By Mark Alpert
Autumn has finally come to New York City. The weather is nice and cool, and the trees are starting to change color. At this fateful turn of the season, I’m ready to review another first-page submission from one of our anonymous TKZ contributors, an opening chapter that takes us to the other side of the country:
The Corrupting of Good Cops
The tall man leaned on the railing that ran along the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. He didn’t notice the rosy sunset. Instead, he watched the storm clouds gathering over the Taos Mountains to the northwest. A small black cloud had started the whole thing, then grew to an angry force barking thunder and whipping lightning across the sky.
A sun-bleached car rumbled across the narrow bridge. The man didn’t look up. He’d emptied his thoughts to listen to the earth. Many times before, the man had come to this bridge to think through his last case.
The storm clouds darkened as if to display their full menace. A bright bolt of lightning flashed across the heavens. Thunder answered in a low rumble. The man soaked up the force of both.
The tiniest sound of footfalls far down the bridge intruded. Without looking, he knew the person was graceful, maybe even trained as a model. She was confident in an easy way, and right now quite focused. Each footfall grew a tiny bit louder than the last. Then they stopped just short of being within arm’s reach.
“Are you going to look up?” a voice said.
“Why, am I missing something?”
“You should look.”
He turned his head slowly. The woman standing there was six feet tall and wore a black overcoat that fell open. Where he looked worn, she looked honed. Obviously, she had spent time in a gym. She held up her badge.
“My name is—”
“Marilou Strickland, Santa Fe PD. I read the headlines when you solved the Quintana case. Good photo, by the way. What are you doing all the way up here?”
“Looking for you.”
“There’s been an explosion in Santa Fe. We need your help.”
“I’m not an expert on explosions. You have a very fine one named Cushmann in the Santa Fe Fire Department. Ask him.” The tall man looked back at the storm. “It’s going to rain, maybe snow soon.”
“I know,” she said, then went quiet.
He could feel her mood change. What she was about to say needed more than her usual confidence.
“There are eight people dead. They were all bound and gagged.”
“Sounds like you have your hands full.”
“I need you to take this seriously.”
He faced her again. “Okay. When did this happen?”
“About four hours ago.”
“In an abandoned barn on a dirt road near Aqua Fria.”
“Why do you need me?”
Let’s talk about fictional settings, specifically the setting at the very start of a novel. I’ve been to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in New Mexico, and I can confirm that it’s a pretty spectacular place (see photo above). But I don’t think the author of this first chapter has taken full advantage of the setting. Please allow me to explain.
I visited New Mexico in the summer of 1987, a couple of weeks after I quit my job as a newspaper reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama. I’d been unhappy at the newspaper for several months, ever since they hired a city editor I didn’t like. The job became so uncomfortable that every afternoon I would escape the newsroom and wander over to the one decent bookstore in downtown Montgomery to leaf through the bestsellers and magazines for an hour or so. I’d already interviewed for a reporting position at one of the magazines I was perusing — Fortune, the business magazine, alma mater of James Agee, my favorite writer at the time — and although the interview had gone well, they hadn’t offered me a job yet. The waiting became intolerable, so one day in July I gave the Advertiser two-weeks notice, even though I didn’t have another job lined up. I didn’t have a lot of money in my savings account either, but I was 26 and single. I could afford to be reckless.
After my last two weeks at the newspaper, I loaded up my car — an ’81 Trans Am, with the infamous screaming chicken on the hood — and headed west. That was a strategy I’d picked up from another of my favorite writers, Robert Penn Warren; when Jack Burden, the narrator of All The King’s Men, hits rock-bottom, he hops into his car and goes west. I’ll let Warren describe the impulse, since he’s a much better writer than I am:
For West is where we all plan to go someday. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.
So that’s where I went. Actually, my precise heading was southwest, because my first stop was New Orleans, where I spent a very enjoyable week. But then I sobered up and drove to Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, and then the long, dry trek to El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Like Jack Burden, I was troubled. At rest-stop bathrooms along the interstate, I would stare at myself in the mirror and whisper, “What the hell am I doing here?” I was seeking an epiphany, a vision, something final and ghastly, like what Burden experienced at the end of his fictional westward journey:
…and though the mad poet William Blake wrote a poem to tell the Adversary who is Prince of This World that He could not ever change Kate into Nan, the mad poet was quite wrong, for anybody can change Kate into Nan, or if indeed the Prince couldn’t change Kate into Nan it was only because Kate and Nan were exactly alike to begin with and were, in fact, the same with only the illusory difference of name, which meant nothing, for names meant nothing and all the words we speak meant nothing, and there was only the pulse in the blood and the twitch of the nerve, like a dead frog’s leg in the experiment when the electric current goes through. So when I lay there on the bed in Long Beach, and shut my eyes, I saw in the inward darkness as in mire the vast heave and contortion of numberless bodies, and limbs detached from bodies, sweating and perhaps bleeding from inexhaustible wounds. But finally this spectacle, which I could summon up by the mere act of closing my eyes, seemed merely funny to me. So I laughed out loud.
