Saturday, April 25, 2009

First Chapter Study: Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder

The first in a series analyzing the starting chapters of popular cozy mysteries. This book by Joanne Fluke is the first of a highly successful series of cozies featuring cookie-shop owner Hannah Swensen. (3rd person POV)

Fluke takes her time building her cozy world, developing her characters, and giving their backstory. We meet multiple people from the town, with an extensive introduction to the protagonist's cat. (Cozy readers like cats.) We learn the name and geography of the town, a little about the family of the protag, and meet several other townspeople. There is no hint of anything amiss until near the end of the chapter, when they notice that their milk delivery is late. Checking on the truck, Hannah discovers that the driver is dead, shot.

What engages the reader? There is not much suspense, drama, or even conflict at the beginning to draw the reader in. Perhaps the thing that engages most (and this is subjective) is the identifiable nature of the protag. She feels inferior. She can't remember when she had a date, and her mother drives her up the wall. Her sister outshines her. The target audience is female for a cozy, and what woman can't identify with that?

The town is another factor--a lake with tourist cottages, a town with a main street. Even the business names-- Cookie Jar, Cozy Cow, Kiddie Korner-- evoke that small-town feel.

The strategy here seems to be to engage the reader in the characters and the setting before beginning the mystery plot. This is the main character moving about her normal world.

In depth analysis:

First paragraph: Hannah Swensen slipped into the old leather bomber jacket that she'd rescued from the Helping Hands thrift store and reached down to pick up the huge orange tomcat that was rubbing against her ankles. "Okay, Moishe. You can have one refill, but that's it until tonight."

Okay, first impressions--not a lot of tension there. The introduction to the character includes a hint that she is either thrifty, or not very well off financially. And there's a cat, a common fixture in cozies. But this cat is unlike the regal beasts used by other cozy writers. I can't say this is a hook, per se. She's starting with character introduction. Let's take a look at what she accomplishes in the rest of the chapter, which, for copyright purposes, I will not reproduce. But you can read the beginning of it here:


2nd: Backstory--how she got the cat, and an implication that Hannah doesn't get along with her mother.

3rd: Telly paragraph in which cat catches a mouse, and Hannah picks it up and throws it away. She also has a drooping African violet she forgets to water--reminding me of the withered herbs in my protags window. I like details like that, but again no 'tension.' Info--she lives in a condo.

4th: Says goodbye to the cat, gets ready to leave, and the phone rings.

5th: Establishes time, 6AM, and another hint that the character is thrifty or poor.

6th: Backstory--cat hates the mother.

7th: Dialogue: Can't talk now.

8th: Dialogue: No, didn't give Norman my number.

9th: Brief flashback: mother tried to fix her up with Norman, romance tease.

10th: An internal rant about her frustrations over her mother's matchmaking. Nicely introduces her age as almost 30.

11th: Rant continues: Hannah is the eldest daughter, and Norman is an older, balding dentist.

12th: Cat flips over his food dish.

13th: Hannah uses the overturned food as an excuse to get off the phone, spoils him rotten, and rushes out the door.

That takes me to the end of the third page....

page 4: Hannah climbs in her truck (backstory of the truck, and we learn she owns a cookie shop). She relays a message to her neighbor, Phil Plotnik. As she drives, we are introduced to the geography. The town is called Lake Eden, which is near Eden Lake. The state is Minnesota. The air is nippy, which allows her to establish the time as the third week of October.

page 5: The summer tourists are gone, and the town population is down to about 3000. A milkman, Ron Lasalle, is delivering milk. He looks like he is thinking about something. Hannah will ask him later when he comes into the shop, as usual.

page 6: Ron waves. Ron is cute. Ron was injured in a highschool footback game, ending his pro aspirations. Hannah drives slowly, so she doesn't get a ticket from Herb Beeseman.

page 7: She parks, and does not plug in her car to keep it warm--not needed yet. Claire Rodgers parks next to her. It is rumored that Claire is having an affair with the mayor. Claire just got in a new shipment of party dresses. She suggests that Hannah stop in and pick up something for the holidays.

page 8: Hannah can't figure out where she would wear a cocktail dress, and doesn't remember the last time she had a date. Hannah starts mixing dough. Lisa Herman will be in to help at 7:30.

page 9: Hannah makes coffee, and reflects that the Cookie Jar is a meeting place for the town. Lisa arrives and starts baking.

page 10: Lisa is 19, a full-time employee, and they now work as a team. Lisa's father has Alzheimers, and has forgotten he is Catholic. They open the shop.

page 11: Hannah's sister Andrea arrives, looking gorgeous. Hannah feels inadequate. Andrea is married to Bill Todd, a deputy sheriff. They have a four-year-old daughter, and Andrea works as a realtor. Hannah gets Tracey (the daughter) a glass of milk, and Andrea explains that she needs to run for a hair appointment. She is showing the old Peterson farm later.

page 12: Mr. Harris is interested in the farm as a hobby farmer, fixing it up and hiring others to do the work. Hannah thinks Andrea is a hobby wife and mother. Andrea asks Hannah to watch Tracey for an hour until daycare opens.

page 13: Hannah and Lisa give Tracey a cookie. Lisa worries that Ron hasn't come yet with the milk.

page 14: Tracey saw the truck drive past, and heard a bang--like a backfire. Hannah goes out into the alley to check.

page 15: Hannah sees Ron's truck at the end of the alley, and his legs are sticking out. She assumes he is working on it, and offers to call a tow truck.

page 16. Ron is dead (shot), holding a cookie in his hand.


  1. Nice! I like the way you have it set up by chapter and paragraph--I get a nice feel for her pacing that way. Looking forward to more reviews!