Could This Be a Cozy Thriller? First Page Critique: Dressed to Kill

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

For your reading pleasure, I have an anonymous submission entitled DRESSED TO KILL from a brave author. I’ll have my feedback below, but please feel free to provide yours in the comments. Let’s help this gutsy author with constructive criticism.

Dressed to Kill

We’d been driving for ten minutes when Mark broke the silence.

“Do you think he killed her?”

“This is my baby brother we’re talking about.”

“Megan, you do realize she was a first class slut?” I looked at my husband. What would he know about it? He’d barely said two words to Annabel since she’d married Ted. In fact, at Thanksgiving, every time Annabel walked into the room, he’d found an excuse to leave. Although I had to admit, his characterization of my sister-in-law was, not to be morbid, dead on.

“Good. Then there’ll be a long line-up of suspects the police can focus on,” I replied.

“Should we let your Dad know?”

No way. Wendell Jenkins was an opinionated, blustery man, just as likely to tell you to go to hell as to take your side. He raised me to think I could be anyone I wanted and I loved him to distraction. But right now, my brother needed understanding and compassion. Not traits in abundant supply in my father’s arsenal.

“I’ll handle this for now. We can always involve them later.”

“Do you think they’ll arrest him?”

“They’ll have to deal with that pesky little thing called motive.” It didn’t seem to matter how badly Annabel treated him, he always came back for more. I always assumed it was love.

“It’s usually the husband.”

“Not this time.”

In our family, Ted had been the kid who collected stray animals like charms on a bracelet—not only the obligatory cats and dogs but iguanas, rabbits, even a snake he kept in a jar by his bed. He read voraciously—books with animals that talked, and went on adventures, and tolerated their human owners with a droll sense of humor and a wink. And God save you if he caught you fiddling with the microscope he used to analyze the fur and feather samples he gathered in the woods behind our house. So none of us batted an eye when he enrolled in vet school. Fait accompli, as they say in France. Not that I’d ever been to France, but you get my point. My brother was the modern-day equivalent of Dr. Doolittle.

So no way did he tie his wife to the swing-set in their backyard, stuff her panties in her mouth, and slit her throat.

FEEDBACK

APPEALING VOICE – I really liked the voice of the character and the author’s ability to write clean, flowing narrative with dark (tongue in cheek) humor. The talent of the author is definitely present, but this opener is mostly dialogue with a sparse set up of the one line – ‘We’d been driving for ten minutes when Mark broke the silence.’

TENSION DRAINER – If this was MY brother, I’d be more frantic and not so calm. The distance of this dialogue, coupled with the calmness and the humor, drains the emotional stress from the intro.

ALTERNATIVE INTRO – I would’ve preferred this woman and her husband be screeching to a halt outside her brother’s home while the police are still there. The chaos of a crime scene, mixed with a doubting brother-in-law and a concerned sister and her distraught brother in handcuffs would make a more interesting start.

LESS TELL, MORE SHOW – The way it reads now, this is a way to have characters “tell” what is happening, rather than “show” it. The inner monologue of the sister (even as engaging as it is) covers for a back story dump of the brother’s past. If the intention is to have these characters provide witty, dark-humored banter, they would still need more action, such as a crime scene, to draw the reader in more.

TO BE, OR NOT TO BE…FUNNY – This line veers the intro toward dark humor – ‘Fait accompli, as they say in France. Not that I’d ever been to France, but you get my point. My brother was the modern-day equivalent of Dr. Doolittle.’ But this left me confused with whether this is a cozy mystery with grim humor, after I read the last line, revealing the murder.

MISPLACED GORE OR SHOCKER WITH INTENTION? – The ending of this brief submission shocked me with its gruesomeness, coming off a calm discussion. It’s not enough to make the reader turn the page and keep going if the tension is diffused by humor in the midst of graphic violence. I’m confused on what type of book this is. If the characters aren’t taking this seriously, than how can I as a reader, unless the author fully embraces humor with more, over-the-top situations.

COZY THRILLER? – I’ve read about a new genre called cozy thriller, but I haven’t read any books with this genre bender.

