Genre: Crime/Detective & Suspense/Thrillers
Dare Me (2012)
After a game, it takes a half-hour under the shower head to get all the hairspray out. To peel off all the sequins. To dig out that last bobby pin nestled deep in your hair.
The narrator is 16-year-old Addy Hanlon, a high school cheerleader who describes herself as having “hair like a long taffy pull and skin tight as a rubber band.“ She continued: “Sometimes you stand under the hot gush for so long, looking at your body, counting every bruise. Touching every tender place. Watching the swirl at your feet, the glitter spinning. Like a mermaid shedding her scales.“
The Queenpin (2007)
I want the legs.
The unnamed narrator, a young bookkeeper at a seedy nightclub, is referring to the legs of Gloria Denton, a forty-something queenpin (think kingpin) in the underworld of casinos, racetracks, and similar venues. In the book, the opening line is presented in italics and comprises the entire first paragraph. In the second, the narrator continued:
“That was the first thing that came into my head. The legs were the legs of a twenty-year-old Vegas showgirl, a hundred feet long and with just enough curve and give and promise. Sure, there was no hiding the slightly worn hands or the beginning tugs of skin framing the bones in her face. But the legs, they lasted, I tell you. They endured. Two decades her junior, my skinny matchsticks were no competition.“
In 2008, The Queenpin won both the Edgar Award and the Barry Award for Best Paperback Original.
Murder & Madness: The Secret Life of Jack the Ripper (1992)
The murders and mutilations of five prostitutes in Whitechapel, in the East End of London, began on the morning of Friday, August 31, 1888.
Abrahamsen continued: “Mary Anne Nichols was found dead, lying in a back street named Buck’s Row. Murders connected to theft or rape were common occurrences, and under ordinary circumstances the death of a prostitute would cause no more than a momentary ripple in the dark pool that was the East End. But these circumstances were not ordinary.”
Dan Abrams and David Fisher
Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency (2018)
Mister Robert Roberts Hitt, the well-known steno man, arrived in Springfield late on the sweltering afternoon of August 28, 1859. As he stepped down onto the platform of the new station, he paused briefly and nattily patted the beads of sweat from his forehead, then vainly attempted to tug the wrinkles out of his jacket.
Abrams and Fisher continued in the first paragraph: “The Alton Express had covered the two hundred miles from Chicago in a quite acceptable nine hours. Hitt had tried with limited success to practice his shorthand on the ever-shaking rails. It had not surprised young Hitt that the carriage was far more crowded than he had previously experienced: the Peachy Quinn Harrison murder trial had attracted considerably more attention than might otherwise have been expected once it became known that Abe Lincoln was going to defend the accused killer.”
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988)
It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression “As pretty as an airport.“
If you can begin a novel with an observation that has every chance of becoming a world-class quotation, you’re off to a great start—and that’s exactly what happened with this first sentence (all of the major quotation anthologies quickly picked it up).
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk.“
Great Circle (1933)
Why be in such a hurry, old fool? What good is hurry going to do you? Wrap yourself in a thick gauze of delay and confusion, like the spider; hang there, like the spider, aware of time only as the rock is aware of time; let your days be as leisurely and profound as months, serene as the blue spaces of sky between clouds; your flies will come to you in due season.
These are the cautionary inner reflections of the protagonist, Andrew Cather, who is on a train from New York City to Boston. He will be returning home three days early, and is not sure what he will find when he arrives (one possibility—both feared and, in some ways, desired—is that his wife will be in the arms of a lover).
Aiken was deeply interested in psychoanalysis, and this early psychological suspense novel was believed to be one of Sigmund Freud’s favorite novels.
The Man with the Golden Arm (1949)
The captain never drank. Yet, toward nightfall in that smoke-colored season between Indian summer and December’s first true snow, he would sometimes feel half drunken. He would hang his coat neatly over the back of his chair in the leaden station-house twilight, say he was beat from lack of sleep and lay his head across his arms upon the query room desk.
A Walk on the Wild Side (1956)
“He’s just a pore lonesome wife-left feller,“ the more understanding said of Fitz Linkhorn, “losing his old lady is what crazied him.“
“That man is so contrary,“ the less understanding said, “if you throwed him in the river he’d float upstream.“
For what had embittered him Fitz had no name. Yet he felt that every daybreak duped him into waking and every evening conned him into sleep. The feeling of having been cheated—of having been cheated—that was it. Nobody knew why nor by whom.
Police at the Funeral (1931)
When one man is following another, however discreet may be the pursuer or the pursued, the act does not often pass unnoticed in the streets of London.
The narrator continued: “There were at least four people who realized that Inspector Stanislaus Oates, only lately promoted to the Big Five, was being followed down High Holborn by the short, squat, shabby man who yet bore the elusive air of a forgotten culture about him.“
V. C. Andrews
Flowers in the Attic (1979)
It is so appropriate to color hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw.
These are the opening words of the Prologue to the book. The narrator is 12-year-old Cathy Dollanganger, who was only twelve years old when her mother forced her and her three siblings to live secretly in the attic of their grandparents’ home.
In the opening paragraph, Cathy continued: “And as I begin to copy from the old memorandum journals that I kept for so long, a title comes as if inspired. Open the Window and Stand in the Sunshine. Yet, I hesitate to name our story that. For I think of us more as flowers in the attic.“
Ninja Soccer Moms (2004)
The thing about revenge is that it takes a woman who is well and truly pissed to get it right.
These opening words—which won the 2005 Ross Thomas Award for Best First Line in a Mystery or Thriller—describe Samantha “Sam” Shaw, a soccer mom who got thoroughly pissed off when, after her husband’s unexpected death, she discovered not only that he was cheating on her but that almost everybody knew about it.
I’ve been searching—without much success—for more information about the Ross Thomas Prize. I did find one other mention of the contest (see the Laura Lippman entry below), but nothing else. If you can provide any information, I’d be grateful.
Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less (1976)
Making a million legally has always been difficult. Making a million illegally has always been a little easier. Keeping a million when you have made it is perhaps the most difficult of all.
The Blind Assassin (2000)
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.
The opening words come from Iris Chase, an elderly woman who is reflecting on the death of her younger sister in 1945, at age twenty-five. At her death, Laura left behind a sci-fi novel titled The Blind Assassin, which went on to become a posthumous cult classic. Atwood’s complex, multi-layered, novel-within-a novel was panned by many critics, but went on to win numerous awards, including the 2000 Booker Prize.
The Embezzler (1966)
I have the distinction of having become a legend in my lifetime, but not a very nice one.
The opening words come from Guy Prime, a fictionalized version of a real-life Wall Street executive who was at the center of a major financial scandal in the 1920s. In the opening paragraph of the novel, which was named a National Book Award finalist, he continued:
“In this year 1960, perhaps not every schoolchild (for what do they know of America’s past?) but surely every college man who has taken even a casual course in current history knows of Guy Prime. I am a symbol of financial iniquity, of betrayal of trust, of the rot in old Wall Street before the cleansing hose of the New Deal. If I had not have existed, Franklin Roosevelt (who had a far more devious soul than mine) would have had to create me.”
City of Glass [Book 1 of The New York Trilogy] (1985)
It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
The narrator continued in the opening paragraph: “Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences. Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined with the first word that came from the stranger’s mouth, is not the question. The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.”
In a 2017 blog post (“Superb First Paragraphs Can Teach Writers”), writer and editor John Fox wrote: “Love that this starts with a telephone ringing, and that the person calling is not asking for him. By withholding such information, Auster creates a fantastic mystery. And the rest of the paragraph emphasizes how pivotal this phone call was, and also introduces the notion about the meaning of narrative and story, which the rest of this novel will concentrate on.”
In his post, Fox continued: “Remember that the one and only true rule for the first paragraph is that it has to make the reader want to read the rest of the book. And Auster certainly accomplishes that here.”
Anxious People (2020)
A bank robbery. A hostage drama. A stairwell full of police officers on their way to storm an apartment. It was easy to get to this point, much easier than you might think. All it took was one single bad idea.
On its own, this is a wonderful opening paragraph—especially the final line—but the second paragraph is even better. It begins with the narrator breaking the fourth wall by speaking directly to the reader: “This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots.”
This is a killer line, in my opinion, and I quite literally paused in my reading to savor it before reading on. The narrator then continued: “So it needs saying from the outset that it’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is. Especially if you have other people you’re trying to be a reasonably good human being for.”
Like his previous novels, Anxious People became an immediate New York Times Best Seller and was quickly adapted into a six-part Netflix mini-series that premiered in the final days of 2021.
April in Spain: A Novel [Book 8 in the Quirke series] (2021)
Terry Tice liked killing people. It was as simple as that.
Banville is a writer of serious literary novels (he won the Booker Prize for The Sea in 2005), but he has always had a soft spot in his heart for crime fiction. Most of his crime novels were penned under the name Benjamin Black, but he wrote this most recent one under his own name—and he began it in a way that is perfectly fitting for the genre. It was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
In the novel’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Maybe ‘liked’ wasn’t the right word. Nowadays he was paid to do it, and well paid. But money was never the motive, not really. Then what was? He had given a lot of thought to this question, on and off, over the years. He wasn’t a looney, and it wasn’t a sex thing, or anything sick like that—he was no psycho.”
In a 2014 Guardian interview, Banville surprised many when he revealed that he preferred his crime novels to his more serious literary works: “I certainly like the Benjamin Black books more than my Banville novels because they [the Banville novels] are attempts to be works of art [and] all I see are the flaws, the faults, the failures, places where I should have kept going to make a sentence better.”
Overkill [Book 2 of Agent Paul Richter series] (2016)
Most of the time they didn’t fuck around with the executions. A bullet in the back of the head or a blade drawn across the throat and the body left pretty much where it fell. But when Rashid was there it was different. Rashid liked to play.
In a 2007 post on his “Gravetapping” blog, writer and reviewer Ben Bouldon wrote “This is one of the coolest openings I have read recently.” I agree. The first portion is starkly straightforward, and it ends with a haunting phrase that that couldn’t be more removed from the usual sense of the word play.
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “Bizarrely, Rashid looked more like a caricature of an accountant than anything else—small and slight, hunched, with thick pebble-lensed glasses—but nobody smiled when he was around. He had learnt his trade in the back streets of Baghdad and Basra, and refined his skills working on Russian prisoners seized by the Afghans. The smell of death was on him.”
M. C. Beaton (pen name of Marion Chesney)
Dishing the Dirt (2015)
After a dismal grey winter, spring came to the village of Carsely in the Cotswolds, bringing blossoms, blue skies and warm breezes.
But somewhere, in the heart of one private detective, Agatha Raisin, storms were brewing.
In a 2016 NovelSpaces.com post, mystery writer Susan Oleksiw wrote: “There are as many ways to open a story as there are storytellers, but all have the same goal, to pull the reader into the tale. The opening lines establish tone also, dark or light, humorous or not. The general rule is to establish a normal world that is upset, and the results of the ‘upset’ are the story.”
About Beaton’s opening words above, Oleksiw wrote: “This is a gentler lead-in but the promise is there. Into this bucolic world of natural beauty comes darkness, and a woman determined to combat crime.”
Ninth Square (2002)
It was the title that first intrigued her. Not so much the word itself. But its meaning. This usage. How it applied in this very specific situation.
The woman in question is Midori Strumski, a 19-year-old Yale University drama major with a thick dictionary in her hands. The first line immediately achieves its purpose, causing the reader to wonder, “What is the title, or the word? And what does this very specific situation mean?” The word, we shortly discover, is escort.
The narrator continued: “The thickest dictionary in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library defined it as a noun in four different ways…. It was the last of these that she felt best fit. Guidance on a journey. Because, in a way, an escort’s job was to guide semen along on its journey out of the penis and into, or onto, whatever the customer’s pleasure.”
Good Neighbors (1997)
The last day of Reggie DeLillo’s life started off with a bad cup of coffee, then went downhill from there.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994)
He was tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features: a neatly trimmed mustache, hair turning silver at the temples, and eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine—he could see out, but you couldn’t see in.
Berendt’s debut novel is often classified as a “non-fiction novel” (like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood), because it was based on a real 1981 crime—the murder of a male prostitute by a respected antiques dealer in Savannah, Georgia (he was also the victim’s employer and lover).
The novel was a commercial and critical success, winning the 1995 Boeke Prize and named a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. In 1987, Clint Eastwood adapted the novel into a film (starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack) that did wonders for Savannah’s tourist industry.
“My Favorite Murder,” in the San Francisco Examiner (Sep. 16, 1888)
Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon my trial, which lasted seven years. In charging the jury, the judge of the Court of Acquittal remarked that it was one of the most ghastly crimes that he had ever been called upon to explain away.
“An Imperfect Conflagration,” in The Wasp (March 27, 1886)
Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father—an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.
This is one of the most impressive opening sentences in all of American literature, and perhaps the very best employing the rhetorical device of understatement. In the first paragraph, the narrator continued:
“This was before my marriage, while I was living with my parents in Wisconsin. My father and I were in the library of our home, dividing the proceeds of a burglary which we had committed that night. These consisted of household goods mostly, and the task of equitable division was difficult. We got on very well with the napkins, towels and such things, and the silverware was parted pretty nearly equally, but you can see for yourself that when you try to divide a single music-box by two without a remainder you will have trouble. It was that music-box which brought disaster and disgrace upon our family. If we had left it my poor father might now be alive.”
In writing the opening words to “A” is for Alibi (1982), Sue Grafton’s debut novel featuring investigator Kinsey Millhone, Grafton may have been inspired by Bierce’s opener above. See the Grafton entry here.
Girl Gone Mad: A Novel (2020)
The girl cut herself.
With a knife, most likely—with a paring knife or steak knife pilfered from the kitchen when her parents weren’t around—or maybe she used a pair of scissors already in her bedroom, opening them up and then pressing the tip of one of the blades against her skin.
The opening words come from Emily Bennett, a 28-year-old Pennsylvania therapist who works with troubled teen and pre-teen girls—and herself a former troubled middle school girl whose past is about to be resurrected.
In her opening words, Bennett continued: “It was one of the things I would eventually get to, but not today. Today was the girl’s first appointment. An intake, really. All I had was the referral that she had been sent from the psychiatric inpatient facility where she’d been for eight days.”
William Peter Blatty
The Exorcist (1971)
Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all.
What looked like morning was the beginning of endless night.
So begins a novel that has become a classic in horror fiction: the story of the demonic possession—and subsequent exorcism—of an eleven-year-old girl. Blatty was a student at Georgetown University in 1949 when the campus was bristling with news of recent exorcism, and the story stayed with him, untold, until he finally put it together in fictional form twenty years after he graduated.
An immediate best-seller, the novel was adapted by William Friedkin into a 1973 film by the same title. Now regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made, it was the first in the genre to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award (it received ten nominations, winning two, for Best Adapted Screenplay—written by Blatty, incidentaly—and Best Sound).
The Crime of Our Lives (2015)
It was in the eleventh grade that I knew I would be a writer. The conviction grew out of two awarenesses that dawned at about the same time. I became aware of the world of realistic adult fiction, with all its power to inform and enchant and absorb one utterly. I became aware, too, of my own talent with words. I seemed to be capable of doing with them what I had been unable to do with a baseball bat or a hammer or a monkey wrench or a slide rule.
Lawrence Block is one of the modern era’s most prolific crime/mystery authors, and this is the marvelous opening paragraph of a compilation of Introductions he wrote throughout his career.
A Very Private Gentleman: A Novel (2005)
High in these mountains, The Apennines, the spinal cord of Italy, with its vertebrae of infant stone to which the tendons and the flesh of the old world are attached, there is a small cave high up on a precipice.
Metaphorical openings—if they are well crafted—can be extremely effective, and this one is particularly impressive. As we read it, there’s a clear suggestion that, whatever the quality of the forthcoming tale, it will be very well told. In a 2010 blog post, writer and editor Alyssa Linn Palmer wrote: “I picked this book up at a friend’s place and with just the first line, I was hooked.”
Her Royal Spyness [Book 1 of the Royal Spyness series] (2007)
There are two disadvantages to being a minor royal.
Any opening sentence that arouses a reader’s curiosity has done its job, and this one does it very nicely—making readers immediately wonder what those two disadvantages are and heightening interest in a subject we don’t typically think about: minor royals. In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator—a minor royal [34th in line for the English throne] named Lady Georgiana Rannoch—continued:
“First one is expected to behave as befits a member of the ruling family, without being given the means to do so. One is expected to kiss babies, open fetes, put in an appearance at Balmoral (suitably kilted), and carrying trains at weddings. Ordinary means of employment are frowned upon. One is not, for example, allowed to work on the cosmetics counter at Harrod’s, as I was about to find out.”
C. J. Box
Savage Run [Book 2 in The Joe Pickett Series] (2002)
On the third day of their honeymoon, infamous environmental activist Stewie Woods and his new bride, Annabel Belloti, were spiking trees in the forest when a cow exploded and blew them up. Until then, their marriage had been happy.
Some great opening lines—and, indeed, even entire novels—begin with a single image that simply popped into an author’s mind, and that appears to be the case here. In a 2021 post on the “Writers in the Storm” Blog, Margie Lawson, a friend of the author, wrote: “Chuck had an idea about starting a book with an exploding cow. He didn’t want to lose it, so he named two characters and wrote that first sentence. He wrote the rest of the story three years later.”
C. J. Box
In Plain Sight [Book 6 in The Joe Pickett Series] (2007)
When ranch owner Opal Scarlett vanished, no one mourned except her three grown sons, Arlen, Hank, and Wyatt, who expressed their loss by getting into a fight with shovels.
In a 2007 post on his “Gravetapping” blog, writer and reviewer Ben Bouldon wrote: “This is one of the best opening lines I’ve read. It has everything. Bite. Mystery. Appeal. Humor—dark as it is. And it’s just damn intriguing…and oh how it makes me want to read on and on.”
"The Coffin," in Dark Carnival (1947)
There was any amount of banging and hammering for a number of days; deliveries of metal parts and oddments which Mr. Charles Braling took into his little workshop with a feverish anxiety. He was a dying man, a badly dying man, and he seemed to be in a great hurry, between racking coughs and spittlings, to piece together one last invention.
What reader cannot be thinking, "What is this last invention?" And, if you're a sophisticated reader, you may be musing, "I think I can guess what it is."
“The Jar,“ in Weird Tales magazine (Nov. 1944); reprinted in Dark Carnival (1947)
It was one of those things they keep in a jar in the tent of a sideshow on the outskirts of a little drowsy town.
In a 2015 blog post, writer Tyler Miller describes this opening line as “a doozey,“ and a perfect example of Bradbury’s gift for “taking the ordinary and making it truly disturbing.“ Miller writes more fully: “The accumulation of prepositional phrases takes what should otherwise be a simple everyday object and shifts it further and further into the world of the strange and unnatural: in a jar, in the tent, of a sideshow, on the outskirts. The words sideshow and outskirts in particular suggest to the reader that whatever is in that jar is definitely out of the norm. And it’s gonna seriously disturb the complacency of that little, drowsy town.“
Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
It was a pleasure to burn.
This legendary opening line is loaded with ambiguity. Is the narrator himself burning, and finding pleasure in it? Or is he finding pleasure in burning something else? With these six simple words, we are immediately thrust into a dystopian future, where the narrator, a fireman named Guy Montag, finds pleasure in burning books that have been outlawed by government censors in an autocratic state (we also eventually learn that the title refers to the temperature at which books spontaneously erupt into flame).
The opening line of Fahrenheit 451 has been admired since the book was published, and for the past fifty years it’s been discussed in every creative writing class that has ever existed. One of my favorite comments appeared in a 2011 Litreactor article by Meredith Borders, where she explained why the beginning is so effective: “The sentence is made up of six words, elegant in their brevity and crushing in their implications. Fireman Guy Montag lives his entire life taking casual pleasure in government oppression—until a series of events leads him to look at his life and society with growing horror.“
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)
I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him....
These opening words come from protagonist and narrator Major-General Richard Hannay, a WWI English spy who went on to become something of a prototype for later characters created by Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and John le Carré. Buchan’s novel—one of the earliest “man-on-the-run” spy thrillers—might have been lost to history if not for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film adaptation, which became a movie classic.
In the novel, Hannay continued: “The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.’”
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (1974, with Curt Gentry)
Saturday, August 9, 1969
It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.
These are the dramatic opening words to the bestselling true-crime book of all time, with over seven million copies sold. In the second paragraph, Bugliosi—the Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney who successfully prosecuted Manson and his “family” members—continued:
“The canyons above Hollywood and Beverly Hills play tricks with sounds. A noise clearly audible a mile away may be indistinguishable at a few hundred feet.”
A book’s opening words can have multiple purposes, but one of the most common is to “establish an atmosphere”—and few non-fiction books can rival Helter Skelter when it comes to opening atmospherics. After describing the three-day heat wave that preceded the murders of seven people, including actress Sharon Tate, who was eight-months pregnant with husband Roman Polanski’s child, Bugliosi capped off his opening remarks with three simple but haunting sentences:
“All things considered, it’s surprising that more people didn’t hear something.
