The Day That Never Comes, by Caimh McDonnell (40:00)

IOD score cardToday we see that the flashforward is more like a blaster than a lightsaber: not the most elegant or civilized weapon in the author’s armory, but in the right hands it does the job. We also learn that funny is good, so please send Bryce more funny books.

What I gleaned about the story: A hapless private investigator is still trying to get his investigation biz together—or even get his ostensible partners to return his calls—when he meets his first client: a woman who thinks her man has gone a’cheatin’ (with a bit of a twist). He starts tracking his target, with a flaky driver and an ornery dog in tow.

Also, murder were done.

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The Day That Never Comes starts off with a prologue (y’all know how I feel about prologues), but my misgivings are quickly shoved aside. We begin at a crime scene, where we infer something tragic and gross has happened: the detective is about to lose his breakfast, and is panicking as he tries to find somewhere to eject without being noticed by his coworkers.

This is an interesting choice. Most authors might try to highlight the gruesomeness of a crime scene by having someone puke in the background. Letting the detective’s gastric distress drive the entire scene is an unexpected choice that works for me.

Eventually (spoiler alert) he chucks all over his superintendent’s shoes. There’s a surprisingly funny aside about why his supervisor wears expensive shoes that shouldn’t be chucked on, then we return (briefly) to the horrific murder scene that sent the detective scrambling for the exit in the first place.

Kudo #1: Potential WTF averted

Analysis: You know that thing where your third-favorite TV show opens an episode with the heroes in extreme, imminent danger. Then, just as the baddie is squeezing the trigger, it smashes to black with the words “48 hours earlier…”?

Battlestar Galactica used it once, opening with Starbuck’s ship freefalling towards a planet. Castle used it so many times it turned into a running gag. TV Tropes calls this the “How We Got Here.” It’s a way of catching the reader’s attention, getting them invested, and maybe promising that there’s action and suspense ahead if the chronological story isn’t front-loaded with it.

It can fail when an author takes for granted that the tease was sufficient and then proceeds to hose the reader down with a deluge of boring backstory to get to the resolution of the cliffhanger. But The Day That Never Comes doesn’t do that. Sure, it has a less bloody (and upchucky) plot in Chapter 1, but it still remains thoroughly engaging.

The technique can also fail by not actually piquing the reader’s interest. But this prologue succeeds on that point as well. If the things that had been done to the victim weren’t enough to hook me, the final sentence of the prologue left me dying to know what he could possibly have done to deserve his fate.

And while the “How We Got Here” is often a cheap trick, it serves a legitimate use here, signaling that the book is going to darker places than the opening chapter might let on.

WTF #1: Distracting character names

Analysis: When the prologue mentioned the name “Doctor Denise Devane,” I found myself wondering if it was an accident, or was it supposed to be campy? It was a passing thought, one that didn’t stick in my conscious for long.  But later on we find out the detective’s name: Detective Donnacha Wilson.  The seemingly unintentional echo rang loudly.  Meeting Doctor Denise Devane had primed me to be distracted and disconcerted, so another duo of Ds dug into the dura matter and didn’t disengage.

Kudo #2: For strong descriptions, just add humor.

Analysis: It tells you something when you find the story’s protagonist locked in an epic struggle with his nemesis: the stubborn door to his office.

Paul slammed the office door, or at least he tried to. Due to its sagging hinges, it stuck on the worn carpet. He had to lift it up by the handle and then shoulder it into place to get it to close at all. When the lock finally clicked shut, he gave the bottom of the door a kick. This gave him a sore toe and none of the satisfaction that a slam would have provided.

The juxtaposition between the gory gravity of the prologue and the eternal struggle of Man vs. Sticky Door makes me smile.  It also helps me shift gears.  I’m still curious about the whole grisly murder thing, but now I have to know: what’s going on that has this guy so pissed?

We’re not left in suspense for long.  He’s just gotten back from an important meeting.  He’s trying to set up a private investigation service, but at the meeting he was embarrassingly unprepared because his partners have bailed on him. And now he’s returned to his office:

Situated above the Oriental Palace Chinese restaurant, what their offices lacked in space, they made up for in dinginess.

There’s a lot of goodness packed into that description. Though brief, it leaves me with a vivid picture of the offices. It also hints at Paul’s standing in the world, while offering some clarification about why the door is always sticking.

Humor is also a good tool for creating strong, memorable character descriptions:

Paul should have been suspicious as soon as Bunny had tried to justify his actions. Bunny never justified his actions. Along with the lazy eye, the ever-present sheepskin coat and the core belief that all of life’s problems can be solved by walloping the right gobshite around the earhole, never justifying his actions was one of Bunny McGarry’s defining characteristics.

Why is humor effective at getting descriptions to stick? Partly because it so often relies on subverting your expectations. Take the description of Paul’s rented office space: “What it lacked in [X], it made up for in [Y].” By the time you reach Y, you’re expecting something good, something that mitigates the inadequacy of [X]. When it does the exact opposite, your brain has to work a little harder to unpack it. More neurons fire. It sticks in a way that “The office was small and dingy” just wouldn’t.

When describing Bunny, the retired cop, humor allows for a starker, more hyperbolic description than could be justified in a more serious novel. Humor lets you paint in brighter colors, exaggerate the defining features that you want the reader to remember. It’s also entertaining in its own right.

But humor is not for the weak of heart. The most comprehensively scathing review I’ve ever gotten came because someone thought I was beating the reader over the head with my jokes (guilty as charged). But even if you’re not setting out to write a “funny” book, humor is a good tool to have in your kit.

[Note from Jefferson: This is a good example of what I call the “emotional dynamic range” effect. A musical composition that ranges from really quiet to really loud is generally more engaging because the loud bits emphasize the quiet bits and vice versa. Similarly, a book that explores the heights and depths of a broader emotional scale creates more vivid effects in the reader through those same kinds of contrast.]

The Day That Never Came has leapt out of the gates as a very funny book, with a delightful cast of believably absurd characters. It’s also the second in a trilogy (though by the 40-minute mark it had stood up very well on its own), so you may first want to check out its predecessor and previous IOD survivor: A Man With One Of Those Faces.

Aside: Of the three survivors I’ve let through, two of them have had the humor cranked up to eleven. I wonder if this will become a long-term pattern.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

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