The Mystery Dance of Poets


Sunday, August 4, 2013

Robert Polito read his poetry this past Thursday at a fundraiser for the Los Angeles Review of Books. In addition to his poetry, Polito’s biography of Jim Thompson, author of The Killer Inside Me, is a book that should be on every poet’s bookshelf, right alongside Keith Richards’s Life. Come to think of it, “Midnight Rambler” would make for skittery mood music to accompany Thompson’s classic portrait of a serial killer, which possesses every bit of palpable intensity that could be asked for in a prose poem.

Back in the mid-1980s, I found myself not too happy with most of what was taking place in American poetry. The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets seemed in particular to exemplify a mediocrity that was difficult to stomach. I turned to mystery writers to help resolve my yearning for writing of genuine quality. It’s probably unfair to ask a poet to produce at least one book that is as intricate and subtle as a good mystery, but I know that Suzanne Lummis, who was also in attendance at Polito’s reading, would agree with me in wanting poets to strive for such a register of accomplishment. She would also probably agree with me that Polito’s Hollywood and God is an example of how such an equivalent is possible. Charles Webb has often commented that he wanted to make poetry as popular as rock and roll. I would settle for it being as sturdily supple as the mystery books I’ve listed below, many of which I read when I was in despair of mainstream poetry ever waking up.

My list is not meant to constitute my assessment of the best mysteries ever written. I have left out specific titles by writers such as Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler and P.D. James because I assume some minimal familiarity with the mystery genre. If you should settle for no more than these exemplary writers, however, then you will miss out on work that has not only been admired by poets, but was written by poets. Dorothy Hughes, for instance, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets before she started writing mysteries. At the very least, you owe it to yourself to pick up at least one book by each author I’ve listed.

I’ll concede that there are more than a few poets for whom this reading list will not prove particularly fruitful. On the other hand, I suspect that many poets could use a break from the bland cafeteria-style buffet menu (“Poetry Daily”) of much contemporary poetry. How often do you read a poem in which the dialogue between characters is as pungent as that found in K.C. Constantine’s novels?

In urging younger poets especially to dig back into the recent past of this genre, I also want to remind them of a poet whose work has had a substantial influence on many poets born between 1940 and 1960: Weldon Kees (cf. Christopher Buckley’s Aspects of Robinson). Poems such as “The Last Testimony of James Apthorp” and “Crime Club” deserve a place in any comprehensive anthology of twentieth century poets, and I find it puzzling that his reputation among younger poets seems to have sagged. As much as I am interested in avant-garde and post-avant writing, I wonder if the apparent immediacy of those writing practices has led younger writers to feel that they can skimp on their apprenticeship. Of all forms of fiction that I would recommend to younger poets as a way to solidify one’s knowledge of fundamental templates for narrative surprise, the mystery genre remains one of the most felicitous allies at a poet’s beck and call. It’s worth remembering that one can hardly be post-narrative if narrative itself has not been thoroughly absorbed.


Dorothy Hughes (1904 – 1993)

In a Lonely Place. (1947)


John Franklin Bardin (1916-1981)

The Deadly Pecheron. (1946).

Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly. (1948).


Jane Langton (1922 –         )

Dark Nantucket Noon. (1975)

Natural Enemy. (1982)

Emily Dickinson Is Dead.. (1984)

Murder at the Gardner.  (1988)


Paula Gosling (1939 –       )

Loser’s Blues. (Pan, 1981).

A Running Duck. (1974; Pan, 1979).

Winner of the John Creasey Award for the best first crime novel of the year.


Stuart Kaminsky. (1934-2009)

Murder on the Yellow Brick Road. (1934-2009) (1977; Penguin, 1979).

The Howard Hughes Affair. (1979; Hamlyn Paperback, 1981).

Down for the Count.. (St. Martin’s, 1985).

A Cold Red Sunrise. (1988).


K.C. Constantine (1934 –         ).

Sunshine Enemies. (Mysterious Press, 1990).

The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself. Godine. 1973.

Upon Some Midnights Clear. (Godine, 1985; Penguin, 1987).

The Rocksburg Railroad Murders; The Blank Page  (Godine Double Detective, 1982).


Michael Dibden (21 March 1947 – 30 March 2007)

Ratking (1988)

Vendetta (1990).

Dirty Tricks (1991)

The Tryst (1989).


Joseph Hansen (1923 – 2004)

Fadeout (1970)

The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of (1978)

Early Graves (1987)

A Country of Old Men (1991)

The Complete Brandstetter: Twelve Novels (No Exit Press, 2007)



DICK FRANCIS (1920 – 2010).

High Stakes. 1975.

Proof. 1984.

Bolt. 1986.



King of Infinite Space. Tyler Dilts.

Bogmail. Patrick McGinley.

This Way Out. Sheila Radley. (Penguin, 1989).

(In Radley’s book, an undated receipt from SCENE OF THE CRIME: 18.95 and 3.95 and 4.50. Seven percent tax. Total: 29.31.)

Double Negative  – David Carkeet

The Whistle Blower.  John Hale. (1984; Collier paperback, 1988)

Hunter in the Dark. Estelle Thompson. (1978; Walker paperback, 1984).

A Murder or Three. Laurie Mantell.

The Hands of Innocence. Jeffrey Ashford. (1965; 1966; Walker & Co. paperback, 1984).

Tip on a Dead Crab. William Murray (1926 – 2005). (Penguin, 1984).

The Schoolmaster. W.J. Burley. (Walker, 1977).

March Violets. Philip Kerr. (Penguin, 1989).

Cast for Death. Margaret Yorke. (Hutchinson, 1976).

(Author’s Note: I should like to thank the Marquess of Tavistock for his help and advice, and for consenting to appear in these pages.)

A Question of Inheritance. Joseph Bell (Walker, 1981; Walker paperback, 1983).

Code Name Hangman. Paul Geddes. (1977; Penguin 1979).

The Killing of Katie Steelstock. Michael Gilbert. (Penguin, 1980).

Malice Domestic. Mollie Hardwick. (Hutchinson, 1986).

Words for Murder Perhaps. Edward Candy. (Doubleday, 1971; Ballantine paperback, 1985).

Spend Game. Jonathan Gash. (1980; Penguin, 1982).

The Riddle of Samson. Andrew Garve. (Harper & Row. 1954)

Chapter 1; First sentence: “The day I crossed to Scilly the islanders had just learned that for the first time in their history they were going to have to pay income tax.”

Murder through the Looking Glass. (AKA Murder in Moscow). Andrew Garve. (Harper & Row. 1951).



One Across, Two Down. (1971).

To Fear a Painted Devil. (1965)

A Demon in My View (1977).

The Lake of Darkness. (1980, 1981).


Patricia Wentworth (1978 – 1961).

The Traveller Returns. (1948).

Pilgrim’s Rest. Patricia 1948.


Nicholas Blake (Cecil Day-Lewis) (1904-1972).

The Worm of Death. Nicholas Blake. (Harper & Row, 1961).

A Question of Proof. Nicholas Blake. (Harper& Row, 1935).

“A deep wedge of depression is moving quickly down from  Iceland. There will be local soul-storms tomorrow.” (107).

Minute for Murder. (Harper & Row, 1947).

Head of a Traveler. (Harper & Row. 1949).

The Corpse in the Snowman.


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