“But then it was late, just after midnight, and 10050 Cielo Drive was secluded.
“Being secluded, it was also vulnerable.”
Helter Skelter was an immediate success, jumping to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list and winning the 1975 Edgar Award for the best true-crime book of the year.
James Lee Burke
Purple Cane Road (2000)
Years ago, in state documents, Vachel Carmouche was always referred to as the electrician, never as the executioner.
In a 2021 blog post, writer Greg Levin included this opener in a post on “25 of the Best Opening Lines in Crime Fiction.” About his selections, Levin wrote: “Few things enthrall me more than cracking (or clicking) open a novel and reading a first line that catapults me into Chapter 1. A line that reminds me why I read, why I write, what it means to be alive. A line that gives me whiplash. A line that makes me forget to feed my pets for the next few hours.”
Little Constructions (2007)
There are no differences between men and women. No differences. Except one. Men want to know what sort of gun it is. Women just want the gun.
About these opening words, critic Lucy Ellmann wrote in a 2007 Guardian review: "From the very beginning you know you're in good, if slightly scary, hands. Burns is raring for a fight, and her startling energy might just bring feminism, and even women, back into fashion."
The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.
The opening words come from an 18-year-old protagonist known only as “Middle Sister” (we will shortly learn that no characters in the novel are formally named). The novel was hailed by critics from the outset, and went on to become one of the most acclaimed books of the year, winning the 2018 Man Booker Prize, the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.
In a 2019 “Narrative Muse” post, Australian blogger Aisha Lelic wrote, “Milkman had me hooked with the very first line,“ adding: “Its hypnotic rhythm and tone reminded me of hard-boiled fiction—tough, terse, and cynical with a touch of loneliness and dread. And yet it’s nothing like hard-boiled fiction. In fact, Milkman is like nothing I have ever read.“
William S. Burroughs
Naked Lunch (1959)
I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station.
This is the opening line of one of history’s most influential novels, first published in France as The Naked Lunch in 1959 by Olympia Press, but not in America until 1962 (from Grove Press) because of a protracted legal struggle against obscenity charges. The book continued to be “banned in Boston” until 1966, however, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned a 1965 ruling that came in the last major obscenity trial in American literary history.
In addition to its free-wheeling, non-linear, experimental composition, the book helped bring the argot of the gritty underworld into popular usage. During the nine years it took to write the novel, the virtually unknown Burroughs had composing and editing help from some famous friends, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Burroughs credited Kerouac with the title, saying it meant seeing things very clearly (he explained: “It means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”). Kerouac, however, offered a different explanation, saying the title resulted from a mis-reading of “Naked Lust,” a title he had suggested to Ginsberg.
In 2015, Alan Bisbort, editor of the punk-inspired website PleaseKillMe.com included Burrough’s opener on his personal “10 Best Opening Lines” list. In 2010, Time included Naked Lunch on its list of the “100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005.” And, finally, in a fascinating footnote, musicians Donald Fagen and Walter Becker named their band “Steely Dan” after a revolutionary steam-powered dildo mentioned in the book.
James M. Cain
The Institute (1976)
I first met Hortense Garrett at her home in Wilmington, Delaware on a spring morning last year. I wasn’t calling on her but on her husband, Richard Garrett, the financier, to make a pitch for money—a lot of money, twenty million or so. It was for a project I had in mind, an institute of biography which I hoped he would endow—and, incidentally, name me as director.
The opening words come from Lloyd Palmer, an English literature professor in search of money for an Institute he hopes to head. What he ends up with, however, is a boatload of trouble when he falls for the wealthy benefactor’s young, beautiful, and unhappy wife. The Institute was Cain’s last novel, written when he was eighty-five. The work may not have been up to his usual standard, but it had a first-class opening and provided much enjoyment to Cain’s many fans.
James M. Cain
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
They threw me off the hay truck about noon.
Readers bring themselves in very different ways to a book’s opening words, and a less perceptive reader might easily overlook the significance of this first sentence. The words come from narrator and protagonist Frank Chambers, a handsome young drifter who has been tossed out of a hay truck in front of a California diner operated by a middle-aged Greek man and his beautiful young wife. The book was an immediate hit, and the story so sizzling that it ultimately resulted in seven film adaptations (the best being the 1946 adaptation starring John Garfield and a voluptuous Lana Turner).
In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler, Stephen King described Cain’s opening line as a “hook” that immediately engaged the reader’s interest. King then used the nine-word opening as a springboard for a 200-word analysis—and a mini-masterclass on writing:
“Suddenly, you’re right inside the story—the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting—and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious.
“This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do. In “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,“ we can see right away that we’re not going to indulge in a lot of foofaraw. There’s not going to be much floridity in the language, no persiflage. The narrative vehicle is simple, lean (not to mention that the book you’re holding is just 128 pages long). What a beautiful thing—fast, clean, and deadly, like a bullet. We’re intrigued by the promise that we’re just going to zoom.“
In Cold Blood (1966)
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of Western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.“
In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.“
In Cold Blood is a “non-fiction novel” that was based on the real-life 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family by two ex-convicts who were later arrested, convicted, and executed for the crime. It became an immediate bestseller and is the second-bestselling true crime story in publishing history, after Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter (1974).
The Angel of Darkness (1997)
There’s likely some polished way of starting a story like this, a clever bit of gaming that’d sucker people in surer than the best banco feeler in town. But the truth is that I haven’t got the quick tongue or the slick wit for that kind of game.
The narrator is Stevie Taggert, the proprietor of a Manhattan tobacco shop. Taggert is a good friend of John Moore, an elderly New York Times reporter who’s been struggling to find a publisher for a manuscript he has completed about a grisly murder case solved years earlier by their mutual friend, the alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler. When Taggert suggests that Moore might be approaching things in the wrong way, the reporter gets testy and essentially says: if you think you can do a better job, do it.
The result is Taggert’s story about the case of Libby Hatch. Taggert begins the tale by apologizing for his deficient writing skills, but in doing so expresses himself more than adequately, even artfully. He continued: “Words haven’t figured much in my life, and though over the years I’ve met many of what the world counts to be the big thinkers and talkers of our time, I’ve stayed what most would call a plain man. And so a plain way of starting will suit me well.“
The Alienist (1994)
January 8th, 1919
Theodore is in the ground.
The opening words refer to the burial of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th U. S. President and, earlier in his career, New York City Police Commissioner. They come from narrator John Moore, a crime reporter for The New York Times and a friend of the novel’s protagonist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a New York City physician and noted alienist.
For those unfamiliar with the term alienist, a “Note” at the beginning of the novel explained: “Prior to the twentieth century, persons suffering from mental illnesses were thought to be ’alienated, not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who treated mental pathologies were known as ’alienists.’“
In the novel’s second paragraph, Moore continued: “The words as I write them make as little sense as did the sight of his coffin descending into a patch of sandy soil near Sagamore Hill, the place he loved more than any other on earth. As I stood there this afternoon, in the cold January wind that blew off Long Island Sound, I thought to myself: Of course it’s a joke. Of course he’ll burst the lid open, blind us all with that ridiculous grin and split our ears with a high-pitched bark of laughter. Then he’ll exclaim there’s work to do—’action to get’—and we’ll all be martialled to the task of protecting some obscure species of newt from the ravages of a predatory industrial giant bent on planting a fetid factory on the little amphibian’s breeding ground.“
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (2019)
Enough water, like enough time, can make anything disappear.
This is an elegant opening line for one of the best non-fiction books of 2020. In a review in Southern Living, Caroline Rogers wrote: “Furious Hours is a compelling hybrid of a novel, at once a true-crime thriller, courtroom drama, and miniature biography of Harper Lee.”
In his opening paragraph, Cep continued: “A hundred years ago, in the place presently occupied by the largest lake in Alabama, there was a region of hills and hollers and hardscrabble communities with a pretty little river running through it.”
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988)
At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.
The narrator and protagonist of this coming-of age novel is 21-year-old Art Bechstein, the son of a mob money launderer who wants his son to pursue a legitimate career. Bechstein continued: “We’d just come to the end of a period of silence and ill-will—a year I’d spent in love with and in the same apartment as an odd, fragile girl whom he had loathed, on sight, with a frankness and a fury that were not at all like him. But Claire had moved out the month before. Neither my father nor I knew what to do with our new freedom.”
In a 2017 blog post (“20 Strategies to Write Your Novel’s First Paragraph”), writer, editor, and Bookfox.com founder John Fox wrote: “Talk about using a character to entice the reader. You just mention ‘gangster’ and everyone is all ears. And the emotional landscape of the son, and of his relationship to his father, is exceptionally clear. Consider how much information is packed into this single paragraph.”
Chabon was twenty-one and in his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh when he began writing the novel. He continued work on it when he was accepted into the two-year Creative Writing Program at the University of California at Irvine. Chabon used the novel as his thesis for an M.A. degree, awarded in 1987. One of his thesis advisors was UC-I professor Donald Heiney, who had written more than a dozen novels under the pen name of MacDonald Harris. Chabon’s professor was so impressed with the novel that he immediately passed it on to his agent. A year later, the book was published by William Morrow, became a surprise bestseller, and launched an extraordinary literary career for Chabon.
The Lady in the Lake (1943)
The Treloar Building was, and is, on Olive Street, near Sixth, on the west side. The sidewalk in front of it had been built of black and white rubber blocks. They were taking them up now to give to the government, and a hatless pale man with a face like a building superintendent was watching the work and looking as if it was breaking his heart.
Trouble is My Business (1950)
Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon's tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. She said: "I need a man."
In "Raymond Chandler: The Art of Beginning a Crime Story," a 2019 CrimeReads.com article, editor-in-chief Dwyer Murphy wrote: "You'd be hard pressed to find an author equal to Raymond Chandler in jolting a story alive. If Elmore Leonard was the king of the opening line, Chandler made a case for himself as the master of the opening paragraph. Whether he's describing the weather, the face of a building, a street corner, or the glint in a doorman's eye, Chandler brought the scene instantly to life and gave you an immediate and overwhelming feeling that you were in a real place, encountering real people caught up in the little dramas and tragedies that define all our lives."
“Red Wind,“ in Dime Detective magazine (Jan. 1, 1938)
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.
These opening words represent the first appearance of LA private investigator Philip Marlowe, and what a first impression he makes. In the short story, Marlowe continued: “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.“ The short story went on to make a second appearance in Chandler’s 1950 anthology, The Simple Art of Murder (1950)
Regarding this opening, mystery writer Erin Hart (Haunted Ground and other Nora Gavin/Cormac Maguire novels) wrote in 2013: “And of course, no one can out-do Raymond Chandler for striking just the right hard-boiled tone for his time and place.“
The Big Sleep (1939)
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
With these opening words, the literary world was introduced to Philip Marlowe, a Los Angeles private detective who would go on to be featured in six more Chandler novels (he also appeared in many later “authorized” novels by other others as well as in dozens of radio, film, and television adaptations). On the Big Screen, the role of Marlowe was played by such leading men as Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, and Liam Neesom.
In the novel’s second paragraph, Marlowe continued: “The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor [sic] of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.“
In a 2013 blog post, Professor Joseph Bentz of Azusa Pacific University wrote that he had chosen The Big Sleep for an Honor’s course he was teaching. After the class finished a first-read of the book, he began the classroom analysis of the work by asking students to read the first few pages aloud. This exercise, he wrote, helped them realize that “Almost every sentence in these two paragraphs has something to commend it.“ Bentz concluded his post by writing: “The opening paragraphs of The Big Sleep let us know we are starting a journey with a narrator who knows what he’s doing, both as a detective and as a storyteller. We like him from the start, and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next. He doesn’t disappoint.“
The Long Goodbye (1953)
The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one.
These intriguing first words come from Philip Marlowe, who continued about Terry Lennox: “He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.“
The Little Sister (1949)
The pebbled glass door panel is lettered in flaked black paint: “Phillip Marlowe...Investigations.“ It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor in the sort of building that was new about the year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilization.
Some of the best opening lines quickly establish the “voice” of the narrator/protagonist, and Phillip Marlowe had one of the most recognizable voices in all of crime literature. In the opening paragraph, he continued:
“The door is locked, but next to it is another door with the same legend which is not locked. Come on in—there’s nobody in here but me and a big bluebottle fly. But not if you’re from Manhattan, Kansas.”
Killing Floor [ Book 1 of 27 in the Jack Reacher series] (1997)
I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.
In a 2016 Criminalelement.com post on “5 Masters of Opening Lines” in crime fiction, Barry Lancet wrote:
“There’s a matter-of-factness to the opening lines of Lee Child’s first novel, Killing Floor, that is deceptive. A diner, lunchtime, eggs, and coffee—it’s hard to get more matter of fact than that. And yet, this simple opening segment’s immediacy captures our attention. The short, punchy sentences create a rhythm and pull us into the story with a series of equally matter-of-fact whys. Why was this guy arrested? Why is he eating breakfast at lunchtime? Why was he wet and tired and walking into town in the rain—who does that? Jack Reacher, of course.”
Child’s debut novel went on to win two of the highest honors given to mystery/crime novels, the Anthony Award and the Barry Award for Best First Novel. In 2022, it was adapted for the first season of the Amazon Prime Video series “Reacher,” starring Alan Ritchson in the title role.
The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)
It is difficult to know quite where to begin this story, but I have fixed my choice on a certain Wednesday at luncheon at the Vicarage. The conversation, though in the main irrelevant to the matter in hand, yet contained one or two suggestive incidents which influenced later developments.
The narrator is the Rev. Leonard Clement, the local vicar and the narrator of this Miss Marple mystery. The key phrase in the opening words is one or two suggestive incidents, which prompted writer Karen Woodward to write in a 2014 blog post: “Right off the bat, the reader is busy hunting for clues and asking themselves which are the important bits and which are the red herrings.”
The vicar continued: “I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way), and on resuming my seat I remarked, in a spirit most unbecoming to my cloth, that anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe, would be doing the world at large a service.”
Endless Night (1967)
In my end is my beginning…. That’s a quotation I’ve often heard people say. It sounds all right—but what does it really mean?
The narrator is Michael Rogers, a former English chauffeur with dark secrets in his past. He continued: “Is there ever any particular spot where one can put one’s finger and say: ‘It all began that day, at such a time and place, with such an incident?’”
The Moving Finger (1942)
When at last I was taken out of the plaster, and the doctors had pulled me about to their hearts’ content, and nurses had wheedled me into cautiously using my limbs, and I had been nauseated by their practically using baby talk to me, Marcus Kent told me I was to go and live in the country.
The opening words come from narrator Jerry Burton, who had been hospitalized with injuries from an airplane crash. The book is formally classified as a “Miss Marple Mystery,” but she doesn’t make an appearance until about three-quarters of the way into the book.
Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (1975)
Who is there who has not felt a sudden startled pang at reliving an old experience or feeling an old emotion?
“I have done this before….”
Why do those words always move one so profoundly?
That was the question I asked myself as I sat in the train watching the flat Essex landscape outside.
The opening words come from Hercule Poirot, in his final appearance—and in the last book Christie published before her death in 1976. Aging, and crippled with arthritis, Poirot goes on to proclaim there is nothing wrong with what he fondly calls his “little gray cells.”
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
Mrs. Ferrars died on the night of the 16th-17th September—a Thursday. I was sent for at eight o’clock on the morning of Friday the 17th. There was nothing to be done. She had been dead some hours.
The opening words come from an English doctor named Dr. James Sheppard, the narrator of the novel and, in a surprise twist at the end, the perpetrator of the crime in question. In the novel’s opening paragraph, he continued: “It was just a few minutes after nine when I reached home once more. I opened the front door with my latchkey, and purposely delayed a few moments in the hall, hanging up my hat and the light overcoat that I had deemed a wise precaution against the chill of an early autumn morning. To tell the truth, I was considerably upset and worried. I am not going to pretend that at that moment I foresaw the events of the next few weeks. I emphatically did not do so. But my instinct told me that there were stirring times ahead.“
In 2013, after polling over 600 members, the British Crime Writers’ Association hailed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as the best mystery novel in the history of the genre. Writing six years earlier in Agatha Christie: An English Mystery (2007), biographer Laura Thompson also gave it top honors, describing it as “The supreme, the ultimate detective novel. It rests upon the most elegant of all twists, the narrator who is revealed to be the murderer. This twist is not merely a function of plot: it puts the whole concept of detective fiction on an armature and sculpts it into a dazzling new shape. It was not an entirely new idea...nor was it entirely her own idea...but here, she realized, was an idea worth having. And only she could have pulled it off so completely.“
The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988)
They called him the Archer. It was an honorable title, though his countrymen had cast aside their reflex bows over a century ago, as soon as they had learned about firearms.
The narrator, who is describing an Afghan mathematics professor-turned-freedom fighter, continued: “In part, the name reflected the timeless nature of the struggle. The first of the Western invaders—for that was how they thought of them—had been Alexander the Great, and more had followed since. Ultimately, all had failed.““
Six Years (2013)
I sat in the back pew and watched the only woman I would ever love marry another man.
In a 2016 Criminalelement.com post on “5 Masters of Opening Lines” in crime fiction, Barry Lancet wrote: “This first line in Harlan Coben’s Six Years jumpstarts his ‘domestic thriller.’ The book sees a man’s love torn apart in a seemingly impossible manner. This is everyone’s worst nightmare—set down in a single, deceptively smooth sentence. You cannot help but want to read on to figure out how in the world such a thing could have happened.”
Don’t Let Go (2017)
Daisy wore a clingy black dress with a neckline so deep it could tutor philosophy.
Of the many great opening lines Coben has penned in his career, this is my personal favorite. None of the others can match it in what might be called epistemological wackiness, and none are as laugh-out-loud funny. Don’t Let Go was Coben’s 30th novel, and, like the last ten, it debuted in the Number One spot on the New York Times bestseller list.
When asked about the opener in a CBS This Morning interview, Coben said, “I just thought I’d have fun with the first line ’cause we’re about to get dark.” And get dark is a good way to describe the novel. Writing for the very first time in the first-person, present-tense, Coben let protagonist Napoleon “Nap” Dumas tell the entire tale— with most of it speaking directly to his dead twin brother (who died under mysterious circumstances while they were in high school). About the approach he took with the book, Coben said, “He’s trying to find the truth. I’m trying to both break your heart and stir it a little.”
The Confessions of Frannie Langton (2019)
My trial starts the way my life did: a squall of elbows and shoving and spit. From the prisoners’ hold they take me through the gallery, down the stairs and past the table crawling with barristers and clerks. Around me a river of faces in flood, their mutters rising, blending with the lawyers’ whispers. A noise that hums with all the spite of bees in a bush. Heads turn as I enter. Every eye a skewer.
The year is 1826, the city is London, and these taut opening words come from Frannie Langton, a black Jamaican woman who has been accused of the double murder of her employers, the eminent English scientist George Benham and his French wife Marguerite. In the novel’s second paragraph, Frannie continued: “I duck my head, peer at my boots, grip my hands to stop their awful trembling. It seems all of London is here, but then murder is the story this city likes best,”
All in all, this is a compelling opening to a spectacular debut novel. About the book, writer Christine Mangan (Tangerine) wrote: “From the sweltering heat of the West Indies to the rain-slicked cobbles of London, Collins transports her readers to the nineteenth century with an enthralling historical thriller. Frannie Langton is an unforgettable heroine, one who boldly reclaims her narrative within the context of a history that seeks to silence her. The Confessions of Frannie Langton is gorgeous―Gothic writing at its very best.”
Arthur Conan Doyle
“The Red-Headed League,“ in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
I had called upon my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, one day in the autumn of last year and found him in deep conversation with a very stout, florid-faced, elderly gentleman with fiery red hair. With an apology for my intrusion, I was about to withdraw when Holmes pulled me abruptly into the room and closed the door behind me.
Arthur Conan Doyle
“A Case of Identity,“ in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
“My dear fellow,“ said Sherlock Holmes as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, “life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.“
Arthur Conan Doyle
“The Five Orange Pips,“ in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases between the years ’82 and ’90, I am faced by so many which present strange and interesting features that it is no easy matter to know which to choose and which to leave.
Arthur Conan Doyle
“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,“ in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
“Holmes,“ said I as I stood one morning in our bow-window looking down the street, “here is a madman coming along. It seems rather sad that his relatives should allow him to come out alone.“
Arthur Conan Doyle
“The Man With the Twisted Lip,“ in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
Isa Whitney, brother of the late Elias Whitney, D.D., Principal of the Theological College of St. George’s, was much addicted to opium. The habit grew upon him, as I understand, from some foolish freak when he was at college; for having read De Quincey’s descriptions of his dreams and sensations.
The title of De Quincey’s book, of course, is Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, a classic 1821 memoir about the author’s addiction to laudanum.
