First Page Critique – They Call it Street Justice

 

San Quentin
Photo credit: wikimedia

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Today, let’s welcome another Brave Author who submitted a first page for feedback and suggestions. The genre is Private Eye Mystery. Please enjoy reading then we’ll discuss.

They Call it Street Justice

I parked at the curb in front of San Quentin even though it was a No Parking zone.  I leaned against the front fender of my Ford and lit up a Camel.   Several people came and went.  Most looked like lawyers.  Big briefcases, fedoras, and shiny shoes.  Each time someone came out, I compared them to the photograph Walton Finesse Smith, Lawyer had given me of  Harold Darby.  Good old Harold  probably look different now.

No matches so far.

I smiled at the guard stationed outside the front door.  I could tell he was pissed because I told him that Governor Gordon Knight had given me special permission to park at the curb.  I’d given him the Governor’s business card with ’Special Permission” handwritten on the back.  He still didn’t believe me, but couldn’t figure how to prove I was fibbing to him.

Ten minutes and two Camels later, a gray-haired geezer who could have been my man stepped out into the sunshine.  He sighed.  I crushed out my cigarette out the bottom of my loafer.

“Are you Harold Darby?”

“Yeah.  Who the hell are you?”

“My name is Jack Rhodes.  I work for your lawyer.  He asked me to meet you and bring you to his office.”

“Doing what?”

“I don’t understand.”

“What do you do for my lawyer.  I’m not getting into a car, no matter how sharp it is, until I know who’s doing the driving.”

Tough guy.  “Usually, I do investigations for him.  Today, I’m your chauffeur.”

“Why didn’t he come?”

“Hell if I know. Lawyers. What can I say?”

He shrugged.

“Anyone else plan to meet you?”

A half-hearted laugh slipped out. “No.  No one else gives a damn.”

“Your wife?”

“I doubt it.”

We piled into the Ford.

“Beautiful day,” he said.

I put the convertible top down.  Darby didn’t say anything, but he seemed to enjoy to wind in his hair.

“You hungry?  There’s a good place for burgers and shakes in Richmond.”

“I didn’t kill him.”

“Yeah?  Why did they lock you up in the big Q?  Practical joke?’

“I don’t like you.”

