Following this post a few weeks ago, I had an interesting chat with the poet Emily Hasler about the way many poems we both enjoy explore the points at which one thing shades, or bleeds, into another; the interstitial zones, the boundaries and frontiers. As Simon Armitage writes in ‘Gooseberry Season’, ‘Where does the hand become the wrist?/Where does the neck become the shoulder?’ It isn’t always easy to draw clear lines, to isolate the evidence. ‘An Inspector Calls’, by former New Zealand Poet Laureate Bill Manhire, applies these concerns to the familiar iconography of detective fiction.
An Inspector Calls
by Bill Manhire
We tiptoed into the house.
The neighbourhood was quiet as a mouse.
I felt very on edge. The money
was in the oven, not the fridge.
I glanced at the note on the piano.
Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh.
There’s always a point at which a routine enquiry
turns into something else entirely.
I had to shoulder my way in.
The bathtub was simply full of the victim.
Most crime writing I’m aware of is inherently formalist; a story might contain horrifying acts of eruptive violence, but a mystery exists to be solved and as such, the fear and tension which it generates always resolve into a safe, familiar shape. Manhire’s poem replicates this play of expectation and subversion. We begin with a full rhyme, which in its very traditionalism is something of a challenge to the reader – the presence of clichéd phrases such as ‘quiet as a mouse’ and the poem’s title might alert us to its ironic engagement with a wider set of conventions.
And as in any suburban crime scene, every element is at one familiar and slightly out of place. Having entered with a partner, Manhire’s narrator finds himself inexplicably alone, stopped in his tracks by an early caesura which tips the rhyming words off-balance. ‘The money’, with its definite article, is an expected feature, though if the investigating duo know any more about it than we do, Manhire’s keeping us in the dark. It’s not, however, where it was expected to be found, but the polar opposition drawn between ‘the oven’ and ‘the fridge’ is a line of black-and-yellow tape that cordons off a stranger question: why would it be in either place? Who keeps their money in a fridge? What scene have we entered, and can we even trust our guide?
In spare, clean lines, the poem deftly steers us from room to room, from clue to clue, but as usual the detective understands what’s happening before we do. ‘Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh,’ as well as being a masterful rhyme for ‘piano’, stands in for the tension-cranking music of the TV mystery while allowing the poem to keep its cards close to its chest. Suspense derives from what we don’t see, a trope Manhire fully exploits even as the levity of his language mocks the staginess of discovery.
The poem works as a universal distillation of these tokens because it maintains its anonymity – any marks which would identify the ‘inspector’, ‘the neighbourhood’, or even ‘the victim’ are scrupulously kept from the reader. Even when the case takes a darker turn, it retains its mythic, archetypal quality; routine enquiries are always turning into ‘something else entirely’, carried along by the inexorable momentum of the genre to a queasy tipping point which Manhire’s enjambement captures exactly.
Having widened out into a kind of generic mission statement, the poem’s focus sharply narrows to the individual point of revelation. And that revelation is characteristically blurry; as the last line lurches forward, we know that something awful has happened but we have no sense of quite what, how, or why. The physicality of ‘shoulder my way in’ gives way to something that can’t quite be visualised; the poem places the gruesome facts of the murder before us, but ends before they’re even close to being solved. As such, it breaks one of the cardinal rules of detective fiction, that we should finish the story by learning the killer’s identity. Manhire’s bathtub is ‘simply full’, but his poem, in its refusal to provide the closure any crime fan craves, isn’t simple. These cases seldom are.
Anyone who was kind enough to come to the reading I gave last night at Foyle’s Bookshop, as part of the launch of Poetry London will have already heard me gesturing vaguely towards a unifying theory about this topic. My views are mostly based on watching shows like Morse/Endeavour, The Killing, and Wallander, but I’m less familiar with detective writing on the page, so any guidance on where to start would be very welcome.