Mystery Elements and Sass Are the New Black – First Page Critique-The Dangerous Dame

Jordan Dane

@jordandane

Don your fedora and breathe in the smoky air of a shadowy life when you read this anonymous submission of 400 words for THE DANGEROUS DAME. My feedback will be on the flip side. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

CHAPTER ONE

Ida Lucas was Hamilton’s answer to Mata Hari – a blonde bombshell who mesmerized the upper-crust gents in the Circus Roof at the Royal Connaught Hotel. Some folks said that her scandalous strip-tease rivaled that of Gypsy Rose Lee. One night with Ida was rumoured to cost you a King’s ransom and that, in the Hamilton of 1948, translated into a cool 100 simoleons. For the working man – two weeks pay. But the working man was the last guy Ida wanted to see.

She came to my attention while I was doing some leg-work for a local law office. And I didn’t find out until much later that there was a helluva lot more going on in this shady lady’s busy life than I’d ever suspected.

It was a fine spring morning when I entered the White Spot Grill on King Street downtown. Spiro shot me a dark look from behind the counter as he grunted a tray-load of dirty cups into an industrial dishwasher with a loud clank. The sharp tang of burnt toast hung in the air and I guessed that Madge was late for her early shift this morning.

The food here was nothing special and the coffee was so-so but it was close to my office. And don’t get me started about its owner.

“Don’t often see you in here, Max. Now that you’re a big-shot private dick with a fancy assistant and a secretary and all,” he said.

I’d met Spiro last summer when I opened my private detective agency on King Street, across from the Connaught, and right off the bat we’d developed a spikey kind of relationship. But with the ladies, of course, he was always the perfect gent – “Yes, Ma’am, right away, Ma’am. My, you’re looking swell today.”

I ignored his ‘big shot’ remark and slid onto the end stool at the counter. “A large carafe to go. If it ain’t too much trouble.”

He bounced his hard look off me but I didn’t react. Then he motioned with his head toward the rear of the café. “Bob said he wanted to see you if you came in. I told him –”

“Okay. I’ll be back in a minute.”

At the end of the row of booths, Spiro had rigged up a small table that looked like a cut-down student’s desk. It was low enough that my veteran friend, Bob, could use it while seated aboard his wheeled dolly. A brave soldier overseas, he’d lost both his legs on that godforsaken, stony beach in Dieppe on August 19, 1942 – a date forever seared into the memory of every Hamiltonian.

Bob was puzzling over a Daily Racing Form and scribbled something in the margin as I approached. He looked up, then parked his pencil behind his right ear. “Hi-de-ho, Max. How goes it?”

“Everything’s copacetic,” I said as I pointed to the paper. “Trying to pick me a winner at the Woodbine track?”

FEEDBACK

There is plenty to like with this submission and the ease of a voice that reminds me of old black and white detective movies. The attention to detail of the White Spot Grill and the guy filling in his race track form with a pencil is Bob, a WWII war veteran–the sights and sounds and smells are vivid and drew me in.

Time Frame & Setting – I would like to know what time frame this is written for. A simple tag description at the start would be a simple fix – What year and city?

Where to Start – Given the Noir voice of this submission, I liked the intro and got into the description of Ida Lucas, but that intro is coming from a character I’m not properly introduced to. The first two paragraphs are about Ida Lucas and I don’t know why because there is no link made to her and Max, the narrator. There doesn’t appear to be a connection that explains why the woman PI begins the story with her–plus there isn’t action to jump start this passive beginning.

My suggestion would be to start with the action of the woman PI walking into the White Spot Grill (3rd paragraph). I would rework the new introduction to be meatier with a mystery centered on the woman entering the grill alone, hinting at why she had come.

A simple fix:

BEFORE: It was a fine spring morning when I entered the White Spot Grill on King Street downtown. Spiro shot me a dark look from behind the counter…

AFTER: When I entered the White Spot Grill on King Street downtown, my high heels clacked on the black and white checkered linoleum and Spiro shot me a dark look from behind the counter. He grunted a tray-load of dirty cups into an industrial dishwasher with a loud clank. I felt like a porterhouse in a world of ground round.

Max obviously knows all the names of the people who work at the diner. Why not take the opportunity to introduce the narrator when she walks into the restaurant? All we know is her first name is Max.

If the author saved the first two paragraphs, those could be used later, once the reader understands why Ida Lucas is important to this rendezvous. As it stands now, the first two paragraphs are isolated (as to purpose).

