Monday, 13 August 2012

Chapter One: The Devotion of Suspect X

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.

If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I will usually give a novel at least a few pages before I give up on it. I don't need to be hooked - drawn in slowly is fine. If I'm not hooked but I see potential, I'll give it more. But there comes a point - and this depends on some of those other factors you mentioned - when enough is enough and the author had his or her chance.

I put down a hugely popular novel because I couldn't get into the first chunk of pages. I was told I needed to give it a hundred or so BEFORE IT GOT GOOD - what?! No way. Patience is not one of my strong suits. :)

J.L. Campbell said...

As long as the story is interesting enough to keep me invested, I'll stay with the book. Although the start of this one is slow, obviously the writer knows a thing or two about keeping the reader with him.

Catherine Stine said...

yes, there are other factors besides the first page that are important, such as the overall premise, the way the characters pull you in, the quality of the prose. This post is helpful and I did RT! Thanks.
Catherine Stine’s Idea City

mshatch said...

If I know the author is going to deliver the goods, I can be very patient indeed. A lot of epic fantasy can have slow beginnings which are essential to understanding place and time. I think readers aren't as patient as they once were, maybe due to the prevalence of YA where everything is bang bang bang. Not that there's anything wrong with that (I love YA) but sometimes it's nice to take the slow road.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Mood,

I agree, not all stories need that ball-gripping first few pages. Harry Potter is one of my fav. book and the first ten pages don't even mention Harry. It's all about his uncle and his boring day... building up the dull average world he lives in.

I had started my first novel similarly. Explaining the town, the people, etc. I was CONDEMNED... reviews about my writing were wonderful, BUT, they hated the beginning and ALL the agents and editors stressed to restructure the beginning. Until then, I really had nothing.

I, of course, disagreed. So I am still wondering what to do next with it.

Thanks for the post. As always, very helpful.

C D Meetens said...

I'll usually give a book a while to get going. With an opening like this one, I'm already intrigued at details such as the missing green bicycle, and why he is noting everything as he is. It's nice to know this detail then is extremely important later - sort of a reward for the reader.

mooderino said...

@Madeline-I think books can definitely fail to engage the reader but the first page is not necessarily where it happens.

@JL-it's tricky to know which authors are going somewhere and which aren't, so it would certainly help getting there quicker than later, there's no doubting that. But I think we all read enough to know those first few pages (if it's not a thriller) can be a bit slow.

@Catherine-tweet appreciated!

@mshatch-I think we're being pushed into a more bang bang kind of world. Which is fine. But it's like with movies that used to come in all varieties with string roles for women and social issues, then someone figures out a certain kind of movie made big, big bucks and now look where we are.

@Michael-that refusal to even entertain an alternative approach is what I think is damaging. Not that long slow starts should be welcomed with open arms, but they should be judged on their merits not a general rule.

@CD-Of course you don't know the details will be important later so you have to go on faith, but only for a five or six pages. Seems reasonable to me. said...

I love new perspectives, and you just have me one. Thanks!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I think real readers will always give a book a chance. It's the writers who read a book every once in a while (a bestseller in order to dissect what made it a success in trying to duplicate it) that are the huge critics. Those kinds of readers are not good readers because they aren't reading to enjoy something. They're reading to try and improve their chances at making a buck.

mooderino said...

@Summer-New Perspectives was of course the name of my band in the 80s.

@Michael-sadly lots of agents too.

Caryn Caldwell said...

Plus once word gets out that a book is a slow start - but worth it - people are a lot more likely to keep going. I couldn't get into The Poisonwood Bible. The first chapter just didn't grab me, so I always put it down and went onto another book. Then one day I heard that the book picks up after the first chapter and is worth the read. I tried again, read on, and was absolutely hooked. But if I hadn't heard it was worth it, I probably wouldn't have powered through, and would have just moved on to one of the hundreds of other books I still want to read.

mooderino said...

@Caryn-I think word of mouth, reviews, book bloggers are all a big part of how a book is received. Publishers should also help in terms of marketing but that seems less and less likely these days.

nutschell said...

I love this series of yours. the First chapter is the most important one, and analyzing what makes first chapters work/fail is crucial for prepublished writers like myself :)


mooderino said...

@nutschell-thanks very much!

Ciara said...

I think there are so many ways to intrigue a reader in the first few pages. It can be action, intrigue, dialogue, terror, or a great laugh. I think there just has to be something.
Great post. It's great to be back after the crazy summer.

sewa mobil said...

Nice article, thanks for sharing.

mooderino said...

@Ciara-I agree, there are many ways to get the reader hooked.


Rachna Chhabria said...

I finished this book last week. The first few pages were indeed slow, but once I ploughed through them, it became better and better. The ending took me by surprise.

Yes, the author drops a whole lot of clues in the first few pages :)

mooderino said...

@Rachna-it was your blog where I first saw this book mentioned, so thank you for that.

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