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First Five Pages: Love, Hate, and Murder and Mendelssohn

Have you ever read a book you loved and hated at the same time?Kerry Greenwood, Murder and Mendelssohn: A Phryne Fisher Mystery

Kerry Greenwood’s, Phryne Fisher Mystery, Murder and Mendelssohn, fell into that category for me.

I picked up the book from the new-book shelf at our local Mays Landing Library and decided to read it because I loved its exquisite cover: an exotic damsel wearing an elaborate, colorful, parrot-hibiscus-fern fringed shawl.

And I loved the title. Murder and Mendelssohn. Mystery and music. Nice alliteration.

As soon as I got home from the library, I snuggled down in my cozy reading chair all set to be enthralled by a mystery with musical overtones.

Disaster. But only at first.

Being an editor myself and a fan of Noah Lukeman’s book, The First Five Pages, A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, I read the first five pages of Greenwood’s book, unfortunately, with a critical eye.  (My bad habit: I can’t separate editing and reading!)

Here’s what grabbed me.

1. First Five Pages: Too many characters

Perhaps I am too much of a critic and not enough of a story line follower, but I got lost in the shuffle of at least eleven characters sprawled on the first two pages. Thirty choristers came ten pages later.

The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher; tired-out police detective Jack Robinson (unnamed until page 3); Dot, Phryne’s companion who was set to marry Detective Sergeant Hugh Collins; Tinker and Jane, Phryne’s adopted children; Mr and Mrs Butler, butler and cook (what a handy name!); Ruth, of unknown and unexplained personage; Ember, the black cat; and Molly, the sheepdog.

Why so many people (and animals) on the first two pages? Can all these people be essential to the plot? (No.) Where is the hook to keep me reading?

My initial thought was that this might be a first novel of a self-pubbed writer. I checked the book’s spine. Hmmm. Poisoned Pen Press, an established publisher of mysteries (since 1997) with numerous awards to their credit.  Greenfield is an Australian author so favors different spelling on words like colour and favourite. Perhaps they published an early draft, and perhaps there are more differences between American English and Australian English than I had realized. I will check on that.

Turns out that this book is Greenwood’s twentieth in her Phryne Fisher Mystery series and her 62nd book(!). These characters in M & M join the parade of characters from earlier books. Although series readers might enjoy an update on Phryne’s household menagerie, as a stand-alone book, these characters form a roadblock, deadening the beginning of the story.

But wait. Read on, and you will find a great story.

2. Verb Tense: Overuse of past progressive, with a switch to simple past

Notice the verb tense starting with the second sentence on page 1: the boring past progressive tense. Greenfield uses it to catalog the activities going on in her home, making her writing wordier than need be.

The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher was sitting…
She was wearing…
She was nibbling…
[Ember, her cat} was waiting…(in two sentences of 63-words) …[and] was contemplating…
She [Miss Phryne] was reading an autopsy report…
…the tired-out police detective was eating… [We don’t find out the detective’s name until page 3.]
Dot…was embroidering…
Tinker and Jane were playing chess…
Ruth was in the kitchen with Mrs. Butler shelling peas and discussing ways to cook pineapple.
Molly (the sheepdog) was lying under the table…

The deadly clue: overuse of the word was (seven times in eleven lines on the first page alone) with the progressive -ing form on verbs. This quickly becomes tedious reading because of its repetitive monotone nature.

But then. a switch:

…Mr. Butler sat down on his comfortable chair and sipped his after-breakfast cup of coffee.

What happened? Why the switch to simple past tense? Why not use simple past from the beginning and declutter the opening?

3.  Too much description

A barrage of details of Miss Phryne’s glamorous (ostentatious?) garden, morning outfit, and breakfast fill page one, leading one to believe that the main character is, well, quite a character.

The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher was sitting in her jasmine bower, drenched in scent. She was wearing a pale green silk gown embroidered with golden phoenixes, the symbol of the empress. Flaming pearls of longevity burned their way, comet-like, upon her fluttering sleeves. Her hair was as shiny as patent leather, cut in a neat bob which swung forward as she read. She was nibbling a croissant and drinking café au lait. With her pink cheeks and red lips and green eyes, she looked like a hand-coloured French fashion plate.

Other equally eye-catching and attention-getting outfits throughout the book receive similar mention. But not to be identified as a policewoman or inspector, Phyrne packs her .22 Beretta in her petticoat pocket.

A Queenscliff fisher boy, a minor character who “had attached himself at heel, like a small scruffy terrier” to the Fisher household, receives almost a full-page of description detailing why each member (including the pets) of this extended family likes him. Quite a lot of info for a minor character who occasionally brings fish for dinner. His role in the story: He occasionally asks questions that help move the mystery-solving process along because he is, as Phryne says, “endearingly intelligent.”

4. The Plot (or should I say Plots?)

A lot happens in Murder in Mendelssohn.

For me, the story started on page 2 with Miss Phryne reading an autopsy report. Immediate questions popped into my head that drew me into the story.