The set up in this opener should be better, in my opinion. Clearly, the author can write, but I would prefer a better place to start. Less telling, more showing.

BETTER START IDEAS:

1.) Have the brother be the opener. Does he wake up from an unexplained stupor to find his wife dead in a gruesome state?

2.) Does a neighbor accidentally stumble upon the sight of the dead wife in the backyard, glimpse the husband on the scene, and assume the worst to call 911?

3.) If this is supposed to be filled with dark humor, have the sister and other ladies show up for a game of cards or a murder mystery book club, only to find her brother covered in blood with no explanation. Some of the ladies could applaud the dead body and the performance of the brother if they thought this was a murder mystery put on for their benefit. The sister could be frantic, trying to stop the ladies from trampling the crime scene, while she struggles for the truth from her brother.

CONCLUSION – Bottom line, there is much to like about the writing of this author, but the set up needs work. I also want to have a better feel for what genre this is supposed to be.

DISCUSSION:

1.) What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?

2.) What genre do you think this is?

3.) Have you ever read a “cozy thriller”? What would make a cozy thriller in your opinion?

FIONA’S SALVATION $1.99 ebook

Can she survive the truth of what really happened to her?

+5
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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

22 thoughts on “Could This Be a Cozy Thriller? First Page Critique: Dressed to Kill

  1. I liked this first page quite a bit. I love that last line. If I picked this up at a bookstore and read this first page, I’d read another two. If they were as good as the first, I’d check my wallet. Well done.

  2. I liked this first page too. The dialogue was intriguing and we got into conflict right away. I agree with Jordan, The sister’s reaction is a little too calm. It gave me the impression that they’d had this conversation before. In that case, Megan would be frustrated with her husband, or something of the sort. Just a tad more emotion.

    I started losing you on the line “Do you think they’ll arrest him”
    I feel that the conversation has gone on too long by then. I want to be reminded that they’r driving, going somewhere, and I want to know where. Basically, move on to some action now.

    • Great point on wanting a reminder of setting or action in a break from the dialogue. When writing is too sparse, it doesn’t feel real or well-crafted. The author needs to share their vision for the world they’re creating.

  3. First thing – I think the author needs a more unique title. When I read it, three books with the title came to mind, so I put the title in Amazon and there are even more books – fiction and nonfiction.

    The conversation between these two people seems way too casual. Her sister-in-law, who has been with her brother for quite some time ( … he always came back for more.) has been brutally murdered and their conversation has no emotion. The only feelings that come out are the fact that her father is opinionated and that her brother likes animals, but even these are not part of the conversation.

    And this didn’t make sense to me –
    “Megan, you do realize she was a first class slut?” I looked at my husband. What would he know about it? He’d barely said two words to Annabel since she’d married Ted.
    What would his knowledge of this have to do with speaking with her? Knowing someone is a first class slut comes from their actions or conversations with other people or the fact that she keeps throwing herself at the speaker, or some other way like the way she dresses.

    Also, and this might just be personal style, but I think the dialogue and the paragraph (thoughts) need to be the same person. Otherwise, it gets confusing. So instead of –
    “Megan, you do realize she was a first class slut?” I looked at my husband. What would he know about it? He’d barely said …
    It should be –
    “Megan, you do realize she was a first class slut?”
    I looked at my husband. What would he know about it? He’d barely said …

    Sticking with the structure for a moment – I liked the last sentence, but since it starts with, ‘So no way did he …’, shouldn’t this be the last sentence of the previous paragraph instead of a paragraph on its own?

    “Should we let your Dad know?”
    No way. Wendell Jenkins …
    “I’ll handle this for now. We can always involve them later.”

    At first the “Should we let your Dad know?” was fine, they could always just let the police or the press do it, but then you get the “I’ll handle this for now. We can always involve them later.” What’s that supposed to mean? Again, this was a brutal murder and somehow this woman, who I am assuming is not law enforcement, thinks she is in control of the situation. If she doesn’t tell her parents their daughter-in-law was found with her throat slit and her panties stuffed in her mouth they aren’t going to find out?
    It makes me wonder how she found out? – discussing that could spice up their conversation.

