Red pen session 009 – critique of The Desolate Garden, a novel extract by Danny Kemp

10 Dec

The ninth red pen podcast was released on 28th December 2011 and was part of a series of episodes dedicated to reading a short story or self-contained novel extract (with synopsis) and then talking about it afterwards. I am now running these on this blog.  For writers / readers willing to give free feedback and / or writers wanting feedback, take a look at this blog’s Feedback page.

I run a fortnightly critique group as well as critiquing other authors writing which I really enjoy so I thought I’d create podcast episodes doing this, and will now be running future ones on the blog, initially with the already-recorded episodes at 5pm daily (this is the last one) then every Sunday evening (UK times) from Sunday 16th December.

Please remember that it’s only one person’s (my) opinion and you, and the author concerned, are welcome to disagree with my interpretation – I will never be mean for the sake of it, but hope you find that I’m firm but fair. I type my comments for the recording as I read through the story as a reader would think as they read the story, although they would most likely be reading, not analysing, unless they’re writers too!

Regardless of what genre you write I hope that this helps you think about the way fiction is constructed and that you have enjoyed reading another author’s work, the copyright of which remains with them, then my suggestions for any improvement.

Today’s is a novel extract which was kindly emailed to me by Danny Kemp of London, England. The novel is called ‘The Desolate Garden’.

If you have any feedback on this or aspects of my website or blog, I’m always delighted to hear from you – my email address is

And if you’re feeling brave enough to send me a short story or novel extract (with a brief synopsis please) – 3,000-words maximum – for these red pen blog sessions then feel free.

So without further ado, the synopsis and extract, then my feedback…


Only months before the murder of Lord Elliot Paterson, and his youngest son Edward, an address in Leningrad, is discovered hidden in the ledgers of the families private bank in Westminster, dating back to the1930’s. There is a spy in the family, but on whose side?

His eldest son, Harry, is recruited into the British Secret Service to uncover the traitor. The desolate garden is a twisting tale of deciet and intrigue with Harry, and an attractive girl from the Foreign Office, desperately trying to unravel the mystery, before anyone else mets the same fate.

I love the name Elliot (and often use it) so there’s brownie points before we’ve even got to the story. This synopsis tells us that it’s of the murder mystery genre with, I’m guessing, given the ‘attractive girl from the Foreign Office’, some romance. OK, now the novel extract.


I’ve never been one to reminisce, to rediscover memories locked away in parts of the mind only psychologists know about; but in those last few days that I had with my mother, I found myself swept away in her nostalgia. I had not thought of my father as being a handsome man – but there, in the photographs of their wedding, stood a person I could not recognise as him. As to her beauty, the wedding memorabilia only testified more strongly in confirmation of what I already knew. As to the man beside her…it was a stranger that I stared at. He looked taller than I remembered, with jet-black hair combed back from his forehead, sharp clean features in a strong commanding face, more mature than the 26 years of age that he was then. There was a dashing, debonair look about him, a nonchalant character whom I could believe had swept my mother off her feet, as she had told me. He was not the person I had always remembered him as.

“He was impetuous then, Harry, romantic and audacious – a lot like you are today, I suspect. He was dangerous around women. Are you the same?” I didn’t answer that question of hers, but understood entirely what she meant.

To me, he had always been an eccentric old man with no hidden charms or fascination. I searched those photographs and more, to find some of us together, but could find none. No snaps of us two kicking a ball or hitting one, riding ponies and whirling mallets in unfinished chukkas, leaning over the side of the boat and landing fish. In fact, none of us being father and son. Perhaps there were no secret memories, none there to find, even had I have looked closer. No shared happiness, no fun, no laughter, no hugs, no affection. Perhaps he had entered my life as he had left it; a disillusioned, self-obsessed man.

As I said, to me he had never changed. He was portly in build and slow in movement, more deliberate than made so by his slightly excessive weight. He had thick white hair, parted at the side, dull blue eyes shaded by broken red-veined cheeks and nose, and his constant spectacles, wearing his reading variety permanently around his neck. At all times he was smartly-dressed, his pocket watch suspended from his buttonhole by a double gold chain and carried in the breast pocket of his suit jacket. Always grey light or dark; pinstriped or checked, but always grey, for his daily London attire.

