No Mercy for a Newbie: The beginning of my thriller Murderhouse
It's the first 1,000 words. Thanks in advance.
It is clear that I am dying, though no one has said as much.
It is a Tuesday morning in the state of Connecticut. An especially hot summer has been followed by the onset of an unseasonably chilly fall, and some of the leaves have already begun to turn. I am lying in a white, rectangular room, a sterile-feeling place, alive with the buzz of machines and nervous voices. The smell of ether is thick in the air and there is the hurried shuffle of quiet shoes. I struggle to look beyond the congestion of tubes and wires I am attached to; there is a cop in the hallway guarding the door. There is no clock, no television, newspapers, radio, nothing. There is only a single window to the greater world located at the far end of the room. My only companions are the too-bright lights, the medicine smells, and a pain that emerges out of my very center, eased only by the regular doses of morphine. The doctors are all hushed tones and worried looks.
Here are the last things I remember: the blue sky floating above, the bullet inside like a cigarette being extinguished against my spine, the leaves crackling against the hard ground beneath me, the wind slowing to a stop.
I came to and found myself here, you sitting there.
A bit about me. A famous artist once said that painting is merely the placing of detail next to detail until a full picture emerges. That in essence is what I do. Judgment I leave to others. My name is Barry F. Donfield, and I have been with the Bureau’s Boston office for twenty three years. All lives come down to a single story, and this is mine. What I shall relate consists of the facts as I have been able to gather and assemble them. Interviews, transcripts, official records and diaries have all helped put the pieces in place. The gaps I have had to fill in.
The outline of my story you may already know from the summer’s nonstop media coverage. Most of the girls were killed in a forest located along a four-lane highway in Southeastern Massachusetts. Their shallow graves and tell-tale wounds eventually led us to a single man. The so-called Murderhouse killings were also attributed to this individual. Case closed, or so it appeared. What is it that made me push on? Was it worth this?
Jackson Compton spent a good portion of his time these days in the darkroom. The apartments on this side of New Bedford lacked space for such amenities, so he converted the tiny bathroom. It was makeshift, but it did the trick. Sitting on the floor, Jackson closed his eyes as if he could merge with the darkness. The black-and-white photos he worked on were of hands. Squinting, he could see them developing above, strung like dark shirts on a clothesline. There, they blossomed, the opaque centers opening slowly into filigrees of gathering nimbus. They radiated for him, and he watched until his eyes began to play tricks on him, the shapes dancing and pulsating with life.
Words poured forth from a radio which sat on the edge of the tub, the voice like the wind across a dark prairie: “You force a slit in time and someone disappears.”
The static shrouded the words as if they contained a message the universe was intent on concealing. Jackson heard it loud and clear. They went on: “Afterward, there is silence. Peace. The soundlessness of an indifferent world moving on.”
The voice belonged to The Man. He was the host of a syndicated radio show, originating from where Jackson didn't know. “The Mayhem Hour,” it was called, and nightly the distant voice intoned about murder. Murder as art. Murder as a higher calling. Murder as a necessity against the sullen emptiness that pervaded everything like a choking fog. No callers, no commercials, just the stream of words emptying into the dark void. The sound reverberated against the porcelain of the converted bathroom as if tumbling into a canyon. It echoed in Jackson’s head during daylight hours, soft and persistent, The Man’s dry tongue making a barely audible click like a ticking clock.
It was an addict at Candle Lake who had first told him about the show. Jackson tuned in and the voice felt like a caress, like the notes of a far-off melody becoming clear. It gave him an odd sort of comfort. The Man made Jackson feel that if this world were a prison, at least he was not alone.
The photos were done. He stood and hit the switch, shutting his eyes tight against the light. When he opened the bathroom door the vinegar odor of the acid dissipated into the apartment and was swept along in his wake. The rest of the apartment consisted of a single room marked by a mess of rolled-up clothes, stacks of dirty plates, scattered papers and crookedly hung photos from his days before the accident. Junk littered the floor to the extent that it was no longer possible to determine the carpet’s original color. With his chronic injuries Jackson had to step nimbly, like a man crossing on half-vanished stones, to make his way over toward the front door. He forced open the closet and removed a piece of the flooring. From the darkness beneath, a green gym bag saying “Just Do It” jingled to life at his tug. The same space surrendered an olive-colored vest, slightly oversized, and still a bit damp from when he’d washed it in the sink the morning before.
