October 10, 2007


“Hardboiled and noir poetry” is what author Anthony Rainone, writing in the magazine MYSTERY SCENE, calls the method of telling hardboiled/noir detective stories in verse. As an illustration of the method, he features poet Kevin Young and his hardboiled/noir BLACK MARIA.

Like the pulp paperbacks in the 1940s and 1950s, the images on the covers of the book are designed to entice male readers: the upper half of the front shows the title in black letters with a white shadow against a black background. The lower half shows the picture of a woman from the waist down in a read dress and red high heel shoes. She has a gun in her left hand. The back shows her upper half. The images say to the reader: “you will find the usual sex and violence typical of the hardboiled/noir genre in these poems.” In case the reader might miss the structure of the book, on the front cover Young lets the reader know that the book is a collection of poems “Produced & Directed” by him, indicating that the structure of the story is that of a film storyboard.

Young has taken the cliches of the hardboiled genre--the PI who drinks, the dame with whom he is in love but can’t possess, The Boss gangster who has the dame, the gunsel whom the boss assigns to watch the dame--and, using verse and film structure, imagined an interesting way of telling a hardboiled detective story. The two central characters are private investigator, A. K. A. Jones, and femme fatale, Delilah Redbone, singer and actress. Jones is in love with Delilah but she belongs to “The Boss” and will not leave him for Jones. They meet secretly and make love in sleezy hotel rooms. She has his nose so wide open, that he robs a bank to get money to keep her in the social status to which she has become accustomed. The story is not about crime. It is a romance: Jones wants Delilah and does things to try to persuade her to leave The Boss, but she is not ready for domesticity.

BLACK MARIA is an interesting experiment in storytelling. Using film structure to tell the story contributes to the curiosity of the method, which allows for an economy of words. Descriptions are kept to a minimum and parodies the 1940s style hardboiled novel. Young describes Delilah’s legs as
Her pinstripe two-lane
legs, her blackmail menthol.

The rhyme scheme, used sparingly, is a couplet: A. K. A. Jones describes how Delilah left after a night together:
She split so quick
I got motion sick.

The rhythm is sing-song and monotonous, so much so, that I had difficulty staying awake as I read.

Of course, telling stories in verse has a long tradition, but this doesn’t mean that it works with every type of story. I admire Young for experimenting with verse in telling a hardboiled/noir story. He shows his skills as a writer by taking the cliches of the hardboiled genre and weaving them into the semblance of a story. However, he is not a storyteller. The poems are not written for readers of mystery/crime fiction but for readers like the poet himself. Readers of mystery/crime fiction might enjoy the poems for their novelty but are not likely to become fans of this method of telling hardboiled/mystery stories.