“I never wear black – too sombre, looks like you’re in mourning,” he explained. “Blue is for those continentals, the Italians and Southern French, goes with their colouring. And never, never wear brown – that’s for those shirt-lifters. Lots around in my day, especially up at Cambridge. Mind you, Harry, the breeding ground was Eton, and they are prolific in here. Never could spot them there… I wasn’t their type. Now there seem to be more Queens than Kings!” We were in Boodles, his London club, years ago. He was demonstrating his practiced skill at cognac consumption, and sharing more of his takes on life.

In the winter months his hat would match the colour of his overcoat, as would his gloves and scarf, but not the colour of the green rubber boots that he wore on his walk to ‘Annie’s’.

“Look after your feet son, and they will carry you through life without complaint.” This was, perhaps, the only sensible advice he ever gave me. He was not particularly tall – maybe it was my mother who made him appear so in that union snapshot – but strode in a military fashion, straight-backed with swinging arms, pacing out his steps with his silver-topped walking stick. He had served in the Coldstream Guards before his inevitable transfer to the bank at the age of 39. Longevity lay before him in this role and maybe it was this that had burred away his impulsiveness, dulled the sharpness and taken away the spirt that shone from those photos. However, his self-assurance and assertiveness stayed with him for all to see. It was only with me that he let that curtain rise, and then only briefly, months before his death.


My comments:

Danny tells me that this isn’t Chapter 1 but I love the opening. The first word ‘I’ve’ tells us that it’s first person viewpoint (presumably Harry) and we immediately get an insight into his character by what he wouldn’t do and that he’s not particularly sentimental. Negatives are great, because it’s all too easy for an author to write about what is happening but not what isn’t, and having both gives us a more complete picture. It also tells us about Harry’s parents through his eyes, the different way he feels about them and that he’s already learning something from the photograph (I always like inanimate objects serving a purpose).

“He looked taller than I remembered” tells us that Harry’s not seen his father for a long time so presumably this is now set some years after the deaths, especially as an older son would remember more than the younger son would have (had he lived).

In the second paragraph we hear the mother’s voice, through Harry, and more negatives. I really like the sentence that starts ‘No snaps of us two…’ as it has a ‘power of three’; the kicking ball, riding ponies and landing fish. It’s a sentence that blends well, given those three images.

If I had to make a criticism (this is a red pen episode after all), I felt there were a few too many negatives about the lack of emotion between father and son. I would leave out the line ‘No shared happiness, no fun, no laughter, no hugs, no affection’ (especially as there are five phrases whereas sets of three are usually plenty). This then leaves ‘even if I had looked closer’ leading into ‘Perhaps he had entered my life’ which I think connect nicely.

The next paragraph gives us a closer insight into his father and despite the photograph showing a different side to his father than he had expected, it’s clear that Harry’s not warming to him, but then he really only has memories to go on. Without knowing how old Harry was when the man died, I did wonder whether Harry would only remembering him as an old man but seeing as we are already lead to believe that the murders happened many years in the past, and therefore Harry would have been quite young, this would fit in.

It’s very easy to forget colours in fiction and we have two here: ‘dull blue eyes shaded by broken red-veined cheeks’ and they’re not just colours but illustrated as ‘dull’ and ‘broken’.

I’m going to have another nit-pick here; and listeners to some of the other red pen episodes will know I’m not a fan of repetition and whilst the second instance of ‘always grey’ is an emphasis of the first (which is correct) I think this sentence would work better with the first ‘always’ removed so that the second ‘always grey’ has more impact.

Then we have more speech, again through Harry, and again it gives us the character of his parent, this time the father and reflects what Harry has told us about him, and it works well. His father is clearly a well-educated man mentioning Cambridge and Eton. I was a little lost by ‘they are prolific in here’ and think it was the ‘in’ that caught me out until Harry said where they were so perhaps this needs to be written the other way round so we know where ‘in here’ is as we read it. A writer would want to avoid a reader being confused at any stage… no excuse for them to stop and wonder, especially so early on.