In the “Twisted Lip” story, Dr. Watson’s narration continued: “He had drenched his tobacco with laudanum in an attempt to produce the same effects. He found, as so many more have done, that the practice is easier to attain than to get rid of.“
Arthur Conan Doyle
“The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,“ in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1992)
“To the man who loves art for its own sake,“ remarked Sherlock Holmes, tossing aside the advertisement sheet of the Daily Telegraph, “it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived.“
Arthur Conan Doyle
“A Scandal in Bohemia,“ in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.
Irene Adler is the closest thing to a love interest Sherlock Holmes ever found, and Dr. Watson’s opening words provide a glimpse into the psychology of the great detective, especially his extremely limited emotional range.
Watson continued: “He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results.“
Reading this description, one cannot help but think that Holmes was autistic. In fact, if he were a real person in today’s world, he would almost certainly be placed on the spectrum, quite likely with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Over a dozen years ago, Dr. Lisa Sanders confirmed this in her regular “Diagnosis” column in The New York Times. In “Hidden Clues” (Dec. 4, 2009), Sanders wrote about Holmes:
“He demonstrates what Asperger called “autistic intelligence”—an ability to see the world from a very different perspective than most people, often by focusing on details overlooked by others. Indeed Sherlock Holmes boasts that he is able to see the significance of trifles and calls this his ‘method’.”
The Poet (1996)
Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional reputation on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker—somber and sympathetic about it when I’m with the bereaved, a skilled craftsman with it when I’m alone. I’ve always thought the secret of dealing with death was to keep it at arm’s length. That’s the rule. Don’t let it breathe in your face.
But my rule didn’t protect me.
In The Poet, the first of three novels featuring investigative reporter Jack McEvoy, these opening words beautifully establish the “voice” of the protagonist, provide a window into his thinking process, and—in that final portion—pique our curiosity. In a 2010 blog post, mystery writer James Hayman wrote that Connelly’s first words are “among the best openings of any mystery or thriller I know.”
When the novel was issued in paperback in 2004, it included an Introduction by Stephen King, who described the opening sentence—Death is my beat—as “a blue-ribbon winner.” About the first sentence, King continued: “We are immediately hooked and pulled in. It’s not a cheat-line, either, but one that perfectly sets the tone: dark, brooding, just plain scary.“
King also heaped praises on the entire work, calling it “a marvelous and sustained piece of story-telling.” And finally, while admitting he doesn’t “use the word classic lightly,” King enthused, “The Poet may well prove to be one.”
La Fiesta Brava (1953)
On August 27, 1947, a multimillionaire and a bull killed each other in Linares, Spain, and plunged an entire nation into deep mourning. The bull’s name was Islero, and he was of the miura strain. The man’s name was Manolete, and he was the essence of everything Spanish. His story is the embodiment of la fiesta brava.
In 1985, staffers at The New York Times asked a number of prominent American authors to identify their “favorite opening passage in a work of literature.“ Elmore Leonard selected this one, explaining: “It must be my favorite, because it’s the only opening passage of a book I can recall and recite word-for-word some 35 years later, and be moved by it. With a simple documentary sound, the passage sets the stage for drama, tragedy, and never fails to give me a chill.“
The Mexican Tree Duck (1993)
When the 3:12 through freight to Spokane hit the East Meriweather crossing, the engineer touched his horn and released a long, mournful wail into the wet, snowy air of our second early fall storm in Western Montana. It sounded a hell of a lot like the first note of a Hank Snow ballad.
In a 2008 obituary in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the writer and editor David McCumber cited this as yet another favorite opening line of crime fiction fans. He went on to add: “The freights come right past my window here, Jim, and when I hear that wail on winter’s gray afternoons, I’ll think of you.“
The Last Good Kiss (1978)
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
Crumley, who was described by London’s The Guardian newspaper as “The poet laureate of hard-boiled literature,” once told an interviewer that it had taken him eight years to write this single first sentence. It appears to have paid off, as it went on to become his most widely quoted line. In 2008, The Last Good Kiss was described by writer Doug Moe as “the most influential crime novel of the last 50 years.”
In a 2008 obituary in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, writer and editor David McCumber wrote: “When I finally caught up with Jim Crumley, he was drinking whiskey with a poet named Martha Elizabeth in a ramshackle joint in Missoula, Mont., drinking the heart right into a gray winter afternoon. Those of you who know James Crumley’s work will recognize that as a terrible paraphrase of what’s been called the best opening sentence in the history of crime fiction.”
The Damage Done (2010)
It was the bright yellow tape that finally convinced me my sister was dead.
This dramatic opening serves as our introduction to travel writer Lily Moore, who will soon be making make a transition to private investigator. In a 2011 blog post, bibliophile Linda S. Brown wrote about the first sentence: “We’ve all seen enough crime shows to know just what that yellow tape means. In fourteen words, Davidson paints a vivid scene, one we won’t forget.” This was Davidson’s debut novel after working as a travel writer for ten years, and it went on to win the 2011 Anthony Award for Best First Novel.
Gavin de Becker
The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence (1997)
He had probably been watching her for a while. We aren’t sure—but what we do know is that she was not his first victim.
These opening words look a lot like the beginning of a suspense thriller, but they actually opened a non-fiction book that has become a classic in the literature on violence against women.
In his book, de Becker went well beyond the cliche of learning to trust one’s “gut instincts” by pinpointing a number of key warning signs—he called them pre-incident indicators, or PINS—that were precursors to violence.
Nina de Gramont
The Last September (2019)
Because I am a student of literature, I will start my story on the day Charlie died. In other words, I’m beginning in the middle. In media res, that’s the Latin term….
The opening words come from Brett Mercier, a 32-year-old Cape Cod wife and mother of a baby girl who is just learning to walk. After a captivating first sentence, she provides a strong hint about her background (we soon learn she is the daughter of two college professors and is herself only a dissertation away from getting a Ph.D. in English literature). As she continues, Brett offers a thought aimed directly at bibliophiles and fans of great opening lines, two groups likely to be familiar with the Latin phrase that means, “into the middle of things.” In the opening paragraph, Brett continued:
“And though my specialty is American Renaissance poetry, I did have to study the classics. Homer, Dante, Milton. They knew about the middle, how all of life revolves around a single moment in time. Everything that comes before leads up to that moment. Everything that comes afterward springs from that moment. In my case, that moment—that middle—is my husband’s murder.”
In a blurb for the book, the writer Brad Watson (The Heaven of Mercury and more) wrote: “I was hooked by the first paragraph, which somehow contains all the beautiful, luminous grief of the whole story, and I truly did not want to let it go in the end.”
The Maze [Book 8 in the John Corey series] (2022)
You can’t drink all day unless you start in the morning.
Some opening lines are like a warm handshake accompanied by a big grin—sending the message, “C’mon in. Even though we’re about to embark on some serious business, there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun along the way.” This is one of two wonderful 2022 novels that begin with a modern proverb (see the other one from Marianne Wiggins here), and they both work beautifully. I was delighted to honor both openers in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).
The opening line comes from former NYPD homicide detective, John Corey, who goes on to explain that he’s been enjoying a beer-drinking, crossword puzzle-playing vacation at his uncle Harry’s large Victorian house overlooking Long Island’s Great Peconic Bay. In the novel’s second paragraph, Corey goes on to make yet another clever observation:
“I’d been chilling here for about three weeks, and as I’d said the last time I was borrowing Harry’s summer house, the problem with doing nothing is not knowing when you’re finished.”
E. L. Doctorow
“The Foreign Legation,” in Vanity Fair (April, 1984); reprinted in Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella (1984)
After his wife left with all her clothes and the children’s clothes and toys, Morgan continued to go to work and come home, though the house was empty and he had no one to talk to.
In the evenings he stood at his windows with binoculars and watched the passage of his neighbors through their rooms.
After the first paragraph, we already have an extensive backstory. After the second, we see how a sad story has moved in a pathetic direction. After both, we’re left with an unsettling feeling about where the story may be going from here.
Arthur Conan Doyle
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he stayed up all night, was seated at the breakfast table.
Arthur Conan Doyle
A Study in Scarlet (1887)
In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.
This may not be the most compelling opening line in literary history, but it serves as an introduction to narrator Dr. John Watson, who will shortly learn about a fellow Londoner—someone said to be “a little queer in his ideas”—who is looking for someone with whom he might share an apartment. When Dr. Watson is first introduced to the man, he is startled when the stranger immediately says to him, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”
Arthur Conan Doyle
The Sign of the Four (1890)
Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of his mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat Morocco case. With his long, white nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirt cuff.
After this dramatic opening, Dr. John Watson—the beloved sidekick and chronicler of literary history’s greatest consulting detective—continued: “For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.”
For more than a hundred and thirty years, new readers have been stunned to learn of Holmes’s addiction to cocaine (his famous “seven-percent solution”). Dr. Watson describes the scene masterfully above, and in the very next paragraph, reveals what can only be called—in modern terms—his own codependency: “Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I lacked the courage to protest.”
Daphne du Maurier
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
The opening words come from an unnamed female narrator who is known only as “the second Mrs. de Winter.” The first Mrs. de Winter, of course, is the title character. The first sentence went on to become one of literary history’s most celebrated opening lines, and I was shocked when it did not appear among the American Book Review’s “100 Best First Lines from Novels” in 2006.
In an April 2012 Guardian article on “The Ten Best First Lines in Fiction,” Robert McCrum said the opening words have a “haunting brevity.” And in a July 2021 article in The Strand Magazine (“For Openers: Great First Lines of Legendary Novels”) writer Deborah Goodrich Royce wrote:
“Okay, most of us love Rebecca and can quote this sentence. But why is it so evocative? What does it do to us in a few seconds that keeps us reading this book? It sets a tone immediately and tips us off to a couple key points. First, it lets us know that something is lost to the narrator: a place called Manderley. And I, for one, want to know why. Why is this person dreaming of Manderley? It sounds like he/she can’t go there. Which naturally makes me want to go there, myself. Secondly, beginning a novel with a dream creates a hazy, unreal feeling. It evokes a gothic mood where the reader needs to pay attention to what may or may not be reality. And the author has hooked me already.”
Daphne Du Maurier
My Cousin Rachel (1951)
They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more though.
In Book Lust to Go (2010), celebrity librarian Nancy Pearl wrote, “I’ll never forget the first lines” of the novel, adding, “Those sentences still send a shiver up my spine.”
In the novel’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Now, when a murder pays the price for his crime, he does so up at Bodmin, after fair trial at the Assizes. That is, if the law convicts him, before his own conscience kills him. It is better so. Like a surgical operation. And the body has a decent burial, though a nameless grave. When I was a child, it was otherwise. I can remember as a little lad seeing a fellow hang in chains where the four roads meet. His face and body were blackened with tar for preservation. He hung there for five weeks before they cut him down, and it was the fourth week that I saw him.”
Killing Mr. Griffin (1978)
It was a wild, windy, southwestern spring when the idea of killing Mr. Griffin occurred to them.
When the chilling idea of killing someone is so matter-of-factly expressed, it has a jarring quality—but also a compelling one. Duncan was a pioneering figure in what eventually became known as YA (Young Adult) fiction, and a number of her works, including Killing Mr. Griffin, I Know What You Did Last Summer (1973), and Summer of Fear (1976) were adapted into popular films aimed at a teen audience.
In a New York Times review (“Teaching Teacher a Lesson”), writer Richard Peck wrote about the Mr. Griffin book: “Lois Duncan breaks some new ground in a novel without sex, drugs or black leather jackets. But the taboo she tampers with is far more potent and pervasive: the unleashed fury of the permissively reared against any assault on their egos and authority. A group of high school seniors kill an English teacher who dares trouble them with grades, homework and standards.”
Peck went on to add: “The value of the book lies in the twisted logic of the teenagers and how easily they can justify anything.”
Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments (2001)
I didn’t start writing until I was fifty years old although an observer’s eye had been observing for forty of those fifty years, while trying out different areas of occupation.
Dunne’s opening sentence emphasizes something that is often unappreciated—one of the most important of all writing skills has nothing to do with writing per se, but with clearly and accurately observing what is going on around us. In the opening paragraph, he continued:
“My career in television and movies in Hollywood had come to a permanent halt, and I had nowhere else to turn. The thought of writing had been lurking within me for some time, but I didn’t actually begin until I finally removed myself from the glamorous world in which I no longer belonged to a one-room cabin in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. There I began my second career as a writer and a recorder of the social history of our time.”
Gulliver Quick (1992)
When news of Gulliver Quick’s death first reached the newspapers, there were curious rumors of five women attempting to take equal responsibility.
Five women? This guy must’ve been quite The Ladies’ Man. The story then takes a mysterious tone as the narrator continued: “Although these tales were intriguing, they made little sense. Then, abruptly, the case was dismissed. Secrecy shrouded the affair, and the five women, released from further investigation by the Italian police, refused to discuss his death. Reporters, foiled by the women’s silence, eventually abandoned the story.“
Adrenaline Junkie: A Memoir (2018)
When I was eleven, my father walked into his bedroom and caught me stuffing several of the coins he collected into my pockets.
Few memoirs begin with the admission of an act of thievery, and it immediately makes us wonder what other fascinating disclosure will be coming in future pages. In the opening paragraph, Edgerton—a former convict who went on to become a popular writer and writing teacher—further deepened our interest by continuing:
“Most of them were foreign ones he’d picked up overseas during World War II. I had no idea how I planned to spend English half-pence or German Reichspfennig coins or if I ever planned to spend them at all. I just wanted them because I thought I could take them without getting caught. After he put his belt away, and I pulled my pants back up, my father made me take four of the smallest coins and swallow them.”
Bret Easton Ellis
American Psycho (1991)
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Misérables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.
My reaction when I first read these stream-of-consciousness opening words was, “I believe we’re in for quite a ride here!” And I wasn’t disappointed. In what is generally regarded as a searing indictment of yuppie culture during the 1980’s Wall Street Boom, the narrator and protagonist is Patrick Bateman, a greedy, superficial, possession-flaunting, Donald Trump-idealizing Manhattan investment banker whose mental instability takes a horrifyingly dark turn.
In 2011, English blogger Matt Tuckey wrote about the opening words: “Here Ellis instantly sets up the voice of the narrator—intelligent but muddled, overstimulated and in a very bad place mentally. The narrator’s thoughts jump from one thing to another, a trait of the insane, and a trait of those who are exposed to too much advertising. He ties together commercialism and insanity in one immense sentence—two themes which run strong on every page of the book. Brilliant.”
In a 2000 film adaptation, actor Christian Bale memorably inhabited the role of Bateman, leading critic Roger Ebert to write that he was “heroic in the way he allows the character to leap joyfully into despicability.”
After Life (2000)
First I had to get his body into the boat.
In Book Lust (2003), librarian and bibliophile Nancy Pearl counted this as one of her favorite first lines, writing that it contained “a definite hint of mystery, not to say menace.“
In the novel, the narrator continued: “This was more than ten years ago, and I’ve forgotten some of what came before and after, but that night and the following day I remember in extravagant detail. I had lain awake all night, trying to imagine how I might get him off the bed and down the stairs and into the rowboat, since he weighed at least a hundred and fifty pounds and might have gone stiff.“
The Sentence (2021)
While in prison, I received a dictionary. It was sent to me with a note. This is the book I would take to a deserted island. Other books were to arrive from my teacher. But as she had known, this one proved of endless use.
The narrator, a middle-aged Native American woman named Tookie, continued: “The first word I looked up was the word ‘sentence.’ I had received an impossible sentence of sixty years from the lips of a judge who believed in an afterlife. So the word with its yawning c, belligerent little e’s, with its hissing sibilants and double n’s, this repetitive bummer of a word made of slyly stabbing letters that surrounded an isolate human t, this word was in my thoughts every moment of the day. Without a doubt, had the dictionary not arrived, this light word that lay so heavily upon me would have crushed me, or what was left of me after the strangeness of what I’d done.”
Erdrich’s most recent novel covered a lot of ground—COVID, the murder of George Floyd, systemic racism, a bookstore-haunting ghost named Flora—but the most enduring theme is suggested in the opening words. Writer Malcolm Jones (Little Boy Blues and others) summarized that theme beautifully in a New York Times book review: “Set in a bookstore, narrated by a bookseller whose former life in prison was turned around when she discovered books and began to read ‘with murderous attention,’ The Sentence testifies repeatedly to the power books possess to heal us and, yes, to change our lives. It may be that, as Tookie argues, ‘books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.’ But that harsh judgment notwithstanding, there are books, like this one, that while they may not resolve the mysteries of the human heart, go a long way toward shedding light on our predicaments. In the case of The Sentence, that’s plenty.” The opening words were so special that I included them in a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.”
The Plague of Doves (2008)
The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling. The man sat down in an upholstered chair and began taking his gun apart to see why it wouldn’t fire. The baby’s crying set him on edge.
This is the dramatic first sentence of “Solo” a preliminary piece—a kind of preface—that was so powerful I had to put the book down before reading on. I won’t provide the rest of it here, but let me say that it would be well worth your while to read it for yourself. It’s one of the most arresting book beginnings I’ve ever read.
Erdrich’s novel was based on a real-life crime that happened in rural North Dakota in the 1890s. A finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, the novel went on to win the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, an American literary award honoring books that have made an important contribution to understanding racism and celebrating human diversity.
In a 2008 New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani wrote: “With The Plague of Doves, [Erdrich] has written what is arguably her most ambitious, and in many ways, her most deeply affecting work yet.”
One for the Money [book 1 of the Stephanie Plum series] (1994)
There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.
Opening lines often establish the “voice” of the narrator and protagonist, and with these plain-speaking words, the literary world was introduced to a feisty New Jersey bounty hunter named Stephanie Plum (she ultimately served as the protagonist of twenty-eight Evanovich novels, most of them bestsellers). About her spectacular opening, what female reader wouldn’t nod her head in approval. And what male reader would have the temerity to disagree?
High Five [Book 5 of Stephanie Plum series] (1999)
When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. On the outside, she’d look like the perfect lady. Tasteful plastic heels, tailored suit. But underneath, she was naked.
The opening words come from protagonist Stephanie Plum, who continued: “I’m a bail enforcement agent now—also known as a fugitive apprehension agent, also known as a bounty hunter. I bring ’em back dead or alive. At least I try. And being a bail enforcement agent is sort of like being a bare-bottom Barbie. It’s about having a secret. And it’s about wearing a lot of bravado on the outside when you’re really operating without underpants.”
The Trees (2021)
Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds. Named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away.
Normally, it is inadvisable for an opening paragraph to include a word that will send readers scrambling for a dictionary, but in this case, it seems quite fitting to insert a word defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as, “Absence of knowledge or awareness; ignorance.”
About Everett’s opening paragraph, Lorraine Berry wrote in a Los Angeles Times review: “The butt of the joke here is the white Establishment, reduced by Everett’s tropes and puns to a redneck laughingstock.”
This is what happened.
While some opening lines are almost universally hailed, most of the others appeal to some and fail to impress others. This one was never particularly special to me, so I was surprised to discover it was one of Stephen King’s favorites. In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler, King described how important it was for writers to establish “a powerful sense of voice” in the very first line. He went on to offer a 153-word analysis of Fairbairn’s four-word opening:
“For me, this has always been the quintessential opening line. It’s flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we’re dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the facts. I’ll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there’s an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.
“A line like ‘This is what happened,’ doesn’t actually say anything—there’s zero action or context—but it doesn’t matter. It’s a voice, and an invitation, that’s very difficult for me to refuse. It’s like finding a good friend who has valuable information to share. Here’s somebody, it says, who can provide entertainment, an escape, and maybe even a way of looking at the world that will open your eyes. In fiction, that’s irresistible. It’s why we read.”
Intruder in the Dust (1948)
It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.
The Mansion (1959)
The jury said “Guilty” and the Judge said “Life” but he didn’t hear them. He wasn’t listening.
The man in question is Mink Snopes, who’s been on trial for murder. The idea of a defendant not listening to a jury’s verdict or a judge’s sentencing is so unexpected it compels our attention and makes us wonder: what on earth could have been so monumentally distracting to him?
Troubling Love (1992)
My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno.
The Eyre Affair (2001)
My father had a face that could stop a clock
The words come from protagonist and narrator Thursday Next, the daughter of Wednesday Next and her husband Colonel Next, a former official in a British Special Operations Unit known as The ChronoGuard. She continued: “I don’t mean he was ugly or anything; it was a phrase the ChronoGuard used to describe someone who had the power to reduce time to an ultraslow trickle.”
The Invention of Murder (2011)
“Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.“ So wrote Thomas de Quincy in 1826, and indeed, it is hard to argue with him.
It’s relatively uncommon for writers to use a quotation as an opening line, but Flanders chose a perfect one for her delightful book on a grim subject. Subtitled How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, Flanders continued in the opening paragraph: “But even more pleasant, he thought, was to read about someone else’s sweetheart bubbling in the tea-urn, and that, too, is hard to argue with, for crime, especially murder, is very pleasant to think about in the abstract: it is like hearing blustery rain on the windowpane when sitting indoors. It reinforces a sense of safety, even of pleasure....“
A Cast of Vultures (2017)
There was every possibility that I was dead, and my brain hadn’t got the memo. Or maybe it was that I wished I were dead. On reflection, that was more likely.
