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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Detective Novel

First sentences are so important. They tell us what the writer thinks of as his "best foot forward." If that "best foot" is lame, it doesn't set up great expectations for what follows.

Here, the first sentences raises doubts. First, there is the tentativeness of that "maybe." As the first word of what is presumably to be a novel of two to three hundred pages, and a detective novel no less, the writer may want to ask herself, "Do I really want to start off on such a tentative note?" A wishy-washy opener can serve a purpose. The best example I can think of is the opening to John Barth's early novel, The End of the Road. The novel is essentially about a man who cannot make up his mind about anything. It begins, "In a sense, I am Jacob Horner." Compare that with the iron-fisted firmness of "Call me Ishmael."

I'm not sure, though, that wishy-washiness is intended here. My confidence is further undermined by the questionable authenticity of a department store named Drakes located in "upper" Manhattan. Having lived in Manhattan, I know that there isn't and has never been a department store named Drakes; in fact there are no department stores anywhere above 59th Street, where Bloomingdale's is still located. Why not choose a real department store at a real Manhattan location, and not a generic--and not very credible--substitute?

The third sentence, too, can be strengthened. Rather than details already mentioned (and that, as discussed, are less than convincing), the writer might present us with the evidence of solid, specific, and authentic observations, making the narrator's point ("I pay attention") explicit and vivid, rather than a matter of faith. In the next paragraph, instead of stating that the salespeople are "elegantly dressed," why not tell us what they wear, providing us with specifics--down to brand names, if appropriate. Mere epithets won't do.

Lack of authenticity with respect to specific details can cost you readers. But there are other kinds of inauthenticity to guard against. Look at the first sentence of the second paragraph, in which the detective describes what's on the second floor before taking us up the escalator. We might assume he’s been in the store before, but he must have been there quite recently to know the sweaters are still there, and nothing suggests he's done so, so the clever remark about the sweaters feels like an authorial intrusion.

On the other hand once the narrator does go up that escalator (and not before), he might describe the department store's glass-floored mezzanine, or the candy store where the counter clerk where's a conical paper hat, or the men's dressing room with its varnished wooden stalls smelling faintly of vinegar.

Lastly, I think this opening would be strengthened by starting out with a dramatic scene in progress, with the detective already in the store watching the young woman get a facial. Through this carefully described scene we can experience his eye for details—which, after all, is what the scene is really about. The scene might also establish the narrators remoteness and detachment: he sees the pretty young woman, but responds to her clinically, rather than sympathetically, passionately, or poetically.

Whenever a first person narrator describes things, he is also describing his or her psyche to the reader. Opportunities to do so are missed here; the “girl getting facial” scene is brushed aside as are those "swarming" salespeople.

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