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Fri July 16, 2010
Uncommon Mystery - The Good Neighbor Policy
By Michael Cohen
Murray, KY – Last Friday, SyFy welcomed viewers to Haven, a new television series based on the based on the Stephen King novel, The Colorado Kid. The publisher of that book and one of the producers for the series is Charles Ardai, the award-winning writer who penned The Good Neighbor Policy, a poem written in double dactyl form. It might just be the only criminal case in mystery in history written with such complicated commitment. Mystery fan Michael Cohen peeks through the pages.
The plot owes a little to Rear Window, the Hitchcock movie based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, with an invalid, Perseus Algernon, who watches his neighbors' window through binoculars. But here the invalid sees a shooting. Three men, apparently gangsters, are sent to kill a couple who are in the Federal Witness Protection Program. The three gangsters and the husband are killed, but the wife survives. Is she telling the truth about how it happened? Adrian Hennessy, the Deputy Coroner, takes advantage of the fact that his chief, Captain Mahoney, is off fishing. Hennessy investigates the case himself. The plot thickens when Algernon, the only witness, dies.
It's no accident that the names Perseus Algernon and Adrian Hennessy as well as phrases such as "Deputy Coroner" and "witness protection plan," have the same metrical beat, because The Good-Neighbor Policy, as the subtitle says, is a mystery written in the poetic form of the double dactyl. A dactyl is a three syllable poetic unit with the emphasis on the first syllable, like the name Anthony or the word homicide. The double dactyl poem, invented by the two American poets Anthony Hecht and John Hollander, consists of eight lines, starting with a nonsense word composed of two dactyls, like pocketa-pocketa or higgledy-piggledy. It also contains a name which is a double dactyl, and at least one line that is a single, double-dactyl word. Its fourth and eighth lines, which are shortened to one dactyl and a single additional syllable, rhyme.
Ardai does not follow the form strictly. Here is one of his double dactyls:
Melanie Gregg is a
When they moved in she caught
Algernon's ogled her,
Watching his neighbor's sweet
Wife on the sly.
Naturally, Ardai can't keep generating these complicated verses forever, and The Good-Neighbor Policy is only about thirty pages long. But at whatever length, it is the only murder mystery I know of that's in verse.
Charles Ardai has written other mysteries, though this is the first one in poetic verse. He used the pen name Richard Aleas for his first two mystery novels, Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence. He won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for a short story he published in 2007. Ardai's specialty is a genre that might best be called retro noir, an imitation of the hardboiled pulp fiction of the fifties, sometimes even set in the fifties. You can find other examples by looking up the publishing house he founded, Hard Case Crime, which has also published books by Lawrence Block, Stephen King, and Donald Westlake.
Michael Cohen is Professor Emeritus at Murray State University. See more book reviews and recommendations on our web site, wkms dot org - click "Good Reads." If you have an opinion, interest or review you'd like to share with WKMS listeners, see guidelines on the commentaries page of our web site and send us an email.