The reflection comes from Samantha “Sam” Clair, a London book editor and amateur sleuth. In this third mystery novel chronicling the exploits of Clair, Flanders has her irrepressible protagonist continue with this explanation: “I opened one eye and took stock. Head, pounding. Brain, fried. Eyes swollen shut, mouth like the bottom of a parrot’s cage. Stomach—I decided it was better not to go there. I’m a publisher, and I’m smart, I didn’t need to inventory further. I was hungover, and, even worse, for zero enjoyment the night before.”
Term Limits (1997)
The old wood cabin sat alone, surrounded by trees and darkness. The shades were drawn, and a dog lay motionless on the front porch. A thin stream of smoke flowed out of the chimney and headed west, across the rural Maryland countryside toward Washington, D.C. Inside, a man sat silently in front of the fireplace, shoving stacks of paper into the hot flames.
Even if an opening paragraph is not dramatic or compelling, it can still entice readers if it is an exceptional word painting. After reading this opener, I closed my eyes for a moment and visualized the entire scene with ease. We soon learn that the man torching documents is Scott Coleman, a former Navy SEAL who is described as “an assassin of assassins, an exporter of death, trained and funded by the United States government.”
In the early 1990s, after receiving a medical discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps, Flynn was working in a commercial real estate job in Minneapolis when he felt inspired to write a political thriller. He quit his job, moved to Denver, and bartended at night while working on the book during the day.
After five years and sixty rejection letters, he decided to self-publish the book. When the book found an audience back in Flynn’s home state of Minnesota, Pocket Books came knocking, and published a hardcover edition in 1998 (a paperback version came a year later.) The book was hailed by critics, made the New York Times Bestseller list, and established Flynn as a major new writer. He went on to write twenty more novels, most of them bestsellers, before his premature death at age 47 in 2013 after a three-year struggle with an aggressive prostate cancer.
Dark Places (2009)
I have a meanness inside of me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders.
The graphic and somewhat disturbing opening words come from Libby Day, the only survivor of the fictional Day family massacre in rural Kansas in 1985. From the outset, the book triggered memories of the real-life 1959 murder of the Clutter family, also in Kansas, and also described by a gifted writer.
A book review in London’s Daily Mail nicely captured the contrast: “Set in the bleak Midwest of America, this evocation of small-town life and dysfunctional people is every bit as horribly fascinating as Capote’s journalistic retelling of a real family massacre, In Cold Blood, which it eerily resembles.”
Gone Girl (2012)
When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.
I’d know her head anywhere.
The novel begins with an unusual set of reflections for a husband to have about his wife, but they are the thoughts of Nick Dunne about his wife Amy (about Nick’s somewhat bizarre meanderings, Barry Lancet wrote in a 2016 Criminalelement.com blog post: “The beginning of Gone Girl set the tone for a dark story about a dark marriage”).
What starts off as unusual moves in the direction of creepy as Nick continues: “And what’s inside it. I think of that too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy?”
As the novel progresses, Amy disappears and—not surprisingly—an air of suspicion begins to hover around her husband. After the book was published, many believed Flynn was inspired by the 2002 murder of Laci Peterson in California. While admitting some parallels, Flynn said she had not relied on any true crime accounts. Flynn also went on to write the screenplay for the 2014 film adaptation of the novel, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.
First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.
In a 2012 New York Times review, Andre Dubus III provided some of the most complimentary words every written about a novel’s opening paragraph:
“On a purely plot-hungry basis, turning the page seems the only thing to do, but—as is so often the case with the fiction of Richard Ford—what actually happens in the story feels secondary, or at best equal, to the language itself. In the hands of a lesser writer, this can create problems: the prose begins to feel self-indulgent, written not to illuminate any truths but to please the writer, and in the process, story itself is lost and the reader is left behind. But Canada is blessed with two essential strengths in equal measure—a mesmerizing story driven by authentic and fully realized characters, and a prose style so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.”
C. S. Forester
The Beat to Quarters (1937)
It was not long after dawn that Captain Hornblower came up on the quarterdeck of the Lydia. Bush, the first lieutenant, was officer of the watch, and touched his hat but did not speak to him; in a voyage which had by now lasted seven months without touching land he had learned something of his captain’s likes and dislikes. During this first hour of the day the captain was not to be spoken to, nor his train of thought interrupted.
The Beat to Quarters was the first of three novels (the other two were Ship of the Line and Flying Colors) that Forester adapted for the swashbuckling 1951 film Captain Horatio Hornblower, with Gregory Peck in the title role. Eventually, Forester wrote a total of eleven Hornblower novels.
The Collector (1963)
When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annexe. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like.
The opening words end in an unsettling way, and they take an eerie—even ominous—turn as the narrator, a shy and socially inept English man named Frederick Clegg, continues: “When I had a free moment from the files and ledgers I stood by the window and used to look down over the road over the frosting and sometimes I’d see her. In the evening I marked it in my observations diary, at first with X, and then when I knew her name with M.”
The Collector is a dark and disturbing debut novel about a disturbed butterfly collector who kidnaps (in his mind, he “collects”) a young art student named Miranda Grey and keeps her captive in his basement. In a New York Times review, Alan Pryce-Jones wrote: “There is not a page in this first novel which does not prove that its author is a master storyteller.” In 1965, William Wyler adapted the novel into an Oscar-nominated film starring Samantha Eggar (and she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress).
I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me.
The narrator is Derek Franklin, an English steeplechase racer whose career is being threatened by a number of recent injuries. It looks like his financial worries might be over when he becomes the sole inheritor of his deceased brother’s estate—but it’s just the beginning of his troubles.
Greenwich Killing Time (1986)
I held the mescal up to the light and watched the worm slide across the bottom of the bottle.
This is an impressive opening line in Friedman’s debut novel, and it only gets better as the narrator and protagonist, a fictionalized version of the author, continued: “A gift from a friend just back from Mexico. The worm was fat and white and somewhat dangerous looking with great hallucinogenic properties attributed to it. You were supposed to eat it and it was supposed to make you so high you would need a stepladder to scratch your ass. We’d see.”
American Gods (2001)
Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.
The novel begins with this extraordinary introduction to Shadow Moon, a convict who is about to be released from prison after his wife has been killed in a car accident. About these opening words, sci-fi writer Philip Palmer said in a 2011 blog post: “Wonderfully restrained evocative prose, with a laugh-out-loud funny joke in the middle sentence. After this great start, the book gets even better.”
The narrator continued: “The best thing—in Shadow’s opinion, perhaps the only good thing—about being in prison was a feeling of relief. The feeling that he’d plunged as low as he could plunge and he’d hit bottom. He didn’t worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him. He did not awake in prison with a feeling of dread; he was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.” American Gods went on to win the 2002 Nebula Award and 2002 Hugo Award.
The Poseidon Adventure (1969)
At seven o’clock, the morning of the 26th of December, the S. S. Poseidon, 81,000 tons, homeward bound for Lisbon, after a month-long Christmas cruise to African and South American ports, suddenly found herself in the midst of an unaccountable swell, 400 miles south-west of the Azores, and began to roll like a pig.
This is the inviting opening paragraph of one of the 20th century’s most familiar “disaster” novels, an edge-of-your-seat tale about a group of passengers attempting to escape from a capsized ocean liner before it sinks to the bottom of the sea.
After the novel was published, it was only a modest commercial success, but three years later the story took on a life of its own when it was adapted into a hugely popular 1972 film with an ensemble cast that included five Oscar winners: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Albertson, Shelley Winters, and Red Buttons. Released in December of 1972, the film became the highest-grossing film of 1973.
Erle Stanley Gardner
The Case of the Velvet Claws [Book 1 of Perry Mason series] (1933)
Autumn sun beat against the window.
Perry Mason sat at the big desk. There was about him the attitude of one who is waiting. His face in repose was like the face of a chess player who is studying the board.
These are the words that introduced criminal defense attorney Perry Mason to the literary world (he went on to become legendary in the crime/mystery genre, featured in 82 novels and 4 short stories). The opening is so well crafted that, after only a few words, we already have a distinct sense about the nature of the man. About him, the narrator continued in a simple, but quietly elegant way: “That face seldom changed expression. Only the eyes changed expression. He gave the impression of being a thinker and a fighter, a man who could work with infinite patience to jockey an adversary into just the right position, and then finish him with one terrific punch.”
This first novel featured a formula that would be followed in almost all the novels to follow: one of Mason’s clients is wrongly charged with a serious crime (usually murder), only to have his lawyer dramatically reveal the identity of the true criminal in a courtroom proceeding. Six of the early novels were adapted into films in the 1930s, but Mason didn’t become firmly established in popular culture until actor Raymond Burr brought him to life in a CBS television series that premiered in 1957 and continued in both television and film iterations until Burr’s death from kidney cancer in 1993 (his final portrayal of Mason came in the 1993 television film The Case of the Killer Kiss, which was aired a few months after his death and dedicated to his memory).
What Came Before He Shot Her [Book 14 in Inspector Lynley Series] (2009)
Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.
In the Presence of the Enemy [Book 8 in the Inspector Lynley Series] (1996)
Charlotte Bowen thought she was dead.
A Great Deliverance [Book 1 in the Inspector Lynley series] (1988)
It was a solecism of the very worst kind. He sneezed loudly, wetly, and quite unforgivably into the woman’s face.
It’s always a bit of a risk to use an unfamiliar word in an opening line, but solecism is such a delicious word that I was delighted to see George use it in the opening line of her debut novel. Almost always used to describe a grammatical mistake, the word is sometimes extended to mean a social faux pas or breach of proper etiquette—as we see here. In this case, the man committing the disgusting deed is Father Hart, a Catholic priest.
About the incident, the narrator continued: “He’d been holding it back for three-quarters of an hour, fighting it off as if it were Henry Tudor’s vanguard in the Battle of Bosworth. But at last he he’d surrendered. And after the act, to make matters worse, he immediately began to snuffle.” [yes, she wrote snuffle]
A Great Deliverance introduced the literary world to Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, and it did so in fine fashion, winning the 1988 Agatha Award for Best First Novel and the 1989 Anthony Award in the same category. Descended from English royalty (he holds the title of eighth earl of Atherton), Lynley and his partner in crimesolving, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, would ultimately go on to be featured in twenty-one novels. From 2001 to 2008, the first eleven of the novels were adapted into “The Inspector Lynley Mysteries,” a popular BBC television series, with Nathaniel Parker and Sharon Small in the leading roles.
A Suitable Vengeance [Book 4 in the Inspector Lynley series] (1991)
Tina Cogin knew how to make the most of what little she had. She liked to believe it was a natural talent.
These two sentences form the entire first paragraph of the Prologue to the book. The narrator continued in the second paragraph: “Some floors above the rumble of nighttime traffic, her naked silhouette gargoyled against the wall of her half-darkened room, and she smiled as her movements made the shadow shift, creating ever new forms of black upon white like a Rorschach test. And what a test, she thought, practicing a gesture of come-hither quality. What a sight for some psycho!”
Gathering Five Storms [Book 3 in The CIA’s Dangerous Clique series] (2022)
By every measure, the operation was a success, but it marked the first time Katrina Leonidivna had ever vomited on her target.
About the opening line, Gilion Dumas of the Rose City Reader was certainly speaking for me when she wrote: “Well, that’s a sentence that gets your attention.” The novel’s opener stands in stark contrast to most spy thrillers, where the central characters are often portrayed one-dimensionally, almost as if they had no regular human emotions. From the outset, we’re eager to learn more about the person named Katrina, not the agent/assassin by the same name.
S is for Silence (2005)
When Liza Mellincamp thinks about the last time she ever saw Violet Sullivan, what comes most vividly to mind is the color of Violet’s silk kimono, a shade of blue that Liza later learned was called “cerulean,” a word that wasn’t even in her vocabulary when she was fourteen years old.
I is for Innocent (1992)
I feel compelled to report that at the moment of death, my entire life did not pass before my eyes in a flash.
The narrator and protagonist, private investigator Kinsey Millhone, continued: “There was no beckoning white light at the end of a tunnel, no warm fuzzy feeling that my long-departed loved ones were waiting on The Other Side. What I experienced was a little voice piping up in an outraged tone, ‘Oh, come on. You’re not serious. This is really it?’”
R is for Ricochet (2004)
The basic question is this: given human nature, are any of us really capable of change?
The question is posed by Kinsey Millhone, who is clearly in a philosophical frame of mind. She continued with an additional reflection—one that suggests her current mood might be the result of a boneheaded move she’s made: “The mistakes other people make are usually patently obvious. Our own are tougher to realize.”
U is for Undertow (2009)
What fascinates me about life is that now and then the past rises up and declares itself.
The opening reflection—now one of my favorite quotations about the past—comes from narrator and protagonist Kinsey Millhone.
O is for Outlaw (1999)
The Latin term pro bono, as most attorneys will attest, roughly translated means for boneheads and applies to work done without charge.
In a 2021 blog post, writer Greg Levin included this Grafton opener in a post on “25 of the Best Opening Lines in Crime Fiction.” About his selections, Levin wrote: “Few things enthrall me more than cracking (or clicking) open a novel and reading a first line that catapults me into Chapter 1. A line that reminds me why I read, why I write, what it means to be alive. A line that gives me whiplash. A line that makes me forget to feed my pets for the next few hours.”
A is for Alibi (1982)
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.
This was the first of Grafton’s “alphabet series” of detective novels, inspired by Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies, a 1963 rhyming book in which English schoolchildren meet macabre deaths (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil assaulted by bears; C is for Clara who wasted away; D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh,” and so forth). “I was smitten with all those little Victorian children being dispatched in various ways,” Grafton told The New York Times in 2015, adding “Edward Gorey was deliciously bent.”
In writing the opening words to her first Kinsey Millhone novel, Grafton was almost certainly inspired by the first line of Ambrose Bierce’s 1886 short story, “An Imperfect Conflagration,“ where he wrote: “Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father—an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.“
B is for Burglar (1985)
After it’s over, of course, you want to kick yourself for all the things you didn’t see at the time.
In a WritersWrite.com interview with Claire E. White, Grafton might have been thinking about this opening line when she said: “With the mystery novel you have to know where you’re going, but not in any great detailed sense. I generally know whodunit, who died, and what the motive for the crime was. Then I have to figure out what I call the angle of attack. In other words, how do you cut into the story? Where does the story begin? What’s relevant in that first line or paragraph from the reader’s point of view?“ She concluded: “You would be astonished how long it takes me to figure that out from one book to the next.“
The Power and the Glory (1940)
Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder: out into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few buzzards looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn’t carrion yet.
The Third Man (1949)
One never knows when the blow may fall.
When most people think about The Third Man, they think about the 1949 movie—almost universally regarded as one of the greatest films of all time—and not the novella.
Believing that “it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story,” Greene wrote a complete novella to fully develop mood, atmosphere, and characterization—all key elements he believed were difficult to convey in a screenplay. Even though Greene wrote in a 1950 New York Times article that “The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen,” his publishers decided to publish the novella when the film was released.
The Captain and the Enemy (1988)
I am now in my twenty-second year and yet the only birthday which I can clearly distinguish among all the rest is my twelfth, for it was on that damp and misty day in September I met the Captain for the first time.
In Greene’s final novel, published when he was eighty-three, he crafts what may well be his very best opening line. The narrator and protagonist, an Englishman named Victor Baxter, continued:
“I can still remember the wetness of the gravel under my gym shoes in the school quad and how the blown leaves made the cloisters by the chapel slippery as I ran recklessly to escape from my enemies between one class and the next. I slithered and came to an abrupt halt while my pursuers went whistling away, because there in the middle of the quad stood our formidable headmaster talking to a tall man in a bowler hat, a rare sight already at that date, so that he looked a little like an actor in costume—an impression not so far wrong, for I never saw him in a bowler hat again. He carried a walking-stick over his shoulder at the slope like a soldier with a rifle. I had no idea who he might be, nor, of course, did I know how he had won me the previous night, or so he was to claim, in a backgammon game with my father.’’
In a New York Times review (titled “Father Lost Me in a Backgammon Game”), writer Brian Moore wrote: “The opening paragraph at once and magisterially upends us into Graham Greene’s universe.” Moore went on to add: “Won him? In a backgammon game? And who is this unlikely stranger who has come to claim his prize? In fewer than 20 pages we see the boy deftly abducted from his boarding school, introduced to the ways of a superb confidence man and taken, with his full consent, to live with Liza, a young woman who was once the mistress of the boy’s father. An author who can make us believe this scenario—and we do believe it—must be able to calibrate a precise balance between the unlikely and the plausible. But that, of course, is Graham Greene’s strength.”
Brighton Rock (1938)
Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.
About this opening sentence, English writer Julie Burchill wrote in a post on Stylist.com: “How simple is that line? How scary and straight to the point?”
In a 2016 “On Writing” post on TheConversation.com, Camilla Nelson, a Senior Lecturer in Writing at the University of Notre Dame Australia, was thinking about this line when she wrote: “It is the task of an opening sentence to pull the reader over the threshold into the world of a book. But the way they do this is often unexpected. They can start with an action, or better still, the dramatic foreshadowing of action.“ And when it comes to foreshadowing, Nelson wrote that the opening line of Brighton Rock was “difficult to beat.“
In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong.”
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)
It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears’s house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead.
So begins the debut adult novel of a 41-year-old English writer who had previously penned more than a dozen children’s books. As the opening paragraph continues, readers are almost irresistibly drawn into the story by the intriguing “voice” of the narrator and protagonist, a 15-year-old autistic English boy named Christopher John Francis Boone:
“There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer, for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.”
From the day the book was published, it garnered the highest critical praise, and few were surprised when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Book of the year. If anything, the novel’s reputation has only heightened over the years, with The Guardian ranking it Number 19 in its 2019 list of “The 100 Best Books of the 21st century.”
If the title of the novel has a familiar ring, it’s because you’re thinking of a famous bit of dialogue between Sherlock Holmes and a Scotland Yard detective in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” Here’s exactly how it appeared in the tale 130 years ago:
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
James W. Hall
Body Language (1998)
Her memory of that day never lost clarity. Eighteen years later, it was still there, every odor, every word and image, the exact heft of the pistol, each decibel of the explosion detonating again and again in the soft tissue of memory.
“The soft tissue of memory” is a memorable metaphor, and it perfectly caps off this beautifully-written opening paragraph. The narrator is describing protagonist Alexandra Rafferty, a photographic specialist with the Miami Police Department. Eighteen years earlier, at age eleven and shortly after she’d been raped by a seventeen-year-old neighborhood boy, the family’s pet dog Pugsy was found dead in the family’s front yard. Feeling certain her rapist was responsible, Alexandra confronted him in his home a few days later—armed with a .38 Smith & Wesson pistol she’d taken from her father’s bedroom bureau. When the boy leaped off his bed to subdue her, she stumbled, the gun went off, and the bullet struck him in the jaw, killing him instantly.
About the novel, James Patterson wrote: “Body Language seduces you, then it grabs you, and it never lets you go. This is a first-rate thriller by a masterful writer.”
James W. Hall
Under Cover of Daylight [Book 1 in the Thorn Series] (1987)
Standing in front of his dresser mirror, the young man pointed the revolver at his reflection. He held it there until the waver in his hand had subsided. He closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath, and brought the revolver down.
With these opening words, the literary world was introduced to a nineteen-year-old young man known only as Thorn (he would ultimately serve as the protagonist of sixteen Hall novels). Thorn’s parents died a few days after he was born, killed by a teenage drunk driver on the day they were returning home from the hospital. During his elementary school years, after learning that the killer had beaten the rap, young Thorn began thinking about how he would avenge his parents’ death.
The novel opens on the day of Thorn’s long-planned revenge and, once the deed is accomplished, picks up twenty years later. Thorn is now living in the Florida Keys, tying custom bonefish flies for a living, and about to get drawn into yet another revenge scenario, this time after the mysterious death of his adoptive mother. When the book was published, Hall was a professor at Florida International University. The founder of the school’s creative writing program, it must have been the thrill of a lifetime when he learned that Elmore Leonard, one of his literary heroes, had described his debut novel as “a beauty.”
James W. Hall
Trickster [Book 16 in the Thorn Series] (2022)
Thorn had just finished tying off his skiff to the dock cleats when the girl appeared in his yard. The girl who would force him to reconsider every moment of the last twenty years.
GUEST COMMENTARY from Laurence Shames, bestselling author of The Key West Capers series and other books. About the novel’s opening words, Shames writes:
“There it is. In 34 words, none of them fancy, the author has introduced his hero, given us some waterfront atmosphere, let us know that the story at hand will reach into the deep past, and—most important of all—dropped the mysterious girl into our laps. Admirably efficient, but it’s in what comes after that Hall reveals the master’s touch. Having piqued our curiosity, he then throttles back into a leisurely five pages about fishing, fly-tying, the weather in the Keys, the zoning board (yes, seriously, the zoning board!) because he absolutely knows what every reader will be thinking and dying to find out: Yeah, but what about the girl? It takes consummate skill and confidence to handle these shifts in pacing, and James W. Hall is a magician with them.”