The accident had left him disfigured from head to toe. Even his voice seemed scorched, emitting a tone several notes higher than one expected, more hiss than human speech. The kid rarely went out in daylight hours or spoke to anyone, according to neighbors. I’m sure the New Bedford cops were aware of him back then, if for no other reason than his appearance. But they were too busy trying to figure out why so many local prostitutes had been disappearing to bother with him.
I really like the first section, and I'm not a fan of murder mysteries. The paragraph that begins "A bit about me" is particularly enticing.
In my opinion, the second section needs a little work. The information there is a bit jumbled. Some details bother me: Why in this day and age is anyone using a dark room? Hasn't everyone gone digital? A radio show about murder, really? and how can an extensively injured man step nimbly? He walks towards the front door then opens a closet? Why would you put a just washed vest under a floor board? To hide it sure, but tt would never dry. My sense is that a little reorganization and maybe adding a sentence here and there to clarify would make this second section more readable.
Hi. Thank you for taking the time. All your points are valid and will cause me to change/rethink the particular aspects you cited.
We spend so much time crafting the words, working out the story, making the prose flow, we often forget about the little things.
Yeah, I took this to be set some time in the 40's or 50's until I read "Just Do It". Either the darkroom or the slogan is anachronistic and needs to change.
Lots of detail, logic, and wording problems. Don’t want to pile on, but I’ll give a few additional examples in the first part since KDG nailed you on the second part.
You say it’s very early autumn, and some of the leaves have just begun to color. Yet one of the last things Barry remembers (presumably a few days ago, perhaps even before the leaves began to color) is “the leaves crackling against the hard ground beneath me”. Sounds like mid-late autumn to me.
“Congestion” is typically used when something clogs something else, whether traffic clogging a road or mucus clogging sinuses. What exactly are these tubes and wires clogging? You say he struggles to look beyond them…what, he has a mass of tubes and wires sitting on his chest? Even if there were, wouldn’t he be able to see at least a little through the spaces between the tubes and wires?
Pain does not “emerge out”, it “emanates from”.
The sky does not float. Clouds float in the sky, but the sky itself does not float.
“…like a cigarette being extinguished against my spine,” – bad simile, in my opinion. Typically, people extinguish cigarettes by grinding or poking the end repeatedly into an ashtray. A bullet lodges in a body; it doesn’t grind or poke. Also, I imagine pain would increase after the bullet enters, more like a cigarette being lit than extinguished.
Physical objects slow to a stop, not the wind. The wind diminishes, lessens, or decreases.
Who is “you” and what is he/she sitting on? His/her haunches? You spent three sentences making it abundantly clear there was nothing in the room with this guy but lights, smells, and pain. Obviously, this “you” is a total stranger, else Barry wouldn’t feel the need to introduce himself.
Whoops, gotta go. Might be back to finish.
Nice work, my friends. Pretty much everything you've each said needs to be addressed. My proofing and rewriting is, obviously, focused too much on style and character. Sadly this is to the detriment of simple logic and word choice.
Another rewrite looking specifically at issues like these commences tomorrow.
Again, thank you.
Good start here. I won’t reiterate what others have said, but I do agree with a few of John O’s comments around word logic and word choice. Couple of items to consider in addition to other commenters, and good luck as you continue to work on the piece:
Structure and POV:
You start off in first person POV with Barry and then switch to third person, to Jackson Compton, a new character. But by the end of Jackson’s section, you switch to first person POV, and refer to Jackson as “the kid”? Is that intended, and supposed to be Barry? If yes, we’re zoomed in way to close to Jackson to make that switch so suddenly. The POV switch didn’t bother or jar me too much the first time, but I wondered immediately why you did it – why not start with and stay in third? The second time you switch from third to first (at the end of Jackson’s section), I was confused.
On a broad scale, how is this story plotted? Do you start off in the present with the hero POV (Barry) in the hospital, and then spend the majority of the book in the past leading back up the present (Barry in hospital), and then continue toward resolution?
If the story belongs to Barry and you’re following the above plotting structure, then ok – this works well for thrillers. A lot of books and movies, particularly thrillers, start out toward the end and then shift to the beginning before circling back to the present. This structure works for your novel if the case is unsolved in the beginning and solved by the end. However, this won’t work as well if the case is already solved, because by the time we reconnect with Barry (if it’s only at the end), the last question will be, does he survive? But the stakes will have been played out already, and unless we have grown fond of Barry, I’m not sure we’ll care as much – it might seem anticlimactic. I’d suggest considering alternatives and maybe telling the story in present if the case is already solved by the time we see Barry in the hospital on page 1.
