The opening page of a book is crucial. Along with the cover image and the blurb on the back, it’s the evidence people use to decide whether this book is for them when they’re standing in a bookshop browsing.
When you’re writing a series, the beginning of a book is even more important. An author needs to remind their faithful readers the stage they’ve reached in the ongoing lives of the series characters and, at the same time, give people who’ve never read any of their previous books a quick understanding of the relationships between the key players.
Meanwhile, the reader needs to be given an idea of where the book’s going to go – both literally and metaphorically – and the conflicts that are likely to be part of the narrative. And the writer has to do all that without making it obvious that that’s what they’re doing. No wonder most authors write and rewrite their opening scenes multiple times.
Here’s the opening chapter of my new Teifi Valley Coroner novel, Not One Of Us which will be published on September the 9th. I’d be interested to hear how well you think I’ve done on all those points!
Glanteifi, August 1851
When the library door opened and Benton Reckitt was announced, I knew that somebody must be dead. Dr Reckitt did not make spontaneous social calls.
‘Probert-Lloyd, I’ve just— Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you had company.’
My private secretary, Lydia Howell, turned to face him. ‘Not company, Dr Reckitt, only me. I take it you need to see Harry urgently?’
It was a reasonable assumption, given the energy with which Reckitt had steamed into the room.
‘Somebody’s just brought me the most interesting sudden death.’
To most people, sudden death is shocking, troubling, even disturbing, but to Benton Reckitt it was invariably interesting. My spirits, very much lowered by a letter from the county magistrates that still lay open on the table next to Lydia, were suddenly lifted.
Lydia rose from her chair. ‘Then I shall leave you to it.’ She picked up the offending missive and folded it away. If only the magistrates’ latest attempt to bring me to heel could be put aside so easily.
‘No,’ I said, standing to forestall her withdrawal, ‘please stay. Another pair of ears can only help.’ And eyes, I might have said. Central blindness meant that I saw Reckitt as nothing more than a large figure in riding clothes. The minutiae of his dress, visible only in my peripheral vision, were lost to me, as were his facial expressions.
Lydia sat down again without comment.
I waved Reckitt to a chair and resumed my seat. ‘Do go on.’
‘I’ve just received a visit from a farmer’s wife from the other side of Eglwyswrw – towards Brynberian. She was away working for a few days when her husband sent somebody to tell her that her eldest daughter was dead.’
Sent somebody. It must say something about relations between man and wife that he had not gone to break the news himself.
‘And the interesting cause?’ I asked.
‘Sudden natural death.’
‘Those were the exact words written on the death certificate by the quack who was called to the house.’
I stifled a grin. In Reckitt’s opinion, any medical practitioner who did not adhere to his own rigorous scientific standards was unworthy of the title ‘doctor’. ‘So had she been ill?’ I asked. ‘How old was she?’
‘Pertinent questions. The young woman concerned was nineteen years old, and until she was, apparently, found dead in her bed yesterday morning was in perfect health but for a slight cold a few days ago.’
‘Does her mother suspect foul play?’ Lydia asked.
Reckitt turned to her. ‘She doesn’t know what to think. But she is convinced that her husband is keeping something from her.’
‘She thinks he might have had a hand in his daughter’s death?’ Lydia persisted.
‘What she suspects, Miss Howell, is neither here nor there,’ Reckitt said. ‘The fact is that no satisfactory cause has been given for this apparently healthy young woman’s death.’
Unexplained death was a constant affront to Reckitt, and he would do anything in his power to render it explicable.
‘I take it that this lady would like me to give my opinion, as coroner?’
‘Yours and mine both. She’d heard of my particular expertise in these matters.’
‘She’s not asked you to perform a post-mortem examination, surely?’
‘Not in so many words. But she came to me for my opinion on how her daughter died. It comes to the same thing.’
I put that blatantly self-serving suggestion aside for the time being. ‘And where is this lady now?’
‘On her way home. If we’re quick about it, we’ll find her still on the road.’
It was some time since I had heard the hall clock strike three. We would have to hurry if we were to have decent daylight in which to view this unfortunate young woman’s body. ‘Very well. I’ll go and change.’
‘Shall I send for Mr Davies?’
I turned back to him, schooling my features into blandness; I did not want Reckitt to think that John Davies’s absence represented anything other than a well-deserved holiday. ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to stand in as my assistant on this occasion, Reckitt – John’s not here. He’s in London. At the Great Exhibition.’
For more information about me and my books, including details of where you can see me at meet-the-author events in Wales during September, please go to my website: www.AlisHawkins.co.uk.
You can see Alis’s books on her Amazon page.