Shames has also penned some masterful opening lines. To view them, start here.
The Maltese Falcon (1930)
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
In the public’s eye, Sam Spade is now closely associated with Humphrey Bogart, whose slight frame and dark features made him a far cry from the blond, well-built private eye Hammett originally envisioned.
In a 1934 Introduction to a new printing of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett wrote about his famous protagonist: “Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.”
The Glass Key (1931)
Green dice rolled across the green table, struck the rim together, and bounced back. One stopped short holding six white spots in two equal rolls uppermost. The other tumbled out to the center of the table and came to a rest with a single spot on top.
Ned Beaumont grunted softly—“Uhn!”—and the winners cleared the table of money.
The Thin Man (1934)
I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me. She was small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sports clothes the result was satisfactory. “Aren’t you Nick Charles?” she asked.
“Who Killed Bob Teal?” in True Detective magazine (November 1924)
“Teal was killed last night.”
The Old Man—the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco manager—spoke without looking at me. His voice was as mild as his smile, and gave no indication of the turmoil that was seething in his mind.
This was one of Hammett’s first short stories, and it is the first mention of a fictional detective agency that would go on to play such an important role in his later works. The narrator is an unnamed operative who works at the agency (in later stories by Hammett he went on to become well known simply as The Continental Op).
The Dain Curse (1929)
It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. It was small, not more than a quarter of a carat in weight, and unmounted. I put it in my pocket and began searching the lawn as closely as I could without going at it on all fours.
The opening words come from a nameless private detective known only as The Continental Op (the name comes from his work as an operative for The Continental Detective Agency). Hired to investigate a theft of unset diamonds from San Francisco’s wealthy Leggett family, the routine robbery case quickly turns into a murder investigation when the head of the family is found dead.
Woman in the Dark: A Novel of Dangerous Romance (1933)
Her right ankle turned under her and she fell. The wind blowing downhill from the south, whipping the trees beside the road, made a whisper of her exclamation and snatched her scarf away into the darkness. She sat up slowly, palms on the gravel pushing her up, and twisted her body sidewise to release the leg bent beneath her.
Red Harvest (1929)
I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.
In response to a 2013 query from the Atlantic’s Joe Fassler, American crime fiction writer Megan Abbot said that this was her “favorite first line” from a novel. A few years later, in a 2016 interview on Minnesota Public Radio, screenwriter and novelist Scott Frank assessed it similarly, saying: “It’s one of the best opening sentences in any novel anywhere.”
She Rides Shotgun (2017)
His skin told his history in tattoos and knife scars.
If ever a first line deserved to be called a “hook,” this one most certainly does. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “He lived in a room with no night. And he was to his own mind a god.”
The opening words begin “Chapter O” (yes, chapter O), a kind of prologue to the book, and they compellingly describe Crazy Craig Hollington, a thoroughly unsavory character who is serving a life term in Pelican Bay State Prison. He is also the leader of the Aryan Steel prison gang.
From the outset, She Rides Shotgun was hailed by critics, winning the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Debut Novel and an Alex Award from the American Library Association. A starred review in Booklist magazine said about the book:
“From its bravura prologue to its immensely satisfying ending, this first novel comes out with guns blazing and shoots the chambers dry. It’s both a dark, original take on the chase novel and a strangely touching portrait of a father-daughter relationship framed in barbed wire.“
Chapter 1 of the book also begins with a terrific opening line—a captivating description of 11-year-old protagonist Polly McClusky: “She wore a loser’s slumped shoulders and hid her face with her hair, but the girl had gunfighter eyes.”
The Silence of the Lambs (1988)
Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth. Clarice Starling reached it flushed after a fast walk from Hogan’s Alley on the firing range. She had grass in her hair and grass stains on her FBI Academy windbreaker from diving to the ground under fire in an arrest problem on the range.
Silence of the Lambs was the second Harris novel to feature Dr. Hannibal Lecter (the first was Red Dragon in 1981), and the first one to feature Clarice Starling. While the book was commercially and critically successful (it won the 1988 Bram Stoker Ward for Best Novel), neither Lecter nor Starling were widely known in pop culture until they were portrayed by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in Jonathan Demme’s blockbuster film adaptation in 1991. The film became the third film in Oscar history to win all of “The Big Five” awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “No one was in the outer office, so she fluffed briefly by her reflection in the glass doors. She knew she could look all right without primping. Her hands smelled of gun smoke, but there was no time to wash—Section Chief Crawford’s summons had said now.”
Clarice Starling’s Mustang boomed up the entrance ramp at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Massachusetts Avenue, a headquarters rented from the Reverend Sun Myung Moon in the interests of economy.
In a New York Times review, Stephen King wrote: “Harris, the Thomas Pynchon of the popular novel…is in charge of his story and his material from the book’s opening.” After remarking that Harris fans have been waiting eleven years for the “rematch” between FBI agent Starling and “the great fictional monster of our time,” Hannibal Lecter, King added: “It seems so much as if he has never been away, even in this first sentence.”
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “The strike force waited in three vehicles, a battered undercover van to lead and two black SWAT vans behind it, manned and idling in the cavernous garage.”
The Fear of Crime (1969; an expanded version of a 1968 New Yorker magazine article)
Probably the most distinctive characteristic of the successful politician is selective cowardice.
Harris opens with an eminently quotable observation, which is always a great way way to begin.
There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.
This is a magnificent first line—equally as good, in my opinion, as any of history’s classic aphoristic or epigrammatic openings. The words come from an introspective narrator who appears to be an older man reflecting on tragic mistakes he made not in his youth, but in his later, mature years. If you appreciate the quality of this first line, you will also likely appreciate the entire opening paragraph:
“There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives. Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone, onto its fluid contours, and are home. Some find it in the place of their birth; others may leave a seaside town, parched, and find themselves refreshed in the desert. There are those born in rolling countryside who are really only at ease in the intense and busy loneliness of the city. For some, the search is for the imprint of another; a child or a mother, a grandfather or a brother, a lover, a husband, a wife, or a foe. We may go through our lives happy or unhappy, successful or unfulfilled, loved or unloved, without ever standing cold with the shock of recognition, without ever feeling the agony as the twisted iron in our soul unlocks itself and we slip at last into place.”
Had he died at fifty, the narrator goes on to suggest, he would have been remembered as a doctor, an established politician, and a loving husband and father. But he concludes his opening reflections by saying, “But I did not die in my fiftieth year. There are few who know me now who do not regard that as a tragedy.” And with that remarkable conclusion, the reader is left wondering, “What exactly happened in this man’s sad life?”
The Eagle Has Landed (1975)
At precisely one o’clock on the morning of Saturday, 6, November 1943, Heinrich Himmler, Reichführer of the SS and Chief of state Police, received a simple message: “The Eagle has landed.”
This is the first sentence of the Prologue to the book, and it immediately brings the reader into the heart of the story. In the second sentence, the narrator continued: “It meant that a small force of German paratroops were at that moment safely in England and poised to snatch the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, from the Norfolk country house near the sea, where he was spending a quiet weekend.”
From 1959 to 1974, Higgins wrote thirty-four thrillers and spy novels—some under his real name (Harry Patterson), and others under a variety of pen names. The Eagle Has Landed was his thirty-fifth book and, after exploding on the literary scene, it quickly outsold all of his previous novels combined. In addition to being Higgins’s most popular work (with more than fifty million copies sold), the novel is now regarded as a classic in the spy/thriller genre.
Many people believe Higgins is the author of the popular phrase “the eagle has landed,“ but that would be a mistake. The saying first appeared on July 20, 1969, when U. S. astronaut Neil Armstrong said it about the landing of the Lunar Module Eagle on the surface of the moon.
In 1976, the novel was adapted into a film by the same title, starring Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, and Robert Duvall. Directed by the legendary director John Sturges, it was the fifteenth highest-grossing film of 1977.
This Sweet Sickness (1960)
It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tousled bed out of the dark and silent boarding house to walk the streets.
After the first sentence, we don’t know any of the specifics, but we already feel certain that no good end can come from a jealousy of this magnitude. The narrator continued in the novel’s second paragraph:
“He had lived so long with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation.”
I love it when writers talk about their own opening lines, and, according to Francis Wilson, in a 2021 New York Review of Books article (“The Hidden Bookkeeper”), Highsmith said about how she chose to begin This Sweet Sickness: “I meant to give a mood of emotional tension, of stubborn plotting also, of a bottling up of a force that will one day explode.“
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren’t quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.
In this in media res introduction to one of her most fascinating protagonists, Highsmith demonstrates her agreement with an idea she would later write about in her 1966 writing guide, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction:
“Some writers, assuming that a reader does not like to have his eye or brain taxed by a paragraph of thirty lines, prefer a short first paragraph of anything from one line to six.”
Strangers on a Train (1950)
The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm. It was having to stop at smaller and more frequent stations, where it would wait impatiently for a moment, then attack the prairie again.
Highsmith is, of course, best known for her novels and short stories, but she also wrote a well regarded non-fiction book on the writing of fiction: Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966). On the subject of how to begin a book, she wrote in that work: “I prefer a first sentence in which something moves and gives action, rather than a sentence like, ‘The moonlight lay still and liquid on the pale beach.’” In her Strangers on a Train opener, she does that very nicely, setting the scene and also subtly suggesting that this is no ordinary train.
In 1951, Alfred Hitchcock adapted the novel into a film by the same title (Raymond Chandler was one of the film’s screenwriters). It received mixed reviews when it came out, but is now regarded as a film noir classic. The novel also inspired the 1987 black comedy Throw Momma from the Train, starring Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal.
Things We Do in the Dark (2022)
There’s a time and place for erect nipples, but the back of a Seattle police car definitely isn’t it.
GUEST COMMENTARY from David Evans, a writer who lives in the woods of West Virginia on the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley. He writes: “I loved this opening line so much I ordered the book after reading such a grabber. In a New York Times review, Sarah Weinman found the first sentence especially appealing and surmised that Hillier must have had great fun writing it.” I concurred with Evans’s assessment and was delighted to honor her “hook” in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “Paris Peralta didn’t think to grab a sweater before they arrested her, so she’s only wearing a bloodstained tank top. It is July, after all. But the air-conditioning is on high, and she feels cold and exposed. With her wrists cuffed, all she can do is clasp her hands together and hold her forearms up to cover her breasts. It looks like she’s praying.”
There was something fucked up about a job where cocaine was overlooked, but cigarettes would get you fired.
The spectacular opening reflection comes from a female escort who is describing a topsy-turvy work environment where the bosses “didn’t care if you did blow, but if you smoked a cigarette and the client complained you were done. Unlike cocaine, cigarettes weren’t considered a performance-enhancing drug.”
In the second paragraph, the narrator continued: “In a stall in the bathroom of the Sweet Chariot Inn in downtown Seattle, Brenda Stich (professional name: Brianna) shook out another line of the wondrous white powder onto the back of her hand and snorted. It took about three and a half seconds for the shit to kick in, and thank God for it. It had been a long three days with the guy from New York, and she was delirious with exhaustion. The bitterness dripped down the back of her throat and she swallowed. The coke coursed through her veins, and just like that, the world was back in high definition.”
Joanna Hines [now writing as Joanna Hodgkin]
The Murder Bird (2006)
Five weeks before 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.
This is such a powerful opening paragraph that it’s almost impossible for me to envision someone reading it and setting the book down. But, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine you’re a hard-to-entice type. If so, perhaps the remainder of the first paragraph will win you over:
“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 quietly 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.”
S. E. Hinton
The Outsiders (1967)
When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.
In the world of Great Opening Lines, this is a modern classic. The narrator is 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis, a Tulsa, Oklahoma “greaser” who is about to be attacked by members of a rival gang. Without giving away anything about the plot, The Outsiders is one of only a handful of novels in history in which the opening and closing lines are exactly the same.
The novel, which helped establish the YA (Young Adult) genre in American fiction, is now regarded as a modern classic. In 2019, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) included it on their list the 100 novels that have most “shaped our world.”
The novel was written by Susan Hinton while she was still in high school, but she was urged to publish it under the pen name S. E. Hinton to avoid the problem of female diminishment by male reviewers. She signed a book contract with Viking Press on her high school graduation day (and very shortly thereafter deposited the $1,000 advance they offered).
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories to Stay Awake By (1973)
In previous anthologies I have often begun my introduction with the words “Good Evening.” In all good conscience I cannot do that now.
I believe that such a greeting would be highly inappropriate. The contents of this volume are designed to give you a bad evening. A very bad evening indeed. And perhaps an even worse night.
Ashes to Ashes (1999)
Some killers are born. Some killers are made.
Beginning a novel with a cliché is generally not advised, but it works in this case, sending a clear message—this is a book about a killer and how that killer was formed. The narrator continued with a reflection that further engaged the reader:
“And sometimes the origin of desire for homicide is lost in the tangle of roots that make for an ugly childhood and a dangerous youth, so that no one may ever know of the urge was inbred or induced.”
I hear the crack of his skull before the spattering of blood reaches me.
Yes, the first sentence is gory and gruesome, but it’s hard to imagine a more arresting first sentence—or a more dramatic way for Hoover to begin her dark, psychological thriller. In a 2022 Collider.com post, Hazel Khatter included this opener in her list of “10 Great Books That Hooked Readers From the Very First Line.”
The opening words come from Lowen Ashleigh, a struggling New York writer who is in standing on a crowded Manhattan sidewalk when a man just in front of her prematurely steps into the street and is struck by an oncoming truck. She lunged forward to stop him, but found herself “grasping at nothing” just before the collision. The cringeworthy tone of the first sentence continues as Lowen added, “I closed my eyes before his head went under the tire, but I heard it pop like the cork of a champagne bottle.”
The grisly opening scene has nothing to do with the plot of the rest of the novel, but it sets the stage—and the tone—for a novel that, according to a New York Post review, “Seamlessly blends romance and horror.”
The Wrong Kind of Blood (2006)
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.
Some opening lines gently extend a hand to readers and say, “Come, join me.” Others, like this one, grab readers by the collar and exclaim, “C’mon, were off for a ride!” The narrator and protagonist is Ed Loy, a Los Angeles private detective who has recently returned to Dublin to attend his mother’s funeral.
As soon as the ride begins, though, it takes a quick and unexpected turn, as Loy continues: “Now she was lying dead on her living room floor, and the howl of a police siren echoed through the surrounding hills. Linda had been strangled; a froth of blood brimmed from her mouth, and her bloodshot eyes bulged.”
In a 2021 blog post, writer Greg Levin included Hughes’s opener in a post on “25 of the Best Opening Lines in Crime Fiction.” About his selections, Levin wrote: “Few things enthrall me more than cracking (or clicking) open a novel and reading a first line that catapults me into Chapter 1. A line that reminds me why I read, why I write, what it means to be alive. A line that gives me whiplash. A line that makes me forget to feed my pets for the next few hours.”
The Quiet Game [Book 1 of the Penn Cage series] (1999)
I am standing in line for Walt Disney’s It’s a Small World ride, holding my four-year-old daughter in my arms, trying to entertain her as the serpentine line of parents and children moves slowly toward the flat-bottomed boats emerging from the grotto to the music of an endless audio loop. Suddenly Annie jerks taut in my arms and points into the crowd.
“Daddy! I saw Mama! Hurry!”
I do not look. I don’t ask where. I don’t because Annie’s mother died seven months ago. I stand motionless in the line, looking just like everyone else except for the hot tears that have begun to sting my eyes.
This is a heart-tugging beginning, and every reader who’s ever lost a loved one will likely feel an immediate connection with the narrator, a former Houston prosecutor and bestselling writer named Penn Cage. Cage went on to be featured in six additional Iles mystery stories. A seventh is in-the-works.
Dead Sleep [Book 3 of Mississippi series] (2001)
I stopped shooting people six months ago, just after I won the Pulitzer Prize.
A review in People magazine called this “A stunning opening to a complex thriller.” A perfect example of what writers commonly call a “hook,” the first sentence immediately grabs our attention and yanks us into the story. It is only after continuing to read, however, that we realize the narrator—a female photojournalist named Jordan Glass—doesn’t mean shooting in the traditional way. She continued:
“People were always my gift, but they were wearing me down long before I won the prize. Still, I kept shooting them, in some blind quest that I didn’t even know I was on. It’s hard to admit that, but the Pulitzer was a different milestone for me than it is for most photographers. You see, my father won it twice.”
Francis Iles (pen name of Anthony Berkeley Cox)
Malice Aforethought (1931)
It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter.
In The Life of a Provincial Lady (1988), a biography of the English mystery writer E. M. Delafield, Violet Powell hailed this opener as an “immortal sentence.” I concur.
Iles is not especially well remembered by modern readers, but he was very popular in the 1920s and 30s (he also wrote under the pen names Anthony Berkeley and A. Monmouth Platts). Malice Aforethought is an early example of what is known as an “inverted detective story,“ a mystery novel in which the crime and the perpetrator of the crime are revealed at the beginning of the tale—and the rest of the story is centered around the solution.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in The Sketch Book (1819-20)
In the bosom of one of the spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail, and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town of rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town.
The opening words of novels and short stories can be appreciated in many different ways—some of them highly unexpected. In this case, the narrator continued with a delicious tidbit about how Tarrytown, New York got its name:
“The name was given, we are told, in former days, by the good housewives of the adjacent country, from the inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market days.”
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
In a 2017 Literary Hub post, Emily Temple hailed this as “The Best Opening Paragraph of All Time,“ and her assessment is easy to understand. I love the entire first paragraph, but the killer sentence is the final one. Did the family members all die as a result of mushroom poisoning? And did they all die at the hand of Merricat, as the narrator and protagonist wishes to be called?
In her post, Temple continued: “This paragraph is brilliant because of Merricat’s voice, and so is the rest of the book. It immediately teaches us who she is, and what this book is going to be like.“ Michael Douglas’s production company adapted the novel into an acceptable 2019 film, but one that didn’t do justice to the novel.
“Mr. Right is Dead,“ title story of Mr. Right is Dead (1965)
Eventually people are willing to admit most of their flaws—greed, jealously, pride, hostility—but the feeling they’re most ashamed to admit is loneliness.
P. D. James
Original Sin (1994)
For a temporary shorthand typist to be present at the discovery of a corpse on the first day of a new assignment, if not unique, is sufficiently rare to prevent its being regarded as an occupational hazard.
P. D. James
Cover Her Face (1962)
Exactly three months before the killing at Martingale Mrs. Maxie gave a dinner party. Years later, when the trial was a half-forgotten scandal and the headlines were yellowing on the newspaper lining of cupboard drawers, Eleanor Maxie looked back on that spring evening as the opening scene of the tragedy.
This was James’s debut novel, published when she was forty-two-years old. The book served as an introduction to Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgleish, a Scotland Yard detective, but he doesn’t show up until the fourth chapter, nearly fifty pages into the book. In the remaining thirteen books in the series, he makes far earlier appearances.
The novel begins with a less-than-dramatic opening, but it clearly gets the job done. A murder occurred some years ago, followed by a sensational trial that has now faded from memory. The seeds of that murder were sowed exactly three months before the crime—at a dinner party. We immediately wonder what transpired on the evening in question.
P. D. James
A Certain Justice (1997)
Murderers do not usually give their victims notice.
It’s direct, dramatic, and almost dazzling in its simplicity—in other words, an almost perfect opening sentence. As the narrator continued, things only got better: “This is one death which, however terrible that last second of appalled realization, comes mercifully unburdened with anticipatory terror.“
In a 1997 Harvard Crimson review, Soman S. Chainani singled out the opening line for special tribute and wrote about the entire book: “A Certain Justice is most enjoyable because of its deliciously subversive literary flair. James’ prose is eloquent and yet strikingly lucid.“
“Four Meetings” (1877); reprinted in Clifton Fadiman, The Short Stories of Henry James (1945)
I saw her but four times, though I remember them vividly; she made her impression on me. I thought her very pretty and very interesting—a touching specimen of a type with which I had other and perhaps less charming associations. I’m sorry to hear of her death, and yet when I think of it why should I be?
The unnamed narrator—an educated, well-travelled, cultured, and slightly verbose American who clearly appears patterned after James himself—is describing Caroline Spencer, a New England beauty who is enthralled by the idea of her upcoming trip to Europe (the story takes a dramatic turn when she is swindled out of her money by her own cousin). Many consider “Four Meetings” to be one of James’s best short stories, and Ford Madox Ford even hailed it as “a masterpiece.”
“Who Poisoned Joe Gilliam…Twice?” in Willamette Week (Nov. 3, 2021)
Joe Gilliam, one of the most influential voices in Oregon politics, has been silenced.
