A really tight opening with one problem, exposition in the opening paragraphs, which might not be that easy to work around.
Title: Last True Detective
Language: US English
Synopsis: Detective Nick Avery wants to retire. He’s called in to work the homicide. A bright young detective, Bronte Miles is assigned lead investigator. The victim is a black youth. Miles is black and wants to arrest Jamal’s white best friend, but is held back by Detective Avery. Why?
Jamal Corbin lived in Mount Harmony all his life. He loved to hike in the mountains, water skiing in Cheat Lake, and pretty much anything and everything West Virginia had to offer. He was a good looking kid, short-cropped afro, medium complexion, with a sharp voice about to break from puberty. Most of all he was popular and excelled in every sport he played. If there was one kid that stood out from the crowd, Jamal was this kid that took it all.
Trevor Lee Fowler was a white kid with braided towhead hair and a silver eye tooth that flashed when he smiled. An average kid in school who could easily be lost in crowds, but had presence as Jamal’s best friend. His mother died soon after his birth and was raised by his father, who worked for the West Virginia Division of Justice and Community Services. Trevor Lee was a pistol to raise, or as his father would say, one seemingly to be a notch below chaos. If Trevor Lee was alone in the boy’s restroom, all 9th graders were his targets of wedgies and royal supremes with underwear stretched to the nth degree.
Jamal was making new friends as upperclassmen football players from the high school had noticed his abilities. By the time Jamal closed his locker door to head out and catch a ride with one of the juniors from the team, Trevor Lee grabbed his arm. Both kids were starting to realize that high school would put them on separate tracks with completely different friends.
“Hey I haven’t heard from you all day,” Trevor Lee said.
“I’m been busy with school and sports,” Jamal said as he fastened his backpack. “Maybe we can hang out tonight?”
“I suppose. So I saw you talking to Majesty during lunch hour.”
Majesty was Trevor Lee’s Bae. A pearl from mixed race parents. Trevor Lee tend to mimic black culture and several of his new questionable friends were listening to the conversation at the front entrance of the high school.
Jamal replied, “She was asking about you. Guess you had an argument with her the other night?”
Unwritten guy code allows besties to discuss sports, girls, school, and pretty much anything that doesn’t involve one’s girlfriend. “Then you should tell Majesty to speak with me.”
“You’re right brah, I should have.”
“Bros over hoes P.”
Jamal felt as if his best friend was scolding him. “Brah, we only talked for a sec or two, so chill.” Now hearing the honk of Nate’s Camaro Jamal had to be brief. “Now I gotta go but we’ll text tonight.”
Trevor Lee faked grinned, remembering his new friends had told him Jamal and Majesty were seen together at the rolling skating rink last weekend.
Dante slowly walked to the front stoop of the school. He smoothed his Dickies that barely hung to his waist and nudged Trevor Lee. “Dat dude always in yore Bae’s business. He’s a swooper.”
Trevor Lee wanted a blunt in a bad way. “Nah, he’s a brother and would never cap me.”
“Shit!” Dante suggested to Trevor Lee and the rest of his crew. “Let’s get pasted at my crib.”
March, 2012, Monday, end of the month. D-Day loomed ahead. Drop-off retirement papers day. Nick’s Android started to buzz on his bedroom dresser. He was downstairs, lying on the living room couch, playing Call of Duty on his younger son’s X-Box. Combat he could enjoy when it brought no risk to life or liberty. Nick had no difficulty taking out virtual enemy, his son, Seth.
Had he heard the phone, Nick would have grabbed it. He was, after all, still the detective sergeant for the Mt. Harmony Police. At 5:42 p.m. while outfoxing his teenage son, on his ‘oh-so-really’ attack on his base, Nick hugged the corners of the imaginary roof and with his imaginary sniper rifle fired a single shot that laid his son’s character out on the tarmac below.
Re-spawning 25 seconds
The doorbell rang.
While Seth waited for his animated soldier to re-spawn, Nick put his controller on pause. He answered the door to find Detective Perdue, investigations undercover officer for MHPD narcotics. Nick stood hunched, his gray hair whisked from the breeze outside. Perdue’s dad was a high priced attorney.
Perdue frowned. “Nick, you weren’t answering your cell phone, so Captain Wagner had me stop by.”
Nick wanted to close the door as anytime the police came knocking it wasn’t a good sign. The creases around his blue eyes deepened. “So, what’s the problem?” Nick asked.
“You’re needed at investigations.”
Nick frowned back. “Why?”
“At five-oh clock, or about the time you rushed out to go home, two middle school kids were cutting through the city park in the Sutherland Addition and discovered the body of Jamal Corbin.”
“Geeze! I’m planning to retire next month.”
“Well, the Captain wants you back ASAP. So don’t shoot the messenger.”
Nick sighed. “Sure. Okay. I’ll be down there in fifteen minutes.”
Perdue put his Nike shoe in the doorway, preventing Nick from closing the door. “Ah… he means now.”
Nick rode in the crappy Ram truck the narcs use for surveillance during drug operations. Perdue said little in the ride over. The cab was foul, the stench more like vomit than leftover fast food and empty energy drinks. “How can you stand the smell?”
“It gives us creds with the street scum,” Perdue said.
Nick slumped back in the seat, wondering if he had the energy to walk into Investigations again. He was exhausted, tired of working murders, rapes and child molestation cases. For him there was no Good in people anymore, only Evil. He groaned, thinking, he should’ve taken his son fishing at Cheat Lake instead of playing video games.
