“Mystery and the Poetic Form” (by Janet Hutchings)

Of all the many forms of mystery and crime story that EQMM has published over the past eighty-one years, the story in verse is the rarest. And it’s not because poets don’t write mystery stories (and vice versa). EQMM’s founder, Frederic Dannay (half of the Ellery Queen writing team) was profoundly interested in poetry: He wrote poetry and had an extensive poetry collection. And he was far from alone in being a mystery writer/poet. As I noted in a 2015 post for this site, Dannay compiled an anthology entitled Poetic Justice in which he included mystery or crime stories by famous poets such as Sir Walter Scott, Dylan Thomas, Ogden Nash, and Walt Whitman, to name a few. But to say that someone is a poet who also writes mysteries (or a mystery writer who also writes poetry) does not necessarily imply that such a writer has produced a mystery in verse form. Many poets don’t focus on long-form narrative poems at all, let alone narrative poems in which the story is a crime or mystery.

Fred Dannay never missed an opportunity to mention how many Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners EQMM had published (mostly reprinted, actually!). Neither do I. One of those Pulitzer Prize winners was Stephen Vincent Benét. Benét’s Pulitzer Prize was for poetry—for his book-length narrative poem John Brown’s Body. But even though Benét clearly had the skill and desire to tell complete stories in verse, as far as I’ve been able to determine, he never wrote a mystery story in verse. He did, of course, write prose short stories, most notably “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” He also wrote at least two short stories that fall squarely into the mystery genre, one a locked-room mystery entitled “The Amateur of Crime,” the other “Floor, Please,” one of his earliest stories, which found its way into a pulp magazine in 1924. Both stories were reprinted in EQMM in the 1940s. It’s a somewhat curious thing, to me, that Benét appears never to have combined his loves for narrative poetry and the mystery. But then, one can see that it might prove exceptionally difficult to tell a locked-room tale in verse, since there are many prosaic details about time, place, and the whereabouts of suspects that need to be worked into such a story.

At first glance at least, the crime subgenre of the mystery would seem to lend itself a little more readily to verse form. It’s not only that there is less need in most crime stories to establish to precision particulars of timing and the placement of persons and objects. It’s that the crime story often turns on the emotional impact of what occurs, and poetry can enhance the emotional impact of a narrative. However, in my brief search for crime or mystery novels in verse form, I came up with only one notable example, the 1997 Edgar nominated Who Killed Mr. Chippendale by Mel Glenn, and that book is a YA rather than an adult novel. I’m sure there must be many more examples, and perhaps readers of this blog will help me out by pointing me toward some.

When it comes to mystery short stories in verse, EQMM would expect to see a good portion of whatever is being written. And we don’t see many. Since 1979 John F. Dobbyn’s crime/adventure verse stories set in the Yukon have been featured intermittently in our pages, most recently in the September/October 2021 issue. And coming up in our March/April 2023 issue is a noir story in verse by Michael Wiley. The latter has been expanded into a five-story, fully developed mystery since the original tale was submitted to us and purchased (although the original story stands entirely on its own). EQMM would normally like to follow up with publication of the subsequent stories in a connected sequence that we’ve started, but the whole of this sequence has become too long for us. We have tight space constraints to begin with, and verse requires quite a bit more space than prose for an equivalent word count.

Which brings me to one of the reasons I had for taking up this topic today: to ask if any of our readers knows of a book or magazine publisher well suited to this area of the mystery. We like being able to present the occasional verse story in EQMM, but from a formatting as well as a space standpoint, we are not the ideal publication for the form. Our layout is basic and meant to maximize the use of space, whereas it often matters a great deal with poetry how it is laid out on the page—and what overall look is conveyed.

It seems to me that the mystery in verse could become a burgeoning area of our field if enough of the right publications existed—assuming, of course, that there’s an audience for such mysteries out there. I’m guessing there might be. Fred Dannay thought there was a natural affinity between what poets and mystery writers (or at least their fictional detectives) try to do, and that is to make order out of chaos. We live in confusing, disturbing, chaotic times. Times that seem just right for a powerful intertwining of the emotional impact of poetry and the clarity of the detective.

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4 Responses to “Mystery and the Poetic Form” (by Janet Hutchings)

  1. Not sure it qualifies as a mystery, by The Cremation of Sam Magee by Robert W. Service is a highly entertaining account of how to dispose of an unwanted corpse.

  2. susanoleksiw says:

    The only one I know of is Send Bygraves by Martha Grimes, illustrated by Devis Grebu. Putnam ‘s, 1989. This is a fairly traditional tale with Grimes’s dry humor.

  3. Janet says:

    Many thanks for these suggestions!! I will check them out.

  4. jeffbaker307 says:

    Thanks for the info! I didn’t know about Benet’s locked-room mystery! I’ve tried to find it reprinted but except for the EQMM reprint, it has skipped the attention of anthologists.

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