I never experienced any epiphanies like Jack Burden’s, but New Mexico – “Land of Enchantment,” as it says on the state’s license plate — was stunning enough to throw me off my usual mindset. For me, at least, the enchantment had a sinister edge. I drove into White Sands National Monument, where signs warned hikers of the lethal danger of dehydration, and found myself alone in a vast white sea of gypsum dunes. I visited the Trinity test site, where the first atom bomb had been detonated 42 years before. And like all the other tourists, I stopped in the parking lot at the western end of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, and strolled along the bridge’s walkway to the center of the span so I could stare at the slender river 600 feet below. It’s a striking sight because the Rio Grande cuts through a high desert plain flanked by mountains (the Taos Mountains are actually northeast of the bridge, not northwest). As you drive across the dull expanse of desert scrub, you suddenly come upon this incredibly deep gouge in the earth, this mammoth crack that appears out of nowhere, and as you gaze into the abyss you can’t help but wonder at all the immensities hidden beneath the flat, unsuspecting ground.
Okay, I’m finally getting to the point. (Thank God!) If the author of this first chapter intends to set the scene in such a photogenic location, it seems a shame not to include at least a sentence or two describing its unusual beauty. Otherwise, why pick this bridge for the opening scene? The descriptions of the storm clouds don’t do it justice, because a storm could happen anywhere. Worse, it’s a cliché, one of the hoariest. “A dark and stormy night, etc.” There are better, more original ways to convey a sense of doom.
But in the opening scene of a novel, the most important function of setting isn’t to provide a colorful backdrop to the action or to establish the mood for the book. No, at the very beginning we’re most interested in learning about the point-of-view character (who is identified here only as “the tall man,” which puzzled me — is there a good reason not to reveal his name at this point?) and so the primary function of the setting should be to illuminate him. The author starts to do this by noting that the man often came to the bridge to “listen to the earth” and think about his “last case” (which led me to believe that he’s either a cop, a private detective or a lawyer), but that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted a hint of what the man was pondering as he stood on the bridge. Is he really thinking about a case now, or is he debating whether to jump? As it turns out, the Rio Grande Gorge is a popular place for suicides.
I grew even more concerned about the POV character’s mental balance when Officer Strickland says she came to the bridge because she was looking for him. How did she find out that he was likely to be there? Did she question his buddies at the local police station or courthouse? I can just imagine their response: “The tall guy? Yeah, he’s probably at the bridge. He’s been spending a lot of time there lately.” Really? Does that make any sense? Wouldn’t it be more logical for Strickland to reach out to him by phone beforehand to arrange this meeting?
My favorite line in the opening was Strickland’s statement “I need you to take this seriously.” It’s a nice clue to the POV character’s predicament, because the sentence is really a command — Strickland is able to order him around, and that made me wonder why. Is the tall man obligated to the authorities? Does he have a record, is he on probation? Did he disgrace himself somehow? Readers usually sympathize with characters who are in trouble, and the more trouble, the better.
Here are a few more comments and suggestions:
- “The Corrupting of Good Cops” is a terrible title. Please come up with a new one.
- I like the fact that the POV character immediately recognized Strickland from a newspaper photo, and that he knew the best explosives expert in Santa Fe. He has a great memory and solid connections. In other words, he’s competent, and competent characters are always more likable than incompetent ones.
- I was skeptical, though, that the POV character could deduce so much about Strickland just from the sound of her footsteps. Come on, no one is that good. And later on, when he notes that he could “feel her mood change” — exactly what made him feel that way? Simply her silence? It would be better if he noticed something specific, maybe a twitch, or a change in her breathing.
- The author describes Strickland’s overcoat falling open, but that begs the question, “What is she wearing underneath it?” Is she carrying a gun, and if so, where? And how can he tell that she’s honed? The reader wants specifics. They make the story come alive.
P.S.: A week after leaving New Mexico, I called Fortune Magazine from a pay phone at a roadside casino in Jean, Nevada. The editor came on the line and said, “Oh yes, I remember you, when can you start?” So I turned back east and headed for New York. And I’ve been here ever since.