First Person POV Gender – From the start, I pictured the voice to be that of a man, but it’s not until dishwasher busboy Spiro says “Yes, ma’am” that I realized the narrator is a woman PI. Even the nickname of Max doesn’t shed light on gender. If the author takes my suggestion of starting with the action of the woman PI making a mystery clandestine meeting at a low rent grill, adding words like “my high heels clacked on the sidewalk” or have Max put on lipstick outside. Or have Spiro be the only one who calls her Maxine and she rolls her eyes and has a snappy comeback.

SUGGESTION: “No one calls me Maxine, Spiro. Not even my mother. How many times do I have to say it?” Working as a single woman in a man’s world, I preferred the nickname, Max.

I stumbled over this – When Spiro is trying to get Max to check in with his boss, Bob, she acknowledges his request but says, “Okay, I’ll be back in a minute.” I didn’t get this line. It made me think Max had to get her coffee order back to her office and that she would return to visit with Bob when she could stay longer. I had to reread it a few times. Maybe the author meant that Max would come to the “back” of the restaurant after she gets her order. I would recommend the author clean this up and make the transition clearer.

Mystery Elements/Where to go from here – Does Bob get Max into a case involving Ida? I don’t know what to suggest since I don’t know where the story is going. To tie this in better and make the story start with a mystery, Max could be holding a note clutched in her hand, a cryptic message asking her to meet at the diner. She could recognize the handwriting, but the note isn’t signed. Or for added interest, the note could end with a compelling mystery line – something like “I’m sorry, Max, but I need to know this time.”

Bob could have tried a few times to trace the whereabouts of Ida for personal reasons. Max sees the cryptic note and she knows who wrote it. Her mind could flash on Ida and her reputation (where the author brings back the first two paragraphs without spilling the beans on why she makes the connection).

I would recommend adding mystery elements to draw the reader into this intro. The exchange between Max and Bob is too casual and chatty, with no tension or mystery to their interaction. Why not add something? Have the reader walk into Max’s life with a mystery she’s been working on with Bob. It would give more purpose to this introduction and the reason Ida Lucas will play a part.

More Sass – I think there is potential for Max to have sass throughout this novel. We’re only seeing the first 400 words, but I would like to see more of a hint of it in this brief opener. That’s why I added the line, “I felt like a porterhouse in a world of ground round.” This reads like a period piece and to have a woman working in a traditionally male career, Max would have to be over the top aggressive in order to get work as a private detective. She’d have to have guts and think out of the box just to compete.

I once researched women bounty hunters and the stories I found online and in newspapers on how they outsmarted the male fugitives (for higher bounty) are hilarious. I see Max street savvy and smart mouthed, able to talk her way through anything. Adding color to Max’s voice and her life could make the difference in setting this story apart from other novels.

Overview – There is a lot to like about this submission. I would definitely read on since I love police or PI procedurals. I love the author’s attention to the detail of sights, sounds and the reader’s senses. I’m also intrigued by the voice of the woman detective. Well done.

DISCUSSION:

What would you add, TKZers?

 

 

4+
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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

32 thoughts on “Mystery Elements and Sass Are the New Black – First Page Critique-The Dangerous Dame

  1. I did not think Max was female. I took the phrase “But with the ladies” to mean that was Spiro’s typical response to any female customers. And before that Spiro called Max a “big-shot private dick.” With this confusion, the writer needs to provide better clues to gender!

    I liked the thumbnail sketch of White Spot Grill. I could hear and smell that place. Thank you Anon. And thank you Jordan, for your critique

    • “Private dick” is slang for private detective. It doesn’t necessarily refer to gender. But the fact that we both saw gender differently means clarification is necessary. First person has its challenges.

      I loved the vivid White Spot description too. I think I’ve been there many times. Thanks, Lisa.

  2. Thank you, Brave Author, for a peek at your intro.

    I thought the detective was a man and that Spiro was the owner/boss. I just figured Bob was a regular at the diner. Since different readers got different impressions, that just points to areas where you can clarify things.

    I really got into the description of the diner, nice job.

    There is some wordiness that can be cut down. For example, in the first paragraph, we don’t need Mata Hari plus Gypsy Rose Lee. Do we need either? We already have “bombshell” and “simoleons” to give us flavour. Perhaps something like:
    Ida Lucas was a blonde bombshell who mesmerized the upper-crust gents in the Circus Roof at the Royal Connaught Hotel. One night with Ida was rumoured to cost you a King’s ransom and that, in the city of Hamilton in 1948, translated into a cool 100 simoleons. For the working man – two weeks pay. But the working man was the last guy Ida wanted to see.

