For our second critique volunteer, today we have J.D. Frost, who bravely submitted to my eagle eye, even after reading the first Friday Mini-Critique. J.D. is a loyal and long-time blog reader–thanks, J.D.! He's also a mystery author, in case you hadn't guessed from the following excerpts. Visit his website here.
Stuart Blake had done his duty. He had visited his mother. His Thursday afternoon was off to a good start, and he expected more of the same–until he steered into his driveway. Stuart's neighbor, Ferguson, was in his "garden,” a tilled bit of soil in a recess at the midpoint of the old man's house. The narrow structure was tight against Stuart's drive, no more than six inches off the concrete. Ferguson and his dog, Spider, were always there. Stuart's foot had barely touched the drive when the old man and his dog set in.
"What did she feed you up in Mountain Brook: caviar? It took long enough to get your fill of it. I wasn't sure you were coming back."
Stuart didn't respond. He was more concerned with Spider. The dog's sharp, shrill barks threatened his ear drums. Worse, he wasn't sure if Spider was on a leash or ready to come racing under the car with his spiky little teeth bared. Stuart valued his ankles as much as his ears. He moved cautiously along the fender. He peeked over the hood, hoping to spot the little terror–wrong angle.
"Why doesn't your mother come here?" Ferguson asked.
"How should I know?" Stuart said, still craning for a better view. "She doesn't explain her every move to me."
The area in front of the bumper was clear.
"You should know. Aren't you her only son? It just seems strange that anytime you have lunch or visit her for a holiday, you must go over the mountain." "Over the mountain" referred to Mountain Brook, home to Birmingham's oldest and wealthiest families. "Don't the Blakes come to this part of the city?"
I like the way this opening immediately sets up Stuart's situation for us. Plus, in setting up enough information for a good starting point, it also creates more questions. We know that Stuart is from a wealthy family–and yet his mother won't come visit him where he lives. Is she ashamed of his circumstances? Has he done something wrong? Why is he living here on the poor side of town, anyway? Is he the black sheep of the family? Yet he said his Thursday had already been good, so what happened to make it so? A lot of questions, and that is good because it creates the impetus for me to read farther.
A couple of quibbles: it seems to me that the barking of the dog should be presented in tandem with Ferguson's first line of dialogue. They are described as "sharp, shrill barks" that "threaten his ear drums," loud enough that it would be difficult to hear Ferguson talking. There's a bit of a disconnect, with the line of dialogue, then a couple lines of description, then the line about the dog barking. It feels a little awkward and that could easily be solved by pairing the two.
Second, I think the first two sentences could be stronger. Each of them contains the word "had" which is an inherently weak word. What I object to is the repetition of the word. Maybe something like this would read a bit smoother: "Stuart Blake had done his duty with a visit to his mother."
But overall, I like the way J.D. mounts this scene and moves people around. It is clear and easy to read, and it compels me to keep going.
Midway in the story:
A waiter, as anglo-saxon as the young lady who had seated them, took their drink order. Ferguson ordered water. Stuart ordered an ice tea–large.
“Would you like me to take your food order now?”
They each ordered. The waiter had barely turned away when Ferguson leaned toward Stuart. “Why can’t you drink water?” His eyes flashed. “It’s free.”
“You’re complaining about a glass of tea after you blow the budget on raw fish!”
“Quiet. You’ll attract attention.”
“Why, is he here?”
“No, he’s not. Do you see a black person in here other than me, Detective? If you must know, I will not have to rely on super powers like you, not after speaking with Deke this morning. He knew nothing about a Mario but he painted a picture of Reginald Sharpe.”
“Deke, the guy you gave twenty bucks? You don’t think he was just telling you anything, what you wanted to hear?”
“He wouldn’t do that to me. He owes me too much. ”
“A picture? You mean he described Sharpe to you?”
“Yes,” Ferguson said. “Ut-oh.” He quickly looked away from the door. He whispered, “Speaking of Satan himself.”
Well, that's certainly a good last line of dialogue–makes me want to keep reading to find out who Satan might be, in the world of Stuart Blake. Is it Deke? Is it Sharpe? Overall, though, I have a harder time with this excerpt, through no fault of J.D.'s. Because it comes in the middle of the story, we have little context for the conversation the two are having.
A couple observations: I'm pleased to see Ferguson have a big role in the story, as I liked him as a thorn in Blake's side from the opening. And thorns are good in fiction, the more of them, the better. These two apparently have a classic detective/sidekick relationship that intrigues me.
Second, let's look at the description that opens the scene: "A waiter, as anglo-saxon as the young lady who had seated them…" I'm not sure that is a description that brings an immediate image to mind. What I think of as anglo-saxon may not be how you of it. And neither of us may have the same image as the author. So it is an example of a place where J.D. could go another layer deeper.
That's it! I'm ready to go read your mystery novels, J.D.! Great job, and thanks for submitting your work. And for anybody else brave enough….here's the original post which tells you all you need to know. And you can read the first Mini-Critique here.