A writer should always be conscious of including as many of the five senses as possible. We have sight (Harry looking at the picture) and sound (albeit his parents’ words indirectly). This leaves taste, touch and smell. The photographs could smell musty? They could feel rough or smooth, perhaps with some of the surface peeling off? This is only a short extract so fitting in the other three senses could feel too deliberate but something for Danny to think about with the rest of the novel.

The way this piece is written it’s easy to connect with our protagonist and we can feel sorry for how he feels for his father, although given the insight into his father I can see why.

It’s a very well-written extract with a good mixture of long and short sentences, keeping the narrative drive and providing the action is subsequently forthcoming, I can see it fitting the murder mystery genre and it be of appeal to readers of that genre.

Stories, whether short stories or novels, should start with the action and Danny also sent me the beginning of Chapter which does have action and the story progresses quickly so the extract I read today certainly avoids the to-be-avoided early ‘info dump’. The beginning of a story is called the ‘hook’ and needs to hook in the reader, and although this isn’t the beginning I certainly would want to read on, so a success in my opinion.


Danny and booksDanny Kemp is a 62-year-old man, but just change the numbers around to find his real personality. He is quick witted with a devilish sense of humour, socially interacting well across all generations. His writing comes from years of diverse experiences encompassing the Metropolitan Police and the Licensed Taxi trade in the Capital. His interests now are divided between his work, his family, especially his three Grand Children, and his new found ardour of writing.

His second novel, The Desolate Garden, followed on quickly from his first, Look Both Ways Then Look Behind and a third Mitzy Collins is almost complete. It is the first to be published in what he hopes to be the beginning of a new career. He is a member of The International Thrillers Writers.

He says he came into writing literally by accident, or, more correctly as a victim of one. He was stationary in my London Black Cab, one sunny November morning five years ago, when a Van crashed into him, it effectively put him out of work for three years. He had time on my hands and his imagination filled the void left empty from his normal days. The enjoyment he derived from the first story he wrote spread into every crevice of his mind and filled those worrying days, so much so that he fell in love with it, and does not want it to end.

Me neither, Danny. 🙂

You can find out more about Danny and his writing at (note the www dash, not www dot).


If you have any feedback on this or aspects of my website or blog, I’m always delighted to hear from you – my email address is

And if you’re feeling brave enough to send me a short story or novel extract (with a brief synopsis please) – 3,000-words maximum – for these red pen blog sessions then feel free.

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As I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do, and a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me posting it online in my new Red Pen Critique Sunday night posts, then do email me. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.


Posted by on December 10, 2012 in critique, ebooks, ideas, novels, review, tips, writing


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8 responses to “Red pen session 009 – critique of The Desolate Garden, a novel extract by Danny Kemp

  1. avcarden

    December 10, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    I really enjoy these posts, I find them very useful. Do you mind if I print a couple off to help me with a few pointers?

  2. morgenbailey

    December 10, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    Thank you, Audrey. I don’t mind if Danny doesn’t mind. 🙂

  3. Yvonne Hertzberger

    December 10, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    I like this excerpt, too, but if I may be picky I see one, small inconsistency. At first the father’s movement is described a slow and deliberate, yet later he marches with military precision, which strikes me as contradictory. Otherwise I like the flow and the visual pictures it creates.

  4. Danny KempDa

    December 11, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Hello Morgen, avcarden and Yvonne. In answer to your point Yvonne, these are flash-backs in Harry’s memory. The slow deliberate movements are in his character, a careful man. The military reference is derived from his background, in the Army. This is but a small excerpt from the novel and I set out to lay a ‘foundation’ not only of Elliot, but how Harry’s mind works in relation to his father. Excerpts are like synopsis aren’t they?….Horrible!

    • morgenbailey

      December 11, 2012 at 9:44 am

      Thank you, Danny.

    • Yvonne Hertzberger

      December 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      So true, Danny. It’s pretty much impossible to capture the real sense of a novel from a small excerpt. In any case, I thought it was really good – good choice of excerpt, too. Hey, maybe soon you’ll have the opportunity to take a peek at a story of mine. (then you can pick at me. lol).

  5. Danny Kemp

    December 11, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    I make it a point never to pick on women Yvonne, I have always come off badly if I did. 🙂


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