    As I said it was too casual. He questions if she thinks her brother did it, her reaction should be more defensive. The writer could show some emotion and maybe give us a hint at how brutal the crime was, a few extra words here –
    “Do you think he killed her?”
    “This is my baby brother we’re talking about. He could never do something so vicious.”
    It would also give a lead into her thoughts about how he became a vet (which otherwise come out of nowhere until the last line).

    He raised me to think I could be anyone I wanted and I loved him to distraction. This sounds as if she is justifying her previous statement –
    No way. Wendell Jenkins was an opinionated, blustery man, just as likely to tell you to go to hell as to take your side.
    That would be fine if she was talking out loud. The writer needs to remember POV here – she is talking to herself – she doesn’t need to justify her negative statement about her father.

    Would I read more – HELL YES, but only because the woman was tied to their swing set with her panties shoved in her mouth and her throat slit. Regrettably, for me, there was nothing before this cliffhanger to entice me – but there could be.

    • “Also, and this might just be personal style, but I think the dialogue and the paragraph (thoughts) need to be the same person. Otherwise, it gets confusing.”

      You are absolutely right. If a beat follows immediately after dialogue it has to be referring to the one who spoke. Always.

  4. Brave author,
    I too liked the humor in this excerpt. But it felt disembodied b/c of a total lack of physical detail. It almost felt like a screenplay, rather than a novel. Two voices float back and forth but details of where they are (except inside a car), what they look like, time of day/night, etc. are missing.
    What is their goal in this scene?
    Where are they going? Are they on their way to the murder scene? Or are they searching for Ted who’s disappeared? There is no sense of urgency, no feeling that they’re on a mission to save Ted.
    I also liked the humor but wanted more of a hint about the relationship between Megan and Mark. Are they a long-time couple who read each other’s minds and finish each other’s sentences? If so, suggest you increase banter between them to show they’re used to working together as a team, using dark humor in the face of bad news as their coping mechanism.
    OR… is there tension and disagreement between them? Is Megan compelled to rescue her brother, but Mark is dragging his feet?
    When Megan asks herself how Mark would know about Annabel being a slut, that made me immediately suspicious. Why is Megan so ignorant about her husband’s thoughts unless he’s keeping something from her?
    Is Mark’s tone harsh and sarcastic when he calls Annabel a slut? Or does he rest his hand on Megan’s shoulder, trying to soften the blow of his words?
    A few telling details like that would really help ground the reader as well as bring the scene to life. If actors were playing the parts in this screenplay, what would their facial expressions and gestures be?
    About cozy thrillers…my book Instrument of the Devil has been called a cozy thriller. Classic thrillers usually have bigger-than-life stakes (like global nuclear holocaust) and heroes with extraordinary skills/powers (like Jack Reacher). I see a cozy thriller as set on a smaller stage with characters who are not superheroes, but ordinary people who must rise to survive/overcome some sort of catastrophe. Their story goal is not to save the entire planet or prevent the assassination of a world leader, but rather rescue their family, hometown, way of life, etc.
    Brave author, you’ve got a good start, although a bit sparse. If you fill the skeleton in with some flesh, muscle, and sinew, you’ll have an intriguing story. Best of luck!

    • Thanks, Debbie. Good input.

      Interesting view on cozy thrillers. I see them as edgier than cozy mysteries with more action or graphic violence. Mysteries are typically whodunnits of a murder/crime, where a protag attempts to solve the crime. Thrillers are more about escalating suspense where a protag is trying to stop a continuing crime with greater stakes.

      This is similar to how romantic suspense shifted toward romantic thrillers with edgier, gritty content and more intense pacing.

      • You’re so right about edgier and grittier. Traditional cozies don’t include onscreen violence, sex, or adult language, but cozy thrillers do.

  5. The title also implies a Hitchcockian-type thriller. Brian DePalma directed a film with the same title in 1980. Dressed to Kill is also a KISS song and album title.

    Like you, Jordan, I found the backstory jarring and the off-beat humor misplaced.
    Also, I couldn’t feel the emotion of the scene. It all seemed matter-of-fact. The narrator has no reaction to her brother committing murder? Brave Writer skipped the gut-wrenching impact this situation would have in real life. Regardless of how Megan felt about her sister-in-law, she’s been murdered … by her brother Ted! Yet she takes this news at face-value?

