Saturday, July 28, 2007

Great first lines in crime fiction

Dave's Fiction Warehouse holds forth on opening lines, including a good one from his upcoming story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Dave was inspired by this list from the American Book Review, headed — no surprise — by the first words of Moby Dick.

But what about crime stories? What opening line (or paragraph) gave you that frisson of excitement that made you keep reading? My candidate for the Moby Dick of crime-story first lines, the opening that everyone knows, is this, from Raymond Chandler's "Red Wind":

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
Here's the opener of the book I'm reading now, Ken Bruen's Ammunition: "Brant was on his third whisky, knocking it back like a good un."

And now, readers, you have the floor. What are your favorite crime-story opening lines?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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34 Comments:

Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Well I just have to pick an Andrea Camilleri. From The Voice of the Violin;

"Inspector Salvo Montalbano could immediately tell that it was not going to be his day the moment he opened the shutters of his bedroom window."

Or the opening sentence of The Terrorists by Sjowall and Wahloo, short, succinct, but full of promise of what is to come;


"The National Commissioner of Police smiled."

July 28, 2007  
Blogger pamos1949 said...

Ruth Rendell's A Judgement in Stone leaps to mind:

"Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write."

July 28, 2007  
Blogger JD Rhoades said...

"When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."

James Crumley, THE LAST GOOD KISS

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

"The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband."

Declan Hughes, The Wrong Kind of Blood

July 28, 2007  
Anonymous crimeficreader said...

The Murder Bird from Joanna Hines recently impressed me.

"Five weeks after Kirsten Waller's body was found in a clifftop cottage in Cornwall, Grace Hobden cleared away the lunch, checked to make sure her three children were playing on the climbing frame at the bottom of the garden, then went indoors to murder her husband. Paul Hobden, a large, blubbery whale of a man, was sleeping off the effects of a boozy lunch. In the corner of the room, a black and while film involving much swash and buckle was chattering away on the TV. While Douglas Fairbanks Jr swished his sword with laughing, lethal accuracy, Grace Hobden picked up a Sabatier filleting knife from the rack in her kitchen, went into the living room and, without hesitating for a moment, plunged the blade into the soft mound of her husband's chest."

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks, all, for the contributions. I can skip my day's reading and spend some entertaining time reading your comments instead. Man, some of those openings tell a whole story in just one line.

The Sjöwall and Wahlöö tells me that a political crime story can be good, menacing fun. It's no easy feat to be polemical and entertaining at the same time. They can do it.

CFR, I was going to say that you could have stopped your contribution after the first line. That long checklist of a sentence with its big finish is nice enough by itself. But Grace Hobden's brandishing the knife while Douglas Fairbanks Jr. brandishes a sword is delicious. And specifying a fileting knife, rather than just any old kitchen knife is especially good. Hines focus a lot of attention on that one little word.

(to be continued)

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

On second thought, I'd better shut up. Comment is superfluous for opening lines this good.

Re Declan Burke's contribution, I singled that one out last month in a post on The Wrong Kind of Blood.

Thanks again to all who commented. You have reminded me of some great lines in some cases and given me some compelling suggestions for future reading in others.

Damn, I'm glad I started this discussion!

July 28, 2007  
Anonymous CFR said...

Peter, the bit you described as "delicious" is exactly why I didn't stop at the first sentence. The attention to detail is superb. You can almost hear the background noise from the film on the TV as you read it.
I've featured that novel on my blog. Do give it a go.
I'm pleased to report that I had a coffee with the author at Harrogate. She's as wonderfully entertaining in person as she delivers with that novel. (Alas, to date, it's the only one I've read.)

July 28, 2007  
Anonymous CFR said...

PS, I think Maxine at Petrona loved it too.

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks. I'll look for the reviews on your blog and on Petrona. Then maybe I'll go read The Last Good Kiss!

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"Art Mathews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the center of the parade ring at Dunstable races."

Nerve, Dick Francis.

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Good opening. Makes me want to read on to find out what the spectators thought.

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Alistair MacLean's When Eight Bells Toll begins with a single paragraph describing a Peacemaker Colt. Paragraph 2 has another couple of sentences about the effect a bullet from the gun has on the human body, and then reads:

And so I stood absolutely motionless, not breathing, for the Peacemaker Colt that had prompted this unpleasant train of thought was pointed directly at my right thigh.

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I'm telling you, this discussion has me wanting to pick up all the books whose opening lines readers have suggested.

In an opening like the one you just offered, a lot rides on the author's powers of description. He had best make his portrait of the gun dispassionate and compelling so the entrance into the plot ("And do I stood ...") will have the desired shock effect.

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Oh, it is. He says that when you're hit by a bullet from that gun, you don't curse, step into a doorway, roll a cigarette, and then chase the bad guy. You crumble to the ground with a shattered leg.

This was one of MacLean's early and better books. The drink and bitterness got to him later on, but there are very few fictional books about war which can beat his H.M.S. Ulysses or South by Java Head.

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I like that bit about what one does not do when hit by a bullet from that gun. I'm not always a fan of references in crime stories that remind me I'm reading a crime story, but that sounds as if it could be a sly and funny dig at the seeming invincibility of fictional detectives.

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Specifically one "Bond, James Bond," I think. Copyright date: 1966.

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I do believe I recognize that name.

July 28, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

JD, I just finished writing a reply that concerned music. I'd read that wonderful opening sentence from Crumley before, and I realize now that I can imagine music when I read it. I'm not sure what music, and maybe this is just excessive influence of television and movies, but that passage definitely appeals to more than one of the senses.