The much-hated and maligned choir director, Hugh Treggennis, gets murdered. Twice? Two murderers? Phyne called the murderer “flamboyant” and “with a point to prove.” Subtle humor throughout this book adds to its increasingly delicious flavor.

Someone has stifled an orchestral conductor with really quite a lot of sheets of Mendelssohn’s Elijah stuffed down his throat.

Seems excessive, even as musical criticism, ” commented Phryne.

The antics of the eccentric choir members ring true. They hated Tegennis (caricatured as a pig-in-a-suit by one anonymous chorister) and didn’t mind that he was dead, and all proclaimed their innocence in the matter. Of course.

Miss Phryne takes on the case. Oops. Miss Phryne gives tired-out police detective, Jack Robinson, assistance in solving this musical mystery. Let’s keep the record straight on that. Okay? *wink *wink.

One subplot has our heroine aiding and abetting John Willson, her former and current pro tem lover (complete with clothing ripped off in a frenzy of passion), in his bid to gain the attention of his currently unresponsive heart’s desire, Mr. Rupert Sheffield. This subplot comes with its own complete back story.

Mr. Rupert Sheffield is highly suspect for other possible international crimes, and hit men are on his trail attempting to silence him, that is, until John Wilson inadvertently foils their plans. Phryne unselfishly jumps in to solve the heart-throb problem when she realizes John is hopelessly enamored with Rupert.

Along the way to solving this mystery, you will receive music, etiquette, French cuisine, and French language lessons, all thrown in for extra measure. Phryne had been a poor nude artist’s model in France after the war so she is well-versed in all of these areas. Sorry, no recipes.

5. Overuse of Adverbs

Tinker, the fish boy, may be “endearingly intelligent,” but the adverbs in this book sound a bit high schoolish. Check these examples.

would undoubtedly award
occasionally making
confidingly laying her head
unexpectedly stung
endearingly intelligent
slightly failed
confidingly laying her head
reliably voracious
utterly uninterested
pleasantly free
rather meanly taken
really unsafe to eat
brooding darkly
particularly
extremely bitter
naturally bitter
unusually fraught rehearsal
thinking deeply
really quite a lot

Honest, I found all these adverbs in Chapter One. Greenfield uses “really quite a lot” of them. Treasure-hunting for adverbs added to the fun of reading this book! A sneak peak into Chapter Two tells us that Phryne had a “slightly sprained” ankle causing her to walk a little “gingerly” up the stairs,  dressed in a “decently quiet turquoise dress.” Well, you get the idea. The adverbs march on and on.

Move over Tom Swift!

Reviews

I checked Amazon reviews of this book and found a range of love-hate opinions. Die-hard Greenwood fans love the book; first-time Greenwood readers hate the book.

Personally, I love Phryne’s quirky and flamboyant personality, and I even got to love her adverbs. The solid plot kept me invested in the book from page three to the end.  And, to be honest, I really love those flaming pearls of longevity. I have got to have some for myself!

Obviously after twenty Phryne Fisher books, Greenwood is onto something. She has steady followers who look for the next title in the series despite (my) perceived writing problems in this volume.

Now, excuse me, I’m heading to the library to see if I can find more of Greenwood’s books. Her writing style intrigues me, including her bad habits. But as Novelist Elizabeth McCracken says “A writer’s voice lives in his or her bad habits” (quoted in Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page). That’s what makes Greenwood’s book memorable for me. But please, don’t copy her. Go find your own bad writing habits.

Related article: I is for Izzies, Arzies, Wazzies, and Werzies

Janice Hall Heck, retired educator and now nitpicky editor of On the Horizon, a bi-monthly community newsletter for Horizons at Woods Landing, Mays Landing, NJ, is quite possibly a grammar geek. You can also find her at    janiceheck.wordpress.com., on Twitter @janiceheck, and on Facebook at Janice Hall Heck.

Are You Smarter Than a Third Grader? Plurals and Apostrophes

During the course of my weekly Mahjong game with Linda, Suzanne, and Cathy, the conversation shifted to our English languageGraphic by Janice Heck error pet peeves.

Linda said, “I hate it when people misuse apostrophes. Don’t they learn about apostrophes in third grade?”

Well, no, in third grade the kids just want to get outside for recess to play ball. You don’t need apostrophes out on the field, just a good pitching or catching arm and fast running. With those three key ingredients, you can be a star.

Plurals and Apostrophe Confusion

It’s around third grade that apostrophes start their mischievous and devious lives.

Plurals come easily to young children, that is, until about third grade when they half-learn about apostrophes. Apostrophes look so grown up in writing that children begin to use them everywhere, forgetting what they have learned earlier about plurals. Many children get plurals and apostrophes straightened out after some patient teaching, but alas, many get stuck in third grade using apostrophes on plurals or omitting them on possessive nouns.

There’s Hope!