    You can bet if my brother murdered my sister-in-law, I wouldn’t sit back and say, “Oh, well. He needs compassion and understanding.” I’d be freaking out. First in denial, with a slow build toward wrapping my mind around the unthinkable. A family member being murdered would throw someone’s world into a tailspin. Yet, Megan has no problem with this news, either? Her lackadaisical response would be the number one reason why I would not turn the page.

    Brave Writer, don’t lose hope. This is fixable. The ripple effect through the family leaves endless possibilities of where the story could go, a landscape rife with conflict and complications. Slip into your character’s skin and experience the story along with her. Think: if this happened to me, how would I feel and what would I do? Research families of murder victims. Research families of convicted killers. Learn how each family reacted to news of this magnitude. You may be surprised by what you find. Then revisit your story and force us to feel the devastation. You can do this!

  6. I thought the dialogue was the strongest element in this first page – which shows great promise BTW – but I agree with Jordan’s comments. I must admit I’ve not heard of the term cozy thriller…I’m not quite sure how this genre combo would play out as cozies would not have the gory details that this first page already mentions. I’m all for the author creating whatever hybrid he or she would like but I think the main issue is to be consistent so the reader knows what they are in for from the get go – especially if it will be darkly humorous and gory – would be a bit of a shock half way through if the book suddenly changed tone when the reader thought it was going to be a more traditional cozy.

    • Our friend (guest blogger Steven Ramirez) is a good example of a humorous voice amidst the gore of horror. Lovers of horror will recognize it from the first page and the premise of the story, so it is fun digging in to his version of the horror genre.

      I’m a firm believer in stretching the boundaries of fiction. I wrote romantic thrillers before they were a thing, along with Alison Brennan. At a conference, we talked about how our books straddled the line and the romance community wasn’t sure what to make of the edgier work that didn’t always have a happy ending, but it was what I wanted to read and others too.

      It’ll be interesting to see how the cozy thriller takes shape.

  7. I agree with the preceding opinions. I think the core problem is that the scene doesn’t have a clear purpose. Why are they doing what they are doing? Where are they going and why?
    I think the second problem is that (technical language to follow) it isn’t a scene but a sequence, it is the reaction to a scene. The characters are dealing with what they found out in a previous (unwritten) scene, one with obvious impact.
    I think if you start with the scene that caused this reaction it might help. How did they find out about the crime?
    Jack Bickham’s book Scene and Structure helped me understand this concept. https://www.amazon.com/Scene-Structure-Elements-Fiction-Writing/dp/0898799066/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1512662183&sr=1-2&keywords=writing+scenes

  8. I agree that this might isn’t the most opportune moment to open the story. Driving in a car (esp when, like here, destination is non-specific and unhurried) is what I call a static scene. (even though they are technically in motion). Like a phone conversation, it is a boring way to convey important information. Use it as a last resort only.

    Where is this duo going — Costco? The casual mood implies a trip taking
    place some time AFTER the murder scene, police intervention and its aftermath. A common observation we have here with First Pagers is the writer comes into the scene too early and there’s too much throat-clearing. But as Jordan said, I think you’re coming into your book too late. All the good stuff has already happened off camera. You’ve robbed your readers of feeling any “on-camera” tension by having everything about this gruesome murder take place in the past. All the narrative juice is gone, turned into BACKSTORY.

    Would it not be more interesting, for example, to have this couple driving to the scene of the crime? They’ve just been notified, they’re scared or apprehensive or whatever you need — and they see the chaos as they approach — tons of cop cars, lights, maybe some media already? They’d have to try to run the yellow tape gauntlet, etc. And maybe dad is already there (the cops have to notify someone as next of kind) so we begin to SEE the interplay between father and daughter rather than have her TELL us about it. Always find ways to illuminate character through action and dialogue.

