First Page Critique: At Forbidden Lake

By Elaine Viets

Another Brave Author has submitted a first page for critique, a moody murder scene by a lake. Let’s read it, then I’ll comment and you can add your suggestions.

Smoke from the forest fires had turned the sun into a red dot. In the lake, a faded yellow kayak bobbed gently next to a rotting dock, its occupant slumped over as if in deep sleep.
Detective Kenneth Tingle watched from the shore as paramedics maneuvered a small motorboat toward the kayak. There was no urgency in their movements as they untied it from the dilapidated dock. Even from his vantage point, at least thirty feet away, the gash on the woman’s neck and the blood on the kayak were indication enough: she was dead dead.
Directly behind Detective Tingle, a vacant lot stretched up toward the two-street village of Forbidden Lake. To his left, the Forbidden Lake Resort sprawled along the shore. To his right stood a run-down house that the lake was reclaiming as its own—the roof had more moss than shingles, the paint had peeled beyond recognition. A slight movement in one of the windows was the only indication that the house was occupied. Otherwise, Tingle would have assumed it was condemned.
He tried to scan the faces of the dozen or so people milling around, looking for a guilty expression, an averted gaze, or a perverted smile. But the smoke stung his eyes, so all of the faces were blurred into a mass of homogenous voyeurism. Despite the blur, he liked to think he could tell the difference between the locals and the visitors—the visitors had better posture, their movements more confident. The locals, or at least the ones he assumed were locals—a woman in long, flowing skirts; another woman in a crisp polo shirt and white visor; a few rough-looking men; a teenage girl with her arms tight across her chest—their body language screamed anxious defeat, as if a dead body in a kayak was something they’d come to expect.
Constable Artois appeared at his side, breathless.
“How was the drive?” Tingle asked.
“Slow. Visibility wasn’t great.” Artois’ forehead glistened with sweat. “How was the chopper ride?”
“Visibility wasn’t great either.” Tingle wasn’t a fan of helicopter rides in the best of conditions. He and the paramedics had flown from Campbell River through a dense screen of smoke. His stomach had been in knots, and he’d hated how the paramedics had expressed concern in the chopper—asking him if he was okay, if he needed a vomit bag.

Well done, Brave Author. This is a tightly written, intriguing opening page. Even the title has an air of foreboding, though I might change it to something like “Murder at Forbidden Lake.” Consider finding some way to get rid of that “at” in the beginning. Articles such as “at” are not used in cataloguing a book on many sites, and may lead to confusion.
The page’s details give us the feeling of sadness and decay, such as the “dilapidated dock,” and “the rundown house the lake was reclaiming as its own – the roof had more moss than shingles, the paint had peeled beyond recognition.” And then there’s the mysterious movement in a window.
Also, when Detective Tingle is scanning the faces in the crowd, I love that phrase he uses: “perverted smile.” I can actually see it.
I do have a few suggestions and questions.
(1) First, where in the world are we?
Is this story set in the US, Canada, or another country? What state or region are we in? You could introduce this in a variety of ways, including giving your protagonist a title, such as “Detective Kenneth Tingle of the Minnesota State Police.”
(2) Forest fires are a timely topic, but you might want to give your readers some sense of this fire’s duration. In your opening sentence you could say something like: “Smoke from the forest fires had turned the sun into a red dot. The fires had been burning for three days and were rapidly approaching the lake.”
(3) What time of year is it? Is it summer, and the height of the tourist season? Or November, when there are only a few tourists? Are people evacuating the area because of the fire? Visibility is becoming limited. The “smoke stung” the detective’s eyes. Why are these people staying? A well-placed sentence or phrase could answer these questions.
(4) What is “homogenous voyeurism”? And “anxious defeat”?
(5) The detective says the “woman in a crisp polo shirt and white visor” was a local. Really? She sounds more like a tourist to me.
(6) Finally, “Constable Artois appeared at his side, breathless.”
Who is Constable Artois? Is he local? Why was he called? Let us know. And give him a first name, please. Maybe a sentence like: “Martin County Constable Luc Artois appeared at his side, breathless. Artois knew the area better than anyone.” And why is he breathless? Is it because of the smoke? Did he run to the scene from his car?
These are small points, Brave Author, and only suggestions. You may choose to ignore them and keep your tightly written style and add the specifics later. Either way, I’m looking forward to reading your story.
Congratulations on a well-written submission that grabbed my attention.
What do you think, TKZ readers?

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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book.