Pt. 3: Anatomy of a thriller’s great first chapter


Sakey drinks bouron with fellow crime novelist Sean Chercover. Photo by Brett Carlson.

Today concludes my series of posts on how to start a thriller novel off right. We’ve been analyzing the first chapter of THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES by Marcus Sakey, which you can read online for free. In the first post, I named many of the conflicting priorities a novelist has to serve in the first scene. In the second, we looked at how Sakey works to accomplish nearly all of them in his very first paragraph.

Today, I want to talk about the real magic of this chapter — that it revolves around a fascinating idea that’s complex enough to build a whole novel around: A man regains awareness on a desolate beach, naked in the ocean and nearly drowned. He can’t remember who he is or how he got here. He crawls

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to a car on the beach. It’s unlocked, and the key’s in the glovebox. In the trunk are clothes that fit him perfectly. He realizes he knows how to use the complicated systems of the BMW M5. He concludes that this must be his car, and his name must be the name printed on the insurance card in the glovebox, Daniel Hayes, and that it’s likely he tried to kill himself. (As the novel progresses, it quickly gets even better: though he’s turned up on the beach in Maine, he lives in Malibu, Calif.; the police are after him; his beautiful wife is dead, and he has no idea if he is the one who killed her, as they suspect).

These are powerful story questions. They make it really difficult for a reader to read the first five pages of this novel without finishing it. They also make Daniel Hayes into both investigator and investigated, a neat trick, since the stakes of this investigation couldn’t be higher for him. The premise also sets up interesting internal scenes with Daniel that explore the nature of memory and self-perception. And they touch on the universal middle-age theme of re-evaluating one’s life. Is the direction I’ve drifted the right one? Am I a good or neutral or bad person in the world? This gives the book not just entertainment value but literary depth. American crime fiction, done well, is our most relevant literature, not that morose, wallowing prose that passes itself off as “literary fiction.”

Sakey uses this novel to take us on this extraordinary experience with Hayes, and he does it by translating each scene into something we can relate to in our more boring lives. He’s able to do this by carefully observing the world with a writer’s eye, noticing and wondering about things around him that others let slip past unnoticed. To prove it, I’ll end with a section from the chapter that made me say wow the first time I read it:

It was like that terrible moment he sometimes had waking up in a strange environment, in the dark of a friend’s living room, or in a hotel, that period where his brain hadn’t yet come online and everything was automatic, just panic and readiness and fear, the tension of waiting for certainty to click, for normalcy to fall like a warm blanket. That moment always passed. It passed, and he remembered where he was and what he was doing there.

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This article has 2 comments

  1. Kimberly Israel 07/13/2011, 10:06 am:

    Okay, that premise got my interest – the book is now added to my reading list :-)

    • Kenisha 07/25/2011, 8:31 am:

      I love reading these articles bceause they’re short but informative.

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