I’ll use an excerpt from Death is Another Life by Robert Morton (Solstice Publishing) to illustrate a few pointers.
Here, the mystery might even pose a threat from the reader’s viewpoint since the narrative has already revealed the evil side of Zondadari. To echo my blog on dialogue – Let’s Talk – here there is plenty of speech and interaction, yet there are only four instances of ‘said’ in this excerpt, though only two of them are actually attributions.
See the surroundings from a single viewpoint, in this case, Maria’s.
As here, try to end the chapter on a note of menace or a note of concern.
Maria, the Maltese-American journalist meets the mysterious Count…(p80):
Maria parked the car a little way up the road, just beyond a pile of dumped building material on the roadside, under an overhanging tamarisk which might keep the interior of the car cool while she reconnoitred. The road was dusty and pot-holed, the tarmac edges crumbling away with neglect. She’d had difficulty finding the place and had stopped several people to make enquiries. Finally, she found it, to the north-east of Mellieha, down a winding road of evergreen oaks near the Selmun tower.The entrance to the Tabona residence was set back from the twisting road. A drive curved up a gentle slope, through the welcome shade of shrubs and almond trees.
Its strap over one shoulder, her bag tapped her side as she walked.
Ahead rose the imposing tall iron gates, each side adorned with a family crest incorporating the Virgin Mary. The wrought-iron decoration was too fancy for her taste, but she appreciated it as a work of art. To the left of the gate pillars was another driveway, presumably leading to a neighbouring villa.
Assuring herself there was nobody about, she pulled out the small binoculars. They told her little.
The Tabona villa was built on a rocky prominence, with the veranda facing the sea. The red-tiled roof was immaculate: obviously, no moss was allowed to take root there. Roses climbed the whitewashed walls. The three separate stories of the villa blended in with the limestone rock covered with shrubs.
A rustling sound behind made her turn and lower the glasses and her heart suddenly started hammering.
She took a sharp intake of breath.
A man was silhouetted by the high Maltese sun, standing in the gap that the neighbouring drive presented. A large black Alsatian sat by his side. Its hackles were up and it growled, baring big sharp teeth.
CHAPTER 7: The chill of the shadow
“Oh, you startled me,” Maria said, trying to make light of her reaction.
“My apologies for creeping up on you.” The man possessed a gentle, calming voice. He stepped forward, though still concealed as if by preference by the shadows from the bougainvillea. Observing her discomposure, he whispered, “Stay, Prince,” and the dog obeyed, alert ears pricked. “I’m a neighbour of the Tabonas – Count Zondadari.” And he slipped his walking stick under his arm and offered a welcoming hand. The whites of his eyes shone out of the shade.
“Good afternoon, sir.” His hand was large, powerful, yet his touch was gentle and cool. “I’m Maria Caruana, a reporter–”
“Ah, yes, The Sting. Quite a newspaper! I’ve read you, often. I like your writing. You’re not afraid of the truth.”
Nice of him to say so, even if he was merely being polite. She nodded and smiled an acknowledgment. “Thank you. But I try to remember what William Blake said–
“A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent. Isn’t that it?”
She was impressed. “Yes. I won’t use truth to hit someone over the head with.”
“Unlike some sanctimonious reporters I’ve met! Bravo, Maria!”
She waved the binoculars about. “I don’t normally go snooping.”
“Why not? You must get your story, no matter what.”
“Are you making fun of me?”
“On the contrary, I admire you.” His eyes glinted, humour in them.
“I’m interested in the recent sad bereavement suffered by Mr. Tabona.”
Count Zondadari pointedly eyed her binoculars.
She flushed. “Normally, I’m not so blatant. But word has it he’s not at home. I just wanted to look the place over. Get a feel for it. A rich man’s retreat.” She shrugged. “I really want to find out why she would throw so much away.”
Count Zondadari stepped forward, his black fedora casting his face in shadow. “Perhaps I could be of help. My villa is next door and overlooks a fair portion of his–”
“Bad planning, wasn’t it?” He looked askance at her. “I mean, the lack of privacy–”
“The Tabona land was sold by my family, so I suppose whoever built their place didn’t have much choice in the matter. Some of my relatives, I must admit, were somewhat nosy!”
His apparent candour was refreshing. “Thank you. I would like to accept, but–” There was her planned restaurant meal with Manuel. He’d phoned to say he would be back from Sicily later today: the website weather forecasts said it was ideal for sailing. She could ring George on her cell-phone to explain where she was, but she had no hard news to give him, so he’d simply berate her for wasting his time.
“And perhaps I can tell you more about my neighbours, no?”
Maria was hooked. Neighbourly divulgences were often useful, if treated with circumspection, of course. “Yes, if I may.” She smiled and slipped her binoculars’ strap over her shoulder.
The count stepped closer, a good twelve inches taller than her. Then, as they turned to proceed up the drive, he called, “Follow, Prince!”
And the dog stood and strode purposefully behind them. Whenever Maria glanced back, the animal’s eyes were on her – neither menacing nor benign, simply watching.
Light percolated through the tree-tops onto Count Zondadari’s face to reveal a vivid purple scar, the tissue still healing; it ran from temple to chin down the left side of his face. Involuntarily, Maria started.
Even in these mottled shades he was quick to detect her reaction. “I’m sorry if I’ve startled you afresh, but I’m afraid I was a little careless with a stone-cutting saw whilst building my beach barbecue – I’ll show you my progress later, perhaps. It will be a short while before the wound heals properly.”
“You must think me rude, to stare–”
“No, not at all. It’s most natural.” A stray sunbeam glinted on the white of his teeth. “There’s nothing to it, I’m sure; once you’re used to seeing it–”
“And will it scar?”
“I fear it will.” She did not understand his aside to himself: “Just one of many over the years...” So she shrugged it off. Maybe he was a mite eccentric.
As their feet scrunched up the sloping gravel drive, she viewed him anew in the shadow-less light.
Count Zondadari was tall, with a patrician nose and high cheekbones. He had a high receding hairline that suggested intelligence and dark arched eyebrows. The laughter lines around his sensual mouth and flint-grey eyes softened his appearance. Those eyes shone, as if amused by life. Here was a man with supreme confidence, someone who lived life to the full. There was something other-worldly about him; oddly, she was reminded of Wilde’s Dorian Gray.
The two-story villa was squat and long, the walls constructed from a variety of stonework. “This plot of land has been in my family since the 1560s.” He waved his walking stick in an arc. Prince watched obediently, alert. “We’ve tended to rebuild here and there, as the mood dictated, yet we have tried to preserve the features we like – hence the porch.” It was imposing, a pillared portico, with curving marble steps leading up to the heavy oak panelled door which sported large brass ornamentation and a fish-shaped door-knocker.
“It’s beautiful,” Maria said and meant it. The stone walls, dun and drab, were haphazardly clothed in creepers, bougainvillea and begonia. The green of leaves was a striking contrast, and softened the privations of time. The Arabic designed stonework round the roof and windows seemed to blend with nature. The place appealed to her artistic eye. “The blossom will be absolutely gorgeous in a few weeks,” she added.
“Yes.” He smiled down at her. “Some of the stonework is sixteenth century, so it seems to be rejuvenated every year when the flowers bloom. The place really comes alive then.”
It could have been a trick of light, as they climbed the steps, but she thought his face had darkened momentarily, the shine inexplicably absent from his eyes at the mention of nature’s renewal. And the scar-tissue glowed red. But she could have imagined it – her imagination seemed to be on overtime these days.
(When I'm editing, I tend to ask for particulars, such as the name of a book the character is reading, or the type of car she is driving. Here, I settled for ‘car’ as its make was already established).