I get that a lot.”  I stopped at the stop sign. Then turned toward the highway to Richmond.  “Look pal, it’s going to be a long drive back to Los Angeles and I don’t need you ragging on my ass all the way.  You want the burger?

~~~

I always enjoy retro hard-boiled noir. We meet Jack Rhodes, a wise-cracking, smartass detective on a mission to pick up a newly-released convict at San Quentin prison. Rhodes’s employer is a lawyer with the nifty name of Walton Finesse Smith who wants to meet with his client, Harold Darby.

The Brave Author has done a good job of avoiding the dreaded info dump that bogs down many first pages. Details are slipped in seamlessly but a little too sparingly. The reader could use more information, like when the story is happening.

Except for the mention of former California Governor Knight (BTW, the correct first name is Goodwin, not Gordon), the time is not specified. Knight’s term ran from 1953-59 but few readers will know that w/o looking it up. I suggest pinning down the era with a year. For instance, you might identify Rhodes’s car as, say, a 1956 Ford Fairlane Sunliner.

Instead of saying “Darby had been in San Quentin for XX years,” the author uses a barely-recognizable photo to show how Darby has changed during a long prison sentence. Well done.

The author might further use the photo to describe what Darby looked like in his younger days, then contrast that appearance with how he looks now.

The “special privileges” card from the governor is another hint that’s smoothly inserted, implying either Rhodes or his boss enjoys political influence. That establishes the detective as higher on the food chain than the stereotypical hard-luck gumshoe. The reader’s curiosity is tickled—why did the governor grant that status? What’s the backstory?

More intriguing questions are raised when Darby claims “I didn’t kill him.” Murder usually earns a life sentence so why is Darby being released? Why does Walton Finesse Smith want to see his client now? Was a deal cut with the governor? Who is the victim?

Generally, the Brave Author has achieved a good balance between raising curiosity and avoiding confusion. This page intrigues but doesn’t overwhelm. With too little information, the reader becomes mystified and frustrated. With too much, the story bogs down. Enrich this page with a bit more detail and it will be even more effective.

Although not a great deal of action happens on this first page, there is still a good sense of forward momentum in the story.

 

I color-coded suggested edits.

Blue is the original text.

Red demonstrates ways to combine sentences and rearrange the order to convey information more concisely.

Green indicates possible ways to go deeper into Rhodes’s POV, revealing more of his thoughts and reactions to give the reader more insight into his personality.

I parked at the curb in front of San Quentin even though it was a No Parking zone.  I leaned against the front fender of my Ford and lit up a Camel.   [suggest you move the following passage to later] Several people came and went.  Most looked like lawyers.  Big briefcases, fedoras, and shiny shoes.  Each time someone came out, I compared them to the photograph Walton Finesse Smith, Lawyer had given me of  Harold Darby.  Good old Harold  probably look different now.

To quickly establish that Rhodes flouts rules and has political influence, the author could rearrange the order as shown below:

I parked in the No Parking zone at the curb in front of San Quentin, got out, leaned against the front fender, and lit up. Before I finished my first Camel, the guard glared at me and approached. I flicked Governor Goodwin Knight’s business card at him. “The governor sends his greetings,” I said then indicated the handwritten notation on the back. It read: Special Permission.

The guard’s sneer said he didn’t believe me but he couldn’t figure out how to prove I was fibbing to him. He returned to his post at the gate, still casting suspicious glances at me. I smiled. He didn’t smile back. 

Several people came and went.  Most looked like lawyers.  Big briefcases, fedoras, and shiny shoes.  Each time someone came out, I compared them to the photograph [that] Walton Finesse Smith, Lawyer had given me of  Harold Darby.  Good old Harold  probably look[ed] different now.

            No matches so far.

The above paragraph could be tightened like this:

I smoked another Camel while I compared a black-and-white photo with the few men who walked out of the gate. Most looked like lawyers—big valises, fedoras, and shiny wingtips. No matches so far. 

Walton Finesse Smith, Attorney at Law, had given me the snapshot to identify Harold Darby. Good old Harold probably had a few more miles on him since the shot was taken. San Quentin did that to a guy.

 

            Ten minutes and two Camels later, a gray-haired geezer who could have been my man stepped out into the sunshine.  He sighed.  I crushed out my cigarette on out the bottom of my loafer. 

            “Are you Harold Darby?”

Make clear that Darby came through the prison gate. Also give Rhodes’s reaction to the man.

A gray-haired geezer who might be my man stepped through the prison gate into the sunshine. Looked like 80 but was probably 60. He sighed.

I crushed out my cigarette on the sole of my loafer and walked toward him. “Are you Harold Darby?”

