Good things come to those that wait .. sometimes .. the critique from Bloomsbury is below. Hope it helps, and it may assist to send with your chapters when you are approaching agents, if you don't have one already. Bloomsbury only consider agented submissions and the editor is not named because of this at their request re their critiques on the site.
Bloomsbury Editor's Critique -
French Train by Pat Dobie
It was such a pleasure to read this sample, which introduces a mysterious, intelligent but very human character who you want to root for from the beginning, though you sense instantly that it’s not going to be straight forward. From reading the synopsis I can see that it will be an ambitious, intelligent novel that will combine a page-turning plot with a psychological layer of complexity. I hope this critique will be helpful in highlighting the strengths of what you’ve written so far.
You set the tone and the pace for the novel from the opening paragraph: narrative tension is introduced from the moment that Ferguson trembles as he points to his name. It’s a classic setting: a man being interrogated by a suspicious, unsympathetic official – it feels almost like a Bourne movie, if a Bourne movie were set on a Paris train at the end of the nineteenth century! The way you develop the plot is carefully judged, and the clues that you drop throughout feel like small pieces of an enormous jigsaw that the reader is slowly trying to put together. I like the way you hint at things that the reader doesn’t yet fully understand, and more intriguingly, that Ferguson himself can’t even remember. The revelation that Ferguson has left his nine-year-old son to be looked after by his neighbour (having merely notified his neighbour with a courteous note) is shocking, and yet you refuse to give the reader too much information early on. This makes for gripping reading, and I wondered how many of these tantalising tangled threads you intend to resolve by the finale. Keeping the reader on his/her toes is crucial, and the first three chapters and the synopsis imply that you will keep the reader guessing until the very end. It’s worth bearing in mind that it can sometimes be frustrating for a reader if too many details are left unresolved by the end of a novel, though that doesn’t mean you should neatly and simplistically conclude every single plot point.
Alec Ferguson is a very intriguing, enigmatic character whose layers of complexity gradually unfold as the novel progresses. You achieve this from the very first sentences, showing Ferguson to be the kind of man who is singled out from the crowd, a man whose emotional baggage marks him out as anything but ordinary. I like the little details that you add that show his personality without explicitly describing it: the gin in his flask, the sketchpad, his peculiar, nervous habit of being unable to speak about his dead wife without laughing anxiously. All these small observations that you casually weave into the narrative are a very effective way of giving the reader a strong impression of Ferguson’s shadowy past – and present. That’s the skill of a real writer, too: the ability to show what your characters’ personalities are like without explicitly explaining and describing them in an obvious way.
The setting is an inspired choice, and refreshing, too, because it eschews the well-trodden, familiar territory of the two world wars and the Cold war, which are becoming slightly tired because of their overwhelming popularity. You choose a very interesting moment in history and convey the period skilfully, alluding to it without having to spell it out for the reader. Setting the first chapters on a train to Paris gives a very vivid, almost film noir-ish, atmosphere, which contributes to the sense of claustrophobia that puts the reader on edge – the swaying corridors, the small compartment that Ferguson is anxious to leave when he’s asked to step outside.
The genre of your novel seems to be at the literary end of the thriller genre, reminiscent of William Boyd’s wartime espionage thrillers, Restless and his latest novel Waiting for Sunrise, as well as Dan Vyleta’s The Quiet Twin. These books expertly combine a historical setting with a page-turning plot and enigmatic characters to form cerebral thrillers that manage to avoid the clichés associated with the more commercial ‘airport thrillers’. From what I’ve read, French Train very much fits this ‘literary thriller’ genre, which tends to be championed more by Waterstones than, say, the supermarkets. This kind of genre can be very difficult to pull off, as there can often be a tendency to get carried away with the plot and sacrifice characterisation, but in these three chapters your writing is well-restrained, which allows for the characters to grow and for the tension to build as the reader sinks into your novel.
So far, it does feel like a predominantly male read, and while there are many women who read these kind of books, if you wish to broaden the appeal of this book further I would suggest bringing out more of the nuances of the human relationships that you touch on early on: Ferguson’s relationship with his son (which it looks like you will explore as the story unravels), and his marriage when his wife was alive.
You may have finished your novel by the time you read this critique, and certainly the synopsis looks likes you’ve thought through all the twists and turns with much deliberation and care. My only suggestion, from a publisher’s slightly crass perspective, is whether you might want to consider introducing a strong female character. I suggest this simply because, looking at some of the most successful books in the genre (most notably, the aforementioned William Boyd), part of their wide appeal is that they strike a chord with both male and female readers. That’s not to say that a cliché loved interest needs to be introduced, but a female character would, I believe, help give the book another dimension that could really push it to the next level.
Overall, your skill and ambition is evident in these three chapters and I wish you all the best in writing the rest of this compelling, atmospheric novel.