For more than two decades, Gilliam, 59, served as president of the Northwest Grocery Association, which counts Fred Meyer, Safeway and Costco among its members. He represented their interests in Salem, battled competitors and earned a reputation as a punishing opponent and loyal friend.
But for the past nine months, WW recently learned, Gilliam has been lying in a vegetative state at an undisclosed care facility in Clark County, Wash. Vigorous and athletic as recently as May 2020, he can now neither move nor speak.
It wasn’t COVID-19 that laid him low.
Nor was it heart disease or a car crash.
It was poison.
It’s rare for a newspaper article—especially one from a small community newspaper—to begin like a first-rate crime thriller, but Jaquiss accomplishes that feat here.
The Cold Dish (2004)
“Bob Barnes says they got a dead baby out in BLM land. He’s on line one.”
She might have knocked, but I didn’t hear it because I was watching the geese. I watch the geese a lot in the fall, when the days get shorter and the ice traces the rocky edges of Clear Creek.
With these words, the literary world was introduced to Walt Longmire, the sheriff of Wyoming’s fictional Absaroka County. A prototypical Western lawman, Walt is ruggedly handsome, laconic, and prone to thoughtful introspection as he surveys the beautiful natural world that surrounds him. Like so many of the iconic fictional lawmen who’ve preceded him in the genre, he also has a powerful sense of duty and honor, and a deep and abiding commitment to seeing that justice is done. He has thus far appeared in eighteen novels and eighteen short stories.
In 2012, Johnson’s Longmire novels were adapted by Warner Horizon into “Longmire,” a television series on the A&E Network (for a time, it was the highest-rated original crime drama series on the network). With Australian actor Robert Taylor in the starring role, and a strong supporting cast, the series continued for six seasons, the first three on A&E and final three on Netflix.
Stillicide: A Novel (2020)
The boy’s hand opened and closed as if he reached for a glass of water but it was just the nerves dying through his body.
In one sentence, we’re completely hooked. Quickly transported to the opening scene, we see a young, gravely injured boy, lying on the ground just in front of us, his life slowly slipping away. The narrator continues with grisly, but gripping details:
“With the thick rain the blood from the wound ran a thin washed pink.
“Nearby again a pheasant crowed, a klaxon call as they make before thunder.
“The bullet had gone in at the boy’s jaw and removed that side.”
The Trial (1925)
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.
In a 2013 interview, Stephen King had an off-the-cuff idea he shared with The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler: “You could go around and ask people about their favorite first lines. I think you’ll find that most of them, right away, establish the sense of voice we talked about. Why not do it? I’d love to know, like, Jonathan Franzen’s favorite first line.” Fassler jumped on the idea and immediately reached out to nearly two dozen of his favorite writers, including Franzen.
As it turns out, Franzen’s favorite opening line was from The Trial, and here’s what he had to say about it: “The method of the whole novel is here in a nutshell. You think you’re being introduced to the persecution of an innocent man, but if you read the chapter that follows carefully, you see that Josef K. is in fact doing all sorts of bad things in his life. If you then go back and reread the first sentence, it becomes significant that the very first impulse of the narrator (who is aligned with Josef K.’s point of view) is to blame somebody else.”
Jack’s Magic Beans (2011)
The lettuce started talking to Ben Mahoney halfway through his shift at Save-A-Lot.
Keene is the author of more than forty books, primarily in the horror, crime, and dark fantasy genres (as much as anyone, he is responsible for the world’s current fascination with zombies). In 2019, when asked by a Goodreads user to identify his favorite opening line, he identified this one.
The Complex (2016)
When everyone starts killing each other, Sam doesn’t notice at first because he’s too busy preparing to kill himself.
In 2019, Keene identified this as his second favorite opening line, and it’s easy to understand why. For his favorite, see the other Keene entry.
Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny (2012)
Call me a cynic, but I maintain that nothing can clarify a man’s thinking quite like looking down the barrel of a revolver in the hand of a man who is irked with you and considering homicide as a solution to his problems.
This is a first-rate opening line, fitting perfectly into the noir tradition of American crime stories. The novel represents the first literary appearance of Guy Noir, a fictional private eye that Keillor first introduced in 1995 on his Prairie Home Companion series. In the novel’s first paragraph, the ingeniously-named detective continued:
“This has happened to me from time to time in my so-called career as a private eye in St. Paul, Minnesota, and each occurrence promoted clear thinking, inconvenient though it was at the time. Christians try to find clarity through prayer, but you don’t really know what prayer is until you meet someone who’s prepared to shoot you.”
Orange is the New Black: My Year In a Federal Prison (2010)
International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly. I scurried from one to another, desperately trying to find my black suitcase. Because it was stuffed with drug money, I was more concerned than one might normally be about lost luggage.
From the outset, it’s clear that this is not going to be your typical prison memoir.
The Other Side of Silence [Book 11 in the Bernie Gunther series] (2016)
Yesterday I tried to kill myself.
It wasn’t that I wanted to die as much as the fact that I wanted the pain to stop.
These are dramatic opening words, and I believe they perfectly capture the reality of most people considering suicide: they don’t want to end their lives so much as they want to bring an end to the unbearable pain they’ve been experiencing. In this case, the pain-sufferer is Bernie Gunther, an aging former Berlin homicide detective with a dark past. As the novel begins, he is working under a false name as a concierge at a hotel in the French Riviera—and he is definitely not a happy camper. In his opening words, he continued: “Elizabeth, my wife, left me a while ago and I’d been missing her a lot. That was one source of pain, and a pretty major one, I have to admit. Even after a war in which more than four million German soldiers died, German wives are hard to come by. But another serious pain in my life was the war itself, of course, and what happened to me way back then, and in the Soviet POW camps afterward.”
Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
The Girl Next Door (1989)
You think you know about pain?
Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
The Lost (2001)
Katherine took another sip of vodka. Ask him, she thought. It’s sick but it’s what you really want to know most of all, isn’t it? So go on and ask him. Truth or lie you want to hear his answer. She lit a cigarette and shook out the match.
“So you didn’t tell me, Ray,” she said. “What did it feel like?”
“Huh? I did tell you.”
“You told me how it felt after. Not then. Not at the time.”
Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
The Box (1994)
“What’s in the box?” my son said.
“Danny,” I said, “Leave the man alone.”
It was two Sundays before Christmas and the Stamford local was packed—shoppers lined the aisles and we were lucky to have found seats. The man sat facing my daughters Clarissa and Jenny and me, the three of us squeezed together across from him and Danny in the seat beside him.
I could understand my son’s curiosity. The man was holding the red square gift box in his lap as though afraid that the Harrison stop, coming up next, might jolt it from his grasp. He’d been clutching it that way for three stops now—since he got on.
Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
Off Season (1980)
They watched her cross the meadow and step over the low stone wall, into the woods beyond. She looked awkward. She would be easy to catch.
They took their time. Breaking off the white birch switches, peeling the bark away. They could hear her moving through the underbrush. They looked at one another and smiled, but said nothing. They peeled the switches, and then they started after her.
It was openings like this that inspired Stephen King to write: “Ketchum has become a kind of hero to those of us who write tales of terror and suspense. He is, quite simply, one of the best in the business.” And about this particular novel, King wrote that Off Season was “a kind of literary Night of the Living Dead.”
Ketchum has often been dismissed as a purveyor of violent pornography, but that would be writing him off too easily. In 2011, he received the World Horror Convention’s Grand Master Award for outstanding contribution to the horror genre
Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
Hide and Seek (1984)
I don’t believe in omens, but I think you can know when you’re in trouble.
Follow me on this, even if it sounds like bullshit.
Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
“The Business,” in Peaceable Kingdom (2003)
The cockroach was not too big but it was coming right at him, moving in that drunken way they have, a little to the left, a little to the right, appropriate in this place, moving past Mama’s beer spill on a trajectory that would take it directly yet indirectly to his scotch.
“Hey Billy,” he said to the barman, “pass me another napkin, will ya?”
In her 1999 Word Painting book, writer and writing instructor Rebecca McClanahan wrote: “Description is, in effect, word painting.“ Her observation came immediately to mind when I first read this description of an approaching cockroach. In the short story, the narrator continued: “Billy didn’t like him. Howard knew that. He couldn’t have cared less. He got service because he left a decent tip. Billy handed him the cocktail napkin. Howard squished the bug. If you had a potato chip stuffed with onion dip, that was what it felt like.”
Peter Straub once said that people often came to Ketchum’s writings for the wrong reasons and stayed with him for the right ones—and one of those reasons might well be sensational openings like this one.
Needful Things (1991)
YOU’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE.
All authors can cite the favorite opening lines they have themselves written, and this one is King’s. In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler, King said: “But I can tell you right now that the best first line I ever wrote—and I learned it from [James] Cain, and learned it from [Douglas] Fairbairn—is the opening of Needful Things. It’s the story about this guy who comes to town, and uses grudges and sleeping animosities among the townspeople to whip everyone up into a frenzy of neighbor against neighbor. And so the story starts off with an opening line, printed by itself on a page in 20-point type: YOU’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE.“
King went on to add: “All there by itself on one page, inviting the reader to keep reading. It suggests a familiar story; at the same time, the unusual presentation brings us outside the realm of the ordinary. And this, in a way, is a promise of the book that’s going to come. The story of neighbor against neighbor is the oldest story in the world, and yet this telling is (I hope) strange and somehow different. Sometimes it’s important to find that kind of line: one that encapsulates what’s going to happen later without being a big thematic statement.“
I had a car, but on most days in that fall of 1973 I walked to Joyland from Mrs. Shoplaw’s Beachside Accommodations in the town of Heaven’s Bay. It seemed like the right thing to do. The only thing, actually.
After a so-so start, the opening words of the novel begin to soar when narrator Devin Jones—a college student with a summer job at a North Carolina amusement park—continues: “By early September, Heaven Beach was almost completely deserted, which suited my mood. That fall was the most beautiful of my life. Even forty years later I can say that. And I was never so unhappy, I can say that, too. People think first love is sweet, and never sweeter than when that first bond snaps. You’ve heard a thousand pop and country songs that prove the point; some fool got his heart broke. Yet that first broken heart is always the most painful, the slowest to mend, and leaves the most visible scar. What’s so sweet about that?”
In a 2013 New York Times review, Walter Kim wrote about the protagonist: “Devin, who dreamed of being a novelist but ended up as a writer for magazines, comes across as a version of King himself, which lends his narration a winking, intimate quality.” And Kim went on to write about the book: “King’s ambition this time around isn’t to snatch us and hold us in his grasp but to loft us up high, then briskly set us down the way a Ferris wheel does. Or a first love.”
Lisey’s Story (2006)
To the public eye, the spouses of well-known writers are all but invisible, and no one knew it better than Lisey Landon.
The opening line introduces readers to the widow of the famous actor Scott Landon. After two years of struggling with the loss of her husband, she is finally getting around to cleaning out his office. In the process, all kinds of memories come flooding back to her—and, in typical Stephen King fashion, other strange and unusual events also begin to unfold.
In an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit in 2013, King was asked which of his novels was his favorite. While he answered that it was Lisey’s Story, you should know he has answered this question differently over the years. The novel was a favorite of many other people as well, winning the 2006 Bram Stoker Award.
umber whunn yerrrnnn umber whunnn fayunnn These sounds: even in the haze.
These four lines—which form the entirety of the first chapter—are the first sounds heard by bestselling novelist Paul Sheldon as he slowly emerges from an unconscious state. Even readers who correctly decipher the sounds (“Number One. Your Number One Fan”) have no idea where the story is going to take them.
Misery won the 1987 Bram Stoker Award and was adapted into a popular 1990 film starring James Caan as Sheldon and Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, his devoted—and deranged—fan. Bates’s performance was so spectacular she received a Best Actress Oscar later that year. When King was asked in a 2013 Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session about which actor had best captured one of his characters in film adaptations of his works, he replied, “Kathy Bates was a great Annie Wilkes.”
The Gunslinger [Book 1 of The Dark Tower series] (1982)
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
In a 2011 Lit Reactor article, Meredith Borders included this opener in her list of “The Ten Best Opening Lines of Novels.” About it, she wrote: “Stephen King began writing The Gunslinger when he was a sophomore in college; he has said that the opening sentence came to him as a forceful inspiration that he could not ignore. Twelve and a half years later, the novel was published.”
The inspiration for the novel was Robert Browning’s 1852 poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” A few years after the novel was published, King reported, “I played with the idea of trying a long romantic novel embodying the feel, if not the exact sense, of the Browning poem.“ In her 2011 post, Borders agreed that King had accomplished what he set out to do, writing, “The words are stark and lovely, instantly giving the sense that we are in medias res of an epic adventure lasting through time out of mind.”
I don’t like to start with an apology—there’s probably even a rule against it—but after reading over the first thirty pages I’ve written so far, I feel like I have to.
The words come from Jamie Conklin, a young boy who is living in Manhattan with single mom Tia, a literary agent. Even though the opening words have a Holden Caulfield feel to them, Jamie is not an ordinary boy. Since birth, he has possessed a special ability to communicate with dead people.
In the opening paragraph, Jamie continued: “It’s about a certain word I keep using. I learned a lot of four-letter words from my mother and used them from an early age (as you will soon find out), but this is one with five letters. The word is later, as in “Later on” and “Later I found out” and “It was only later that I realized.”
Laurie R. King
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994)
I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Down, and nearly stepped on him.
With this opening line, the literary world was introduced to Mary Russell, a Jewish-American teenager who literally runs into the 54-year-old Sherlock Holmes while wandering through the Sussex Downs in the Southeast of England. The year is 1915, and Mary, whose parents died a year earlier in a motorcar accident in California, is now living with an English aunt. Holmes, now retired from his consulting detective practice, has become a beekeeper. The unlikely pair quickly become fast friends, and she soon becomes his apprentice in the grand art of detection.
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is the first in a series of twenty delightful Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Stay tuned for more opening lines from the series.
The Dark Half (1989)
People’s lives—their real lives, as opposed to their simple physical existences—begin at different times.
The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon (1999)
The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted.
The English Teacher (2005)
That she had not killed him in her sleep was still the great relief of every morning.
This recurring—and disturbing—thought occurs every morning to protagonist Vida Avery. She is a single mom who teaches English at a prestigious New England prep school, and the him is her teenage son, Peter. About the opening line, writer Lloyd Ferriss wrote in a Portland Press Herald review: “From its powerful beginning, Lily King’s The English Teacher soars.” In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued:
“Not that she actually believed he was dead when he slept in on a Saturday. It was merely a leftover ritual, the weak ghost of an old fear from years ago when she awoke and waited, barely breathing, as close to prayer as she had ever got in her life, for a single sound of him: a little sigh, or the scrape of his feetie pajamas across the floor. He’d scuffle into her room still warm and puffy and half asleep, and the piercing relief of him collided with the horror of possessing such a fear and the dread of its return the next morning.”
The girls came from nowhere, emerging from darkness suddenly, into the street directly in front of her.
When most people think of a thriller penned by an author named King, they quite naturally think of Stephen. But there’s another writer in the family as well, and, while not nearly as prolific as her better-known husband, Tabita King has produced seven novels, several non-fiction works, a few volumes of poetry, and scores of short stories.
In Survivor, she begins with a terrifying scene many of us have personally experienced—children darting out from the shadows and suddenly caught in the headlights of a vehicle we’re driving. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:
“She was above them behind the wheel of her Blazer, and as the girls lurched in her lights, the hilarity distorting their faces turned to terror, their arms upthrust as if against the glare. She was by then standing on her brakes. The Blazer shuddered and bucked, tires shrieking. Only inches from her bumper, the two girls seemed to reel as if in a strong wind.”
Salem’s Lot (1975)
Everybody thought the man and the boy were father and son.
Great opening lines are often more like lures than hooks, and this one has been beckoning readers since the early stages of King’s career. In a 2020 essay on “Great Hookers I Have Known,“ King wrote about it: “I suppose if I had to pick a favorite opening sentence from my own work—and it still isn’t much of a hooker—it would be the opening sentence of Salem’s Lot.“
The man and the boy turn out to be the man and the girl, a father and daughter—Andy and Charlene “Charlie” McGee—who begin the novel “on the run” from government authorities.
You might also be interested in learning that, seven years earlier, in a 2013 interview, King identified yet another opening line from his works as his personal favorite. For more, see the Needful Things (1991) entry.
The Shining (1977)
Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.
This is the novel’s entire first paragraph—the protagonist’s simple but powerful assessment of a man who’s interviewing candidates for the job of off-season caretaker of a grand old hotel in the mountains of Colorado.
In the second paragraph, Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic, continued: “Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.”
In 1980, the novel was adapted into a Stanley Kubrick film with an unforgettable performance by Jack Nicholson. When King first saw the film, he hated it, but ultimately came to respect it as a work of art. He wrote in Danse Macabre (1981); “Even when a director such as Stanley Kubrick makes such a maddening, perverse, and disappointing film as The Shining, it somehow retains a brilliance that is inarguable; it is simply there.”
Night Shift (1978)
Let’s talk, you and I. Let’s talk about fear.
These are the opening words of the Foreword to Night Shift, King’s first collection of short stories. A little more than two decades later, writer Peter Straub wrote about this beginning: “With its deliberate repetition of the first two words, its gliding but insistent rhythm, and its movement from the colloquial contraction of ‘let’s’ to the abrupt shock of the final noun, this flourish is literary to the core.“ They do not come across as literary, though, says Straub, “because they represent that friendliest of all communications, the invitation.“
In the second paragraph, King, ever the skillful host, escorts the reader into his house: “The house is empty as I write this; a cold February rain is falling outside. It’s night. Sometimes when the wind blows this way, we lose the power. But for now it’s on, and so lets talk very honestly about fear. Let’s talk very rationally about moving to the rim of madness...and perhaps over the edge.“ [ellipsis in original]
Dragon Tears (1993)
Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch.
In 2015, Koontz surveyed his fans for their favorite opening lines from his novels, and this was one of the top seven vote getters (the other six also appear below). About this one, he wrote: "That the line from Dragon Tears was so often chosen doesn't surprise me. It promises threat and action soon, and it's just tongue-in-cheek enough to make the reader smile." It's rare for writers to speak personally and expansively about their opening line creations, so I am pleased to be able to present this and, below, some of his other thoughts.
Seize the Night (1999)
Elsewhere, night falls, but in Moonlight Bay it steals upon us with barely a whisper, like a gentle dark-sapphire surf licking a beach.
About this fan favorite, Koontz wrote: "I also suspect some people would feel that the opening to Seize the Night is insufficiently gripping because it's just a visual, not a promise of anything. Maybe I have a lot of language freaks in my readership, but being a guy who grew up reading Ray Bradbury, I've always felt that a lyrical opening, even just a description of the sky, can hook the reader if its words are carefully chosen for their resonance and if it paints a scene that suggests mystery or wonder."
Odd Thomas (2003)
My name is Odd Thomas, though in this age when fame is the altar at which most people worship, I am not sure why you should care who I am or that I exist.
The Husband (2006)
A man begins dying at the moment of his birth.
About this opening line, Koontz wrote: "This is very humble philosophy, something everyone knows, but perhaps it strikes the reader because we never see our fate put quite so bluntly, especially when talking about birth, which is usually couched in joyful terms."
The Good Guy (2007)
Sometimes a mayfly skates across a pond, leaving a brief wake as thin as spiderwebbed silk, and by staying low avoids those birds and bats that feed in light.
Sometimes, as with a combination punch in boxing, a great opening line serves simply as a set-up for an even better second line--and that is certainly true here. The narrator continued: "At six feet three, weighing two hundred ten pounds, with big hands and bigger feet, Timothy Carrier could not maintain a profile as low as that of a skating mayfly, but he tried."
This is a thing I've learned: Even with a gun to my head, I am capable of being convulsed with laughter.
About this fan favorite from his 2015 survey, Koontz wrote: "The line from Relentless doesn't surprise me, but I suspect that it would surprise a number of people in publishing. It is widely believed that mixing humor with suspense is a sales killer, though with many books I have proved that bit of common wisdom is not true."
The Life Expectancy (2004)
On the night that I was born, my paternal grandfather, Josef Tock, made ten predictions that shaped my life. Then he died in the very minute that my mother gave birth to me.
The narrator and protagonist, 30-year-old Jimmy Tock, continued in the second paragraph: “Josef had never previously engaged in fortune-telling. He was a pastry chef. He made éclairs and lemon tarts, not predictions.“
The Eyes of Darkness (1981)
At six minutes past midnight, Tuesday morning, on the way home from a late rehearsal of her new stage show, Tina Evans saw her son, Danny, in a stranger’s car. But Danny had been dead for more than a year.
