Friday, May 1, 2009

First Chapter Study: The Quiche of Death

This is the third in a series of blog posts in which I'm studying how various successful cozy mystery writers structure their first chapters. The Quiche of Death, by M.C. Beaton, is the first book in her successful Agatha Raisin series. (3rd person)

You can read the first few pages here:

Summary: Agatha Raisin, owner of a successful PR firm, retires early and moves to a cottage in the Cotswolds. Finding the pace too slow, she revisits London only to find that she doesn't seem to belong in either place. She returns to the cottage, determines to enter a cooking contest to win local favor (she doesn't cook), and then steals her neighbor's cleaning woman.

This is a great character introduction of a very engaging character. She is a once likeable and unlikeable, sympathetic and ruthless, an odd combination that keeps you reading, wondering how it is going to turn out for her.

There is no hint of a crime yet, only that Agatha has made some enemies, and considering her personality, is likely to make more. Beaton creates tension by the contrast of a very assertive, and perhaps aggressive, personality in a quiet village setting, and by establishing an important goal, and then dashing it in pieces.

Agatha's goals, which are unclear to her at the beginning (she thinks she wants peace, tranquility, and security) become clearer, when she realizes that she's lonely and needs friendship and acceptance. This is almost universally identifiable. The obstacles to those goals are her own ruthless personality and the closed nature of the small community to outsiders, as evidence by her neighbor's inclusion in that category after living there for twenty years.

In-depth analysis:

First paragraph: Mrs. Agatha Raisin sat behind her newly cleared desk in her office in South Molton Street in London's Mayfair. From the outer office came the hum of voices and the clink of glasses as her staff prepared to say farewell to her.

A lot of information in this concise paragraph. We learn her name, first of all. She is given the title Mrs., so we know that she is, or has been married. And the formality shows that she is probably someone to whom respect is given. She is not just Agatha, she is Mrs. Agatha Raisin. The fact that she sat behind her "newly cleared desk" (and yes, sometimes I guess you need those pesky 'ly adverbs) shows that the desk is not generally cleared, that this something new and significant. A change is taking place. We are given the address, which would probably mean something more to those who are familiar with London, but London is enough for me to get the location. And the second sentence is a very showy way, appealing to the sense of hearing, to say that Agatha is leaving her position. Since the staff is hers, we can guess that she is some kind of manager, at least, in this office setting.


2: Backstory and introduction of goal. She is retiring, and her goal has always been to move to a quaint cottage in the Cotswolds. She is on the brink of achieving her goal. My interest just perked up here. Someone was just telling me to focus on goals and the obstacles to those goals as a way of building up tension in the first chapter.

3: Introduction of the cozy setting, and a strengthening of the goal. The Cotswolds represent "beauty, tranquility, and security" to Agatha. And she had wanted it since childhood. Beaton raises the stakes here. This move is very important to Agatha.

4: Agatha had purchased the cottage. And is already a little disappointed in the name of the village.

5: Physical and character description of Agatha.

6: Description of how Agatha was perceived by her staff--she is a character.

In this description, Agatha pops out of the page, larger than life, but often in the negative sense. She is described as having no charm, no friends, a work-a-holic, and somewhat ruthless in her business practices. It's an interesting contrast to the peace and tranquility that she has apparently dreamed of her entire life. Already you suspect that this retirement is not going to turn out as Agatha has hoped.

7: Agatha begins to doubt that everything is going to turn out as she has hoped.

8: She goes into the outer office to say goodbye.

9: Roy made punch.

10: Her staff gives her gifts, and she begins to doubt the move more.

11: Agatha addresses the staff, and there is a bit of explaining here too, of what she has agreed with the new owners of the firm. And a joke about crotchless panties: a big hint that she is no Miss Marple.

12: Roy explains his gift.

13: Agatha leaves the party.

14: She elbows someone and steals their cab. Hmmm. Interesting person. You have to wonder how it is going to work out when she elbows someone aside on her way to peace and tranquility. Brilliant.

15: Train ride. Everything is waiting for her at her cottage.

16: Agatha falls asleep.

17: Foreshadowy passage. Agatha ponders the use of the word "terminate" when it refers to train passage. She switches trains. The day is now cold and grey, and her euphoria from the punch is going away. Nice mood transition. This is really a great paragraph.

Page by page:

page 4: A lot of great wording as Agatha continues her slow train journey. Dismal words: "straggily," "gloomily," "jaundiced." "Rising wind whining over the bleak fields." This is like a portal for her--a portal to a different world.

page 5: Description of the town and the cottage. The description of both contains elements of the fairy-tale idealism of what Agatha thought she wanted--a charming, cozy setting, but is interspersed with some contrasts that hint that all will not be as she expected. Very nice.

page 6: Continued description of the decor, which she had left up to an interior decorator. Much is fake, and it doesn't seem like her. She goes into town in search of a store for cooking ingredients. She is heartened by the greetings of people in the town.

page 7: She buys a quick dinner to microwave and a book. She goes home, turns her TV on, then off again, reads her book and heats her dinner.

page 8: After a week, she has toured all the local sights, spent every evening home alone, and has learned the difference between a friendly greeting (which she always got) and friendship, which she had not found. She heartens herself by saying that she can always go back to visit London whenever she wants.

page 9: Agatha returns to London to visit her former PR firm, unsure of how to explain that she is nothing in the eyes of the villagers--only she finds nothing at her PR firm either. It is shut down. She goes to visit the man she sold it to.

page 10: Agatha confronts the new owner, who tells her that most of the staff took 'redundancy pay' and no longer work for him. She tells him off and runs into Roy, who is now dressed in a suit instead of his more unconventional clothing.

page 11: Agatha inquires after the rest of the staff, which has been scattered, and invites Roy down for the weekend. He declines. She can't get a cab, and the tube trains are idle due to a transport strike.

page 12: Agatha, no longer feeling at home in London, reflects on her life.

page 13: More reflection (backstory) on her marriage, as she returns to her cottage. She goes back to the store, buys a frozen dinner, and sees a sign for a quiche-making contest.

page 14: Agatha contemplates that winning the quiche contest might put her in the good graces of the community. While in her garden, Agatha greets the neighbor woman, who refuses to respond. Agatha finds the rudeness refreshing, and goes over to her front door for a visit.

page 15: Agatha asks the neighbor about acquiring a cleaning woman. The neighbor has one, but doubts she has time to work for Agatha. Armed with the name, Agatha goes to the tavern and gets the cleaning woman's address.

page 16: Agatha visits the cleaning woman, and offers a higher hourly amount to lure her from neighbor.

page 17: The cleaning woman agrees to work for Agatha, and Agatha goes home and greets her neighbor with a huge smile, feeling very happy with herself.

1 comment:

  1. Rofl. I like this Agatha character! I'll have to pick up a copy of this book. The story sounds rich, and the character of Agatha sounds colorful.