The darkness beneath him kept getting deeper and deeper, the cases kept piling up higher and higher.
The immediate problem with this opening is the two paragraphs of exposition that start it off. They’re only short, so you might think I’m nit-picking, but the fact is that we shouldn’t need to be told who the main characters are, their physical appearance, a short potted history of their career achievements to date, in quite such a distant, authorial narrative. When the book gets going you’ve a good “voice”, easy compelling dialogue (although I’ll mention the ghetto-speak later) and an efficient if rather distant way of writing a scene and conveying a picture. The problem is that if you start off with “telling” instead of showing, an agent or publisher is going to assume the whole book is like that, and there are traces later on in the opening that suggest it might be an ongoing problem.
How about, instead of the nearly 200 words you take to describe Jamal—what his hobbies are, how good at sports he is, his appearance—you start with Trevor Lee hailing him down the school corridor. “Hey, bro! Where you been?” and bringing the whole scene much closer in to Trevor’s point of view (PoV)? I’d imagine from what you’ve said of the synopsis that Jamal doesn’t play any further part in the story, and Trevor does. We see Jamal from his rival’s eyes, and we hear what Trevor suspects in his inner thoughts.
This would be my normal advice. However, there’s a problem here in thriller story mechanics. It’s fairly obvious that this story revolves around a central question: did Trevor Lee did kill Jamal in a fit of pubescent rage? In later scenes how are you going to keep the reader in suspense about it if we are party to Trevor Lee’s inner thoughts, if Trevor Lee is a PoV character? You could only do so by making Trevor Lee an unreliable narrator—effectively, we as readers can’t necessarily trust anything that Trevor Lee says or does. That’s a difficult stunt to pull off, and the authorial sleight of hand necessary to achieve it might overshadow the actual story.
The problem here is that you’ve got a prologue hiding here in plain sight, masquerading as narrative. The first 550 words of this opening fulfill all the commonly held attributes of a good prologue. The scene is not told in the PoV of the main character, Nick. It’s a conversation that Nick is unaware of (he might be told of it later, but he’s not aware of it at the time), between two characters, one of whom will be dead throughout the story, and one of whom will be the main suspect. It takes place before the story starts, but gives us what might be valuable background knowledge about the main players in the drama.
Not knowing the rest of the book, it’s hard to recommend what to do. I can clearly see why you want to start with the opening scene. You want to sow the seeds of suspicion in the reader’s mind; you give Trevor Lee both motive and opportunity. I wonder, though? It’s too obvious. If Trevor Lee killed Jamal, then we know the truth from the first page. It’s unlikely to be that simple, so a thriller reader familiar with the genre is going to know that Trevor Lee didn’t do it and the whole book plays on what might be perceived as a prejudice against poor white trash. Nick’s sidekick has jumped to conclusions, and older, wiser Nick plays the 12th man on the jury, slowly convincing us that perhaps Trevor, with his braids and his silver tooth, isn’t guilty after all.
Have you considered whether it would be more involving if you left the reader to find out about Trevor Lee themselves? Nick’s first line of inquiry is going to be among Jamal’s friends. We meet Trevor Lee through Nick’s or, even better, Miles’s eyes, take in the braided hair, the silver tooth. We hear about a disadvantaged background, maybe some violence in the past, the casual bullying in the locker rooms. Miles knows the type, and is ready with the handcuffs even before he finds out that Trevor Lee was making threats, that he suspected Jamal of stealing his girl. Let the reader come to their own conclusions. Prejudice against poor white trash, from a black cop? I think they’re much more likely to put Trevor Lee in the dock, and the puzzle then left for Miles and therefore the reader is how Miles is going to make the charge stick. But then, the reader is puzzling, why isn’t Nick on board with that narrative?
I don’t know the whole of the story, or how you’ve written the various points of view, so this line of approach might be completely off-base, but my first reaction to opening paragraphs of exposition, like many an agent or publisher, would be, “there’s got to be a better way.”
Other than that, the writing is of a high standard. There are a few things I’d suggest changing from a copyediting point of view. Among them these minor points:
The first sentence should probably be “Jamal Corbin had lived in Mount Harmony all his life.” Otherwise, in simple past tense, it implies he’s already dead.
Is Jamal known to Nick? If not, it’s a bit odd that Perdue mentions him by name. Surely it should be “found a kid’s body” or “found one”—he looked at his notebook—”‘Jamal Corbin.’ Name mean anything to you?”
On the street slang, I’d keep it to a minimum. It’s too easy to make problems for yourself like in this sentence, Trevor Lee wanted a blunt in a bad way. We’re not in close PoV here; we’re being told what Trevor is feeling, so therefore the slang is the narrator’s own, not that of Trevor. If you wanted to make this close PoV and retain the slang you’d need to write it in a much closer PoV, that of Trevor himself.
I need a blunt, bad. Maybe he’s right? Nah. Nah, I know him. I know Jamal. “Nah, he’s a brother and would never cap me.”
If you submit this as is, you might get lucky with an agent who’s intrigued enough by the reversal of normal genre tropes (black prejudice against poor whites) to ignore the first few paras of exposition. On the other hand, you might not, and you’ll do your chances far more good in general, I think, if you rejig this beginning. But good.
Thanks for posting.
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