Powerful Opening Hooks
After reading how important a novel’s first page is, I decided to check out a few. Using Amazon’s “Look inside” and Libby’s, “Download a sample,” I checked out half a dozen opening paragraphs in various genres. Some piqued my interest enough that I’ve borrowed the book.
I’ve never read anything by John Grisham; my impression from reviews is that his books are thrillers, and definitely on the darker side. However, the title, A TIME FOR MERCY, sounded fairly hopeful. His first page starts with a such a compelling hook that I couldn’t quit! He’s layered a number of issues into his first chapter, all with powerful hooks.
The writer starts with a picture of domestic abuse – something I’m familiar with. My birth mom was beaten severely at times by her father; she and my dad led an Andy Capp & Florrie life. My one sister got many beatings from a drunken spouse; when he started choking her, she finally left.
Almost 2am, Josie’s waiting for her boyfriend to come home. Stuart’s a sloppy, violent drunk so she needs to be awake; she may need to protect her two teens who are upstairs, barricaded in the girl’s room. Brought up rough herself, living in an old camper before Stuart took her in, she knows she and the kids have nowhere to go if they can’t stay here, so she puts up with the escalating violence. But she won’t have him hurting 16-year-old Drew–who’s small for his age – and 14-year-old Kiera.
Finally he staggers in, angry that she’s up. She tries to placate him; he accuses her of cheating, starts slapping her around. She tries to keep things toned down for her kids’ sake but she really has no chance. Stuart’s been a street brawler all his life. Finally he gives her a pile-driver punch that shatters her jaw and knocks her cold.
Then he thinks of the girl upstairs and fancies a sexual encounter. (He’s abused her before–and threatened to kill her if she ever told.) But they’ve barricaded the door well. After several clumsy attempts to force his way into her bedroom, he gives up, goes downstairs, and passes out on the bed. After awhile the teens creep downstairs and find their mom out cold; they’re sure she’s dead. Drew calls 911, says, “Stuart killed our mother.”
Drew checks on him. Passed out now, but if he wakes up they know he’ll beat them for being downstairs. He has no use for Josie’s kids – nothing but white trash – won’t buy them food, treats them like slaves. He’s Somebody in the community; his family’s big here; he owns a house and land, has lots of friends. When sober he’s Mr Nice Guy; everyone likes him. Stuart’s a deputy sheriff, the officer with the friendly wave and cheerful smile who gives talks at schools about the dangers of drugs.
When his violent side shows, his fellow deputies cover for him. He’s been involved in drunken brawls that never get reported. Two other times when Josie called for help because he was beating her, his buddies came and settled him down; no other action was taken; if reports were even filed, they disappeared.
So Drew knows they’ll get no real help from the police. He’s at the end of his rope emotionally. He goes into the bedroom and takes Stuart’s police gun, always kept loaded, from the holster. Terrified that the man will wake up and start abusing them, filled with hate for this murderer, he sees no hope ahead. A few minutes later Stuart moans, shifts on the bed – and Drew shoots him.
Cops arrive; an ambulance comes and takes Josie away; the teens are taken to jail – for their own safety as much as anything. Now Sheriff Ozzie learns about Stuart’s domestic violence. “Why wasn’t I told this,” he asks his men. “Where’s the report on those incidents?” (Later he learns that Stuart’s blood alcohol content when he died was 3.6. Raging drunk.)
The sheriff, a newly-elected black man in this redneck Alabama community, is basically a good guy but knows he had to tread carefully. Drew’s under arrest for murder, but he asks Kiera if she has any family she can go to. Josie and the kids have gone to church a few times though Stuart didn’t like it at all and was rude to Pastor Brother Charles when he came to call. But Kiera asks Ozzie to call Brother Charles. He comes and takes her to his home.
A kind young man, Brother Charles is also fairly new in the community. He doesn’t notice the spiteful looks directed at him by the deputies present. He’s here for the killer’s family and in their minds their buddy was the innocent victim shot by this young punk. Stuart’s family likewise is gathering together, murmuring about revenge. Sheriff Ozzie will have his hands full controlling their reaction. And he’s up for re-election next year, a good time to show himself tough on crime.
Jake, one of the main characters in this drama, being the only reliable defense lawyer around, knows this will be a very unpopular case. He believes that everyone has the right to a fair trial, but the last time he’d defended someone in a high-profile, controversial case like this, he got nasty looks everywhere he went, was harassed by phone calls, even threatened, for up to three years after.
As he attends church that morning he senses the mood among his own Presbyterian church people. A minor or not, he’s killed a cop. And for sure the fundamentalists down the street, Baptists and Pentecostals who favored the death penalty, will be out for blood. This boy has no chance to escape the gas chamber. And if Jake acts as this boy’s defense, he’ll be universally loathed. As word gets around that he’ll be defending the boy, he starts getting threatening phone calls. “If you get that kid off…!” His wife even gets one at her job.
At the jail Drew curls himself into a fetal ball, wrapping the thin blanket around him. In the eyes of friends and family, Stuart has become a hero, a martyr almost. The media, with no official word, is distorting the picture big time: “Officer killed in the line of duty!” Folks are talking of skipping the trial, dealing with this cop-killing thug right now. Meanwhile Brother Charles and his Good Shepherd church rally around Josie and her family.
You can just see the thunder-heads building in the sky! Grisham has put so many issues on the plate, all compelling hooks:
Is there justice and a fair trial for the poor in America?
Will the defense be able to prove the threat Josie and her children were facing?
Will the relatives take justice in their own hands?
How will the family and predominantly white community react to a black sheriff if he allows the truth about Stuart’s violent character?
Will the area’s fundamental churches attack Brother Charles’s group for standing by the killer’s family?
Will the community lynch the defense lawyer?
Atticus Finch, where are you?
I’ve no clue how this will end and can’t give it a rating at this point. But if you choose to read this book, don’t start it later in the evening like I did!