Honest Critiques

No, I mean it. REAL honest. Email your excerpts or full stories, up to 1000 words or so, to honestcrits [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk. Synopses would also be welcome. My backlog is so daunting now that I recommend not submitting anything you are not prepared to wait a couple of months for a response on.
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  • Tuesday, August 09, 2005

    The Irrelevant Death of Jack Murphy

    Thanks to Julie Worth, who has sent the first chapter of a thriller. Julie says it's "the coming of age story of a boy whose father may be a serial killer."

    As Jack Murphy held his hand in the sun, a few specks glinted in the deep crevices of his palm. He dipped it in the clear water of the shallow pan, then poured the half-ounce of fluid with its tiny flakes of alluvial metal into a silk pouch. The silk allowed the water to seep out, leaving only scintillating dust. That was his method, born of necessity. He panned because he had no mercury for amalgamation.

    Murphy had once dreamed of striking it rich, but after a year living in a lean-to with only a hinny and a horse for company, that dream had faded. His endless swirling of the pan produced just enough gold for supplies and an occasional night of drinking and seven-card in the saloons of Tent Town, more than twenty miles away. The dirty-white tents were long gone by the time Murphy arrived, replaced by unpainted wooden buildings, bordered by narrow plank sidewalks, raised above the often muddy streets.

    In Digger’s Supply, Murphy stood at a glass covered counter, watching a big man by the name of Little Sweet as he weighed weeks of Murphy’s hard work on a beam scale. Murphy didn’t trust the man or his balance, so he asked Sweet to switch the square of tissue and its tiny pile of gold with the brass weights.

    “Do what?” Sweet said, his stool squeaking under him.

    “No offence, but I’d like you to put gold there, and brass there.” Murphy indicated what he wanted by wagging an index finger. “And we’ll see.”

    Sweet did as he was told, carefully lifting the small items with his corpulent hands, smiling so broadly that Murphy knew he had to be crooked. The scale again balanced. Still, Murphy suspected that, somehow or other, Sweet was cheating him.

    “You satisfied?” Sweet said, holding up his pink, unlined palms. “Why don’t you trust me?”

    “Well,” Murphy said, “I had to see, ‘cause this ain’t all there is.”

    One of Sweet’s eyebrows twitched, his expression otherwise bland. “You got more?”

    “Not with me.” Looking first at the two men at another counter, Murphy leaned forward and whispered. “Keep this to yourself.

    “Of course.”

    “I found it,” Murphy said.

    “You found . . . what?”

    “A golden Blarney Stone. Weighs three hundred pounds if she weighs an ounce.”

    Sweet leaned back and chuckled.

    “I’m deadly serious,” Murphy went on. “So anyway, I’ll take my money in dynamite, so I can break it up.”

    Sweet stared at him. “You don’t want credit?”

    “Don’t need it, Mr. Sweet.”

    No doubt figuring Murphy wasn’t smart enough to con him, Little Sweet gave him the dynamite on credit, even though Murphy protested he didn’t need or want credit, because he was rich—soon to be, anyway—and it wasn’t long before the word got around that Jack Murphy had found this enormous nugget. By that evening, Murphy’s money was no good; no one would take it. And everyone was his friend. He got drunk on free whiskey in Leventon’s Saloon, laid by Miss Molly Whitefeather free of charge (if not of syphilis), and obtained his provisions from several merchants on the easiest terms, at their repeated insistence. When he saddled up and left town with his hinny in tow, six of his new friends followed him as he headed out to the west, and dogged his steps as he circled in a big loop back to the east. Murphy was crafty, but his new friends had enlisted a Blackfoot Indian to help them, and so they had little trouble following his tracks.

    It was two days later, under a cloudless sky, that Jack Murphy lay dying with a .45 caliber hole in his leg. It was purely in self-defense that Landry Deville had drilled Murphy as the big Irishman came charging out of his lean-to, drunkenly firing away at his friends with a Springfield rifle. Everyone easily believed that, because Irishmen were widely known to be hotheads, drunk or sober. Still, it was a shame, because Murphy never revealed where his golden Blarney Stone was, even though his new friends broke all of his fingers with the butt of a revolver, to help him remember.

