Scratch a mystery writer and you’ll frequently find a poetry lover — or, sometimes, even a poet. Raymond Chandler doted on Elizabethan verse. Dorothy L. Sayers translated Dante. Nicholas Blake, author of The Beast Must Die and other classic thrillers, was really C. Day-Lewis, England’s poet laureate (as well as actor Daniel Day-Lewis’ father). And, on a more modest level all around, Stephen Dobyns, an English professor (Syracuse University) and author of six volumes of poetry, also writes charming mysteries — about low-key, pokey Charlie Bradshaw, a 50-ish private eye working (barely) out of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Unlike some other suspense writers with literary or academic credentials, Dobyns doesn’t put on airs. The books are written in a lean, unaffected style: no verbal curlicues, no tough-guy mannerisms either. Charlie’s a canny but simple guy, content to hang out at the racetrack or cuddle up with girlfriend Janey, an R.N. and mother of three.
This time on Saratoga Hexameter, however, Dobyns does make poetry an issue — more or less — in each of the three mini-mysteries that Charlie gets involved in. At Long Meadows, a local retirement home, an 87-year-old resident has written a disturbing poem about the supposedly accidental death of a favorite nurse. Was she really murdered because she Knew Too Much about shady doings at Long Meadows? Meanwhile, the grand, Victorian-style Bentley Hotel — which happens to be owned by Charlie’s imposing mom — is bedeviled by a burglar who leaves behind a taunting scrap of doggerel after each crime. And, at a nearby artists’ colony (unabashedly modeled on real-life Yaddo), obnoxious poetry critic Alexander Luft is the target of nasty, increasingly violent attacks. So, while Janey goes undercover at Long Meadows, Charlie takes up residence at the Phoenix Colony, posing — with hilarious ineptitude — as an up-and-coming poet from Detroit.
In all three cases, the villains are transparent, the plots overfamiliar (and a bit strained). But Charlie and a fetching supporting cast-including hapless Victor Plotz, world’s worst hotel detective-make this a welcome summer breeeze for fans of small-town mystery-comedy.