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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
10. The novel is a poem