Even though Koontz is a modern master of the Great Opening Line, he wrote in a 2015 blog post that he doesn’t deliberately attempt to create a hook that will snare a reader. He put it this way: “I don’t always—or even usually—craft a first sentence that is meant to be an immediate hook. If it doesn’t come naturally, it can seem artificial. I figure I’ve got at least a paragraph or two, more likely a page or two, with which to compel the reader to stay with the story, though not much more than that. Dickens routinely set his hooks within two pages, and there’s no better model than the one he offers.“
False Memory (1999)
On that Tuesday in January, when her life changed forever, Martine Rhodes woke with a headache, developed a sour stomach after washing down two aspirin with grapefruit juice, guaranteed herself an epic bad-hair day by mistakenly using Dustin’s shampoo instead of her own, broke a fingernail, burnt her toast, discovered ants swarming through the cabinet under the kitchen sink, eradicated the pests by firing a spray can of insecticide as ferociously as Sigourney Weaver wielded a flamethrower in one of those old extraterrestrial-bug movies, cleaned up the resultant carnage with paper towels, hummed Bach’s Requiem as she solemnly consigned the tiny bodies to the trash can, and took a telephone call from her mother, Sabrina, who still prayed for the collapse of Martie’s marriage three years after the wedding.
In his 2015 survey, this was also one of the top fan favorites. About it, Koontz wrote: “The one that most surprises me is False Memory. This is a long opening sentence—131 words!—which runs against most writing advice to keep sentences short, or at least shorter than this. People seem to like it because it conveys so much about the heroine and her character and sets her up as someone you want to know more about. Maybe I’ll open a book one day with a 500-word sentence just to see if I can get away with it.“
One Door Away From Heaven (2001)
The world is full of broken people. Splints, casts, miracle drugs, and time can’t mend fractured hearts, wounded minds, torn spirits.
The narrator continued: “Currently sunshine was Micky Bellsong’s medication of choice, and southern California in late August was an apothecary with a deep supply of this prescription.“
The opening words of this novel were a surprise winner in Koontz’s 2015 survey, leading him to write: “The line from One Door Away From Heaven does indeed surprise me. First of all, it’s not one sentence, but two, so picking it is a bit of a cheat. And this is a story in which I purposefully took a page or two to crank up the engine. Yet not only did this have a lot of votes, but a fine film producer, who once tried to get the book produced, also told me she bought her copy of the novel on the basis of that opening paragraph and realized, from that alone, that it was probably going to make a terrific movie. (That’s another story.) Why? I’ve thought about it a lot, and I suspect it appeals to people because it expresses something that they feel is true but haven’t before put into words themselves: that most people are in one way or another broken by their experiences, that we are all the walking wounded. This suggests that, against all the common wisdom of the publishing business, it might be all right to open a book with something as potentially off-putting as a bit of humble philosophy.“
The Walking Drum (1984)
Nothing moved but the wind and only a few last, lingering drops of rain, only a blowing of water off the ruined wall. Listening, I heard no other sound. My imagination was creating foes where none existed.
In one of the few L’Amour novels that is not a western, the opening words come from narrator and protagonist Mathurin Kerbouchard. A historical novel set in the twelfth century, The Walking Drum was intended to be a trilogy, but the remaining two books were never written due to the author’s declining health, and death in 1988.
The Other Americans (2019)
My father was killed on a spring night four years ago, while I sat in the corner booth of a new bistro in Oakland.
In a 2019 “Ask the Editor” post on PublishersWeekly.com, Betty Kelly Sargent, the founder and CEO of Bookworks, hailed this as one of her favorite opening lines. When asked by a reader, “Do you think it’s essential to start a novel with a dynamite first sentence?” Sargent replied:
“Absolutely. Your first sentence must entice, impress, surprise, and maybe even shock the reader. With all the competition for a reader’s attention these days, it’s important to try to hook your reader instantly, so spending the time it takes to craft a powerful opening sentence is well worth the effort…. Think of the opening sentence as an invitation to read your story—an invitation that’s hard to refuse.”
In the opening paragraph, narrator and protagonist Nora Guerraoui, a jazz composer of Moroccan descent, continued: “Whenever I think about that moment, these two contradictory images come to me: my father struggling for breath on the cracked asphalt, and me drinking champagne with my roommate, Margo.”
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003)
In Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century amid the smoke of industry and the clatter of trains there lived two men, both handsome, both blue-eyed, and both unusually adept at their chosen skills. Each embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized the rush of America toward the twentieth century.
In this compelling work—named “Best Book of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle—Larson brought a novelist’s sensibility to a history book. Larson continued: “One was an architect, the builder of many of America’s most important structures, among them the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C.; the other was a murderer, one of the most prolific in history and harbinger of an American archetype, the urban serial killer. Although the two never met, at least not formally, their fates were linked by a single, magical event.”
That single, magical event was, of course, Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair (officially named “The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition”). Larson’s book reintroduced modern readers to the legendary American architect Daniel Burnham and interwove his story with that of H. H. Holmes, a Chicago man who is often described as America’s first serial killer.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005)
It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday. When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off the wrapping paper and then picked up the telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morell who, when he retired, had moved to Lake Siljan in Dalarna.
These are the opening words of the Prologue to the novel, which was originally published in Sweden and first published in an English translation in 2008. The man opening the package is an aging member of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families. On the same day every year for forty-four years, he has received a package containing a beautiful pressed flower, mounted on water-color paper, and displayed in a simple wooden frame. About the two men, the narrator continued: “They were not only the same age, they had been born on the same day—which was something of an irony under the circumstances. The old policeman was sitting with his coffee, waiting, expecting the call.”
The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009)
She lay on her back fastened by leather straps to a narrow bed with a steel frame. The harness was tight across her rib cage. Her hands were manacled to the sides of the bed.
The novel’s Prologue opens with this stark description of a gritty crime scene. The person handcuffed to the bed, we will soon learn, is a 13-year-old Swedish girl who was abducted forty-three days earlier. The narrator continued:
“She had long since given up trying to free herself. She was awake, but her eyes were closed. If she opened her eyes she would find herself in darkness; the only light was a faint strip that seeped in above the door. She had a bad taste in her mouth and longed to be able to brush her teeth.”
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010)
An estimated 600 women served during the American Civil War. They had signed up disguised as men.
In any work of fiction or non-fiction, a tried-and-true method is to open with the revelation of a little-known historical tidbit. This one definitely got my attention, and even caused me to do a little research about the accuracy of the assertion. Turns out, it’s true, and may even be on the low side (some scholars estimate around a thousand women). In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:
“Hollywood has missed a significant chapter of cultural history here—or is this history ideologically too difficult to deal with? Historians have often struggled with women who do not respect gender distinctions, and nowhere is that distinction more sharply drawn than in the question of armed combat.”
To Kill a Mockingbird (1961)
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.
The narrator is Jem’s younger sister “Scout,“ the daughter of Alabama country lawyer Atticus Finch (her mother died when she was a baby).
In the next paragraph, Scout introduced the character Dill (based on Harper Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote): “When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.“
The novel won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but it went on to be regarded as a cultural treasure after the 1962 film adaptation, featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Gregory Peck. In 2003, the American Film Institute hailed Atticus Finch as the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.
Live by Night (2012)
Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern.
The narrator continued: “And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life—good or bad—had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.”
Mystic River (2001)
When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them.
The narrator continued: “It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their car seats. Sean’s kitchen smelled like a Fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their lives and never ate dessert.”
In a 2020 blog post on the opening pages of great novels, literary agent Janet Reid wrote that Lehane’s entire first paragraph “is pure background or grounding.” She went on to add, “The fathers don’t figure in the story after the first section. But it gives us a sense of where these boys came from, and that’s the blood of the novel.”
“Until Gwen,” in The Atlantic (June 2004)
Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
In a 2005 Boston Globe article, Bella English revealed that Lehane “had this opening sentence kicking around in his head for eight years, but no place to put it.” She continued: “He couldn’t for the life of him find the right vehicle for it; it just didn’t fit into anything he was working on. Then he was asked to write a short story for an anthology, with one requirement: It had to have something to do with fathers and sons.”
In a 2014 article in the Hunger Mountain Review (“7 Ways to Seduce Your Reader”), writer and editor Miciah Bay Gault hailed this as an “all-time favorite” and cleverly described it as “a speed-date of a first line.” She added: “In one sentence we learn about the narrator’s crappy childhood, crappy present life, criminal background, and criminal father. We get a sense of the characters’ relative ages and a bit of the setting. In this line we understand that daddy is perfectly willing to put his son in jeopardy. Because the narrator has chosen to let us in on that fact, we sympathize with a potentially unsympathetic protagonist and we believe he wants to go straight. Wow. That’s a lot to pack into one line, a powerful first sentence that seduced me into reading more.”
After his spectacular opening sentence, Lehane continued in an equally enjoyable way:
“Two minutes into the ride, the prison still hanging tilted in the rearview, Mandy tells you that she only hooks part-time. The rest of the time she does light secretarial for an independent video chain and tends bar, two Sundays a month, at the local VFW. But she feels her calling—her true calling in life—is to write.
“You go, ‘Books?’
“’Books.’ She snorts, half out of amusement, half to shoot a line off your fist and up her left nostril. ‘Screenplays!’ She shouts it at the dome light for some reason. ‘You know—movies.’”
“Sweet Smell of Success” (1950), title story of Sweet Smell of Success: And Other Stories (1957)
I just let her go on talking.
The narrator, a sleazy Manhattan press agent named Sidney Falco, continued in the first paragraph: “I sat there at my desk with the phone propped between my head and shoulder and allowed the insistent monotone of her voice to jab at my brain, while I mopped my forehead with my left hand and tapped a cigarette with my right.”
Lehman’s story originally appeared under the title “Tell Me About It Tomorrow” in an April, 1950 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine (the publication’s editors insisted on a title change because they didn’t want the word “smell” to appear in the pages of the magazine).
Lehman’s novelette was adapted into a first-rate 1957 film starring Tony Curtis as Falco and Burt Lancaster as the powerful and unprincipled newspaper columnist J. J. Hunseker (Lehman co-wrote the screenplay with Clifford Odets). The film got off to a disappointing start, in large part because Tony Curtis fans had trouble accepting him in a role that clashed with his “nice-guy” image. By the end of the year, however, the film was on numerous “Ten-Best” lists, and is now regarded as a film noir classic.
Freaky Deaky (1988)
Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.
Tishomingo Blues (2002)
Dennis Lenahan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down at it, that’s what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder.
Mr. Paradise (2004)
Late afternoon Chloe and Kelly were having cocktails at the Rattlesnake Club, the two seated on the far side of the dining room by themselves: Chloe talking, Kelly listening, Chloe trying to get Kelly to help entertain Anthony Paradiso, an eighty-four-year-old guy who was paying her five thousand a week to be his girlfriend.
Get Shorty (1990)
When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.
This opening line introduces Ernesto “Chili” Palmer, a Mob-connected loan shark who has his treasured leather jacket stolen by Ray “Bones” Barboni, a rival thug from another group of Miami Beach thugs (the two characters were brought to life in a memorable way by John Travolta and Dennis Farina in a 1995 film adaptation of the novel). Given his nature, Chili has only one alternative—to retrieve his jacket—and the action continues from there.
In “Analysis of Elmore Leonard’s Novels,” a 2019 post on Literariness.org, site founder Nasrullah Mambrol wrote: “Among all of his novels, Get Shorty most clearly reveals [Leonard’s] intention of making his fiction read like motion pictures. He even incorporates some pages of a screenplay that his sleazy characters are trying to peddle.”
Out of Sight (1996)
Foley had never seen a prison where you could walk right up to the fence without getting shot.
In a 2019 Literariness.org post, Nasrullah Mambrol wrote: “The opening sentence of the novel…immediately locates the reader both psychologically—within Foley’s consciousness, attitudes, and experience—and physically—just inside the fence of a medium-security Florida prison.”
In the same post, Mambrol also wrote: “The novel’s opening is widely acknowledged to rank among Leonard’s best, as he takes the reader through a daring prison break, modeled on a real escape from that same prison in 1995. As is his practice, the point of view shifts among three different characters in the first three chapters, as the same scene is viewed from three different angles.”
Rosemary’s Baby (1967)
Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse had signed a lease on a five-room apartment in a geometric white house on First Avenue when they received word, from a woman named Mrs. Cortez, that a four-room apartment in the Bramford had become available. The Bramford, old, black, and elephantine, is a warren of high-ceilinged apartments prized for their fireplaces and Victorian detail. Rosemary and Guy had been on its waiting list since their marriage but had finally given up.
Rosemary, especially, cannot believe the good news, but, from the very beginning, something seems off—and it ultimately turns out to be horribly off.
Levin’s bestselling novel touched off a huge boom in horror fiction in the late sixties. A year later, the novel was adapted into a Roman Polanski film, starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, and, in an Oscar-winning role, Ruth Gordon.
A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
His plans had been running so beautifully, so goddamned beautifully, and now she was going to smash them all.
The narrator is describing Bud Corliss, an ambitious, and even ruthless, young man who is willing to do just about anything to rise above his working-class origins. The she is Dorothy Kingship, Bud’s girlfriend, and the daughter of a wealthy copper tycoon (the two characters were played by Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward in the 1956 film adaptation).
When Dorothy tells Bud she is pregnant, he fears her ultra-conservative father will disinherit her—and ruin all of his future plans. In the first paragraph, the narrator continued: “Hate erupted and flooded through him, gripping his face with jaw-aching pressure. That was all right though; the lights were out.”
Levin’s debut novel, A Kiss Before Dying was an immediate success—critically and commercially—and went on to receive the 1954 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
By a Spider’s Thread [Book 8 in the Tess Monaghan series] (2004)
They were in one of the “I” states when Zeke told Isaac he had to ride in the trunk for a little while.
This terrific opening line comes from a brief prefatory piece titled “September.” As a born-and-bred Midwesterner, I’ve long loved this opener, and I was pleased to recently discover that the sentence is personal favorite of the author. In 2006, when Lippman was asked by NPR’s Maureen Pao if she had a favorite sentence, she answered this way:
“Is it possible to answer that sentence without sounding like a jerk? I’ll select the opening of By a Spider’s Thread, which was nominated for the Ross Thomas Prize for Best Opening Line, so I’m technically not the one who’s making any claim for it.”
By a Spider’s Thread is the 8th book in Lippmann’s popular series of Tess Monaghan mysteries. In the novel, Tess is hired by Mark Rubin, a wealthy Jewish man, to find his missing wife and children. Chapter One of the novel also begins beautifully:
“Tess Monaghan had been a high school senior when her father had bestowed his single life lesson, the one piece of advice that was supposed to open all doors and allow his only child to hurdle every obstacle: He showed her how to shake a man’s hand.”
By the way, I’ve been searching—without much success, I might add—for more information about the Ross Thomas Prize. I did find one other winner (see the Jennifer Apodaca entry above), but nothing about the contest. If you can provide any information, I’d be grateful.
The Call of the Wild (1903)
Buck did not read the papers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.
From the phrasing of the first sentence, it becomes clear that Buck is a dog, and not a human being. The opening words also offer the intriguing suggestion that this tale will be a told from a canine perspective, not a human one.
The narrator continued: “Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost.“
H. P. Lovecraft
“The Call of Cthulhu,” in Weird Tales magazine (February 1928)
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
This classic opening line come from narrator Francis Wayland Thurston, an anthropologist who is reflecting on a series of recently-discovered notes from his long-deceased uncle, a professor of Semitic languages at Brown University. He continues with this typical example of Lovecraftian prose:
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
In 2014 blog post on “The Top Ten Opening Lines from H. P. Lovecraft,” writer Douglas Wynne wrote: “H. P. Lovecraft knew how to write a hook. Say what you will about his adjective addiction or his lapses into florid prose; one place where he knew how to get to the point was in an opening line. He may have meandered a bit after getting your attention (and I’d argue that’s part of his charm), but in his pulp fiction heart Lovecraft understood the importance of grabbing you right away to earn your patience, and his stories consistently showcase his mastery of the intriguing opening.”
And about this classic opener—one of Lovecraft most widely quoted observations—Wynne wrote: “This one’s a classic. A concise philosophical statement that makes you wonder why connecting the dots and reaching certain conclusions would be so bad that your ignorance is the ultimate mercy.”
First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen (2014)
Fond as she was of solitary walks, Jane had been wandering rather longer than she had intended, her mind occupied not so much with the story she had lately been reading as with the one she hoped soon to be writing.
From the book’s subtitle, readers immediately recognize Jane Austen as the solitary walker, and the novel’s opening sentence neatly captures something important about all writers—they tend to be preoccupied by one of two things: what they’re currently reading and what they’re currently writing. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:
“She was shaken from this reverie by the sight of an unfamiliar figure, sitting on a stile, hunched over a book. Her first impression was that he was the picture of gloom—dressed in shabby clerical garb, a dark look on his crinkled face, doubtless a volume of dusty sermons clutched in his ancient hand. Even the weather seemed to agree with this assessment, for while the sun shone all around him, he sat in the shadow of the single cloud that hung in the Hampshire sky.”
The Enigma Affair (2022)
It wasn’t just the bullet passing by Patton’s left ear that concerned her.
This is a terrific in media res (literally, “into the middle of things”) opening line, and the entire first paragraph goes from zero to sixty in a nanosecond. The dramatic nature of the line got my immediate attention, but its somewhat unusual phrasing also got me thinking, “I don’t know about anyone else, but if a bullet just whizzed past my left ear, it would be the only thing that concerned me!“ In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:
“After all, she had sustained gunfire before, even been hit once—if you could call a graze on the forearm that barely left a scar a hit. No, what worried Patton was the sound this bullet made, or rather the sound this bullet didn’t make. Every bullet that had ever traveled near her had brought with it the distinctive crack of an object in supersonic motion. But this bullet merely hissed quietly as it crossed the kitchen before embedding itself in her refrigerator. This bullet was subsonic.”
At this point, we don’t understand why a subsonic bullet is more concerning than a supersonic one, but we’ve already been yanked into the story, and feel confident we’ll know the answer soon. In a blurb for the book, writer Rex Pickett (Sideways and The Archivist) hailed the novel for its “breathtaking, brisk prose that vaults you into the story at a torrid pace.”
Year of the Reaper (2021)
When it came to the dead, it was best to pretend he did not see them.
This is a terrific first line—straightforward, succinct, but highly evocative. The narrator continued: “This Cas had learned the hard way, early on, when the plague had struck and the bodies lay blanketed around him. And as he crossed the bridge, the ghost keeping pace by his side, it became clear he would have to pretend harder. This particular spirit was growing suspicious.”
The protagonist, we will shortly learn, is 18-year-old Lord Cassia, a young nobleman recently emerged from prison and returning to his home in the middle of a devastating worldwide plague and after a long, costly war with a neighboring kingdom. About the book, Jennifer Harlan. said in a New York Times review: “This moving book explores what it means to rebuild and how much history depends on who is left to tell it.”
The Bourne Identity [Book 1 of the Jason Bourne Series] (1980)
The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp.
The novel opens with a dangerous storm at sea, threatening a trawler that is likened to an animal struggling for its very existence. The narrator continued: “The waves rose to Goliathan heights, crashing into the hull with the power of raw tonnage; the white spray caught in the night sky cascaded down over the deck under the force of the night wind. Everywhere there were the sounds of inanimate pain, wood straining against wood, ropes twisting, stretched to the breaking point. The animal was dying.”
John D. MacDonald
The Lonely Silver Rain (1985)
Once upon a time, I was very lucky and located a sixty-five-foot highjacked motor sailer in a matter of days, after the authorities had been looking for months.
In this novel, the last in a series of 21 Travis McGee books, the protagonist continued: “When I heard through the grapevine that Billy Ingraham wanted to see me, it was easy to guess he hoped I could work the same miracle with his stolen Sundowner, a custom cruiser he’d had built in a Jacksonville yard. It had been missing for three months.”
The Goodbye Look (1969)
The lawyer, whose name was John Truttwell, kept me waiting in the outer room of his offices. It gave the room a chance to work me over gently.
After a so-so first sentence, the spectacular metaphor in the second is like a rifle shot aimed directly at the imagination of the reader.
In the opening paragraph, protagonist Lew Archer continued: “The armchair I was sitting in was covered in soft green leather. Oil paintings of the region, landscapes and seascapes, hung on the walls around me like subtle advertisements.”
John D. MacDonald
The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968)
It is one of the sorry human habits to play the game of: What was I doing when it happened?
Narrator and protagonist Travis McGee continued in the next paragraph: “After I heard that Helena Pearson had died on Thursday, the third day October, I had no trouble reconstructing the immediate past.”
John D. MacDonald
The Deep Blue Good-by (1964)
It was to have been a quiet evening at home.
Home is the Busted Flush, 52-foot barge-type houseboat, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale.
These are the opening lines of a novel that introduced Travis McGee, a “salvage consultant” who recovers lost and stolen property for a fee—and solves crimes in the process. McGee went on to appear in 20 more MacDonald novels. All 21 books have a color-themed title, setting the stage for Sue Grafton’s “alphabet” series of Kinsey Millhone books and Janet Evanovich’s “number” series of Stephanie Plum books.
John D. MacDonald
Darker Than Amber (1966)
We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.