            “Yeah.  Who the hell are you?”

            “My name is Jack Rhodes.  I work for your lawyer.  He asked me to meet you and bring you to his office.”

            “Doing what?”

            “I don’t understand.”

            “What do you do for my lawyer?  I’m not getting into a car, no matter how sharp it is, until I know who’s doing the driving.”

Use this opportunity to set the time period with a short description of Rhodes’s car.

“What do you do for my lawyer?” He eyed my aquamarine ’56 Ford Fairlane Sunliner. “I’m not getting in a strange car, no matter how sharp it is, until I know who’s doing the driving.”

            Tough guy.  “Usually, I do investigations for him.  Today, I’m your chauffeur.”

            “Why didn’t he come?”

            “Hell if I know. Lawyers. What can I say?”

Describe Darby through Rhodes’s eyes.

I scanned Darby’s features, deeply-lined forehead, gray eyes sunken in dark hollows. “Anyone else plan to meet you?”

A halfhearted laugh, more like a gag. “No one else gives a damn.”

“Your wife?”

“Especially not her.”

We piled into the Ford.

“Beautiful day,” he said. Delete dialogue that doesn’t move the story forward.

            I put the convertible top down.  Darby didn’t say anything, but he seemed to enjoy to wind in his hair.

[Needs attribution] “You hungry?  There’s a good place for burgers and shakes in Richmond.”

 

Combine sentences to condense action. Add more of Rhodes’s thoughts about Darby.

We piled into the car and I lowered the convertible top. As I drove, he raised his face to the bright sun. How long since Darby had felt a breeze blowing his hair?

“I didn’t kill him.”

What is Darby’s tone? Defensive, bitter, defeated? Does he spit out the words? Or is he weary after repeating the denial a thousand times?

The statement signals what is likely the main plot problem—the wrongly-convicted, innocent man. Because that is a common trope in PI fiction, look for ways to give it a fresh angle.  

What is Rhodes’s internal reaction to Darby’s denial? Is there an unusual hint in Darby’s manner or tone that raises Rhodes’s interest?

“Yeah?  Why did they lock you up in the big Q?  Practical joke?”

Make Rhodes’s retort sharper. “Yeah, damn shame about you and all those other innocent guys in the big Q.”

            “I don’t like you.” Show Darby’s reaction with facial expression or gesture.

            [Missing quote] “I get that a lot.”  I stopped at the stop sign. Then turned toward the highway to Richmond.  “Look, [missing comma] pal, it’s going to be a long drive back to Los Angeles and I don’t need you ragging on my ass all the way.  You want the burger?” [Missing quote]

Suggest you cut the phrase ragging on my ass all the way. It doesn’t fit since Darby has mostly been neutral or quiet until Rhodes challenges his profession of innocence.

“I get that a lot.”  I braked at a stop sign then turned toward the highway to Richmond.  “Look, pal, it’s a long drive back to Los Angeles. You want the burger?”

General suggestions:

The title They Call it Street Justice sounds weak because “They” and “It” are vague pronouns. Who are They? What is it?

Street Justice is a stronger title but has already been used for books, TV shows, and movies. Maybe someone can suggest better title ideas in the comments.

Ending a name with an “S” adds unnecessary complication in the possessive form and makes editing consistency tough—hard to remember if you used Rhodes’ or Rhodes’s. Also, in audiobook form, Rhodes’s sounds awkward. For those reasons, I try to avoid names that end with “S”.

Rhodes seems a bit flat as a character. Try to add more of his thoughts, feelings, and reactions. He doesn’t necessarily have to be likable but give the reader a reason to follow him through the story.

When setting a story in the past, carefully check historical references (like Governor Goodwin Knight’s name). Factual errors undermine the reader’s trust.

There are several places with extra spaces after words or missing punctuation. Also, use only one space after a period, rather than two. Those of us who learned to type on a typewriter have trouble breaking that old habit. However, two spaces after a period in an ebook causes formatting to go wonky.

The author withholds information but offers enough details that the reader can follow what’s going on without becoming confused and frustrated. That’s a tough balance to achieve but this page succeeds. Well done!

This is a promising start with a strong sense of forward momentum. Thank you for sharing, Brave Author!

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TKZers: Does this first page draw you in? Do you have suggestions for today’s Brave Author?

Many years’ worth of First Page Critiques are available in TKZ’s library in the top main menu bar. Writers often say reading critiques of others’ work helps them spot problem areas in their own. Check out the free, useful resource at this link

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Side note: I recently interviewed Tillman Rosenbaum, the brilliant, cynical attorney in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series. Over Tillman’s vigorous protests, the interview was published on The Protagonist Speaks and you can read it here. Thanks again to Assaph Mehr!

 

