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, February 21, 2006

    The City Council Murders

    Here's the beginning of Jim's The City Council Murders.

    The mayor was lying dead on the floor and I was sitting on top of the best story of my life.

    If there's one inviolate fact I've learned as a reporter for a small-city newspaper, it's that city council meetings can be pretty boring. [Inviolate fact and ‘can be, pretty much’ don’t match, nor does ‘usually’, next.] It's usually just a lot of bullshit. I'm a damned good reporter and I'd been searching for something exciting to write about. [You could cut this line – it’s a non sequitur, it makes me think Our Hero is up himself rather and of course he is naturally looking for something
    exciting.]


    I had a funny feeling before this meeting, though, and I'm not sure why. It might have been the way the city clerk's secretary batted her hot, blue eyes at me when she wiggled into City Hall.

    I admit I enjoyed the way she kept baby-bluing me from the front of the council chambers. She kept crossing and uncrossing her never-ending legs under the council table and, was it my imagination, or was that a flash of thigh peeking out from above a stocking top? Was I the first reporter to unearth the news that the heart-stopping Sheryl Lareaux wore, not pantyhose, but stockings and a garter belt? [This is pure Mickey Spillane.]

    I wasn't hallucinating; she actually WAS running her tongue slowly across her pouty lower lip every time she caught my eye. I wondered briefly why this knockout blonde was suddenly showing all this interest in me, the lowly reporter who sat through every one of these dry-as-dust council meetings. [Odd, isn’t it – Our Hero ricocheting between being hard-boiled Mike Hammer and the ‘lowly reporter’ with the city council beat. One starts to suspect satire. I hope so, or it’s bathos.]

    The session had started as usual, with the pledge of allegiance and a little prayer that no one really listened to. Me, I'd been at the back of the room, sucking on a smoke before I had to sit down and pay what passed for serious attention to the political hijinks going on up front.

    One of the perks of being a foot soldier in the journalism wars is that you get to meet some of the real people in government, the cops and the firemen and the building inspectors and the street superintendents and the clerks, the people who usually have the most interesting stories to tell, anyway. I always prefer to spend my time with them. It's like having the freedom to curse and scratch my balls without feeling like I farted in church. [Why is this paragraph here? It doesn’t seem to relate to those on either side.]

    I’d stubbed out my cigarette and ambled up to the front row of seats in the council chamber like I didn’t care who owned the place. I sat down next to the city solicitor, a high-dollar lawyer who was always pretty friendly. He usually kept me pretty well informed about the resolutions and ordinances that appeared on the council agenda. He could always be counted on to be helpful, as long as it didn’t interfere with his own agenda. [Jim, like me, needs to watch his ‘pretties’, and other qualifiers that can dilute the impact of a sentence. Also, I get a big wave of I-don’t-care regarding the city solicitor, who seems kind of pointless.]

    The council members were still discussing something earth-shatteringly important, like whether to approve the minutes of the last two sessions, when it happened.

    Glass shattered and the mayor spun around out of his padded leather chair at the far right end of the head table and crashed to the floor.

    For a lifetime-long second, nobody moved. Then one of the councilwomen screamed and everyone was up out of their chairs.

    I weigh a lot more than I should, but I can move fast when I have to, so I beat everyone to where the mayor lay crumpled like a used Kleenex on the floor. [Definite bathos, and seems an inappropriate image. I can imagine the victim of some mob hit being dumped at the side of the road described sardonically as being ‘like a used Kleenex’ because the image conveys the body being disposed of thoughtlessly in the first place to hand. Unless the council chambers are a real sty, it seems incongruous.] A big chunk of his face was gone. His last glance out the window by his desk had been his last glance at anything. Someone had shot him through the window. If the shooter had been trying for a between-the-eyes shot, he’d pretty much scored a bull’s eye. [Ha! Redundant, no? You could say that about any gunshot wound: If he’d being trying to hit what he hit, he hit it. You could say that about Dick Cheney.]

    I reached over for the mayor’s wrist to search for a pulse, knowing I wouldn’t find one. The police chief was beside me and he took over. He doesn’t carry a walkie talkie, so he shouted for someone to call for the cops and the ambulance. The look on the old cop’s face left me with no doubt that the ambulance wouldn’t be hurrying to the Emergency Room, though. [Our Hero didn’t really need to tell us about the cop’s expression, as it’s been fairly comprehensively established that the mayor is dead.] Those huddled around the mayor were in a noisy state of confused shock. but I couldn’t succumb to the temptation to join them. I was right in the middle of the biggest story to come down the pike in years and I had to stay alert, sucking up information like a nuke-powered Hoover [comic imagery. What tone’s Jim going for here? Funny, thrilling…?].

    It was immediately apparent that no one had seen or heard anything more than I had: the sound of the window breaking and the man being propelled backwards, spinning around and falling out of the chair onto the floor. [How could this possibly be 'immediately apparent'?]

