The first chapter of a mass-market murder mystery needs to establish the scene, the characters and the overall theme. In the last excerpt, we got all three: we know that we’re in Atlanta on a cold winter’s night and a homeless man is dead; that Detective Diana Siddall is weary, jaded, competent and has relationship problems; that the Reaper still lurks out there.
Now let’s take a look at the next subscene. We pick up immediately after the last post left off:
Dave Keller, chief of Crime Scene, stepped in between the lights, so that Diana saw first a guy in dark blue coveralls and grey freedom-rock hair, then a long-haired silhouette lighting a cigarette. “I’m surprised I beat you here,” he said.
“I was out in Lake Claire. Any similarities?”
“Come look for yourself.” He took a second drag off the cigarette, then placed it carefully in a glass specimen jar and closed the lid. He led her into the glare of the lights and through the trees, all the way back to the lip of the great loud concrete canyon of the Downtown Connector.
“They came all the way back here to pee?”
“Guy said it was his friend that found the baby. He was already freaked out by that. So you can imagine his shock when he figures out he’s stress-peeing onto a corpse.” Keller pointed at a longer bundle of rags that lay against the concrete lip. Diana cocked her head back and forth to resolve the shape into that of a man, lying on his right side with his face up against the curb. He wore layers of filthy clothing and reeked of urine fresh and stale. Under the stains and clothes, he was small, black and balding.
“He could be one of the locals,” said Diana. She turned around to gaze out of the thicket and into the darkness of the bad, empty part of Peachtree, too far north for downtown towers and too far south for Midtown gentrification. She could see a few shadows on the far side of the street leaning against the fence of the Episcopalian church. Even in bright sunlight, homeless men tend to look alike, but Diana had been a cop for seven years and knew that every one of them had a story of his own. “I bet they know him.” She sighed. “Let’s see the eyes.”
Keller pulled on the man’s left shoulder, rolling him onto his back. No rigor, even on a cold night.
“Freshly dumped,” she murmured.
“Maybe two or three hours ago,” said Keller. He pointed at the man’s face, which Diana had so far managed not to look at. The flesh was smooth, the mouth a rictus. The open sockets made it look as if the man were wearing a mask.
Diana took a deep breath, then crouched down for a closer look. There was no torn flesh around the eyes. The right socket was clean, but a track of dried fluid trailed down from the left. “Looks like a pretty neat job.”
“Just like the last one, hunh? My guess, the Reaper or whoever is using one of those long-handled ice tea spoons, something like that.”
“We don’t know it’s the Reaper, Dave.”
“Well. Science dictates that we say we don’t know.”
So we’ve gone deeper into setting, character and theme here. Now we know that we’re in a particular place in Atlanta, an island of relative blight characterized by a below-grade superhighway and a big homeless shelter; that Dave Keller knows his job and probably a lot more; that there’s death in life and life in death—the baby was abandoned but then rescued, the urine is both stale and fresh. We also have a couple more pieces of evidence that the Reaper’s back, but like Keller says, we have to hold back on jumping to that conclusion for now.