Death Comes for the Poets, Matthew Sweeney & John Hartley Williams, Muswell Press, 314pp, £12 (paperback)
Foreigners, Drunks and Babies, Peter Robinson, Two Rivers Press, 190pp, £8.99 (paperback)
Death Comes for the Poets is a seamlessly co-authored murder mystery from two prize-winning poets, both of whom are well known for the narrative skill they have frequently demonstrated in their own verse: Sweeney, darkly comedic, Beckettian; Williams, freewheeling and surreal. Macabre, hilarious and intricately plotted, the novel is not only a convincing foray into a genre for which the reading public seems to have an endless appetite, but is also a clever satire, which takes its scalpel to the poetry scene in the way that David Lodge did to the world of academia in the 1980s. As far back as Catullus and Martial the vanities and bitchiness of poets have been a fertile domain for humour, but what they or Alexander Pope would have made of our present ‘creative writing’ boom with its endless workshops and its cult of celebrity poets is anyone’s guess. This is, of course, a world that Sweeney and Williams know well, having previously co-authored a manual on how to write poetry in the best-selling ‘Teach Yourself’ imprint.
Their novel gets off to a flying start when Fergus Diver, having read some of his poems to a few aged members of the Kent Marshes Poetry Society, who were ‘as mean as peasants’ and reluctant to buy his books, meets his sudden and inexplicable end in the Siege of Lucknow Indian restaurant. This is the first of many cunningly composed set pieces and Diver is the first of several poets to die in shocking circumstances. He is followed in quick succession by others: the lecherous Irishman, Barnaby Brown, Alex Duthie, an old school Marxist, the sensual Melinda Speling, and Bill Gerard-Wright, a beat poet whose work is imbued with the philosophy and lore of the American Indian.
As the death toll mounts, suicide or accidental causes are soon discounted and it becomes clear that the deaths are the work of a serial killer, although the only thing that the victims have in common is the fact that they are successful poets. Moreover, increasingly, there appears to be a Dantesque symmetry in the way they meet their various ends, which can be detected by those who are familiar with their work. Helpfully, Sweeney and Williams, in the guise of J. J. Moon, a TV arts show host, have gathered together an anthology of work penned by the victims and several other poets who have their various parts to play. Manny Lascalle, a dub poet, gets to the heart of the matter in ‘Murder Riddims’: ‘De food dat he eat / Put death on de plate / De boat goin down / let de poet drown’; while Manfred Von Zitzewitz, an irascible German haikuist, is the enemy of bombast in his poem ‘Occupational Hazard’: ‘The postman hammered / at the door of the castle / trying to get out.’ A skilfully concocted selection of bad verse, it is replete with pieces that are not entirely dissimilar to work that sometimes appears in magazines or even wins prizes.
By the time it is clear that the hunt is on for a serial killer, Victor Price, a literary sleuth and dealer in manuscripts, has been asked by Fergus Diver’s widow to track down her husband’s murderer. Clearly attracted to her, he seems happy to offer his services. He is also, himself, a fastidious minor poet whose work features in J. J. Moon’s anthology. Before long he is assisted by Joe Biggs, a former undertaker’s assistant, and his punk Glaswegian girlfriend, Naily Dunbar. Joe and Naily, whose budding relationship is a no nonsense study in young love, are a good foil to the other main characters in so far as they have no knowledge of, or indeed any interest at all in, poetry.
As all good crime writers must, the authors keep us guessing to the end. There are red herrings aplenty. There are also engrossing side plots: the struggle for survival of a flagship literary journal in times of financial stringency, the whereabouts of a disillusioned fledgling poet, and the sudden appearance on walls everywhere of the comic book character Bard Slayer. However, it is the book’s relentless satire of human vanity and its anatomy of the place occupied by poetry in the world of contemporary arts that leaves the most abiding impression. In an epigraph to the novel the authors quote Yeats in the 1890s:
I remember saying one night at the Cheshire Cheese when more poets than usual had come: None of us can say who will succeed or even who has or has not talent.The only thing certain about us is that we are too many.
The central irony is, that apart from those who see themselves as poets, no one else has the slightest interest in poetry until, one by one, its top practitioners are bumped off.
