By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
As part of our ongoing first page critique, here’s the first page of a book entitled, The Crypt Thief, with my comments/critique at the end. In essence, I think this particular entry raises important points about grounding a reader in time and space and setting up conflict that makes a reader care about the characters. More on that at the end…
The Crypt Thief
The man stood still, scanning the night for movement. Seeing none, he stepped off the cobbled path and moved through a cluster of crypts, looking for a place to rest. He found four low tombs and swept a bouquet of flowers from the edge of one before sitting down. He listened for a moment, then pulled a canvas bag onto his lap, reassured by the muffled clunk of the tools inside.
He rummaged in the bag and pulled out the map he’d drawn on his first visit to the cemetery, two weeks ago. He leaned forward and pointed his headlamp at the ground before switching it on, holding the map in its yellow glow and running his eyes over the familiar lines and circles.
A breeze passed through the trees and he heard the rustle of leaves, like sighs of relief after a long, hot day. The gentle draft reached him and ruffled the page in his hand, caressed his cheek. He clicked off the lamp and looked up, savoring the coolness, and he shut his eyes for just a moment, tipping his head back so the sweat on his throat could dry.
Behind him, a scraping sound.
He looked over his shoulder at a pair of oak trees, blacker even than the moonless night, their limbs reaching out to each other like uncertain strangers, sightless branches jostling each other to touch the wind.
He took a deep breath and turned his eyes to the concrete headstone at his back, suddenly curious about whose bones were beneath him. He switched his headlamp on and its light drew shadows out of the raised letters on a brass plaque. He mouthed the words James Douglas Morrison. Below the name it read, 1948-1971. A string of letters under the dates made no sense to him. Latin, or Greek perhaps.
He put the lamp and his map back into the bag, and pulled out a water bottle, half empty from his long and dusty journey to this place. He took a swig, then another, and put the bottle away.
My initial reaction to this was ‘mild interest’ – there were certain elements that had me engaged but really only because the title ‘the crypt thief’ was intriguing. Many of the elements that keep me wanting to turn the page weren’t quite there yet – at least on this first page. In this critique, I though I would focus my attention on two main elements that I think could do with some enhancement.
First: The issue of grounding a reader in time and space
I confess I couldn’t quite picture where I was or what time period I was in. We have cobbled streets in the first paragraph, so I was immediately picturing Europe. Then we had references to heat and a dry, dusty journey there which made me think of more of the Middle East. Then we had a reference to Oak trees and I started to feel a little ungrounded. I couldn’t quite picture where we were. I also wasn’t sure about the time frame: a canvas bag seems very old fashioned, and switching off a lamp did too (as opposed to a flashlight) but the headstone is concrete and the inscription relates to someone who died in 1971. So I guess I want to know where and when are we??
I think the amorphous nature of location is also compounded by some of the visual images that go against the reader picturing a hardened ‘crypt thief’. There are breezes caressing cheeks and ruffling pages. These images sap some tension from this first page- possibly more so as we only know the character as ‘the man’ so we don’t really have any fully formed vision or voice for him. Which leads to the second issue…
Setting up conflict and engaging the reader
It’s hard for a reader to care about a character if he/she doesn’t get a strong image and voice at the very beginning. At some points in the first page I wondered if I was in a paranormal mystery (the scraping sound, the weird Latin or Greek inscription), in a more traditional mystery (with all the gentle descriptions) or even in a thriller (possibly). I couldn’t tell what was the essential conflict or reason for me to keep reading – and in these days that has to be there (alas, no more 19th century lead-ins to the action!).
So all in all, this first page made me interested but perhaps not enough to keep going. I needed to feel that the headstone inscription was important, that the scraping sound was important and that the reason ‘the man’ was in this particular cemetery was important (i.e. I should care about it)…but I just didn’t get a sense of any of that yet. It all felt a bit too generic for me. What do other TKZers feel? Would you keep reading?