#630: The Freight Should be Proportioned to the Groove – The Sliding Scale of Poetry in Detective Fiction

Snark Was a Boojum

When Xavier brought to my attention that Lee Child is sharing the writing of his best-selling Jack Reacher series to his brother before handing it over in due course, I saw it as the universe nudging me towards a filial co-authoring job residing in my own TBR, The Snark Was a Boojum (1957/2015) by Gerald and Chris Verner.

Since Gerald Verner started in 1957 and his son Chris completed 58 years later, “co-authoring” is possibly a bit of a stretch, but so be it.  The story, concerning murders committed in apparent conformity with Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ (1876), is fun, and the sleuth Simon Gale a hugely enjoyable mash-up of real life person Brian Blessed, Carter Dickson’s irrepressible Henry Merrivale, and ever faded club rugby player the world over.  I’m not convinced Chris Verner’s final section quite does justice to the hugely enjoyable setup his father wrought before his death — the telling clue about the murderer makes…no sense, for one thing, and suffered from me having recently see R. Austin Freeman use the same principle to dizzyingly brilliant ends — but as a time-passer you could do  much worse.

It hardly seemed fair to review it properly, since I’ve not yet read any other Gerald Verner novels (I read some short stories and a novella years back, but only ‘The Strange Affair of the Dancing parson’ lingered especially long in the memory…) and so more Simon Gale must be consumed before any meaningful reflection can be had.  But what did cause me a lot of reflection was the use of the poem in structuring the narrative, naming some of the characters, and adding certain flourishes to events.

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“Tell me more.”

Call it pretension, call it literary awareness, call it playful gamesmanship, there’s something about the arbitrary nature of poetry that to my mind just does not fit the novel of detection.  A poem is, first and foremost, a series of loosely connected ideas which often serve to stir up some sense of emotion of connection with events independent of context.  Jack and Jill fall down the hill and injure themselves, Hope — being the thing with feathers — sings the tune without the words…poetry is primarily about response (it’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s unnerving) where detective fiction is chiefly about the deliberate structuring or key elements to build to an overall conclusion that has a basis in what has gone before.  Essentially, detective fiction must rely on structure, where poetry is free to be arbitrary.

The Snark Was a Boojum really brought this home to me, not least because ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ is a nonsense poem — it doesn’t even need to make sense on its own terms.  And so Carroll can write things like…

“‘You may seek it with thimbles—and seek it with care;

You may hunt it with forks and hope;

You may threaten its life with a railway-share;

You may charm it with smiles and soap—'”

…and one or other of the Verners can work this into the book by having someone own a lot of thimbles, and someone else being the scion of a soap manufacturing family — this isn’t me picking an arbitrary possibility, it’s actually what happens in the book.  And yet, neither the thimbles nor the soap have anything to do with the narrative, and you could replace them a collection of ships in bottles and a company that makes brassieres and it would have the same effect in the novel.  But the background of the poem as setup enables these features in the book and gives them the false appearance of meaning and clever writing.

If anything, I found it more distracting than I did worthwhile.  The epigrams at the start of each section supply the relevant stanza, and I found myself getting to the end and asking myself why it mattered that the love interest’s family made soap.  It didn’t.  And, after all, a Snark disguising itself as a Boojum — lawks, just as a killer might disguise themself as a normal person — is hardly that novel a take on the detective story to begin with, and doesn’t mean anything anyway, because a Snark and a Boojum are nonsense things made up to make an amusing rhyme.  And, sure, it’s all a bit of fun, but if you removed the Carroll analogy and told me the exact same story without a character called Bellman and without making a point of it being a Baker who vanishes so that it keeps with Carroll’s rhyme…

They hunted till darkness came on, but they found

Not a button, or feather, or mark,

By which they could tell that they stood on the ground

Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

…I would have enjoyed it possibly even more than I did, because even in that basic instance the narrative doesn’t match the poem: when Baker meets with the Snark, it’s perfectly clear where it happened because he apparently vanishes on the spot and leaves a pile of clothes behind.  So “Not a button, or feather, or mark” doesn’t apply.  See what I mean?  It’s distracting.

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“Indeed.”

