An Australian lesbian feminist private-eye novel, written in verse? It sounds like a joke. In fact it is a beautiful, slippery, wholly felt epic of love, betrayal and murder that you have to restrain yourself from reading at a sitting.

You can't help but wonder why no one thought of the idea before. The novel in verse has been successfully essayed by Craig Raine and Vikram Seth; C Day Lewis/ Nicholas Blake is the stellar British example of a poet/ crime novelist. Among American hard- boiled authors the poets are legion: Charles Willeford, James Hall, Stephen Dobyns.

But the natural poetics of noir fiction have been ignored, and it has taken an Australian author to make the connection explicit. Dorothy Porter's cycle of poems tells a quintessential noir tale, that of PI Jill Fitzpatrick and her headlong fall into a case in which love is linked to betrayal, played out in the Sydney sunshine.

Porter's deftness of touch is apparent as Fitzpatrick introduces herself: "I'm not tough, droll or stoical/ I droop after wine, sex or intense conversation/ The streets coil around me when they empty/ I'm female/ l get scared."

Her task is to find the missing Mickey Norris, student and aspiring poet. Her quest sends her into an incestuous world that could be too cute by half - a poet writing poetry about poets. It isn't, owing to the strength of the narrative voice and the pitilessness of the characterisation.

People are forever saying of crime novels that they "transcend their genre", as if the genre that produced Dashiell Hammett needs transcending. Whether The Monkey's Mask does that is largely irrelevant; as crime novels go, it's none the less transcendent.

Serpent's Tail, pounds 8.99