A poet, translator and editor, Peter Robinson has now, with Foreigners, Drunks and Babies, published his first collection of short stories. Thematically varied and wide-ranging, the stories are set in locations that mirror Robinson’s own trajectory from the North of England to Japan via Italy. It would seem also, with references to the activities of the Provisional IRA and Soviet cultural exchanges in the 1980s, that they have accumulated over many years. However, striking a somewhat different note from most of the pieces collected here, ‘The Academy Report’, Robinson’s opener, is set in an imaginary eastern empire. It is the monologue of a man of letters addressing his late emperor’s daughter. The Byzantine twists and turns of its syntax are reminiscent of some of Kafka’s parables, while its debunking of literary orthodoxy and the shenanigans associated with literary awards make an interesting comparison with Sweeney and Williams. Similar concerns form the subject matter of ‘Mystery Murder’, albeit in a more recognizably contemporary setting. A poet and academic, who has worked abroad for many years, receives an invitation to take part in a symposium evaluating the current state of poetry. The literary equivalent of a country house murder mystery, it seems that those involved are more concerned with back-stabbing and hatchet jobs rather than anything lethal. Elsewhere Robinson’s eye for paradox and absurdity is used to brilliant effect in ‘National Lottery’, where an unfortunate chain of circumstances in the narrator’s past makes it almost impossible to provide his child with a passport.
Enjoyable as these pieces are, there is more to Robinson than witty send-ups and literary navel-gazing. In several stories there is an emotional depth that is memorable and affecting. ‘Music Lessons’, set in a northern industrial town, explores the tensions between a father and his son. The parent, a liberal-minded vicar, is keen for his son to play the piano, an opportunity he has always regretted not having. Not since Marguerite Duras’s Moderato Cantabile have I read a more convincing description of the mute defiance of a reluctant pupil. By the time that the lessons have built up to a crescendo of hopelessness, the tale modulates into another key when the father, whose past is more colourful than we might have imagined, starts to fulfil his own ambition by taking lessons himself. Unfortunately, small-mindedness and a whiff of scandal bring his aspirations to an abrupt conclusion.
In ‘Lunch with M’ the action is again rooted in family tensions – this time the rivalry between two brothers. The narrator, who is gay and has lived for many years in Italy, upsets his more conventional brother by not letting the family know that his flight would be delayed. Rebuked for his oversight, he sighs, ‘Only the family would talk to me like this.’ When, out of the blue, the two brothers are invited to dine with ‘M’, a former head of MI6, Robinson again subtly changes his focus, as the brothers start to ponder their father’s relationship with this enigmatic figure.
Having lived so long in Japan and having family ties with Italy, it is no surprise that Robinson’s antennae are finally attuned to cultural differences. In ‘Pain Control’ an Italian woman is negotiating the streets of Liverpool to visit her boyfriend. However, her difficulties in coming to terms with the bustle of a foreign city are no more complex than the vicissitudes of her on/off love affair. Mistaken for a minor royal who is that day scheduled to visit the hospital, she sees herself finally as ‘only me, my flesh and blood and bones, a bewildered self in that foreign land alone’. However, the most powerful studies of alienation included here are those set in Japan.
In ‘From the Stacks’ a British academic in a Japanese university feels as if he doesn’t really exist because there is no obvious grouping to which he can attach himself. Seeking some kind of refuge, he spends hours alone in the labyrinthine stacks of the university’s library, where he discovers an old letter written by a wife to her husband. During the course of his researches into the origins of the letter he becomes increasingly obsessed with the relationship between the wife and husband and their relationship with Japan.
In Foreigners, Drunks and Babies Robinson again negotiates the minefield of Japanese social conventions. When the narrator learns that one of his former students has died by her own hand, he is forced to examine the ambivalence of his relationship with her. The story builds up to a devastating climax when he has no choice but to confront the true nature of his feelings and a betrayal that has undermined his marriage. Beautifully crafted and richly textured, Foreigners, Drunks and Babies is an impressive body of work which deserves to gain a wider readership beyond those already familiar with the author’s work as a poet.