Today our first page critique raises an important aspect in making many a good mystery or thriller – a strong sense of place. I always think the challenge in creating a sense of place is to make it instantly fully realized as well as believable. A reader truly needs to ‘be there’ and to have full confidence that the author has done their research.
A strong sense of place can be a tricky prospect for a first page: too much and the reader starts to yawn; too little and the story can seem generic and bland. If the set-up seems too contrived or deliberate, a reader starts to feel awkward; if the writer gets crucial facts wrong, the reader immediately disconnects from the story.
I think the first page we are reviewing today manages to instantly capture a great sense of place. Although I might tighten it up a wee bit (see my comments after the piece) all in all this first page grabs me – in part because the place itself resonates and intrigues.
So here it is – the first page of the novel, 65 below.
East of Fairbanks
17 December 1600 hrs
“Damn! When it gets dark out here, it is dark as death.”
Eugene Wyatt drove as fast as conditions allowed down the Richardson highway in his big beige Ford F250 Crew Cab Diesel pickup, with the brown and white Tanana Valley Electric Cooperative logo emblazoned on the doors. It was only four o’clock in the afternoon but the late December sun had already long descended, leaving the land in total inky blackness. His three-year-old golden retriever Penny sat on the passenger side of the wide bench seat. She ignored her master’s Oklahoma drawl and stared out the window as they drove along. The dog’s breath shot a burst of steam onto the frigid glass a few inches away every time she exhaled. Her tongue hung limply over the teeth of her open mouth.
On any typical evening, there would have been brightly lit signs atop tall poles in front of the gas stations, or neon beer advertisements pulsing blue, red, and yellow from within the windows of busy bars as he passed through the small city of North Pole then the even smaller town of Moose Creek. Tonight though only the glow of candles and oil lamps flickered dimly between the curtains of the handful of homes along the highway. The power was out, everywhere.
Eugene looked at Penny who stared transfixed at the truck window. The frost from her breath created a ring of ice crystals on the glass that she seemed to be studying. The area had warmed up significantly in the past few days though after an unseasonal cold snap that held the land at negative fifty for several weeks. The red mercury line on the thermometer now hovered at a livable zero degrees Fahrenheit.
Eugene remembered a line a comedian had said on TV the night before.
If it is zero degrees, does that mean there is no temperature?
The humor of the line dissipated fast. There had never been an outage like it in his thirty years in Alaska’s electricity business. At first, the authorities thought it was a local failure within the Tanana Valley Cooperative area. It was not long though before they discovered it was much bigger. The phone company went out at the same time. Cellular towers failed. The whole of the Interior region of Alaska, an area the size of New York State, was thrown back into the 19th century in an instant.
- First off, I liked how the author started the book with dialogue – it instantly set the tone and introduced us to the character.
- The details (car type/age of dog) on the first paragraph might (perhaps) be tightened up but I thought this and the second paragraph set the scene really well. The success I think in this first page is that it establishes the scene with a minimum of backstory and explanation – we know all we really need to know at this stage: It’s Alaska, the power is out, the main character (an outsider from Oaklahoma) is out on the highway with only his dog and there is a sense of foreboding that promises much in the way of suspense.
- I thought the final two paragraphs set up the problem well – that there had never been a power outage like this, that Alaska was now a total ‘frontier’ land, and the reader now gets a strong sense that something awful/shocking is probably about to happen – Just what you want the first page of a good mystery/thriller to set up!
So what do you think? Did you get the immediate, visceral feel of Alaska like I did? Did you feel the set up was there and, more importantly, would you read on?
I know I would.