In a 2009 issue of the Harvard Business School Bulletin (titled “One Man Crime Wave”), editor Garry Emmons wrote about these opening words from narrator and protagonist Travis McGee: “And so John D. MacDonald (MBA ’39) begins another book, with an opening line so deft it makes other writers want to give up and call it a career.” Emmons added: “MacDonald tossed off lines like this over and over again (the young woman about to make a splash is, of course, beautiful, very much alive, and inconvenienced by the cement block wired to her leg).”
MacDonald became so famous as a crime/mystery writer that few people knew he originally planned a business career, or that he even went so far as to get an MBA from the Harvard Business School in 1939 (one of his classmates was Robert McNamara).
Uncivil Seasons (1983)
Two things don’t happen very often in Hillston, North Carolina. We don’t get much snow, and we hardly ever murder one another. Suicide is more our style.
The opening words come from narrator and protagonist Justin Savile, a homicide detective who also happens to be a wayward member of the town’s founding family. He continued: “We’re a polite, college town, and our lives are sheltered by old trees. Maybe once a year a blizzard slips around a corner of the Smoky Mountains and blusters its way east, or a gale swells up from Cape Hatteras and runs across the Piedmont to break up our agreeable liaison with nature; but usually storms lose interest along the way.”
In a 2004 NPR interview, award-winning librarian Nancy Pearl identified this as one of her all-time favorite opening lines. In introducing her compilation of favorites, she said: “I think when you read a good first line it’s like falling in love with somebody, I mean, your heart starts pounding.”
Emily St. John Mandel
Last Night in Montreal (2009)
No one stays forever. On the morning of her disappearance Lila woke early, and lay still for a moment in the bed. It was the last day of October. She slept naked.
This was Mandel’s first novel, and it was hailed by critics as soon as it was published. In the Richmond Review, Shelley Civkin wrote: “What a great way to start off the new year, finding a spectacular book by a young, new writer. Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John is a stunning debut novel that casts a spell of intrigue over the reader from the very first page.”
Emily St. John Mandel
The Glass Hotel (2020)
Begin at the end: plummeting down the side of the ship in the storm’s wild darkness, breath gone with the shock of falling, my camera flying away through the rain—
The Glass Hotel was one of the most anticipated books of the year, and it didn’t disappoint. Among the scores of positive reviews, Robert J. Wiersema wrote in The Toronto Star: “Simply stunning, a boldly experimental work which hooks the reader from its first pages, wending to a powerfully emotional conclusion.” Barack Obama also included it in his “Favorite Books of 2020” list.
Emily St. John Mandel
The Lola Quartet (2012)
Anna had fallen into a routine, or as much of a routine as a seventeen-year-old can reasonably fall into when she’s transient and living in hiding with an infant.
This novel would have had me with “transient and living in hiding with an infant,” but when that remarkable phrase was juxtaposed with the notion of falling into a routine, I knew I was in the hands of a skilled storyteller. A brilliant first sentence.
The Miracle at St Anna (2002)
On December 12, 1944, Sam Train became invisible for the first time. He remembered it exactly.
Deacon King Kong (2020)
Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969.
The narrator continued: “That’s the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .38 Colt in the face of a nineteen-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens, and pulled the trigger.” Barack Obama included the novel in his “Favorite Books of 2020” list.
In a 2021 blog post, book editors at Amazon.com included this in their compilation of “10 of the Best Opening lines from the Past Decade.” About the book, editor Al Woodworth wrote: “A great first line and a great book that we named one of the Best Books of 2020.“
Alexander McCall Smith
The Sunday Philosophy Club [Book 1 of the Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries] (2004)
Isabel Dalhousie saw the young man fall from the upper circle, from the gods.
The Sunday Philosophy Club is the first of sixteen novels to feature Isabel Dalhousie, a spinsterish Scottish philosopher who is prone to literary and philosophical ramblings. The novel opens with a dramatic scene. While sitting in an Edinburgh concert hall, Dalhousie sees a young man plunge to his death from an upper balcony. As he passes her on the way down—in what almost seems like a slow-motion fall—she gets a clear view off his terror-filled face.
The narrator continued: “His flight was so sudden and short, and it was for less than a second that she saw him, hair tousled, upside down, his shirt and jacket up around his chest so that his midriff was exposed. And then, striking the edge of the grand circle, he disappeared headfirst towards the stalls below.”
The Road 2006
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.
GUEST COMMENTARY from Dr. Peter Olsson, a New Hampshire psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, who writes: “In the opening words of a novel that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, McCarthy sets the mood in dark, cold, and starkly crafted sentences that plunge the reader directly into a post-apocalyptic America. In the opening paragraph, the narrator added”:
“His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none.”
Dr. Olsson continued: “In a searing novel described by Dennis Lehane as ’the definitive vision of the world after nuclear war,’ a desperate and passionately protective father travels with his beloved young son down a perilous, decimated terrain toward a distant ocean beach that serves as a fragile symbol of hope. In their journey, they face terrifying encounters with people rendered subhuman by hunger and depraved environmental conditions. McCarthy is a master of probing, dark, penetrating language that explores the truth of authentic emotional questions through his wordcraft.“ See the opening line of Olsson’s 2019 memoir Janusian Days here.
So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise.
Of McEwan’s nineteen novels, perhaps the most imaginative is Nutshell, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the point of view of a fetus (yes, you heard that right).
In a 2016 Wall Street Journal article, Michael W. Miller wrote: “The idea for the extremely unusual narrator of Ian McEwan’s new novel Nutshell first came to him while he was chatting with his pregnant daughter-in-law. ’We were talking about the baby, and I was very much aware of the baby as a presence in the room,’ he recalls. He jotted down a few notes, and soon afterward, daydreaming in a long meeting, the first sentence of the novel popped into his head. In an Irish Times review, John Boyne wrote: “McEwan has long been considered a master of the opening chapter...and here he makes even more of this talent with an opening sentence that sets out his stall in nine words: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.“
The idea of a novel being narrated by a fetus sounds pretty far-fetched, but once we suspend our disbelief and place ourselves squarely in the hands of a talented storyteller, it works surprisingly well. Alarmed by the murderous plans being hatched by his mother and her brother-in-law, the narrating fetus continues:
“That was in my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged. I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.”
Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973)
Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic…
In “Nailing the Opening,” an April 20, 2017 article in Tor.com’s “That was Awesome!” series, writer Kieran Shea wrote: “Today, in our polemically-charged times, the first sentence still packs a wallop.”
The Last of the Savages (1996)
The capacity for friendship is God’s way of apologizing for our families.
This is one of literary history’s most quotable opening lines, but you should know that the underlying idea is not original to McInerney. He was piggybacking on a famous remark from the English writer Hugh Kingsmill, who was quoted in 1970 as describing friends as “God’s apology for relations.”
The narrator is Patrick Keane, a 46-year-old principal partner of a New York City law firm, whose memories of his earlier years are triggered by an interview with police detectives about a former member of his firm. He continued: “At least that’s one way of explaining my unlikely fellowship with Will Savage.”
Call me Ishmael.
From the day Moby-Dick was published, these three simple opening words have captivated readers. Because of the phrasing, it is clear that Ishmael is not the narrator’s real name. But why would he want to keep his real name secret, and choose an alias instead? And what lay behind his choice of Ishmael, the biblical name of an exiled social outcast?
In 2006, the American Book Review ranked “Call me Ishmael” Number 1 on its classic list of “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels” (it has also been hailed by countless writers, including Margaret Atwood and Stephen King). The three opening words are so legendary, in fact, that the exceptional quality of the entire first paragraph is ignored by most readers:
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
The opening sentence of Moby-Dick is so famous it has been emulated by many writers. Kurt Vonnegut began Cat’s Cradle (1963) with “Call me Jonah.” Philip Roth began The Great American Novel (1973) with “Call me Schmitty.” And humorist Peter De Vries brilliantly demonstrated how a simple punctuation mark can change the entire meaning of the passage when he opened The Vale of Laughter (1967) with: “Call me, Ishmael.”
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1973)
The discovery of an unpublished manuscript by John H. Watson may well engender in the world of letters as much skepticism as surprise. It is easier to conceive of the unearthing of more Dead Sea Scrolls than yet another text from the hand of that indefatigable biographer.
Thus begins Meyer’s novel—although it is presented as a work of non-fiction—about the discovery of a “lost” manuscript by Dr. John Watson, this one chronicling Sherlock Holmes’s trip to Germany to get Sigmund Freud’s help in overcoming his addiction to cocaine.
New Moon [Book 2 of The Twilight Saga] (2006)
I felt like I was trapped in one of those terrifying nightmares, the one where you have to run, run till your lungs burst, but you can’t make your body move fast enough.
Eclipse [Book 3 of The Twilight Saga] (2007)
All our attempts at subterfuge had been in vain
I’d never given much thought to how I would die–though I’d had reason enough in the last few months–but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.
In a 2016 article in The Guardian, Ciara Murphy wrote: “Love it or hate it, Twilight has what I consider to be one of the best opening lines in YA fiction. We’re immediately thrust into the action, with a whole backstory to catch up on and a heroine who (assuming she’s going to narrate the entire book) needs to execute an escape Houdini would be proud of. This is what I call a hook.”
The opening words come from a teenage girl named Bella Swan, who continues: “I stared across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and she looked pleasantly back at me.” And in the next paragraph, Bella added: “At least it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.”
The Maidens: A Novel (2021)
Edward Fosca was a murderer.
This was a fact. This wasn’t something Mariana knew just on an intellectual level, as an idea. Her body new it. She felt it in her bones, along her blood, and deep within every cell.
Edward Fosca was guilty.
The protagonist is Mariana Andros, an English psychotherapist—and also a recent widow—who shows up at Cambridge University to comfort her niece Zoe, a student who is grieving the recent murder of a classmate. The murdered girl belonged to a secret society of beautiful young female students known as The Maidens, all acolytes of a charismatic professor of Greek tragedy named Edward Fosca.
Mariana soon begins to suspect the smug professor, who has an alibi, and she becomes convinced of his guilt when another body is found. The narrator continued about her: “And yet—she couldn’t prove it, and might never prove it. This man, this monster, who had killed at least two people, might, in all likelihood, walk free.”
The Silent Patient (2019)
Alicia Berenson was thirty-three years old when she killed her husband.
This is the entire first paragraph of Chapter One. In the second, the narrator continued: “They had been married for seven years. They were both artists—Alicia was a painter, and Gabriel a well-known fashion photographer.”
The dramatic opening sentence doesn’t come out of the blue, however. The book’s Prologue hauntingly begins with a lengthy entry Alicia has made in a book with blank pages that her husband has given her.
After titling it “Alicia Berenson’s Diary,” she begins: “I don’t know why I’m writing this. That’s not true. Maybe I do know and just don’t want to admit it to myself. I don’t even know what to call it—this thing I’m writing. It feels a little pretentious to call it a diary. It’s not like I have anything to say.”
As Alicia continues, it is clear she is struggling with depression, a matter so concerning to her husband that he believes it will be helpful for her to record her thoughts in a diary. Her first entry has some foreboding elements, but she ends it by writing: “This is going to be a joyful record of ideas and images that inspire me artistically, things that make a creative impact on me. I’m only going to write positive, happy, normal thoughts. No crazy thoughts allowed.”
They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.
There is a clear suggestion in the opening words that the narrator—and, most likely, several others as well—are in grave danger from people who have already shot one of their number. The narrator continued hopefully: “No need to hurry out here. They are seventeen miles from a town which has ninety miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.” In a 2013 blog post on “The Best 43 Opening Lines in Novel Writing History,“ writer Colin Falconer wrote of these opening words: “Brilliant, yet simple.“
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued on a menacing note: “They are nine, over twice the number of the women they are obliged to stampede or kill and they have the paraphernalia for either requirement: rope, a palm leaf cross, handcuffs, Mace and sunglasses, along with clean, handsome guns.“
The Nice and the Good (1968)
A head of department, working quietly in his room in Whitehall on a summer afternoon, is not accustomed to being disturbed by the nearby and indubitable sound of a revolver shot.
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “At one moment a lazy fat man, a perfect sphere his loving wife called him, his name Octavian Gray, was slowly writing a witty sentence in a neat tiny hand upon creamy official paper while he inhaled from his breath the pleasant sleepy smell of an excellent lunch-time burgundy. Then came the shot.”
The Black Prince (1973)
It might be most dramatically effective to begin the tale at the moment when Arnold Baffin rang me up and said, “Bradley, could you come round here please, I think that I have just killed my wife.”
The Good Apprentice (1985)
I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
The entire novel is based around protagonist Edward Baltram’s search for absolution for a prank gone horribly wrong. After giving his best friend a sandwich laced with an hallucinogenic drug, his buddy falls—or jumps—from a window to his death.
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “These were not perhaps the actual words which Edward Baltram uttered to himself on the occasion of his momentous and mysterious summons, yet their echo was not absent even then, and later he repeated them often.”
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
These legendary opening words come from Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged literature professor who, from the moment he first sees 12-year-old Dolores Haze sunbathing in a garden, goes completely gaga (he goes on to describe her as a “nymphet” and privately nicknames her Lolita).
In the novel, Humbert continued: “She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
When it came out, Lolita was widely regarded as a lewd or erotic novel, but apart from the unsettling pedophilic theme, there’s little lewdness, and even less eroticism, to be found in it. And, further, since the novel includes a murder, it might even be technically regarded as a crime story. I believe this is what writer Colin Falconer had in mind when he wrote about the opener in a recent blog post: “The best opening to a crime novel since Donald Westlake.” See Falconer’s post here.
T. J. Newman
When the shoe dropped into her lap the foot was still in it.
In a 2023 post on his “First Sentence Reader” blog, retired librarian Fred Roecker wrote: “Best first sentence ever. Sure beats ‘Call me Ishmael.’” It’s hard to disagree with Roecker’s assessment, and I would certainly say that “hooks” don’t get much better than this one. It’s a spectacular—indeed, almost unforgettable—first sentence, and I wish I’d known about it when I was compiling my list The Best Opening Lines of 2021 (see the post here).
Little Fires Everywhere (2017)
Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend, and burned the house down.
Everything I Never Told You (2014)
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
This was Ng’s debut novel, and what a spectacular debut it had, winning numerous prizes, including the 2014 Amazon Book of the Year award.
In the novel, the narrator continued: “1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.“
Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Sympathizer (2015)
I am a spy, sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.
The setting is the Vietnam War and the unnamed narrator is a captured North Vietnamese spy with one foot in each of two different worlds (his mother was Vietnamese and his father a French Catholic priest). As the novel opens, he is being forced to write a confession while confined to a 3-by-5-foot solitary cell. Nguyen’s debut novel went on to win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and many other awards. In a 2021 blog post, book editors at Amazon.com included this in their compilation of “10 of the Best Opening lines from the Past Decade.”
In 2017, Nguyen, a professor of English and American Studies at the University of Southern California, told the Atlantic’s Joe Fassler that he’d been struggling for months to write an opening sentence that would “grab the reader from the beginning” and “once it was written, would drive the rest of the novel completely.” One day, after many months poring over a new 2011 translation of António Lobo Antune’s 1979 novel Os Cus de Judas (published under the title Land at the End of the World), a line popped into his mind: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Nguyen was elated. Finally, he had found his first sentence, saying to Fassler: “It just came to me. And I thought, that’s it. All I have to do is follow this voice for the rest of the novel, however long it takes.”
In the novel, the narrator continued: “Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you—that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.”
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death (2017)
On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.
We are, he and I, on the far side of a dark tarn that lies hidden in the bowl-curved summit of this mountain. The sky is a milky blue above us; no vegetation grows this far up so it is just me and him, the stones and the still black water. He straddles the narrow track with both booted feet and he smiles.
I realize several things. That I passed him earlier, farther down the glen. We greeted each other, in the amiable yet brief manner of those on a country walk. That, on this remote stretch of path, there is no one near enough to hear me call. That he has been waiting for me: he has planned this whole thing, carefully, meticulously, and I have walked into his trap.
I see all this, in an instant
Suspenseful beginnings are a staple of Great Opening Lines, and this one is extraordinary. After the first four paragraphs, I was eager—and even a little anxious, I must admit—to read on. I suspect any reader with a pulse would feel similarly.
In her memoir, O’Farrell, one of England’s most popular contemporary novelists, went on to describe the first of seventeen “brushes with death” that she has experienced at different stages of her relatively young life (she was in her early forties when the book was published).
A book about so many near-death experiences might seem a little gloomy, but Ann Patchett described the memoir as “a gripping and glorious investigation of death that leaves the reader feeling breathless, grateful and fully alive.” London’s The Sunday Times called it “a mesmerizing read,” adding that “O’Farrell writes so convincingly about peril that each episode just serves as another detailed, technicolor reminder that we and, more terrifyingly, our loved ones are only ever one bad decision, faulty choice, or sliver or ill-fortune away from catastrophe.”
Joyce Carol Oates
them [Book 3 of the Wonderland Quartet] (1969)
One warm evening in August 1937 a girl in love stood before a mirror.
Joyce Carol Oates
My Life as a Rat (2019)
Once I’d been Daddy’s favorite of his seven kids. Before something terrible happened between us, I am trying still to make it right.
This painful declaration comes from Violet Rue Kerrigan, a 25-year-old woman who, thirteen years earlier, was presented with a gut-wrenching choice: do the right thing by telling the truth about a violent, racist murder, or lie about it to protect members of her family.
Joyce Carol Oates
Expensive People [Book 2 of the Wonderland Quartet] (1968)
I was a child murderer.
I don’t mean child-murderer, though that’s an idea. I mean child murderer, that is, a murderer who happens to be a child, or a child who happens to be a murderer. You can take your choice.
The concept of a child being a murderer immediately raises a number of questions: Who was murdered? Why did the child do it? And how?
The opening words come from Richard Everett, an angry, obese adolescent boy growing up in an upscale Detroit suburb in the 1960s (his father is a successful business executive, his mother a glamorous novelist who describes herself as a Russian émigré, but actually grew up in a working-class family in upstate New York). Throughout the first chapter, Richard makes frequent reference to being a murderer, but provides no details. It’s clear we must read on to learn more, and we do so eagerly.
The Thursday Murder Club [Book 1 of The Thursday Murder Club series] (2020)
Killing someone is easy. Hiding the body, now, that’s usually the hard part. That’s how you get caught.
These are the first word the reader sees, from a kind of preface or epigraph to the book. In a 2021 blog post, book editors at Amazon.com included this in their compilation of “10 of the Best Opening lines from the Past Decade.” About the book, editor Al Woodworth wrote:
“Who would have ever thought a group of septuagenarians—amateur sleuths—in a retirement village would be the ones chasing down a murderer? Well that’s exactly what happens in The Thursday Murder Club, and let me just say, hilarity ensues,”
Where the Crawdads Sing (2018)
The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog. The palmetto patches stood unusually quiet except for the low, slow flap of the heron’s wings lifting from the lagoon. And then, Kya, only six at the time, heard the screen door slap.
After this lush opening, the reader is immediately immersed in what appears to be a Southern coastal setting. The narrator continued with a subtle suggestion that this would be no ordinary day for young Catherine “Kya” Clark:
“Standing on the stool, she stopped scrubbing grits from the pot and lowered it into the basin of worn-out suds. No sounds now but her own breathing. Who had left the shack? Not Ma. She never let the door slam.”
Even the publisher of the book (Putnam) had low expectations for this debut novel of a retired and reclusive wildlife biologist, but it caught fire after Reese Witherspoon selected it for her “Hello Sunshine” book club (she said she “loved every page of it”). It went on to become the bestselling book of the year, on the New York Times fiction best-seller list for 67 weeks, 30 in the top position. By July 2022, the book had sold over 15 million copies, and that number was expected to only increase after Reese Witherspoon’s film company released a film adaptation that was a box office success despite mixed critical reviews.
If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.
These are not the words you expect to find at the beginning of a novel, especially when the narrator and protagonist goes on to add: “After a couple of pages, you won’t want to be here. So forget it. Go away. Get out while you’re still on one piece. Save yourself.”
This is not a typical protagonist, though. Victor Mancini is a quintessential antihero, a med school dropout who trolls for women at sex addiction recovery groups and has developed a fake-choking con to make money to pay his mother’s nursing home bills.
My Name is Red (1998)
I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me.
The narrator is Elegant Effendi, a Turkish miniaturist who is clearly speaking from the afterlife. He continued: “As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below.”
Blacklist (2003; Book 7 in V. I. Warshawski Series)
The clouds across the face of the moon made it hard for me to find my way. I’d been over the grounds yesterday morning, but in the dark everything is different.
Guardian Angel (1992; Book 12 in V. I. Warshawski Series)
Hot kisses covered my face, dragging me from deep sleep to the rim of consciousness. I groaned and slid deeper under the covers, hoping to sink back into the well of dreams. My companion wasn’t in the humor for rest; she burrowed under the blankets and continued to lavish urgent affection on me.
These suggestive opening words come from private investigator V. I. