Back in December, you may remember this blog speculating on matters whodunit, on considering the couplet-quoting cop of the poetry procedural. Well, we’re delighted to announce that we have received literally ones of letter on the subject, from Alan Ayckbourne’s under secretary’s cleaner’s nephew’s imaginary friend which reads “Dear Pitshanger Archive, can you recommend a good rhyme for orange ?”
All of which only serves to distract us from considering poets who had a secret sideline in detective fiction. The obvious prime suspect is Gilbert Chesterton, whose Father Brown has shown such skill sleuthing that he has likely inspired far more boys to join the police than the priesthood. Charles Bukowski is also gloriously pulpy and a world away from comparisons to a summers day. But most of the other likely lads fall short on motive: Kipling, Milne and Hardy are as famous for their prose, but they both tend to be short on murder (well, alright, there’s murder in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but it’s not like we don’t know who dunit). Michael Ondaatje and Raymond Carver wrote a novel and play respectively which were turned into Oscar-winning films, but at no stage do the a-list casts get summoned to the drawing room to wonder why they have all been called there tonight.
There have also been occasions when thriller writers couldn’t resist raising their profiles with a slim volume or two – Agatha Christie and Arthur “Conan” Doyle both flirted with respectability, only to see their collections sink faster than lead-weighted corpse or a femme fatale’s morals. As for poems themselves featuring a murder mystery, the only one that comes to mind is Who Killed Cock Robin ?
Still, at least this week’s workshop was free from nefarious plots and cryptic messages. Nick Barth has been keeping a close eye on the silver birch in his street, while Daphne Gloag has been keeping her ear to the ground listening to the tick and the slosh of time. Alan Chambers presented a convincing alibi of his whereabouts during the equinox, while Michael Harris has been picking up clues about the stranger at the bus stop. A rundown of the last fifty years of marriage was presented from John Hurley’s breast-pocket notebook, while Martin Choules has been investigating the underworld looking for criminals, but only finding a ferry, and Anne Furneaux has been spending valentine’s recce-ing her heart with a clear head.
Gilbert Chesterton was a regular at the Tuesday workshops, quipping with Bernie Shaw and “Hilarious” Belloc, and generally not taking matters very serious. One evening in 1932, they were joined by a brash young American called Orson Welles, fresh from starting his acting career in Dublin and just been turned down work a work permit in London. He quickly took to Gilbert, who obviously had a big influence on him, what with being was very tall, very stout, with a long cape, swordstick and fantastic facial hair. His writing as well impressed young Orson, from the absurdity of The Napoleon of Notting Hill to the mystery figure whose identity must be pieced together in The Man Who Was Thursday.
As for whodunits, Orson at times provided the radio voice for Sherlock, Hercule and The Shadow, but never Father Brown. For a man who rarely discussed religion, could it be that the dog-collar made him itch ? Gilbert, of course, was a Catholic convert, and that evening the Archives record how Orson was admiring the string of beads hanging from his ample belt. What were they ? Affecting an American accent, GK responded “why, that’s my rosary, buddy”. “My word !” exclaimed Orson, “Rosary Buddy – what a great idea for a film !”