’t want to be responsible for a friend’s pain if it turns out Jason is really unfaithful. But, she takes the case, and soon finds out that he has been cheating. Shortly afterwards, Clayton dies, apparently of a heroin overdose. But neither Talba nor Jason believes that it was suicide or an accident. Talba begins to investigate, and finds that this is, indeed, a murder, and that it’s related to the victim’s past.
Qiu Xiaolong, himself a poet, is the author of a Shanghai-based series featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police. He is a hardworking police detective who often finds himself mixed up in very delicate cases that involve high-ranking people. Chen is also a poet, who studied literature in school, and still contributes his work to literary publications when he can. Chen’s love of poetry isn’t a critical part of solving his cases most of the time. But poems occur to him quite frequently. For example, in The Shanghai Redemption, Chen has been stripped of a lot of his authority, because he’s succeeded once too often in embarrassing someone important. He has a new, fancy title, but it means nothing, and he’s increasingly isolated. He has the chance to redeem himself by succeeding in his new assignment: being in charge of a corruption case against a so-called Red Prince – a high-ranking but very corrupt Party member. It’s going to be a dangerous case, though, and Chen knows he has no real allies or support. As he thinks of his situation, he is reminded of a poem by Cao Cao:
‘The moon bright, the stars sparse/the blackbird flies to the south/circling the tree three times/without finding a branch to perch itself…’
Fans of the series know that Chen often thinks of poems and poets as he works through his cases.
And then there’s Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point, which introduces Belize-born brothers Leo and Patrick Varela. They moved to Miami as young men, where they have made lives for themselves. Patrick is a very promising politician, who’s on the verge of getting real national attention. As you can imagine, his reputation and image are very important to him, and he and his people don’t want anything to come to light that might damage that image. For his part, Leo works in a mental hospital. He’s also a poet who works on his writing when he can. He and Patrick have no outright animosity towards each other, but they’ve gone their separate ways, and don’t see one another very much, Then, Leo gets a visit from an old friend from Belize, Freddy Robinson. It seems that Freddy is representing some ‘business associates’ who want Herman Massani, a patient at the mental hospital, released to them. He may have information about voter fraud that could implicate Patrick, and Freddy’s contacts want that information. Leo demurs at first, but Freddy mentions that everyone has secrets, including the Varela brothers. And he’s right. The Varelas are hiding a dark truth from their past in Belize, and Freddy will reveal what he knows if he doesn’t get what he wants. Leo contacts Patrick, who wants to wait and see what will happen. But everything soon spins very much out of control, and it’s clear that someone’s playing a very dangerous political game, and is not afraid to kill as a part of it.
See what I mean? Poets and poetry are everywhere, including in crime fiction. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
Want more poetry? Visit Finding Time to Write, where your host, Marina Sofia, sometimes shares her fine poetry, and her knowledge of poetry and poets. Also check out D’Verse Poets, a gathering place for all sorts of different poets.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Golden Slumbers, which is based on Thomas Dekkers’ poem Cradle Song.