|Hi Lynda Miller
This review of "Who's in the Can?" is the final of three reviews from the PDG’s Package 10 which you won in "Save Disability Group membership!" . And please accept my apologies for the length of time it’s taken to get them all done!!
Is jealousy an impression? If so, let’s go with that as my first one. I cannot write mystery, my brain just doesn’t seem to be advanced enough to cope with the ins and outs of the genre. So I get a little green-eyed when I see mystery writers flaunting their skills, and in such a manner that I wish to see more. Detective Search belongs to a series, right? If he doesn’t, he should. You’ve got a character who is sitting in a prime spot to be a master of several mystery cases.
This is a tiny story (even just in its own timeline) that manages to cover a pretty decent-sized storyline without leaving much out. I presume it was written for a contest since you’ve included a word count and a couple of the words are bolded (outside of the letter). It would be nice to know what contest just so the reader has a bit of context.
It took me the entire story to realise that ‘can’ in your title is indeed a can, not slang for a jail cell (or maybe it’s just slang for a jail cell in my own country)! I liked the double-meaning but you are giving away a major clue. It’s not til the very end that we find the rubbish cans of body parts and bones, but if readers understand that ‘can’ is rubbish can, they’re not going to find the end very mysterious at all. So, for those readers more clever than me, I’d suggest thinking about a new title just so that they’re kept guessing to the very end.
The birthday angle was a classic clue and a perfect little thing to bind the story together. It finally occurred to me that in a lot of crime/mystery things I’ve read or seen there’s always this little tid-bit action that a character does time and time again and is looking forward to in the future plot. That’s when you usually know they’re doomed. I expected Sue was dead but the significance of Sandra’s plea didn’t hit me until the end, when Search realises he hasn’t granted her plea. It brought the human side back into the story and finally gave me a sense of heartache. Search has done his job, it just doesn’t have a happy ending.
Characters make a short story, for me at least. You need a good plot, of course, but without strong characters the plot won’t work anyway. I liked Detective Search. We don’t know a lot about him – which kind of goes with the mystery theme – but he comes across as someone very reliable, someone unable to be corrupted and someone with a fine sense of justice. Which, really, he should be if he has worked his way up the chain. He’s also dedicated, if not a little of the ‘rules don’t apply when I’m dealing with suspicious people’ mentality. I felt that when he got into Jeff’s house without so much as a warrant.
However…. I didn’t get one sense of what he looked like. I’m so very guilty of doing this with my own characters (my excuse is that I write in first person and they’re not always close to a mirror ), so I’m actually quite on the lookout for it in other stories. I expect Search is in his forties at the very least, given his career, but I think you could squeeze in a little bit of his physical nature now and then. For example, as he picks up the phone to call Mrs Hill he could swipe back his black hair. Or, before he gets to work picking Jeff’s lock he could have taken his hands from the warm pockets of his faded blue jeans. Just tiny little tid-bits that fill him out into a more rounded character.
Sandra Hill is an interesting character. Her letter to the detective was very emotive and yet very bullet-point in the actual telling, which made her seem almost threatening. Yeah, that probably sounds way out there but I almost got the sense she was blaming the detective for her husband’s death and he could go part way to paying for that by finding her missing daughter. And when we meet her in the flesh, so to speak, again she seems more matter-of-fact than emotional. If she and Sue are so close, then Mrs Hill needs to start acting a bit more bereft. She makes staccato speeches (sharp and short) which kind of gives off the feeling that she’s strung-out on emotion but a little action would help. Does she look a little unkempt (like she’s too upset to care about her hair)? Does she wring her hands? The point, for me, is that she does not come across upset enough and that makes me suspicious. Which is actually quite clever because, of course, you’re writing a mystery and everyone’s a suspect!!!
Jeff White. Well, nothing gave Jeff away in that he didn’t seem to act nervous, he talked with reasonable calmness and surety, he didn’t block Search at any point. Just the sort of character who makes a perfect killer!! The sort that doesn’t see anything wrong in what they did and therefore doesn’t act all nervous and freaked out. Yep, I’d suck at being a detective! He seems a very tidy, fastidious type of person, certainly not a hand flapper. He does have some rather long dialogue sections, though, that I would have like to have seen broken up with a dialogue tag or an action (like him smoothing along the crease in his pants).
Things that Niggled
This is a combination of all sorts of things that stopped my reading flow or that I thought you could make stronger by a re-write. All are just suggestions so take what you want, and throw away the rest.
