Sunday, April 10, 2011

Openings

We're big on conventions here at Detectives Beyond Borders, namely the ways crime writers adhere to conventions of their genre while still trying to keep things fresh. Here's Barry Maitland's spin on the just-another-day-in-the-protagonist's-life opening in All My Enemies:
"By lunchtime Kathy was reduced to the word-puzzle in the Sunday paper. Form words of three or more letters from the title of The Grubs' latest hit single, `Claim to Dream.' No proper named; target 130; include at least one 12-letter word.' "She had begun the day with good intentions. There were plenty of things that could be done before she started her new job: letters that could be written, bills that could be paid, housework that could be done.

"
Mad, ran, mat, tic, model, modal, rot."
All but mat and model are promisingly evocative, and even they might turn out to hold clues to the story to come. I particularly like the combination of modal and rot.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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28 Comments:

Blogger Glenna said...

It sounds like an interesting beginning. Let me know I it continues, new authors are always fun.

Personally, I love the beginning of Falling Glass, and as unoriginal as I sound, I love the opening line of Pride and Prejudice.

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

I like Barry Maitland's books very much. I've read a coule of them. My favorite so far: NO TRACE. (I think that's the title.) I learned about him from BOOKS TO THE CEILING, Roberta Rood's most excellent blog.

A good opening to a book is worth it's weight in gold. But it's not everything. Sometimes a great beginning gives way to inertia.

I too love the beginning of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. My second favorite beginning: "All children, except one, grow up." from PETER PAN.

One of my all time favorite mystery and/or thriller beginnings is still from Parnell Hall's first book: DETECTIVE.

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

I meant to add a 'p' to make the word 'couple'. Also I meant to add to my second paragraph that sometimes a book can have a so/so start and go on to great things. It's happened.

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I found out when preparing this post that Barry Maitland is also author of The Marx Sisters, which I think someone once cited here as a fine title. That person was right,

Regarding so/so starts, I suppose I've put aside a good book or two out of impatience or dissatisfaction with its opening. I can't think of any good books with bad opening, possibly because if I like the book, its bad opening will have slipped from my mind.

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Glenna, the reason Pride and Prejudice is so universally acknowledged to have a great opening is that it really does have a great opening.

The prologue to McKinty's Fifty Grand also deserves reading.

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Glenna said...

Yvette, yes, and I hate it when a book has a great opening that really hooks you and then after a few chapters gets so tedious you lose interest. It seems a waste.

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read the theory that a novel's middle is its true test. All authors will work hard to polish their beginnings and their endings, but they may relax in the rest of the book, according to the theory, so the middle is the real proof of whether the author is good. I think that's part of the reason for all those "Pge 69 tests" and "pick a random passage' questions floating around the blogosphere.

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

One of my worst experiences re: a good beginning and a so/so middle and ending. THE LITTLE FRIEND by Donna Tartt which was universally hailed by everyone but me.

The book begins with a prologue (something I'm not fond of to begin with.)

But it's a wonderful prologue - probably the best I've ever read.
I loved it. Unfortunately the rest of the book was, to my mind at least: AWFUL.

But again I say, the prologue is just gorgeous. Too bad the rest of the book didn't measure up.

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Glenna said...

Yvette, that's a bit disconcerting as I have Donna Tartt's The Secret History on my shelf waiting to be read. Maybe it's better though.

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm generally anti when it comes to prologues, but that opening to Fifty Grand that I mentioned is, in fact, a prologue. It felt like a real part of the story, and not like a device because the author didn't know how to begin the book.

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Glenna said...

Peter, I've heard several people comment on not liking prologues, but I've never understood why. What is it you don't like about them?

April 10, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

It depends on the prologue.
First lines don't do much for me, though I am also a huge fan of the one in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. But then I've never really seen much wrong with starting a book "It was a dark and stormy night . . ."

I'm much given to work on my endings. The rationale is that you want to leave the reader with something to remember you fondly by (and maybe buy another book).

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Glenna, don't go by me. Everyone loves Donna Tartt, so I'm probably an aberation. :-)

For me, prologues generally make me weary and wary. I dislike prologues that leap ahead near the ending of the book and then spend the rest of the book getting back to the beginning. Know what I mean?

I tolerated it from Stuart Kaminsky in his Toby Peters books because I liked the rest of the stories and his characters. But it's not something I enjoy.

It's just not necessary far as I'm concerned.

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Glenna, I don't like them when they're portentous -- when they hit the reader over the head. I have this idea that prologues are more prone to that excess than other parts of books.

John Lawton writes a good prologue that's portentous as all hell but also funny and, in its way, complimentary to the reader's intelligemce.

