A cycle of interconnected poems, Canadian writer David Halliday’s Murder
(1978) tells the story of a murder, the trial that follows, the conviction of an innocent man, and, ultimately, that man's lynching. It is a commentary on the injustices of the so-called justice system and a scathing indictment of humanity's apathy and ugliness. A later reissue of Murder
won the 2001 Eppie Award for Poetry.
Told in unadorned language using a free-verse
opens with an introduction to the killer. He stalks his victim, seeing them both as characters in a movie, her role as a beautiful leading lady to his as the romantic leading man. His first interaction with her occurs at the murder scene. He rapes and kills her as a crowd watches—not unlike the movie he imagines himself in.
The police arrive. They write a report and launch an investigation before dispatching the body to the morgue. They try to get information out of the witnesses, while the victim—now dead, now safe from further pain—looks on, offering the police her own identification of her murderer. But "no one heard," she finally, sadly, concludes. "No one listens to the dead."
The victim's family and friends gather to comfort one another. They hold a funeral, bury her, and mourn their loss. However, the frenzy surrounding her murder is just beginning.
Halliday devotes the bulk of the book to the circus that is the accused killer's trial. But the man they charge with her murder is not the man who killed her. The public wants answers, the police feel the pressure, and they nail an innocent man for a crime he did not commit.
The judge, the prosecution, and the defense lawyers populate the courtroom, as well as a standing-room-only crowd, a group of overzealous spectators whose presence calls up images of something primal, dangerous, almost animalistic. Their bloodlust is palpable, as if they are cheering the gladiatorial battles of Ancient Rome, egging on a blood sport that will only end when someone—any
one—pays. An old woman in the courtroom dismisses the murder as merely a symptom of a larger "social disease." A flasher conceals himself in a flag. A young woman in a sleek black jacket is a groupie of sorts, a fan of the macabre and the dark side of human nature. They each bring their own stories—and sins—to the courtroom, though they are not on trial, and they will live to see another day. Unlike the victim and, in the end, the man wrongly accused of her death.
Witnesses take the stand. Each has his or her own poem, offering a mosaic of perspectives on the young woman's murder. As the case unfolds, the courtroom seems to be rotting all around those in attendance, symbolizing the slow decay of justice and the fragile artifice of this sham of a trial. Plaster literally crumbles off the ceiling. Paint peels off the walls. Cockroaches scuttle across the floors. Bats swoop up and down the cavernous halls.
Meanwhile, the press has its proverbial field day. They are there from the moments following the police's arrival at the murder scene to the final, bloodcurdling moments when the crowd renders its own version of justice.
Finally, a verdict. However, it makes little difference, as the assembled spectators demand nothing less than flesh. The judge, unable to quell the ravenous appetite of the crowd and only wishing an end to the case, turns the defendant over to the will of the people. Appropriately, a cat cackles his own accompaniment to this whole fiasco, a laugh "like a Gatling gun."
The crowd crucifies the condemned man. They unleash their barely concealed rage upon him, bringing his life to a swift, painful, and effective end. And with their mission and fanfare complete, they go home, returning to their lives. The TV crews pack up and leave. Public interest in the murder, the trial, and the lynching wane into oblivion.
Yet, despite the brutality and bloodshed, there is this: "Two kids were flying a kite, tugging at the moon with the wind." So, in the end, all hope is not lost. Maybe there is some goodness that will return, that will carry the world into the future. If two kids can retain their innocence when fairness and civility collapse all around them, perhaps there is something to look forward to, something positive. For many of the characters in this story, it is too late for redemption; the young woman, the wrongly convicted man, the real killer—they are beyond deliverance. But maybe there is a second chance for humanity here, the promise of a better, more just future. Maybe there will be renewal and dawn will follow the darkest night. Maybe.