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About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Heart...and Sass. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the Zebulon Award. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, Dead Man's Bluff, Crowded Hearts, and Flight to Forever. Debbie's articles have won journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

16 thoughts on “First Page Critique – They Call it Street Justice

  1. First off, let me just say that I am LOVING all the First Page Critiques! They are easily my favorite feature of TKZ, so I feel like a kid at Christmas. As for our buddy Jack Rhodes–this is a GREAT PI name, but I agree with Debbie that the “s” could be problematic. (One way to fix it, if you don’t want to rename him, would be to refer to him as Rhodey or Jack throughout the novel). I like the setup here, but the execution has one big problem: It feels like a movie. Ordinarily, this is a good thing. I’m very cinematic both as a reader and a writer. I try to visualize the scene in my head, complete with actors playing all the key roles, so I gravitate towards stories that lend themselves to such interpretation. That being said, part of what separates a novel from a screenplay is description, of which we get very little here. We also get zero dialogue tags, so it can be a little confusing to read, even with only two characters speaking. The effect is that you’re reading a screenplay, rather than a novel. The lack of filler between the dialogue also makes the conversation come off as wooden, like two actors doing a table read for the first time. There are some very good bones here–now they just need some meat on them. Good luck with it!

    • Gregg, great to hear you find first page critiques helpful. That all-important first impression is like a job interview. It can make or break a writing career.

      Excellent point that this page reads like a screenplay. As you say, the bones are good b/c the Brave Author started with action and questions. Filling in details will make this page pop.

  2. Sorry, you lost me early. The first thing I did was bring up pictures of San Quentin in Google Maps. Main St. does indeed go to the main gate. I have driven past a fair share of prisons. No one parks near or along the fence. Never. After getting a better idea of the time frame, I looked for time period pictures. The walls are smaller but still a long way from the road to the gate.

    But that is fixable.
    Dear Author, take a look at Debbie’s suggestions. I think you could have something here.

    You do know that it is 400 miles from San Quentin to LA, right? A long drive in the pre-interstate days, more like 500 miles. Maybe move everyone to Oxnard?

    • Alan, good points about accurate research. Thankfully the net makes the process much simpler than the old days when libraries were the main source of info.

      • Maybe not for page one but most prison fences have signs saying “Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers” every 50 feet or so.

  3. Excellent critique, Debbie!

    Brave Writer, I love rapid fire dialogue but limit it to three, possibly four. Then we need a dialogue tag or body cue to keep the reader grounded. Loved the voice. I would definitely turn the page. Great job!

  4. Bravo, Brave Writer! I really enjoyed this open page. Terrific feedback, too, Debbie. You packed a lot of great insights and suggestions into it. I certainly found it instructive. You gave helpful advice to Brave Writer to improve their opening page, and thus, the rest of the manuscript as well.

    I like “They Called It Street Justice,” as a title, but Debbie’s point is well made. I played around a little with justice and Darby’s claim that “he didn’t kill him,” which implies monumental injustice, in trying come up with an alternative.

    “Postponed Justice” and “Justice Deferred” are two possibilities.

    Thank you for sharing, and good luck with this–I’d definitely read on.

  5. I liked this entry, especially the tone of the main character. Debbie’s suggestions would make this even stronger.

    One small thing: I winced at the use of the word “fibbing.” It didn’t seem like a word the character would come up with.

    Great job, BA. Good luck with Jack Rhodes or whatever you decide his name should be.

  6. I enjoyed this first page, Brave Author. My favorite line is when Darby says, “I didn’t kill him,” because I wanted to know if Darby is truly innocent, and will the real murderer be caught?

    Ms. Burke’s critique is fantastic. I think she made suggestions that take your good page to professional-level great. I would also add that you could probably catch awkward sentences (like the one with “Walton Finesse Smith, Lawyer” and the one about “ragging on my ass”) yourself if you let your story/chapter sit a week and then read it out loud.

    I’m not crazy about the title, maybe something in this vein would suit the story:
    The Cynical PI
    The Concrete Killer
    Return to San Quentin
    The Case of the Gray-Haired Killer
    Buried Justice (although that was used recently)
    Buried Vengeance (except “vengeance” is a tough spelling word)

    Best of luck with this story, Brave Author!

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