    Also: Watch your police procedure. The guy asks, “Do you think they will arrest him?” They would take Ted in immediately after body discovery for extensive questioning and unless he lawyers up fast, they’d find a way to keep him as long as possible. But this goes to the problem you’ve created by being so vague about your time frame: Since you don’t say how long ago the body was discovered, we can’t tell WHERE WE ARE in the grand scheme of the crime. Is Ted living in his and Annabel’s home? What does the Dad (and where’s mom by the way) think about his son being a possible suspect? (Because as you note, the spouse is always No. 1 suspect). There is too much lack of context here for me to want to read on.

    Couple of other missed opportunities: You can easily slip in how long they were married: “He had barely said two words to Annabel in the three years she and Ted had been married.” You can also slip in dad’s occupation since Wendall’s apparently a bigger than life figure: “He was just as likely to tell you to go to hell as to plead your case in a courtroom.” (or whatever he does). Ditto for the narrator. Can you find some ways to begin slipping in data points about her? She’s a cipher right now. Always be on alert for graceful ways to slip in personal data about your characters so you don’t have to resort to info-dumps for their background.

    This is smoothly written but it’s a little underwritten, I think. It suffers from coma-symdrome. (Where is am? Teaneck NJ? Positano Italy?) Who are these people? What should I be feeling?” What time of year is it?”)

    Nit to pick: I love the stuff about Ted and his Dr. Doolittle thing. But I don’t think the metaphor — he collected them like charms for a bracelet — works for a boy.

    Also consider flipping the first and second lines. Better opening.

    And the title absolutely has to go. It isn’t yours. Legions of others have gotten to it first including Brian De Palma for his cult classic movie. You’ll find a better one as you move along.

  9. I would not keep reading a book where the heroine calls her sister-in-law a first-class slut.

    • When the author doesn’t allow enough time for the reader to get to know the characters, it’s hard to make them sympathetic or understandable when the author introduces a crass remark (or an indifferent and glib sister) right out of the gate. Good point, Jenny.

  10. Thanks for sharing this with us, brave writer. Here are a few quick notes::

    1. Too many adverbs on the first page (barely, likely, badly, only, usually).
    2. Limit the use of the word “was.”
    3. The first line (“We’d been driving for ten minutes when Mark broke the silence.”) tells us that they are going somewhere, but we are never told where.
    4. Why start the scene in a car? Scenes with people chatting in a car tend to be boring. Why not take the reader right to the place where the action begins?
    5. The line “I looked at my husband” should be a new paragraph. Keep Mark’s words and Megan’s thoughts separated for clarity.
    6. Too many character introductions on the first page (Megan, Ted, Annabel, Wendell Jenkins, Mark). Why introduce Wendell on the first page and add to the confusion? The first page is important real estate. Use it wisely. Rather than give the reader bits and pieces about secondary characters, introduce the protagonist properly and let the reader bond with the protagonist. (Or you could start with the villain, but always limit the number of character introductions on page one.)
    7. “I’ll handle this for now. We can always involve them later.” Who is them? I’m assuming them refers to the mother and the father, but the way it’s written doesn’t make any sense.
    8. Megan goes on about how Ted loves animals and then leaps to this conclusion: “So no way did he tie his wife to the swing-set in their backyard, stuff her panties in her mouth, and slit her throat.” Is there some rule that says just because someone is an animal lover, he can’t be a murderer? How many villains in literature owned cats, for example?
    9. Maintain a consistent tone/voice throughout the piece.
    10. After reading the bit about Mark leaving the room whenever Annabel walked in, etc., I suspect that Mark did it. Am I right? One of the best ways to get the reader to bond with a protagonist (presumably Megan) is to put her in peril. If the reader believes that Mark is the killer, the reader will worry about Megan and will want to keep reading. Of course, the trick is not to make anything too obvious.

    Overall, my curiosity is piqued. I want to know if Mark did it. Consider reworking the opening, perhaps using some of Jordan’s suggestions. You want to open with a powerful scene. One good exercise is to make a list of ten possible ways to open your story. Then choose the best one. Often writers are in a hurry to begin writing, and they run with the very first idea they get rather than brainstorming and choosing the idea that will pack the most powerful punch. The first page is the place where something big should be happening. Action first. Explanations/backstory later.

    Best of luck, and keep writing!

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