Teachers use an old rhyme to help children decode words with double vowels (rain, brain, pea, speak, teach, boat, coat, glue, and so on).

graphic credit: tiedupwstring.com

graphic credit: tiedupwstring.com

When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.

Thus in words like speak, teach, coat, and glue you pronounce the sound of the first letter (long vowels say their own name) while the second letter remains silent.

We can make up a similar rhyme to help us remember how to use apostrophes:

When two NOUNs go walking, the first one gets the apostrophe.

The Apostrophe’s Function

The apostrophe answers this question:   Who owns this (book, ball, pen, house, car, whatever)?

Who?   A person = Noun                Owns what?  A thing = Noun

Blaze this in Your Memory Banks: 

When two NOUNs go walking, the first one gets the apostrophe.

To use the possessive apostrophe correctly, you must have two nouns.

Here’s Abbey’s Alphabet to help you check out this guideline.

Check. Does every example have two nouns? (a person and an object)

Possessive nouns and apostrophes. Graphic by Janice Heck

Possessive Nouns and Apostrophes. Graphic by Janice Heck

Alas. Of  course, there are more apostrophe rules. We will talk about them in future posts. But for now, just remember that you need a possessive noun and an object noun to use an apostrophe to show possession.

Your Turn:

What writing quirks do you find in writing? What’s your pet peeve in writing?

Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and the Ghostly And

In previous posts, Serial Commas and Compulsive Behavior and Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and Zombies for Hire, we learned: use a comma before the conjunction and in a series (list) of three or more grammatically similar words, phrases, or clauses (even though journalists, Brits, and Aussies do not follow this convention). And remember to check the style guidelines of the publishers for whom you write to see which way they want you to use the serial comma.

The classic example using the serial comma before the conjunction:

The American flag is red, white, and blue.

American flag

But you know writers. They like to mix it up a bit. Once they master this basic rule of using a comma and conjunction in a series (list), they proceed to make variations on the rule.

One Variation: The Ghostly and.

Instead of using a final conjunction before the last element in the series (list), the writer simply drops the conjunction and.Death Warmed Over

Eliminating the and in a series in a sentence can be an effective style choice. Let’s go back to the Unnatural Quarter and see what Zombie Private Investigator, Dan Shamble is investigating now. (Kevin J. Anderson, Death Warmed Over, 2012)

List of Nouns and Noun Phrases with the Ghostly and

Note: The parentheses indicate the placement of the ghostly and.

I look pretty good for a dead guy, or so I’ve been told:
well-trimmed dark hair,
striking eyes accentuated by bold eyebrows, (    )
just the right amount of “rugged.”

I like the bustle and little distracting noises around the office:
the ringing phone,
the slam of file-cabinet drawers, (    )
the clacking of a keyboard as Sheyenne’s ghost types up reports.

In the back room of the flat, behind a closed door, I could hear
a whimper,
muffled screams, (    )
the sounds of a struggle.

List of Verb Phrases with the Ghostly and

The ghostly and with a series of verb phrases builds tension in the story.

I spotted the silhouette of a large hairy form
loping among the graves,
sniffing the ground, (     )
coming closer.

Without me in the office Robin threw herself back into her cases,
filing more briefs and appeals,
appearing in court, (     )
speaking with fiery vehemence on behalf of her clients.

List of Independent Clauses (complete sentences in a series) with the ghostly and

Businesses sprang up that catered to the specialized clientele:
Commercial blood drives commissioned fresh supplies for vampire customers;
processing plants developed seasonings and treatments to make chicken “taste just like human”; (     )
restaurants and bars served the proper food choices.

In order to live peacefully together, unnaturals had learned to control their base urges and get along with one another…
Werewolves no longer killed human victims each full moon,
vampires gave up drinking all but voluntarily donated blood, (    )
zombies and ghouls foreswore eating human flesh.

The Fragmented Spirit: The Serial and, the Ghostly and, and the First Word of Sentence and.

Why not throw in another way to use the word and in a sentence (or not)?

Our grammar school teachers frowned when we innocently began sentences with a capitalized And. But writers nowadays regularly use that capitalized And to begin sentences, thumbing their noses at their grade-school teachers, I guess.

In this next example, Kevin J. Anderson throws in three different ways to use the word and:

  1. the compound sentence and,
  2. the ghostly and,
  3. and the first word of sentence And.

I’m dead, for starters—it happens.
But I’m still ambulatory, and I can still think, (     ) still be a contributing member of society (such as it is, these days).
And still solve crimes.

Thank goodness for P. I. Shamble. What would this world be like if all those zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, succubi, and other assorted created had no legal assistance to solve their life’s problems?

Restless unnaturals instead of placated unnaturals? Let’s not go there! Keep up the good word, Shamble. In the meantime, the rest of us may borrow some of your writing stylistics using the conjunction and.

(Note: While zombie books are not especially a favorite of mine, I do believe it is important to read widely across all genres. Sometimes we can learn new things when reading in a genre that is not familiar to us. And, these books are funny!)

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