A Verse To Murder
When police find Northern Ireland’s leading poet with a noose around his neck and his trousers around his ankles they assume it is a case of death by sexual misadventure.
However, when Sunday tabloid hack Barry Crowe looks into the dead poet’s background he uncovers blackmail, an erotic trio of muses and experimentation with psychedelic drugs… he also gets off with a foxy PSNI woman with a handcuff fetish.
Sex, drugs, violence and some damn fine poetry combine to make Tony Bailie’s third novel A Verse to Murder a stylish, comic and rather kinky read.
Barry Crowe ran down an alleyway and hid behind a metal bin. He was panting heavily and feared that his breathing would give him away. He could hear the sound of barking dogs and booted feet on cobbles coming in his direction but then above it all a woman calling his name. The camp guards ran past the opening to the alleyway and a tall woman took his hand and led him through a forest and onto a boat. As he rowed from the rocky shore he lay down beside her in her tent just as the bomb exploded.
“The guards must have blown up my escape tunnel,” he told the woman as he kissed her.
Another bang and Barry awoke, alone in his bed.
“Open up! Police!” accompanied more frantic banging on his front door.
“Fuck,” exclaimed Barry, tumbling from his bed, trying frantically to recall where he had been the night before and what he had/drunk/inhaled/snorted. Then he remembered that he had watched TV and gone to bed early.
A plain-clothes policeman and a nervous-looking ruddy-faced rookie in an immaculately pressed uniform stood before him. The senior cop flashed a card at him which Barry barely had time to read: Chief Inspector Frank Hamilton.
“Barry Crowe?” asked the cop expectantly.
“Would you like to come in?” he said, as he saw curtains all along the street begin twitching in a semaphore of suburban nosiness.
Hamilton motioned to his sidekick to stand at the door.
“Do you know Dathai Devine?” he asked when they were inside.
Barry wobbled slightly. Devine had been occupying most of his waking life for the past week and even at nights he had found him hard to put out of his mind. He was grasping for ways to find out why the cops wanted to know about him without directly answering but couldn’t think of any.
“No,” he replied.
“Oh, really,” said Hamilton in a tone of voice that made Barry realise he had badly misjudged the situation.
“Well, sort of, but not really,” he stammered.
“Not really in the sense that you rang his mobile phone 37 times in the last two days. We’re still waiting from confirmation from the phone company to tell us how often you rang his land line” said Hamilton.
“Ah… well, you see I rang him but he kept hanging up.”
“So why did you ring him if you didn’t know him?”
“I’m a journalist,” said Barry. “I wanted to interview him.”
“Yes, I know you are a journalist. What did you want to interview him about?”
“That’s right, he’s a poet and I wanted to interview him about his poems.”
“Mr Crowe, normally when I see your name in print it is below a headline promising titillating revelations about a top judge’s kinky toyboy fling, a female politician’s dildo fetish or indeed about bent coppers. So when did you become interested in poetry?”
“Tabloid journalists can have their sensitive side too… and I’m interested in poetry.”
“Mr Crowe,” sighed the cop, “Last night Mr Devine filed a complaint of harassment against you.”
“There is nothing illegal about phoning someone, especially a public figure who is quite happy to flirt with publicity when they are trying to plug a new book.”
“I wasn’t aware that Mr Devine had a new book coming out, in fact it is well known that he has been suffering from writer’s block for a number of years.”
“A point I had hoped to raise with him if he agreed to an interview.”
“An interview that is never going to happen, Mr Crowe.”
Barry decided to go into indignant defensive mode.
“When did the police have the right to tell journalists who they are allowed and not allowed to approach for interviews?” he demanded.
“Mr Devine is dead, Mr Crowe.”
Jesus. The poet’s voice had become increasingly desperate the previous day when he had pleaded with Barry to stop pestering him and during his last call he had sounded as if he were on the verge of sobbing.
“That’s terrible,” Barry said, pacing himself and trying to judge what the best form of words to use were. “I didn’t know he had underlying health problems.”
“He didn’t. He was found hanged.”
“Jesus,” said Barry.
The girl with heavily kohled eyelids, ripped fishnet tights and denim miniskirt had approached Barry in the pub and asked him to buy her a drink. The tips of her hair were gelled into snot-green, dyed spikes and her Siouxsie and the Banshees T-shirt had been slashed with a razor blade. Denis, the photographer, smirked as she tugged at Barry’s elbow and whispered her request in his ear. Barry enjoyed being a minor celebrity, interviewed for TV and radio when there was a gangland murder in the city, his picture byline usually on the front page of the mass-selling Sunday tabloid he worked for. He’d got laid before by simply being recognised, although quite often the women who approached were never really that sure why they recognised him. This one was a bit too grungy for his taste, but then it was 11pm on a Monday night and he wasn’t a nightclub sort of person, unless it was related to work, so he couldn’t really see any better offers coming his way.
“What will you have?” he asked her.
Cheap date, thought Barry as he ordered her a drink and a fresh pint of stout for himself.
“So what’s your name?” he asked.
“I don’t want to say.”
“Do you pay for stories?”
“Ah, right,” sighed Barry, his hopes of a shag with the nameless punk girl subsiding somewhat.
“Depends on the quality of the story,” he continued.
“I work in the head shop across the road from here that sells legal highs and various accoutrements… the one you wrote about.”
Barry shuffled in embarrassment.
“People have died using those so-called legal highs… that was a legitimate story.”