    I glanced through the shattered window, wondering where in the hell the sniper could have been. It looked like the clearest line of fire was from a dilapidated, white-washed building across the street, the old County Welfare Office. At an angle, though, and several hundred feet away across a nearly empty county parking lot, was the high school. I tried to mentally fix the school window that had the clearest sight line to the broken window. And the mayor’s head. With a powerful rifle, and probably a scope, an expert marksman could certainly have lobbed the slug from the school. ['Lobbed the slug?']

    Still, none of it made much sense. An assassin killing a mayor who had absolutely no enemies anyone knew about? [We the audience know nothing of the Mayor so far, so I feel it’s an error to jump in with this piece of summary exposition – let’s have a little investigation from the journo before we conclude (even initially) that it doesn’t make sense.]

    More cops and EMTs arrived, so I slipped out of council chambers, down the back stairs and outside, where a small crowd was beginning to gather. The guys from the firehouse next door were milling around the front door of City Hall. [Why?] I quickly scanned the windows of the high school and the old white building again, from ground level. I’m not sure what I was looking for, but I couldn’t spot a thing that spelled “murder.” [It'd be traditional, in this sort of situation, for the sleuth to pick up some clue that everyone else has missed... maybe later.]

    I slipped back inside before the cops could seal off the building and called the paper, telling the city editor what had gone down and asking for a photographer, tout suite. The office was only four blocks away, so the shutterbug could be here pronto. [What with the toot sweet, the shutterbug and the pronto I feel rather overwhelmed by slang/jargon! A little slang is good to maintain atmosphere and character, a bit of flavour in the text, but too much and it can sound silly.]

    The ambulance attendants were standing around with their hands in their pockets. The mayor was dead and they wouldn’t be taking him anywhere. The medical examiner, after he did his little rain dance, would have to move the body. [Rain dance?]

    By now, the place was crawling with uniforms and detectives. Even the county prosecutor showed up.

    Caveat: I’m posting this in my lunch break, and I can’t check back on my email inbox at home to see if Jim might have sent me an updated version; if so, I’ll replace this post when I get home.

    I’m not convinced by anything that happens in this passage. Our hero seems to want to be tough, funny, smart, streetwise and cynical all at once, with the result that the tone oscillates wildly from one sentence to the next. As a reader, you don’t know what to take seriously. I got irritated with the flip way the gory dead Mayor was being treated; our hero comes off like a jerk.


    To be fair, there are a number of local government employees over whose graves I would be hard pressed to shed a tear, but let’s at least establish who’s likeable and who isn’t before we start taking the reader’s sympathies for granted.

    The whole thing’s incredibly pulpy, with the knockout-dame-with-legs-that-don’t-quit on femme fatale duty, the drawling slanginess, the breezy pseudo-gumshoe… I wouldn’t expect, from this, a great read. I’d expect something clunky and predictable.

    I think this sort of thing is highly difficult to write. The basic models – Hammett and Chandler – were both fine writers, and Chandler IMHO was exceptionally fine. You can’t just throw together a sultry blonde, a bit of Sam Spade attitude and a dusting of flashy simile.
    Torgo, 1:21 pm

    5 Comments:

    Actually, even in a small town, city Council meetings are usually pretty interesting (relatively speaking). Someone's always mad about something, and people are always yelling at each other. Plus, since they're held at night, a reporter is working against their deadline for the next day's paper. And in America, it would town attorney, not "city solicitor."
    Blogger The Gambino Crime Family, at 11:44 pm  
    Yea, I agree Binghamton City council is telecast on the PBS channel...they have a lot of knock down drag out fights....it's better than watching the Sopranos!
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 4:18 am  
    I've been this reporter guy. Ninety percent of such meetings are indeed dull as hell, until there's a controversy, in which case it will get crazy for a few weeks and get boring again. But even then, the crazy is a dull kind of crazy, if you have to sit through the whole thing and aren't channel flipping.

    But yeah, this guy would be on deadline so he'd probably be less laconic, and would be on his phone immediately to the office, and furiously scribbling notes.

    Also...a mayor with no enemies? None? Not even in Mayberry.

    And how on earth could a reporter (especially a chunky reporter, as mentioned) get to the mayor before the people sitting right next to him?
    Blogger yossarian, at 7:32 pm  
    This... feels like it should be better than it is, if that makes any sense. There's a strong narrative voice here, but it's countered with a narrator who seems to like to hear himself talk, so to speak. In fact, he's thinking so much about other things, it's a wonder he can pay attention to the meeting at all, boring or not. (In fact, don't we all have to try a little harder to pay attention to the boring things?)

    There's a lot of text in which not very much happens, and I caught myself skimming a couple of times. The set-up seems kind of awkward as well -- we start out knowing the mayor is dead, and then the narrator goes back and recounts how it all happened. It's not very streamlined.

    However, if the author can pin down Our Hero's voice and sculpt it a bit (making him seem less like a noir knockoff and more original), the character could be quite entertaining.
    Blogger Bunneh, at 9:15 pm  
    It may be the gumshoe jargon, but I had a hard time guessing what era this story was set in. If it was happening in the '50s, the jargon is still kind of overdone, but I'd go along with it better than if it was supposed to be the '80s, say. Some sort of date indicator might be useful.
    -Barbara (password still lost somewhere)
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:55 am  

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