    Also, “this morning” can be dropped from the end of the third paragraph. It’s not much, but every word on the critical first page needs to earn its spot.

    I already like the tone of this intro, Brave Author. A little tighter prose, a bit work on the clarity, and I would turn the page to read more. Best of luck on your continued writing journey!

  3. I forgot to add that Mata Hari & Gypsy Rose Lee have slightly different connotations that could develop in the story.

    Mata Hari was a Dutch woman who was a courtesan & stripper convicted of being a spy for Germany in WWI. In my mind, the secretive spy angle is stronger, coupled with her femme fatale ways,

    She shared the occupation of exotic dancer with Gypsy Rose, but the spy angle could be an important distinction. Too soon to tell.

  4. A couple of quick notes:

    King’s ransom is a cliche. Always try to freshen or replace these.

    Most of this page is “throat clearing” type exposition, which can be held off until later. For example, this line…

    “Don’t often see you in here, Max. Now that you’re a big-shot private dick with a fancy assistant and a secretary and all”

    …is one of those “Here we are in sunny Spain” expository lines that feed info to the reader but doesn’t seem natural.

    There’s no conflict. My suggestion for an opening:

    Bob was scribbling on a Daily Racing Form when I sat down. He looked up, parked his pencil behind his ear, and said, “Took you long enough.”

    “Why don’t you just pick me a winner?” I said.

    Or something like that. The idea is to start with action and conflict, and leave the exposition till later, which you can dribble in. We can pick up all the necessary info in the course of a real scene. Act first, explain later.

    I like the noir voice trying to get out.

  5. This reminds me a lot of a noir spoof skit I was in (I was the blonde bombshell).

    I love noir. I just watched The Maltese Falcon again last weekend. That said, it is important if this is set in the past to say so because there are lot of things that aren’t permitted any more and referring to a woman as a “bombshell” is guaranteed to raise some feminist hackles. Unless you set it in a less-woke time.

    I thought Max was a man and private dick made me laugh (yes I know the term. It still made me laugh).

    If this is a spoof, it’s dead on.

  6. Brave author, I’m a big fan of 1940s noir. However, four cliches in the first paragraph were too many (blonde bombshell, upper crust, King’s ransom, simoleons). Of the four, simoleons is the one I’d suggest you keep b/c it sets the time period, gives an idea of the value of Ida’s charms, and hints at Ida’s motives–“For the working man – two weeks pay. But the working man was the last guy Ida wanted to see.” Nicely done.

    I wasn’t familiar with the Royal Connaught until I Googled it, but had guessed the city was Hamilton, Ontario b/c of the spelling of “rumoured.” B/c most noir is set in NYC or LA, I suggest you come right out and say “in the Hamilton, Ontario of 1948” to play up the unique locale that sets this story apart. Also maybe add a few words of description about the venerable old hotel, similar to how you painted the diner (very well done).

    I had the exact same confusions as Priscilla did about Spiro, Bob, and Max’s gender. Jordan’s fix–“No one calls me Maxine”– is perfect.

    You’ve done a great job of taking a familiar trope and giving it fresh twists by setting it in Canada with a female PI. I would definitely read on.

  7. Noir is hard to pull off because you are dealing with cliches, memories of old movies and a ton of novels that have been there way before you. (and a bunch of neo-noir coming out now). One of the best neo-noirs I have read is Meg Abbott’s “Queenpin.” Meg manages to capture the authenticity of the noir genre and era and make it her own. It feel really fresh and alive rather than a simple homage.

    That said, the voice here is good and the details, as others have noted, are really well done. The use of the era’s lingo is pretty good too. If the writer needs more, here’s a definitive guide: https://www.miskatonic.org/slang.html

    I read this as a male protag right from the start and the “yes, ma’am” reference didn’t change my mind. Given the slightly lecherous, if admiring, tone 🙂 of the first graph, I was certain I was in a man’s brain.

    About the first graph being throat-clearing. I liked it and it drew me in (with one big caveat…more in sec) but I can see everyone’s point that the emphasis on the blonde bombshell is untied to the ensuing action so it feels tacked on, almost forced, like the writer felt compelled to open with “the dame.” (cliche…but at least she didn’t enter an office through a pebbled-glass door). The description of the bar is so well done, I think I am with James that the story opens with Spiro.

