POETS AND SLEUTHS

Jeffrey Marks’s recent post about Frederic Dannay’s famed collection of mystery books closed by saying that in his later years, after donating his mystery collection to the University of Texas, Dannay began to collect books of poetry. Dannay, who was, of course, the founding editor of EQMM and half the Ellery Queen writing team, wasn’t just a collector of poetry, however. He wrote poetry as well as mysteries, and he shared that confluence of literary interests with many other great writers in the mystery field, beginning with the father of the mystery, Edgar Allan Poe.

In the 1960s Fred Dannay compiled a collection of mystery stories by famous poets entitled Ellery Queen’s Poetic Justice, which still has a place on the shelves in our offices. When I first discussed this topic, on the forum of EQMM’s Web site several years ago, it was still possible to access online an article by Martin Edwards called “Poets as Crime Writers.” Though it seems no longer to be available online, interested readers can find the piece in the Oxford Companion to Mystery and Crime Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert. Martin Edwards remarks in that article that poets turned mystery writers are “presumably . . . attracted to a literature that shares with much poetry the importance of form and structure.” In his introduction to Poetic Justice, Dannay points to a similarity that appears to go deeper, and to have to do with substance as well as form: For him, both poets and fictional detectives are trying to make order out of chaos.

Among the poets whose stories Dannay collected in Poetic Justice were Sir Walter Scott, Dylan Thomas, Stephen Vincent Benét, Conrad Aiken, Ogden Nash, and Walt Whitman. Martin Edwards mentions several other important poet/crime writers, some from mystery’s Golden Age, in “Poets as Crime Writers,” but concludes: “No one, however, has worn the two hats of poet and crime writer more successfully than Cecil Day-Lewis. Under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake, he created the detective Nigel Strangeways, a character based on W.H. Auden. Blake’s finest novel is probably The Beast Must Die (1938), but he continued to write mystery novels until shortly before his death in 1972, despite his continuing commitment to poetry, which culminated in his appointment as Poet Laureate.”

As one would expect, there are many notable poet/crime writers who don’t get a mention in either Dannay’s book or Edwards’s article, including, from mystery’s classical period, Mary Roberts Rinehart. And if a new volume of Poetic Justice were being compiled today, it would certainly include the work of contemporary poet/crime writers such as John Harvey, Ken Bruen, and Peter Robinson.

The connection between poetry and crime fiction isn’t just that many poets have penned prose mystery stories or novels, however. Another intersection of poetry and crime writing is the mystery or crime story told in verse. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of literature, was an adventure/suspense story told in poetic form. And the tradition of telling adventure/crime stories in verse, which continued through the ages, could be found even in EQMM until the 1990s through the work of John F. Dobbyn (who eventually turned to prose fiction). Mystery stories in verse are now mostly found only in books for children, but I suspect there might be more writers producing such poems for adults even now if crime-fiction publications existed that could easily accommodate the special typesetting needs of long poems (something not easily done in a magazine formatted such as EQMM is)—and, of course, if reader tastes still ran as strongly as they once did to verse.

Yet another junction of poetry and mystery occurs via some of mystery’s iconic fictional characters. Think of those fictional detectives who are portrayed as either lovers of poetry or writers of it: most notable in the former category Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and in the latter P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh. Contemporary writer Qui Xiaolong, born in Shanghai but currently a U.S. resident, followed in the tradition of the detective with poetic sensibilities when he created his poetry-reading Chief Inspector Chen—and it is really not so surprising that the author should have taken this direction when you consider that before turning to crime writing he was a translator of the poetry of T.S. Eliot, among others.

Now here’s a bit of a mystery—at least to me. By some estimates, the mystery/crime/thriller genre accounts for nearly half of all fiction book sales in the U.S. each year. Our genre is clearly one of the bestselling of all genres if that estimate is even close to accurate. Books of poetry, on the other hand, tend to fall into the least-purchased category, with most titles selling only a few hundred copies. If poetry and mystery have so many compelling crossing points, how is it that the rising popularity of the mystery book seems to have coincided with the slumping popularity of the poetry volume?

With that question piquing my curiosity, I would love to know how many of the devoted mystery fans who follow this site are also avid readers of poetry. . . . —Janet Hutchings

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9 Responses to POETS AND SLEUTHS

  1. Art Taylor says:

    I love this post! (….even if I don’t have an answer to the question about sales.)

    I’m regularly reminded of something Margaret Maron said about the mystery genre and poetry, with particular regard to the sonnet: The sonnet is a fixed form, a certain number of lines, a certain breakdown, a certain movement, but great things can happen within that formula—same as with the traditional crime story. (Margaret remains a great fan of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Margaret has also tried her hand at poetry, I should add, though not sure if any was published.)

    I don’t read poetry often, I’ll admit, but I admire the attention to language, word choice, prose rhythm, etc. with the tighter constraints of a poem—and believe that short story writers particularly often need to work with similar attention to detail, making every word count.

  2. I’m glad that I started a discussion. The biography of Fred and Manny will have a discussion of Fred’s collection of poetry along with some samples of his own poetry.

  3. Stephen Dobyns is my favorite among the poet/mystery writers.

  4. kevin mims says:

    Kenneth Fearing’s poetry has been collected in a book published by the Library of America. His novel “The Big Clock,” has been collected in a Library of America edition entitled “American Noir of the 1930s and 40s.” As far as I know he’s the only writer honored by the Library of America for both his crime fiction and his poetry.

  5. Thanks for these comments, Art, Jeffrey, Albert, and Kevin. I had heard Margaret say something similar to that, Art. I am going to try to find poems by all of these poets. I don’t know Kenneth Fearing’s work at all; it will be fun to explore. Thanks again!

  6. jeffbaker307 says:

    A little off-track but two radio features of note are PoetryNow and The Writer’s Almanac, both (I think) connected with The Poetry Foundation. And poet Ogden Nash was a mystery fan, credited with coining the term “Had I But Known” for that type of mystery.

  7. Pingback: “Mystery and Suspense in Poetry” (by Jackie Sherbow) | SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN

  8. Pingback: The High Stakes of Poetry and Crime Fiction: MysteryPeople Q&A with Erica Wright and Melissa Ginsburg

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