July 29, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Pamos, I'm going to file that famous Ruth Rendell opening away for a future discussion of the different ways good first lines work. Are they virtuosic pieces of writing? Do they shock the reader into paying attention? Do they foreshadow plot developments?

July 29, 2007  
Anonymous CFR said...

I think the Rendell line has to be a classic.
As for the other question of who will remain published in 100+ years time, I think both she and P D James are in with a fair chance.
But, back to first lines. You've posed a good question here, Peter, but I have another.
I've trawled some of the novels I've read recently and realised that the opening lines were not great, although the novels were brilliant. We're all told you need a good hook to open, but could that hook really be more than just the first line, perhaps the first page? Is promoting it to be the first line underestimating the intelligence of readers?
Personally, I'll give a novel more chance than just the first line.

July 29, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

CFR, you're right. A novel is more than its first line, and I think we've all had the experience of novels that start slowly but turn out just fine. That can provide another kind of pleasure: the joy when you realize, hey, this is going to be good. Also, there is the danger that a novel will not live up to all the bang and flash of a great opening sentence.

I hope my question does not promote impatience among readers!

You'll notice that in my first comment about The Wrong kind of Bllod, I praised the first line -- but not until the end of the comment.

July 29, 2007  
Anonymous cfr said...

I'm reading a novel now which meets my expectations, exceeds them perhaps. I'm happy to declare that I am an aficionado/devotee of John Lawton's work. (He has a major interest in the US, by the way.)

There was a series of quotes first, one of them taking a whole page. Then the novel started.

"Yellow. It was going to be a yellow day." Nothing in that evoked the novel really. But soon it was possible to feel the rising tension of the Jews in Vienna due to the rise of Naziism. Then came Kristellnacht in Vienna, perfectly and sensitively evoked in this novel. (Many think only of Germany when it comes to Kristellnacht, don't they? Vienna is often forgotten.)

I'm about a quarter in and still waiting for a crime plot, but that doesn't matter one iota. Lawton asserts that he doesn't write crime fiction, he writes about "the social and political history of my own time".

He has it all here. The impact of the Nazis on the Jews, seen through both eyes, is a page turner.

I'm reading on and want to read on. I think that nothing will stop me. For me, the opening line was someting to pass over and I wanted to get into the prose, the text. "Yellow" had significance, but what comes after matters more.

The novel is "Second Violin" and even though only a quarter in, I highly recommend it. The author notes at the back of the novel pose a poignant question. Lawton says "Why this topic, now?" His own response there is a mirror to society and to politics today.

"Lest we forget", but unfortunately we do, time and time again.

As for the novel, pure exceptional reading of the highest quality, even if the first line did not do the deed.

July 29, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Well, if one knows in advance the subject of the book, that first line is evocative. Yellow, after all, was the color of the stars that Nazis forced Jews to wear. I can imagine the reader drifting back to that opening line as he or she progresses through the novel.

Also, the line is just strange enough to create an atmosphere of tension by itself. Something is off. No one would normally describe a day as "yellow."

July 29, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

It ain't crime, but JK Rowling starts off Deathly Hallows with a couple of really pertinent epigraphs, one from Aeschylus and one from William Penn.

July 29, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Good God, with epigraphs like that, she's got an important base covered. She's one children's author that no one can accuse of lacking seriousness.

July 29, 2007  
Blogger Donna said...

I love first lines. One of my faves is also the Crumley one, but here are a couple of other favourites of mine:

JAMES SALLIS - DRIVE
Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake.

VICTOR GISCHLER - GUN MONKEYS
I turned the Chrysler onto the florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should have put some plastic down.

TWO WAY SPLIT - ALLAN GUTHRIE
Four months and twenty-two days after he stopped taking his medication, Robin Greaves dragged the chair out from under the desk and sat down opposite the private investigator.

Donna

August 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks, Donna, and welcome. Those are three more good lines. Who knows what else Robin Greaves will do once he stops taking his medication? Among other things, that line is a clever twist on the typical opening of Dangerous Client Walks Into P.I.'s Office. I always get a kick out of the ways crime writers ring clever changes on the staples of the genre.

And I had to glance at the James Sallis line twice before I realized how funny it is.

August 01, 2007  
Blogger BookGirl said...

Hi, Peter, just got around to responding to your comment on my post (it's been a busy week) -- it's the August 14 entry. Thanks for visiting.

www.ashevillebookgirl.blogspot.com

August 23, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

And I have just replied to your reply. I also recommend that anyone who reads this visit your site to look at those gorgeous photographs.

August 23, 2007  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Peter, vis-a-vis your contribution to Dave's, I haven't even met anyone who has read Robert Musil since about 1982. What a great book (The Man Without ...).

Am I imagining it or did Chandler actually write "It was a hot day in L.A., ..."? A line that has been copied and satirized a million times.

Jim
nearlynothingbutnovels.blogspot.com

September 15, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I don't know if Chandler actually wrote that, or if Jack Webb did, or if it's a product of countless Chandler knock-offs, parodies, homages, references and tributes.

September 15, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Francis Iles has one of the very best opening lines in his sheer clasic, Malice Aforethought.
'It was several weeks before Dr bickleigh took any active steps in his wife's murder. Murder is a serious business.'
Colin Watson also has a few crackers in his Flaxborough series.

Ewan Wilson

January 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, Francis Iles, an unfortunate gap in my traditional-mystery reading. I love Colin Watson, though, and have written here about the Flaxborough Chronicles and also about Snobbery With Violence.

Thanks for the line.

January 25, 2012  

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