Doubtless I’m over-thinking this — “Noooo,” you all chorus, unconvincingly — but the recourse to poetry to make a point in fiction is actually something which pulls me out of a narrative more than any other crutch authors lean on.  And, of course, Verner père et fils are far from the only authors ever to use this, and so I got to thinking about it in detective fiction overall and have devised the following taxonomy for the Use of Distracting Literary Devices in Detective Fiction.  And, to gauge the extent to which each particular instance takes me out of the story I want to read, I’ve developed the new SI unit for Being All Literary in a Way That’s Probably Not Good for Your Reader:

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GAD joke ahoy!

And so, without further ado, and going from least effort to most, we have:

1. A minor character quotes poetry

Sure, sometimes it’s done to show how ignorant someone is when they get a quote wrong or miss the import of what’s said, but too often that can backfire.  Either it strikes a deeply false note or fails to appreciate what the poem was saying in the first place (c.f. Alan Moore’s total misunderstanding of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ozymandius’ (1818) in Watchmen (1987)).  Nerding out is well and good, but it has its place.

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2. The protagonist quotes poetry

As above, and often just feels like the attempt to prove that a refined eye is required to dig down into the sordid, petty business of crime as committed by those of a more base nature.  Can’t help but feel like someone chastising you, the reader, for being interested in such macabre foibles.

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3. The protagonist writes poetry

Clearly an author who, in the idiom of a friend of mine, needs to take themselves outside for a quiet word.

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4. The title comes from a line of poetry

Typically results in lots of first-year university essays arguing allegory and desperately trying to bend two independent narratives into vaguely similar shapes, thus doubtless missing the point of both.  Case in point, Crooked House (1949) by Agatha Christie — now watch the fur fly in the comments…

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5. The epigraph is part of a poem

Sometimes used to justify the title, in which case see above, and sometimes used to get around the protagonist not really being the type to quote poetry.  I’ve usually  forgotten it by the time I’ve finished the first chapter.

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6. The epigraph is a whole poem

As above, but since only one line is usually referenced it just seems like an author proving they do read other things, you know.

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7. Each chapter has its own epigraph

Usually four of these have any special relevance to what happens in the chapter, and the rest are just the sound of someone seeing through a course of action they bitterly regret having started.  This especially obvious when the author is forced to resort to song lyrics or, even worse, invent their own false publication to provide something to put at the head of chapter 17.

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8. The plot invokes several poems

After a while, this becomes like one of those modern serial killer novels where, in order to enable the villain to keep killing, huge leaps in logic and common sense must be made so that some central conceit can be seen through (see #7).  Stops your detective novel being a novel in the true sense, and makes it just a string of dying clues that must be untangled in increasingly nonsense ways.

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9. The plot utilises the structure of a poem

Obviously there’s that one case from 1939 where this is possibly the most thrilling thing ever put on the page, but in the main it results in The Snark Was a Boojum, with baffling decisions made to give characters interests or connections that simply refer to a line of the poem and have no other bearing on the plot, all the while forcing down your neck that this is what’s happening so that you’ll be impressed by a bravura writing performance making something something connections between literature something narrative.  Typically done at the expense of the plot.

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10. The novel is a poem

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Oh, hell, that’s torn it…

30 thoughts on “#630: The Freight Should be Proportioned to the Groove – The Sliding Scale of Poetry in Detective Fiction

  1. “a Snark disguising itself as a Boojum… is hardly that novel a take on the detective story to begin with, and doesn’t mean anything anyway, because a Snark and a Boojum are nonsense things made up to make an amusing rhyme. ”

    “Boojum” is never used as a rhyme word in the poem.
    A snark would not disguise itself as a boojum; a boojum is a particular variety of snark, which cannot be distinguished from other – harmless – snarks until it is too late. “The Hunting of the Snark” isn’t nonsense as long as you remain in its own world and accept its own logic, just as “the gostak distims the doshes” is also coherent in its own definitions. It’s when you move it into another world – like that of the detective story, that it presents problems. The best explanatory edition is Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Snark. It could be argued that the hunters deserve their fates – they set off to hunt the snark without provocation or justification when it had done them no harm. Rather like private detectives, in fact.