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sure, but don't give me

PROLOGUE

It was a dark and stormy night.

CHAPTER 1

"How will I ever begin this book?" aspiring author Peter Rozovsky said.

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, Stuart Kaminsky is one of the touchstones in my anti-prologue stance. I've enjoyed his Abe Lieberman and Lou Fonesca books, but one of them - I forget which - has a prologue that seemed tacked on because Kaminsky was more interested in telling the story than he was is beginning it.

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Glenna said...

Peter, Yvette,

I see what you mean, and agree, although to this point the prologue itself hasn't stopped me from reading a particular book. Sometimes I will get frustrated later in the story though waiting for the prologue to collide with the plot when the prologue is portenous or giving away the end. Tess Gerritson is one that comes to mind on that account.

V word- unmus

April 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No prologue would ever stop me from reading a book merely because it's a prologue. A prologue would have to meet the same standards of slack, boring or off-putting writing I would apply to the body of the story.

Maybe I'm wary of prologues because I love frame stories, as in The Thousand Nights and One Night. Those classics set the bar high.

April 10, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Good idea: frame story. I hope I don't forget that.

I generally dislike background history. In cases where I've used prologues (only about 3 pages long), they have described a scene central to the crime, or the crime itself.

April 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One good way not to forget it would be to read The Thousand Nights and One Night. Toward the beginning especially, characters in a story will themselves start telling a story, within which characters tell further tales. It can get a reader lightheaded, and it's wonderful reading.

I suppose one advantage of a frame story is that it both conveys information necessary to the main story and generate interest in iotself. Who is this narrator? What is this story he or she is telling?

I think something similar happened in classical Greek drama and Japanese Noh plays, where you'd have a conttrasting comedy as a kind of aperitif to ease the viewer into the main tragedy.

April 11, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Or Boccaccio's DECAMERON, where the 100 tales are told against the background of the plague by a group of privileged youths passing the time away from the diseased city by telling stories. A lovely twisted comment on morality.

April 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's right. I read a chunk of the Decameron around the time I read the Thousand Nights and One Night. And don't forget The Canterbury Tales.

From our perspective, Boccaccio's device of having his tales told by rich youths in a comfortable retreat seems like the height of devious humor, appealing to readers' fantasies of escape even as it rouses their anger at privilege. I wonder what he intended in this regard and how his contemporary readers read him.

April 12, 2011  
Anonymous John Wirebach said...

They threw me off the hay truck about noon...(James Cain)

Barry Maitland has written at least half a dozen police proceduals. It might be worth a comment on his oeavre. At least I'd appreciate it since I read one and enjoyed it.

That's an interesting challenge for readers of authors with a large backlist: Which ones are worth reading? Any ideas?

John Wirebach

April 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's one of the great crime-fiction openings, though I haven't read the book. I have seen the Garfield-Turner movie, though. Until I saw it, I had the idea that Garfield was just another Hollywood star. But the man could act.

I still haven't read the Maitland book. I made his post after riffling the old to-be-read pile and noticing his interesting opening.

Is your proposed challenge "Which titles are worth reading from authors with huge backlists?"? I'd be well prepared for such a challenge. I'm reading Donald Westlake these days, and he has one of the larger backlists of the post-pulp era.

April 18, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

John Garfield -- a fantastic actor, a favorite of my family's years ago.

Worth reseeing his movie classics.

April 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, one of these days I'll browse hois list of credits and see what looks worth watching.

April 20, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, I think you might enjoy: They Made Me a Criminal, The Sea Wolf, Out of the Fog, Air Force (possibly my favorite WWII movie, dir by Howard Hawks), Destination: Tokyo, Pride of the Marines, Body and Soul, Gentleman's Agreement, Force of Evil, and He Ran All the Way.

Force of Evil, 1948, is one of the great films noir and so-much influenced Martin Scorsese that he contributed a large sum of money for its restoration.

I can't think of any Garfield film I don't like and have seen most of them at least twice.

April 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Many thanks. I might start with Air Force, since I've liked everything I've seen of Howard Hawks except the ending of Twentieth Century and parts of Man's Favorite Sport. I liked Only Angels Have Wings, so I know he could make a good adventure movie.

Now for what's really important: Some relatives of my mother's husband were over for dinner last night, and they said they read crime fiction. Later I mentioned a Westlake pastiche I was thinking of writing, and the male half of the couple said, "Sounds like a Continental Op story." He also mentioned "The Gutting of Couffignal." I think my mum married into a good family.

It being Passover, I also mentioned the Matza Kid.

April 20, 2011  

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