    Although Murphy had passed on without speaking anything but obscenities, his friends figured it would be easy to find the nugget if it was as big as Murphy claimed, and anyway, where there was one Blarney Stone, there’d be more. These first men were soon joined by others, and a mini-rush was on. Over the next few years, some gold was found, but not much, and certainly not Murphy’s nugget, which many began to suspect was purely imaginary. Still, nearly fifty prospectors worked on, operating the sluice boxes and panning in the nearby river. The occasional thud of dynamite blasts echoed off the hills in the distance, joined later by the hissing steam engines of the Yellow Metal Corporation—the engines that drove the pumps that supplied the jets of high-pressure water the miners used to scour gold from the sandstone cliffs.

    A primitive town grew up around those men and their meager profits, the town taking the name of its first sheriff, the dandy but ferocious Landry Deville. People called it Deville’s Town, because Deville kept it under his tight control. Hangings were fairly common until Deville himself got hanged one night by person or persons unknown. After that, it came to be known as Devil’s Flat, same as the surrounding territory. This was rather more appropriate, as it wasn’t where anyone in their right mind would have thought to build a town. There was fertile ground some miles to the south—that would’ve been a good place—but here the land was crumbling sandstone and dust. It never saw much rain due to the peculiar topography of the nearby mountains, which funneled wet air from the Pacific to either side, bypassing the town. In small recompense, nature had meandered a river along the edge of the flats, the same miserly river that gave up the occasional flecks of gold. But the river was deep down in a gorge, far too deep down there to be of much use for irrigation, at least, not until the Yellow Metal Corporation went bankrupt and Captain Vincent Cannon, just home from the splendid little war against the Spanish, had the bright idea of using its rusting steam engines to pump water up to the town.

    And so, unlike many gold-rush settlements, this one persevered. Its schools were decent, and many stayed on after graduation, not bothering with college. Perhaps they grew fond of the climate, becoming enamored of the dry wind and the enormous sky. Few under the age of fifty knew of Jack Murphy or his Blarney Stone, or could tell you with any certainty why a town had grown up here, when it could easily have been twenty miles over there. No, it just was. Just one of those places where things were going to happen, so they happened.

    We have a similar problem to CP's extract earlier. Where is this story supposed to start? I don't detect anybody in here who is a boy, a father or a potential serial killer. It reads like a scene-setting prologue, and these are often a sign that the author doesn't really know where to begin.

    I have an author at the moment who is good at these sorts of prologues; they're used to create atmosphere and maybe set up a teasing little plot point that will pay off later. But by the end of this first chapter, I have no idea of what or who the book is about. There's a story here, but save for the whereabouts of the nugget, it's all resolved by the end.

    And Julie's having a little trouble telling that story. Let's look at the first three paragraphs.

    The first para is awfully clunky. We're watching Jack Murphy pan for gold and getting too much information. "He panned because he had no mercury for amalgamation" - that's a hell of a thing to run into right at the start of a thriller. It doesn't grab and the prose is awkward.

    The second para tells us that he's hard up but just surviving, and then digresses into a description of the town.

    The third para has Murphy suddenly in town, about to reveal his wealth to Little Sweet.

    Those three paragraphs do not appear to have any sort of connection between them. You want to be swept along into the main flow of the book, but instead you're being switched around from place to place. Actually, it feels like three separate tries at beginning the book, with the third selected as the right time and place.

    I quite like the prose. It's a pretty good clear voice and the story of Jack Murphy's death has a good ironic touch or two. Not too woolly, not many wasted words. The difficulty is, what is it trying to tell us?

    After Murphy's story's done, I must confess I don't really care for the rest of it. Why would I care about the topography of the area, or the climate, or the schools? Is that really relevant to what the book's about (the serial killer, remember, and the coming-of-age?) Is the Blarney Stone going to be the book's McGuffin? If not, why would I care about the whole of this apparently irrelevant chapter?

    Even if Julie is going to use the Stone as a big plot point, there's much to be said for placing all this back story later in the book. Our main character, whoever that is, could go and research the founding of the town, for instance. It might not be that important for the reader to have this information right from the beginning.

    If Julie wants to keep this the way it is, then there's going to have to be some sort of plot point left hanging there in plain sight, at the end, to hook in to the next chapter.

    As it is, we have "No, it just was. Just one of those places where things were going to happen, so they happened." Ok, so we're in folksy territory here, but that's over the line into meaningless. As a reader of a thriller, I'd like have the feeling that everything I've been reading is slowly revealing the shape of the plot; that every past sin has a bearing on the present. I don't want to feel that things 'just happen because they're going to happen'. That's kind of dispiriting.

    To sum up: this is the sort of thing where I'd probably ask to see the next chapter before I decided about rejecting it, because it feels like Chapter 2 might really be where the story starts.
    Torgo, 8:22 pm


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