    There are a couple of other instances of poetry in crime novels you missed. Both have been used in books. One is where a character quotes something but attributes it to the wrong poet. The fact that no-one notices the misattribution confirms that they will not know the source and work out the murder method, he thinks, so he goes ahead with his plans. In another a character quotes a poem, but inserts a verse which is a guide to his accomplices as to where they should go and what they should do. A difficult technique – it requires criminals with skills in versification and presupposes – wrongly – that none of their opponents know the poems in question.
    Finally there are books where the characters quote poetry and literature at each other, which are just a matter of taste. George Orwell said of Edmund Blunden that he “is no more able to resist a quotation than some people are to refuse a drink.” That is true of other writers. They need not write detective stories – Thomas Love Peacock and Aldous Huxley are examples – but they may do – Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin, for instance. Personalliy, I enjoy them. Apart from the pleasure of seeing them well-used, either I get an ego-boost from recognising the quotation, or I find something new to read.
    As for novels which are poems, I haven’t read it, but H.R.F Keating wrote a verse novel, Jack, the Lady Killer. Just over the border from crime-fiction proper, Reflections on Espionage: The Question of Cupcake by John Hollander is a book-legth poem in the form of messages from a spy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post and the taxonomy at the end was splendid to look at as well as read. I’m presuming Christie’s One Two Buckle My Shoe and Five Little Pigs fall under the category: ‘the plot utilises a structure of a poem’ (this has been numbered as number 8, but should be number 9). Hickory Dickory Dock comes under number 4? Don’t think there is any structural influence. I don’t often comment on the titles of crime novels, though I’m now really hoping that one such comment I made this week doesn’t now seem like a first year university essay (paranoia ensues…)
    Gladys Mitchell definitely falls foul of number 7 – and I agree with you in questioning how much value they add to the text. A well chosen and amusing one can work quite well, but in the main I tend to just pass over them.

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    • Thanks for catching the numbering error, have now corrected it. I’m living so hand-to-mouth with these posts, I don’t have time to proof-read half of them. If all these errors keep creeping in, I might have to dial back the three-a-week thing — it’s that or give up work, and only one of those things keeps the lights on (and, more importantly, provides money for books 😆).

      Christie took a lot of titles from rhymes and poems and, as Brad has pointed out, a lot of literary allusions in dialogue, too. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe was one occasion where it really felt that she was straining to make the points between the two connect, but I can’t hold her playfulness against her. It still bothered me, though, when Poirot claimed that it was the shoe that started the whole thing off for him…c’mon, dude, it was the murdered dentist…!

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  3. Erm . . . how serious a response do you want to this? Because I’ve been up all night for the second night in a row and I’m cranky as hell.

    I’m not a big poetry fan myself, but some of your points here are Friedman-level crank. Certainly, there are many examples of the poetry going wrong – I for one can’t fathom a book patterned after “The Hunting of the Snark.” But I think this idea was quite fashionable for a time. In some cases, it added to a level of screwball that the author was going for. Ellery Queen’s There Was an Old Woman is awkward when it comes to the rhyme: the victim must have a shoe empire, and there must be six children who basically hate her and each other all living in her house. Just as you said, the rhyme’s not necessary; the book is still fun times.

    But I don’t really equate nursery rhymes with poetry. Are there truly a LOT of books with plots based on poems? As for the nursery rhymes, yeah, some work and some don’t. I think the idea was to create something ghoulish out of something we all thought adorable and safe when we were young. And when a killer uses a nursery rhyme to pattern his crimes, the notion of madness adds a frisson of horror to the proceedings.

    To complain when authors source poems to find their book’s title – or that they include an epigram at the start – is . . . well, it’s silly. Christie loved poetry, especially Shakespeare, and lots of allusions to the Bard and others are found throughout the canon, both as titles (Taken at the Flood, By the Pricking of My Thumbs) or as actual clues (“Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?”, “Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young.”) What’s wrong with that, dude? It’s cultured!

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    • How serious? Here on my blog with its renowned history of serious literary dissection? I’m delighted you’d take me seriously at all!