Must have raided a place of prostitution, he thought to himself. – firstly, ‘he thought to himself’ needs to be un-italicised as it’s not a thought, but also you could remove it entirely since italics are usually enough to indicate thought. Secondly, Search goes on to remember ‘those days’. I wondered, then, if instead of ‘place of prostitution’ (which sounds sort of prudish) he could actually name a place. Kind of like Raided Little Miss Muffet’s again, heh? (Er, sorry about the name, kinda flashed into my mind as I wrote. I know nothing, of course!)
Barbara from the desk shouted at him. – the order of this feels odd to me, making me read ‘Barbara from the desk’ before I get to the actual action. I’d recommend putting ‘from the desk’ at the end of the sentence; it’s a setting and isn’t as important as the action.
He turned and went to the desk… – Because this action belongs to Search, let it start a new paragraph and reword the action. Remember he’s in a front room full of half-dressed men and barely-dressed women. It’s probably rather crowded and I can see him having to do a bit of weaving and shoving to get where he needs to be. (Also, 'retrieved' rather than 'retrived'.)
My husband was an undercover police officer with Narcotics. – I think you could remove ‘police officer’. Undercover can work here as a noun and we kind presume he’s a police officer. (By the way, Search’s interjected thoughts that follow this section shouldn’t be in bold. Because they are, they read as part of the letter and it’s jarring figuring out what is what.)
Why is the letter in bold? Was it part of the contest rules? If not, I would suggest unbolding it. To differentiate it from the actual story you could indent it or put it into a different font. That would be less distracting than the bold. Also, Sandra Hill is the wife of an undercover agent who was found out and murdered. Should she really be giving her phone number and address so unguardedly, even if the letter’s addressed to a cop. Wouldn’t she be worried about the crims going after her?
He used the door knocker to knock loudly. – this is a great moment for him to do some observation – what type of door knocker is it? Does it indicate what sort of woman lives in the house? What sort of sound does it make. Basically, show instead of tell.
“When was the last time you talked with your daughter?” – there is nothing wrong with this sentence other that its placement. Separate lines for dialogue usually indicate separate speakers. So since we’d just had Search declining a drink and sitting down, I went to the next line expecting Sandra to be speaking, and was thrown with the question. So just put this up with the previous line. It is an abrupt question, by the way, and Sandra doesn’t react to that. Maybe have her give a little bit of a shake before she composes herself?
She brought a lot of candy to hand it out. – remove ‘it’ but also I think ‘she’ should be ‘Sue’. I’ve said that Sandra comes across less upset that I was expecting, and this whole using ‘she’ instead of her daughter’s name makes me think it even more. Sue was mentioned by name in the letter and so I think the name should come out in the discussion (and not at the end where you’ve got it – since Search actually does know it).
She always tells me what she is doing… – this has to be a really hard moment for Sandra. She talks to her daughter twice a week yet hasn’t heard from her in three months. I would like to see a little physical something after the particular part above, even a brief hand over the mouth. Maybe she’s not so emotional because it’s been three months but she is a mother who has lost (apparently) her daughter; a little bit of concern, worry, grief won’t go amiss here.
She said he’s cleaning out his mothers stuff she left in her room. – I couldn’t quite get this to make sense. Is this something that Sue told her mother, or is it something Jeff’s mother said? If it’s Sue who said it then the tense isn’t quite right, given we’re three months down the track. If Jeff’s mother then ‘his mothers stuff’ doesn’t make sense. I think you could remove this sentence entirely.
Search’s arrival at Jeff’s house the following morning begins a descriptive section where we get to see the man in action. However, some of the sentences are a little jarring – short little things often starting with ‘he’. They read quite like a bullet-point list so I’d recommend going through that section to see what you can join up into a smoother flow. Also, you seem to have a few rogue paragraph returns that have split sentences apart. Such as The ties | and belts hung down separately on a rank.
… and have a DNA ran on the blood. – is this missing ‘test’? If not, and DNA stands for shortened ‘DNA test’ then it should be ‘run’ rather than ‘ran’. Whatever you do on this one, you need to update the second use of the same phrasing too.
Nitpicking bits! ▼
Alright, so I spent rather a lot of time on nitpicking, but please don’t think that means I didn’t like the story. I did, and I want to see more of Detective Search. I want to know his background, I want to know if he worked with Sandra’s husband, I want to know how he copes with all the horrors he must see. He’s the kind of character you’d be happy to put your faith in. It was a nice little mystery, Lynda; a genre you should certainly keep writing in, and I’m glad you asked for this to be one of the three getting reviews. I don’t read mystery very much but I enjoyed this!
Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you need any clarification regarding my comments. I can be pretty waffly at the best of times.