Poetry News

Mush-hearted detectives imagined by mush-hearted poets

By Harriet Staff

Bill Ott, the editor and publisher of the American Library Association's Booklist, recently wrote a quirky little piece about two of his favorite mystery novels -- both written by poets.

What do they share in common? he asks. And the answer is this: their detective protagonists are prone to weeping. "If you’re from the Raymond Chandler school, you probably subscribe to the axiom that there is no crying in the hard-boiled novel," he writes. "Well, you’d be wrong."

The first book he considers is Richard Hugo's Death and the Good Life:

...the seeds of crime fiction were everywhere in Hugo’s poetry. After all, it was a Hugo line, from the great poem “Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg,” that provided the title for what is perhaps the greatest hard-boiled detective novel of them all: James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. Here’s the line: “Say your life broke down. The last good kiss // You had was years ago.” That line evokes the heart of many great heart-boiled novels (not only Crumley’s), but it especially stands behind Hugo’s own detective novel, which stars the inimitable Al “Mush Heart” Barnes, who earned his nickname for his tendency, as a Seattle cop, to break into tears when the going gets rough.

Ott then turns his attention to The Great Leader by Jim Harrison -- not exactly a big softie. And yet, his detective weeps too:

Sixty-something Sunderson has just retired from his job as county sheriff in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; he’s reeling from a soul-crushing divorce, and he’s been spotted peeping at the girl next door as she does her nude yoga. What Sunderson needs—retired or not—is a new case, and he finds it in the matter of cult leader Dwight (aka the Great Leader), who is doing more than peeping at the cult’s teenage followers. So it’s off on a quixotic adventure for the hard-drinking, hopelessly sensitive, dangerously good-hearted, unflaggingly randy ex-sheriff who, like Mush Heart, is given to weeping. When not weeping, Sunderson mostly mopes—about lost love and the unfairness of getting old—but after about five pages, most readers will be willing to follow him anywhere.

Read on for more hard-boiled/soft-boiled musings.

Originally Published: December 19th, 2011