    About that first line: “Ida Lucas was Hamilton’s answer to Mata Hari – a blonde bombshell who mesmerized the upper-crust gents in the Circus Roof at the Royal Connaught Hotel.”

    Lots of proper names to absorb here and “Hamilton” really tripped me up cuz I thought it was the protag’s name! It took me a while to figure out Hamilton is a place. Maybe I just need a second cup of coffee. But I think this opening line doesn’t work for that reason and others: “blonde bombshell” is a non-specific cliche. You can do better. And then the writer lays on top of that image the image of exotic dancer cum spy Mata Hari. Too much going on there, imho.

    Which is why, maybe, the opening should be focused around Max instead and intro “the dame” later. Maybe in the flesh?

    But a nice read on a cold morning! Thanks writer! Press on…this is going to be fun, I think.

    • Another novel the writer might read is Dennis Lehane’s “Live By Night.” (won Edgar for best novel and I think it’s one of his best works). Wonderful feeling for noir tone but totally original. And like this one, it opens with a man, who is about to die at the hands of mobsters, remembering the woman who caused it all.

    • Thanks for all the reading recommendations & your astute comments. I LOVE the idea of re-imagining Noir to make it your own. What a great idea & an enticing challenge. Since this is set in Canada, that location could be fun to tilt Noir, eh?

      I can see where a unique character voice, combined with Noir settings that seem familiar, could tweak Noir in a vibrant way.

  8. I like this piece a lot, but I fear it’s for the wrong reasons. If it’s a send-up of the old noir genre, then it’s home run. It’s a cliche bomb, from the bloonde bombshell to the cool 100 samolians. Where are the dame’s gams?

    Truthfully, this is a difficult piece to evaluate without knowing its purpose. If it is a satirical pastiche, I think it works beautifully. If, on the other hand, it is a serious story, the cliches are a real problem for me.

    • I had the same issues, John. I loved it for the Noir voice & sensory setting descriptions. The cliches were nostalgic but not knowing where this story will go, the cliches could pile on to make this unremarkable. I loved Kris’s comments about reinventing this genre to be a hybrid of Canadian-centric Noir. That could be fun. Thanks for your thoughts.

  9. I just went back and read the openings to four of Chandler’s books to remind myself why I liked them. They are focused on the detective and the story at hand. They put you in the story immediately, and the taste of times is icing.
    Today’s submission feels very self-conscious. For me, this piece sounds like a parody. I would have liked it better if it got down to business. Maybe this:

    The White Spot Grill was supposed to be Hamilton’s best cafe, which isn’t saying much. Whoever told Canadian’s they know how to make coffee had a great sense of humor. But what do I know? I’m just a female private eye looking for work.

    Spiro, the cook with one eye, checked me out as I walked by. I held up my index finger. He scrabbled to get me a cup of that great Canadian coffee.
    The best bookie in town, Bob, if you can believe that, sat in the back booth.
    I sat down and snatched up the pickle slice from his plate. “Whata you want?”

  10. At first reading this I was picturing Hamilton as a gritty American Noir location, NOLA or Chicago, LA maybe. Then reading that Bob was in the Dieppe raid in ’42 (by Canadian and British commandoes)was the first indication to me this was not an American story. Hamilton Ontario being about the same size as Anchorage Alaska (my hometown), as well as being a northern locale, put a whole different image of location and setting for me, not to mention the voice in my head went from Bogart to Scottish brogue (there is a Hamilton in Scotland) to a crisp Ca sound upon realizing the Royal Connaught is in neither Bogartland nor Scotland, but in Canaland.
    Perhaps something could be done to set the scene a differently and get the reader’s head into the right location earlier?

    Otherwise, I would not mind narrating this little ditty if the story continues in a good vein.

  11. Hmm. I went back and reread the thing several times, but I still don’t see the PI as female. The line about Spiro’s change of attitude when ladies are involved tells me the PI receives typical male treatment, and thus is just another guy. Maybe the PI’s gender is revealed later on? Otherwise, I agree pretty much with everything you pointed out.

  12. Thanks to the readers who generously posted so many useful comments here.
    I especially enjoyed Kristy Montee’s observation that she was certain she was in a man’s brain. Now, those are the words of a dangerous dame, eh?

    Cheers,
    Chris Laing

  13. I love this author’s voice and since I am from Hamilton, too, and recognize all the places named, I really hope that I get the chance to read the finished book!

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