“I never said it wasn’t… in fact if my boss was here he would probably buy you a drink because we got more customers than ever coming to the shop after you wrote your story. Some of them told me that they would never have found out that there was a head shop in Belfast if they hadn’t read about it in your paper.”
“The power of the press,” mumbled Barry awkwardly.
“One of them was a writer who I recognised. We have some second-hand books on sale and I recognised him from a photo on the back cover. It said at one stage he was being tipped for a Nobel prize.”
Barry felt a tightening in the region that ran between his testicles and stomach, a frisson that combined a vaguely sexual pleasure with the gut-gnawing whisper of excitement that he was about to hit on a front-page story.
“Which writer would that be?” he asked, licking the stout froth from his lips.
“Dathai Devine,” said the nameless girl, mirroring Barry’s body language and licking the glimmer of cider that glistened on hers.
Barry had of course heard of the famous poet, had studied him at university, although he could only remember the elongated shapes of the poems, narrow columns of print, each line containing no more than five or six words, stacked one on top of the other to create an uneven obelisk of text set in the middle of the otherwise creamy page.
“What sort of highs was he after?” he asked.
“He was blustering a lot when I spoke to him, didn’t really seem too sure, but was blabbering on about opening new channels into the unconscious and liberating his psyche through shamanic interaction with psilocybins.”
“Right, and is that what you sold him?”
“More or less… packets of dried seeds that are totally legal but if he had taken enough would have sent him into orbit.”
The following morning, having failed to persuade her to come back to his flat for some cheap Bulgarian wine and a few spliffs, Barry met the punk girl in the shop where she went through the various natural psychedelics they had on sale and the exact type that Devine had bought. When he got home Barry considered taking the dried seeds to test the effects for himself, but he was wary. Dope and amphetamines were fine by him, even though he spent much of his working life exposing and demonising those who brought them into the country and sold them on the streets and nightclubs of Belfast, but taking something that fucked around with his mind was not on his agenda. Instead he browsed the net for information and testimonials. As the girl from the shop had told him, they seemed to be hallucinogenic, with reports of increased colour and sonic perception and, depending on the type and dosage, all-out mind-warps.
He googled Dathai Devine who was now in his late fifties and had indeed been mooted as a potential Nobel candidate, but that had been several years ago after the publication of his eleventh volume of poetry; since then he had published nothing and there was wide speculation that he was engaged on a major opus, although others said his inspiration had dried up and that he had not written anything in years. Still, he was a big enough name to confront with the allegation that he was dabbling in drugs, albeit ones whose legal status was murky.
At first Barry had told Devine that he wanted to interview him about his life as a writer and his work but the poet had politely declined. Barry phoned back several times, trying the same line but varying it to include questions about inspiration. He could hear Devine becoming at first impatient with his persistent calling and then subdued as Barry casually dropped in the suggestion that some poets might use artificial stimulants to inspire their creativity. By midweek Barry had more or less told Devine that he had proof that he’d bought mind-altering substances and that, as a poet whose work was still on the curriculum of some schools, he had a duty to respond. For the most part Devine simply hung up but on the final occasion that Barry had actually got to speak to him, he had heard a note of desperation and a plea for him to stop pestering him.
Barry’s editor had already agreed in principle to run the story about the psychedelic adventures of the respected poet on the front page of that Sunday’s paper and Barry had planned to doorstep him along with Denis the photographer on the Friday morning. But that was before Chief Inspector Frank Hamilton had confronted him.
When the chief inspector had left, Barry stood and looked at himself in a mirror, not daring to meet his own eye. It was part of a tabloid journalist’s lot to be a pest and to be disliked. He’d been cursed at, spat at, threatened, punched and even got laid by those who wanted to stop him writing about them but no-one had ever killed themselves. Even those whose lives had been ruined by his exposés, been abandoned by their wives or husbands, shunned by their children and sacked from their jobs had never felt the need to end it all. In the great scheme of things, Dathai Devine’s misdemeanours were not particularly scandalous, he had done nothing illegal – it was the juxtaposition of his establishment reputation with the slightly underground world of head shops that carried the story. In fact, it made him quite interesting.
“There’s got to be more to it than that,” said Barry raising his eyes to meet those of his reflection, before grabbing his coat and car keys.
There was already a small posse of press outside the house when Barry got there, including Denis his sidekick, but he ignored them and went straight to where he recognised the fresh-faced cop who had accompanied Hamilton that morning.
“I need to speak to the chief inspector,” Barry said. “I have important information which I need to give to him now.”
The young cop grimaced and it was clear that he had no idea what to do.
“It could help clear this case up,” said Barry decisively and ducked past the still confused rookie.
The hall was dark and hummed with conspiracy. A grandfather clock ticked ponderously. A musty smell rose from the carpet and a whiff of damp from the peeling plastered walls but there was something else, sticky and unpleasant. A door to his left stood ajar and from beyond it came the sound of voices. Barry braced himself and eased the door open just as the room was lit up by a flash from an oversize camera set on a tripod. The scene in the room was flash-burnt onto his retina, the photographer and the camera and other silhouettes in the background, all focused on the naked body of a man sagging against a bookcase, his head covered in a yellow plastic bag and a noose of curtain cord tight around his neck, its other end fastened to an ancient, sturdy light bracket set high on the wall beside the bookcase. On the floor between his feet was a pool of liquid, while smears of shit streaked along the dead man’s gnarled legs.