This is a continuation of my series of first chapter dissections where I analyse the opening chapter of a successful novel to find out what makes it work, how the author hooked the reader, which rules were followed, and which were broken to good effect.
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino is a mystery novel of the classic 'genius' detective type. If you'd like to read the first few pages for yourself you can do so here.
The book opens as follows:
At 7:35 A.M. Ishigami left his apartment as he did every weekday morning. Just before stepping out onto the street, he glanced at the mostly full bicycle lot, noting the absence of the green bicycle. Though it was already March, the wind was bitterly cold. He walked with his head down, burying his chin in his scarf. A short way to the south, about twenty yards, ran Shin-Ohashi Road. From the intersection the road ran east into the Edogawa district, west towards Nihonbashi. Just before Nihonbashi, it crossed the Sumida River at the Shin-Ohashi bridge.
Let’s face facts, this is a dull opening. It’s a good book, having sold more than two million copies in Japan alone. It’s a well executed crime mystery where we watch the murder being committed, we know who’s responsible, and then we follow the cops as they try to work out what happened.
There’s a stunning twist towards the end that works very well in terms of making you spit food out if you happen to be eating while reading. The procedural stuff up to that point is fairly standard but generally entertaining in the style of most good murder mysteries, and the protagonist, a genius physics professor who helps the police solve crimes, is very charming in the same way as Holmes or Poirot or Colombo or whoever.
But the first half of the first chapter is a very slow, plodding affair. In fact, if you go on Goodreads or any other site where people review books, you will find many comments about how it’s a slow start but keep going it gets better etc.
The thing is, the author is an experienced writer and this isn’t his first book. He’s president of the Mystery Writers of Japan. This book has won many awards. Why would such an accomplished writer write such a lacklustre opening?
The book starts with Ishigima (who turns out to be the antagonist, and also a genius mathematician) setting off to work. He is a high school maths teacher. The first five pages describe his route in a lot of detail. The streets, the bridges, the weather, the homeless people. It is not an exciting journey.
He arrives at a sandwich shop to buy his lunch. It becomes obvious he has a crush on the woman working there, who also happens to be his neighbour. He is too shy to say anything to her. He leaves.
Then there is a POV shift to the woman in the sandwich shop. She used to be a nightclub hostess and is a single mother. Her abusive ex-turns up and harasses her and her teenage daughter. Things get ugly and she ends up killing her ex at her apartment.
So, the first chapter (about twenty pages) is certainly full of incident. What happens next is the neighbour (Ishigami the maths wizard) helping them cover it up and that is the main thrust of the rest of the book.
But those first few pages of Ishigami going to work feel very pedestrian. Slow, overly detailed and not particularly interesting. No hook. And yet, they are vital to both the tone of the piece, and the eventual twist that made the book such a smash hit.
On a basic level we get a sense of the setting, the world we’re in and the kind of man who will challenge our detectives through the story. But that can be done in many ways. What we also get though, is the key to the mystery buried in all that verbiage. If it was done more briefly it might not have the impact necessary for you to remember it. If it was made more of, it might attract too much attention and give the game away.
Those first five pages of him observing his route to work explain everything you need to know to solve the mystery.
Not that you have to agree the author got the balance right, but clearly he made an informed choice about what he felt was the right length to enable him to plant his seed.
The most popular current ideology is that the first few pages are what make or break a book. But this book sold millions even though reviews regularly point out the slow start. But most of those reviews also say something to the effect of ‘it got good after the first few pages.’ They didn’t give up on the book because of the slow start.
I’m not saying dull openings have no effect, but obviously there are other more important factors. Reputation, reviews, the reader not being an impatient child, the first chapter being more important than the first page (possibly), and maybe a bunch of other variables.
Which makes me thing that the magic first page that hooks the reader into buying the book is certainly a great idea, but not necessarily the holy grail it is sometimes made out to be.
You can find breakdowns of other genres (thriller, horror, romance, sic-fi, fantasy, MG, YA etc.) here: Ch.1 Analyses. Books include Harry Potter, Hunger Games, The Notebook, Fight Club and many others.
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