Occasionally I like to do a review of a book from not only a reader’s point of view but from a storyteller/editor aspect. From the reader side, for me this story became one of those that you don’t want to leave. When I had to do other things on the weekend, I resented being deprived of it.
In short, I think this is one of Tess’s best. Not only is the writing strong as usual and the plot twisty and interesting, she has added rich flavors and spices through the infusion of her Chinese heritage.
That first page
We evaluate first pages on FtQ, so how does this one do? Here is roughly what would have appeared on the first page of her manuscript:
All day, I have been watching the girl.
She gives no indication that she’s aware of me, although my rental car is within view of the street corner where she and the other teenagers have gathered this afternoon, doing whatever bored kids do to pass the time. She looks younger than the others, but perhaps it’s because she’s Asian and petite at seventeen, just a wisp of a girl. Her black hair is cropped as short as a boy’s, and her blue jeans are ragged and torn. Not a fashion statement, I think, but a result of hard use and life on the streets. She puffs on a cigarette and exhales a cloud of smoke with the nonchalance of a street thug, an attitude that doesn’t match her pale face and delicate Chinese features. She is pretty enough to attract the hungry stares of two men who pass by. The girl notices their looks and glares straight back at them, unafraid, but it’s easy to be fearless when danger is merely an abstract concept. Faced with a real threat, how would this girl react, I wonder. Would she put up a fight or crumble? I want to know what she’s made of, but I have not seen her put to the test.
As evening falls, the teenagers on the corner begin to disband. First one and then another wanders away. In San Francisco, even summer nights are chilly, and those who remain huddle together in their sweaters and jackets, lighting one another’s cigarettes, savoring the ephemeral heat of the flame. But cold and hunger eventually disperse the last of them, leaving only the girl who has no place to go.
How does this opening fare in terms of my list of story ingredients? These are the elements that a writer can use, though not all of them necessarily appear on a first page.
- Story questions
- Scene setting
Tension For me (keeping in mind that this is all so subjective), this opening created plenty of tension. Yes, it is no doubt aided by the fact that I know that Tess is an accomplished bestselling author of thrillers, but the first line started the tension in me. Then the narrator’s questions about the girl’s reactions to a threat suggest that a threat is coming.
Story Questions I really ought to rearrange my list to put this first because they are what created the tension. Why is the narrator watching the girl? What threat may be coming? Why does the narrator care whether or not she will crumble? Why does she want to know what she’s made of ? Why doesn’t the girl have anyplace to go? Where will she go? Will the narrator follow? What’s this about? What will happen next?
Voice For me, the voice is one of the strongest of the elements here. Clear, strong, assured, and distinct. The confidence in the writing lets you know that an accomplished storyteller is on the stage. And it characterizes the first-person narrator as well.
Clarity Not a moment’s confusion from any of the language or narrative. It slips into my brain easily and cleanly with no stumbles, no pauses. Even the onrushing nature of the long second paragraph works to stream the narrative flow my way.
Scene setting The narrative gives me plenty to work with. Even though focused tightly on the girl, there’s enough of where she is that I have a context for what the narrator gives me. And the description of the girl is a fine example of what I call “experiential”—delivered through the filter of the narrator’s point of view. Her appearance and actions are characterized by shading that comes from the narrator—looks younger, smoking with a thug’s nonchalance, ragged jeans not a fashion statement, etc. There’s a perceived hint of danger, too, with the two hungry men eyeing the girl.
Character This opening does a nice job of delivering not one but two characters. The nature of the narrator is coming through. He or she is mysterious, but not threatening, it seemed to me. And the independent nature and strength of the girl has been painted pretty clearly, too.
Strongly recommended Both from a reader’s point of view and as an example of how to write a mystery, you can’t go wrong with The Silent Girl by Tess Gerritsen. Did you know, by the way, that she blogs as well, with her own blog and regular posts on Murderati?
For what it’s worth.