Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement. I know, having written one ~ and only one. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of Messages from Henry by Rebecca Scarberry, a mystery which I finished reading earlier this week.
Characters: The story centers on an elderly lady named Tammy; her neighbor Evelyn, and a policeman, Warren who grew up with Tammy and Evelyn. Evelyn’s been kidnapped, and though she doesn’t appear till the end of the story, she’s conspicuous by her absence, and by the fact that the story is about trying to find her.
Henry the carrier pigeon is the story’s centerpiece. While I’ve read many a tale about heroic dogs and horses, this is the first for me where the hero is a homing pigeon.
Rebecca does a nice job of letting us get to know her characters by what they say and do, but a little more personal description would’ve helped bring them into better focus. Henry is the exception. He gets plenty of description — and it makes for a better story.
Fluttering wings startle us.
“Henry, what are you doing here?” I ask my neighbor Evelyn’s pure white homing pigeon, which has just settled on my bannister. “You better skedaddle before Cinnamon decides to jump up there. What’s that tied to your foot? Evelyn joking around and sent a note to me?”
Henry stares at me with his bright yellow eyes and tilts his head to one side as I move towards him. It is, without a doubt Henry. I can tell by the slight twist of his left foot, he’s had since birth.
Rebecca does give lovely little hints of human character description here and there ~ Tammy has “swollen, arthritic hands.” Warren has “muscular arms.”
Even without the character description, Rebecca creates likeable, kindly characters who have to deal with an unkindly situation.
Plot: A kidnapper takes elderly Evelyn. She has no money, but her son Scott is a successful novelist. Alas, the kidnapper doesn’t know that Scott has a gambling addiction, and so has no money either. The lone bright spot is Henry. Henry is able to find Evelyn wherever the kidnapper stashes her, and brings Tammy notes from Evelyn about her latest location.
Setting: The setting is indeterminate. A town called “Riverside Park” is mentioned. There’s a reference to a nearby mountain, and another to icy roads — the story takes place in November-December. It’s also a community with horse-racing. The climactic scene takes place at a race track. But mostly setting is used only insofar as it’s needed to show the action of the story.
What I thought could’ve been done better: Character description is my pet peeve. I’ve said before, great characterization, imho, is a three-legged stool — what they say; what they do; what they look like.
Does Warren have a big nose that he scratches when he’s puzzled? Does Tammy have kindly brown eyes that light up when she’s around animals? Rebecca has created lovely characters that I’d like to know better — and letting me know what they look like is one way to help readers do that.
Also the setting could use some work. Just letting us know that the location is Southwest Virginia or Northern California or wherever, helps orient the reader –especially if readers have been there. And if they haven’t, then it’s even more of an adventure, or could be with descriptions of specific settings. Descriptions of specific settings also help orient the reader. Where Rebecca does describe, it works well.
If Rebecca could’ve somehow shown the danger Evelyn was in, it would have increased the suspense.
I think the biggest way to make this story even better would be to include some information about carrier pigeons. Henry is a compelling character because he seems so loyal and steadfast. But it might also be interesting to know that pigeons like Henry have been clocked at 110 mph, and have flown distances up to 1,100 miles.
When writers use an interesting technology, culture, or profession as a plot device, it’s usual to share some interesting factual information about it. Readers come away not only having been entertained, but having gained some insights. Medical and legal thrillers take advantage of this technique — Michael Crichton is probably one of the best examples of an author using facts to bolster fiction.
What I thought was good: I liked Rebecca’s simple, straightforward prose style. Nothing fancy. Just what happens, as it happens. She tells the story in the first person, from Tammy’s point of view, in present tense.
The present tense works well, lending a sense of immediacy to the story.
As I mentioned in the previous section, where Rebecca does describe, she does it well. Here’s a bit from the second chapter, as Tammy is preparing to clean out the chicken coop:
The sun has just peeked over the mountain, setting the sky ablaze in lavender. There’s a thin layer of frost on the tops and outer branches of the trees. The frost sparkles in the early morning light like a kaleidoscope. The reddish brown bark of the nearby madrone trees stands out against the forest of pines.
Love it. Want more.
I thought the plot device of Henry the carrier pigeon was original and imaginative. Not sure how Henry could always find Evelyn, but since he did, I accepted it. Lack of character description notwithstanding, Tammy and Warren seemed like comfortable old friends that I’d known for a long time.
I also liked the unhurried pace of the book. Rebecca lets events unfold in their own time, in between cleaning the chicken coop, weeding the garden and relaxing in the recliner. Life does go on, even when we’re worried about friends.
And speaking of friends, I enjoyed how Rebecca used the names of our friends from Twitter as sort of an inside nod. I’ve done that once or twice myself.
Overall: So who writes a perfect book? Rebecca has penned a gentle character-driven mystery with a highly original premise. Not a breakneck-speed-adrenaline thriller by any means. Just a nice, quiet, satisfying story. In strident times such as ours, that makes Messages from Henry worth reading.
Good job, Rebecca!
Check out my own novel American Goddesses to see whether I live up to my own literary critiques.