      And they’re not complaints, not at all, more a reflection on how much straining for culture and literary merit in what is essentially a popular form of entertainment is, honestly, often more of a distraction than it’s worth. Do I need 40 words from the the Sherlock Holmes canon at the start of every chapter of a certain novel? No, I’d rather the author just got on with that book, and didn’t invite comparisons that do no-one any favours and result in them being largely dismissed or forgotten today. But complaints? Tch, as if I’d complain online; I’d never hear the end of how wrong I was about everything…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I would like to apologise in advance for going off-piste in my response, but the Hunting of the Snark seems to have been a guilty pleasure of many. I suspect that Douglas Adams may have been influenced by it in deciding that 42 was the answer to the universe and everything and there was an infamously failed musical based on it written by Michael Batt (who wrote the Wombles music). Martin Gardner wrote a marvellous book called the Annotated Snark which (if I remember correctly) included a translation of a spoof philosophical German analysis.
    Epigraphs/epigrams are a risky thing for authors – oddly enough Gladys Mitchell could use them well (I think the Threepenny Opera was used in one of her books) while a Trotskyist fantasy novelist Steven Brust prefixed the chapters in one book with items in an order to a laundry which detailed the stains to be removed in relation to those incurred by the protagonist in each chapter.
    Unfortunately in other fantasy novels, ignoring the chapter headings is often a help to enjoying the book as a whole.

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    • Hairy Aaron, if that’s your version of going off-piste then you have nothing to worry about or apologise for. The notion of an abandoned musical on THotS is a fascinating one — failed in that it never got off the ground, or failed in that it opened to outright derision and closed hastily thereafter?

      There’s a tendency in certain genres — I’m not sure I’d call it fantasy, but Connie Willis does it from time to time — where the chapter starts with a list of the key events, sometimes separated by hyphens like:

      We make a friend — All is not lost — A quick walk outside — etc, etc.

      IIRC, Willis uses this in To Say Nothing of the Dog, one of my favourite non-GAD works of all time, and it charmed the hell out of me. That there’s an actual direct relevance to what’s about to unfold (like the laundry list, an idea I love) is quite intoxicating. It’s the persistent needless reaching of loosely-relevant epigraphs giving such undertakings the dissatisfying whiff of the canard that I don’t like. I maintain that the author actually has a reason to include at most four of them, and the other seventeen are just…there.

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      • Musical opened in the UK in 1991 but closed quickly – Wikipedia covers it Connie Willis in TSNOFD is very much spoofing Jerome K Jerome (who was interestingly criticised as being the equivalent of a Chav when he first published) and with both her and him the descriptions of what happens in the chapter are fun in themselves. While Three Men in a Boat is clearly the best of his works, Three Men on a Bummel is surprisingly good in predicting what went wrong with Germany in the first half of the 20th century while fundamentally liking Germans.

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        • Willis was spoofing Jerome, yes, but they’re far from the only two authors to do it, and it seems to be a more common in a sort of Fantasy-adjunct genre these days — I’m pretty sure I’ve read something by Peter Brett or Brandon Sanderson or one of those (maybe Joe Abercrombie? Brent Weeks?) that took the same approach.

          I’ve had Three Men on the Bummel ever since reading TMiaB and, possibly because this blog started soon thereafter and started commanding so much of my reading, I’ve never actually gotten to it. One of these days!

          Thanks for direction to Wikipedia for the THotS musical, too. I know I could’ve just looked it up, but it’s always fun to let people tell what they know 🙂 In these days of boundless availability of endless information, sometime it’s just nice to get a personal take on things.

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        • There are two musicals based on the Snark. The other is described by its makers as a ” fast paced 80-minute show by composer Gareth Cooper and playwright Annabel Wigoder “.
          It’s interesting that both diverge from Carroll by introducing female characters – though Batt’s female Beaver shows a certain obtuseness!

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      • Omigod! Your comment made me flash on old books I used to read at my grandmothers that did just this very thing at the beginning of chapters: “We share a pudding–Old Lovey tells us about the Great Gollew–Ollie gets into mischief–hot baths for all!”

        I feel like some of these might have been children’s retellings of Dickens or something classic. I have no idea and it will now bug me for years. Thank you.

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  5. I’m a sucker for the song/nursery rhyme/poem as plot diagram. Any time I see it, I feel pretty good about holding that book. Three reasons come to mind.

    1. As Brad pointed out, there’s the juxtaposition between the innocence/joy/seriousness of the rhyme and the horror of the present situation. I listened to a recording of “Green Grow the Rushes-O” before reading “Death’s Old Sweet Song”. GGtRO is creepy as hell now. Children’s nursery rhymes get extra points.

    2. There’s a ghoulish curiosity to discover exactly how the murders will match the rhyme (if they do). I see how this could ruin the plot by forcing the writer into some nonsensical decisions. However, I’m often impressed at the (sometimes) poetic interpretations of the lines and how they manifest in physical murder.

