Sunday, 5 May 2013


  I don't usually read crime-fiction or thrillers but I can recommend Death Comes for the Poets by John Hartley-Williams and Matthew Sweeney, a parodic take on the genre set in a skewed version of the UK poetry world. A succession of renowned poets are being bumped off one by one in bizarre and grisly circumstances, an investigator and his young side-kick are on the trail of the killer: the cliches and improbabilities of the whodunnit are embraced for blackly comic effect as the plot zips onward with the compulsiveness of any airport page-turner, the prose a spiked cocktail of energetic demotic, stock crime-ese and the odd poetic flourish. 
   What's made fun of, in fact, are the petty rivalries and bickering cliques of the poetry scene, the suggestion that beyond the veneer of fellowships or collaborations (eg. editorial groupings/poetry workshops/reading tours) lurks an animus of embittered competition. Without being identifiable as particular individuals, most of the poet-characters are ridiculous stereotypes of certain familiar species of versifiers, their well-worn styles shrewdly parodied in the mock-anthology that ends the book.
   As two much-published and respected poets who have always stood towards the edge of the populist mainstream, Hartley-Williams and Sweeney are well-placed to satirise the two-faced complacencies and infighting of the poetry world. Many will remember their earlier joint-composition Teach Yourself: Writing Poetry (Hodder and Stoughton), probably the pithiest, wittiest and most valuable book of its kind. Death Comes for the Poets deserves a wide readership and - beyond its current Muswell Press imprint ( http://www.muswell-press.co.uk/#item=death-comes-for-the-poets ) - a larger-scale print-run by one of the bigger publishing houses.


  1. Hi Oliver,

    I've added this to my long list of things to read, though I'm always a little skeptical of parodic takes on crime writing. Yes, there are cliches in abundance in much genre writing, but the best of it transcends those limitations, and should be treated as literature in its own right. But if this is only half as funny as Police Squad, it will still be well worth the entry fee.

    More importantly, I'm reminded of a little known collaborative novel by Dylan Thomas and John Davenport, The Death of King's Canary, written in 1940 but not published, due to its scurrilous portraits of contemporary poets, until the 70s. The novel is a parody of the country house crime story, replete with, as noted, savage and thinly-veiled versions of Thomas's literary peers, and dotted with pastiches of their work. It's so little known now that it's unlikely to have been a model for MS and JHW, but I'd be interested to know if they'd heard of it or not. If you can find a copy it's worth reading, though it's mainly of historical rather than literary interest (it's no Under Milk Wood, certainly).

    All the best,

    Simon @ G&P

  2. Thanks, Simon. I've read about The Death of King's Canary in Dylan Thomas biographies but never come across a copy. I'll ask JHW if it was an influence when I next hear from him.
    By the way, was very taken by your prose-poems in Dear World and Everyone In It. One of the best of a rather mixed bunch.
    All best,