Hardboiled Poetry (by Michael Wiley)

A Shamus Award winner and college professor Michael Wiley is one of the most innovative crime writers we’ve come across. He always seems to be trying something new, whether it be with his P.I. Sam Kelson, a character who cannot keep his thoughts to himself due to a brain injury, or his latest character Franky Dast, hero of The Long Way Out, an exonerated ex-con who investigates a series of murders in Northeast Florida. Michael has also written well-received series featuring P.I. Joe Kozmarski and homicide detective Daniel Turner, but his new story for EQMM, “Bad Boy,” featured in our current issue (March/April 2023) is perhaps his most original work in the field. It’s a full-length noir tale told entirely in verse, and it’s got several sequels (which we expect will eventually be published in book form) that, taken together, form something very like a whodunit mystery. He talks about what led him to write the story and its sequels in this post.  —Janet Hutchings

I fell in love with hardboiled crime fiction for its poetry. As a kid, when I read Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and met Moose Malloy—a man “as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food”—I became hungry for metaphor. When Frank and Cora drew blood in a violent kiss in James Cain’s Postman Always Rings Twice and their kissing “was like being in church,” I realized that plain words can knock a reader out too. By the time I saw David Goodis create sparks by making words and whole sentences turn on each other in Nightfall—“The trouble with people is they don’t understand people”—I was a goner. I thought, who needs Wordsworth’s daffodils?

I went to college in Chicago planning to become a professional writer. I took all the classes I could find to prepare myself, and I burst from graduation ready to get started.

Then, like a lot of young writers, I ran into walls. Thick, high walls. Most of them of my own making. I wrote stories that mimicked the voices of the writers I loved and that were populated by unoriginal characters acting in plots we’d seen before. For four years, I survived by writing articles for small magazines, speeches for a Chicago politician, and industrial video scripts for every company that would write me a check. Anything to pay the rent. When I looked toward the future and saw only more walls, I did what I already knew how to do. I went back to school, this time in New York.

As a graduate student, I studied poetry and learned three things: (1) New York pizza gives Chicago pizza a run for the money, (2) I didn’t know how to write, and (3) I needed Wordsworth’s daffodils.

Not only needed. I learned to love his poetry so much I wrote a dissertation on it. Wordsworth isn’t hardboiled. Ever. But he uses plain speech, which he calls “the real language of men.” And when he isn’t tiptoeing through the tulips, he’s digging deep into criminal psychology and clashing morality—in a man who’s more blameworthy than the woman he catches stealing from him, in a town’s response to a woman who might have killed her baby, in an ex-con who, though free from jail, can’t shake off the mental chains of his own guilt.

I also realized that much of what gets called our greatest poetry revolves around crime stories, the darker the better. Shakespeare famously deals with blood and violent death, and as I read and re-read him, I saw how much he meant to writers like Chandler, whose Detective Marlowe channels Hamlet and other tragic heroes.

If Hamlet often acts like a detective, the first major literary PI—Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin—knows that the poetic imagination is a key to good investigative work and is himself “guilty of [writing] doggerel.” Of course, Poe too, when he wasn’t busy solving blackmail cases and murders in the Rue Morgue, wrote rhymes about birds.

Then, there’s the hardest boiled poet of all—that badass Emily Dickinson, who opens poems with lines like

I heard a fly buzz—when I died.

My life had stood—a loaded gun.

Because I could not stop for death—he kindly stopped for me.

These are little words. Hard words. Every one of them with enough punch to break a rib. Every one capable of knocking down a reader. “None stir the second time—on whom I lay a yellow eye,” she says. Take that, Mickey Spillane.

A few years after finishing grad school, when I started writing stories again, I wanted to make every word count the way that Poe and Dickinson do and the way Chandler, Cain, Goodis, and many other great crime writers, past and present, do too.

I’ve written eleven mysteries and thrillers now, some stronger than others. If my books haven’t “stood—a loaded gun”—I’ve done my best to make them shoot straight and hit their targets.

In doing so, I’ve also wondered how a crime story might work if boiled all the way down to essentials—the compact muscles, vital organs, blood, and bones of poetry.

When I read Robin Robertson’s The Long Take­, a two-hundred-page noir poem set in post-World War Two America, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, I realized what such a story might do. Robertson’s book is a mashup of the kind of tough fiction I’ve always loved to read and write and the powerful poetics I’ve admired. I saw in it rhythms, tones, and style choices I hadn’t thought through before.

So I fell to temptation.

“Bad Boy”—in the March/April issue of EQMM—is the result.

It’s an experiment to see how well, by using the stuff of poetry, I can tell a story that gives the pleasures of hardboiled fiction. The narrator—Bad Boy himself—speaks in deliberate cadences. I mean these cadences and occasional off- or internal rhymes to add to the atmosphere and mood, while staying true to his voice. He talks about his gritty life in the little town of Hollow Rock (aka “Nowhere Tennessee”)—about what’s missing and what he’s willing to do, mostly on the wrong side of the law, to fill the holes he feels. Every word counts. Take out a line or two and the thing would collapse like a skeleton missing a femur. His silences count as much as what he says.

Some of us find joy on mean streets and in midnight alleys. In “Eating Poetry,” Mark Strand says he “romp[s] with joy in the bookish dark.” I romped a little while writing “Bad Boy.” The dark story has brought me joy. I hope it brings you some too.

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