    3. The killer’s puzzling use of rhyme is an added unknown. I truly enjoy its presence throughout the mystery. I don’t even care if it’s properly explained at the end.

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    • I don’t deny that any literary conceit can be employed well on occasion — hell, I’ve read a book where the bits written from the perspective of a dog were excellent — but I feel in the case of poetry, or “culture” as Brad would have it, the excellent, encouraging examples are outdone several-fold by the lumpy, lazy, crappy ones.

      But, sure, it’s fun when done well. And Then There Were None remains a classic 80 years after its publication for a reason.

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    • Nervous, first-time commenter (commentator?): Thanks for the interesting post. At last I have something, albeit tangential, to say. As Brad and jamesscottbyrnside pointed out, there’s something really creepy about children and nursery rhymes/songs especially when used in horror. The school-yard scene in Birds and the title sequence of The Innocents use this to great effect

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nervous? Good heavens. Welcome!

        The “child in a horror movie” thing has been used well; nothing will ever creep me out like that figure flitting in and out of shot in Don’t Look Now. God, gives me chills just thinking about it.

        Can’t say I’ve really watched or read much horror in recent years. Used to be a James Herbert fan in my late teens/early-20s, but very little of late catches my eye and seems worthwhile. Maybe I’m missing out, or maybe I’m spoiled by just how fabulous the likes of The Birds were 🙂

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      • I think the schoolyard scene in The Birds ranks as one of the great lessons in suspense and mounting horror. I haven’t seen The Innocents in a million years (it scared the bejeepers out of me as a kid – hell, it scared my whole family!!), but I seem to faintly recall that the title sequence is of a woman (Deborah Kerr?) praying and crying.

        And JJ mentions in his response to you Don’t Look Now, with a killer the likes of which I never want to see again. God, that thing was terrifying!!!!

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        • Oh dear! I spoiled Don’t Look Now for myself after reading about it over at Jabberwock. I was curious about the ending but I did not want to watch the movie. So I went ahead and watched the final scene on YouTube. Seems as if I missed out on a good horror film.
          The absence of any non-diegetic music, only the sound of children singing, the deliberate withholding of information – that Birds scene is glorious in its sparsity.
          Indeed Brad. The title sequence shows a pair of hands praying, clutching and eventually Deborah Kerr is shown. I seem to have misremembered the whole thing. The song “Oh Willow Waly” appears right at the beginning before the title sequence begins.

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  6. Here I thought you were going to discuss the appropriate levels of poetic language to use in descriptions in detective novels! Ah well, maybe for a different time…

    My take on this is that all this poetry-themed activity is probably more fun for the writers than the readers, but these are the sacrifices we must make as readers to make sure that the writers keep themselves entertained and wanting to write the books we enjoy. 😛

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    • Poetic language in detective fiction might be a bit out of my remit — I’m a mathematician, after all, and have no magnificence in my soul 🙂 But, hey, maybe in later life when I get a taste for Chesterton’s verbosity and Innes’…everything, maybe then we’ll do some serious deconstruction.

      Your point about keeping the writers engaged is a great one. Those of us who still struggle to complete one novel cannot begin to imagine how damn tough it must be to complete one after a another, year after year. I try to apply some creativity in my own work — I rarely succeed — so I can see how the same should apply to something far more individual like writing.

      Wow, now I just come across like a curmudgeonly half-wit… 😆

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  7. One possibility that I don’t think is covered in your list is that the poem not only plays a major part in the plot but actually gives a massive clue to the culprit’s identity. I can think of one detective novel where this happens, but unfortunately naming it would constitute a serious spoiler…

    BTW I am also a mathematician, and I like both Chesterton and Innes (selectively, in both cases).

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  8. There can’t be many example of #10 (The novel is a poem). But I do know of one crime novel in blank verse, namely Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868–9). Based on a real murder trial in 17th century Italy, this poem presents a series of accounts of the case from the different points of view of the principals, the lawyers, the public, the poet, and Pope Innocent XII. It’s not a whodunnit as such (the murderer is never in doubt), but other aspects of the case (for example: can Pompilia read and write?) are quite as mystifying as any Carr or Christie.

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    • I can’t think of a single GAD-style novel that is a poem. I’m starting to think people are taking this taxonomy rather more seriously than I intended…

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