Based on what you’ve written so far, the story appears to belong to Barry, with the main reason being the first person POV and the hook – you’ve got us wondering why this guy was shot, will he live and if he does, will he bring the shooter to justice, etc.
Great first sentence. Gets a reader guessing right away.
One nit: you use “it is” to start the first and second sentences. Try to avoid using it to start a sentence – use of ‘it’ in dialogue is always fine, and I’ll say ok to the opening line, but you don’t need (it) to kick off the second sentence, particularly with you using present tense. You might be thinking, sure, Charles Dickens used “it” past tense twice in one sentence, etc., but I really haven’t seen that approach used much in the best writing I’ve read, unless there’s some cadence quality and/or particular intent behind the approach.
Next, you mention in the third paragraph (at the end), “you sitting there”. And you also reference the “you” in the following paragraphs. Is there a payoff of some kind by going ‘second’ person at the end of the novel? I’m not saying you have to change your use of “you”, but definitely think about dropping the tactic. I don’t think you need the second person interface. As a reader, I’m already drawn in – I don’t need a connection from the main character. If the “you” is someone else, then it might work. Also, as much as I like the “a bit about me” paragraph, I had some questions toward the end of it. First, I’d considering ending the paragraph after he states he’s been in the FBI for 23 years. Between that and first sentence about art, I think we have a solid idea of the life he’s led. Detail oriented, likely middle aged, probably broken in some way, dedicated to the FBI, possibly at the risk of his life. The other sentences, and the last 2 paragraphs from Barry’s POV probably aren’t necessary. The less we know the better, save the key questions – who is this guy (really), how did he end up the in the hospital, and will he catch the bad guy(s)? So I’d probably rewrite this a bit and have one or two sentences that express his continuing need to solve the case (if it’s still unsolved).
No matter what, consider this: what is driving Barry to suddenly recall the story from the hospital bed? I think the motivation has to be “solving” the case, and not only, was it worth his life, etc. Wouldn’t he press further if the case was still unsolved? If the case isn’t solved already, you understand why he would start from the beginning and address everything he can remember, and then back in the present work toward solving the case after he recovers further and can leave the hospital. He will stop at nothing, etc. Even if you’re leaving the case unsolved in the end, and they nabbed the wrong guy and never find the right guy, ok, but we shouldn’t have any hint of the outcome until the end. If the case is solved already and he’s simply re-telling the story, it seems like an odd time to recapture the events.
Some other small nits -- You use “there is” 3 or 4 times in a row in the first full paragraph. Try to edit to avoid that if possible.
Jackson Compton Section:
I won’t wordsmith this too much, and the section is moving forward ok. However, be aware of when you write a sentence like this:
“It was an addict at Candle Lake who had first told him about the show”
There’s ‘it’ again. Try this: An addict from Candle Lake first told him about the show.
And again here, instead of what you have now:
When he opened the bathroom door the vinegar odor of the acid dissipated into the apartment and was swept along in his wake.
Try this: Outside the bathroom, the vinegar odor of the acid had dissipated throughout the apartment.
Maybe play with your style a bit –you will be better served with shorter sentences, fewer words, etc.
Also – I think the “murder” show is creepy and intriguing, but it will eventually require some explaining. Is it pirate radio? That might be fascinating, especially if set in the past, but the Nike bag puts us closer to the present, which makes pirate radio (at least terrestrial) almost impossible to get away with.
Hi. I'd posted a long reply, not sure where it dissappeared to. Anyway, thank you all for this great input. The time and thoughtfulness is very much appreciated.
As for the questions Dragon raised: Yes, Barry is telling this story, but once the central crime is solved, he continues on with his investigation, on a hunch, and links the hero of that first crime's denoument with a previous unsolved crime. That's the twist, and why he's telling us the story. He's hoping to finish the tale, put all the pieces in place before his time is up.
The "you" he refers to was to be a fellow agent ready for the debriefing. But that's going to go away now. You're right, it's confusing.
As for the POV: Barry is telling the story. His investigation and the liberties he announced up front that he may take ("filling in the gaps") are what allow him to put together this complete narrative.
I will probably take your advice and cut parts of the "a bit about me" graf. I've always felt a bit undecided about parts of it, the parts you cited, in fact.
On style: good tips.
On the radio program - I'm now thinking it's an Internet broadcast of some sort.
Again, thanks. Another rewrite is underway already.
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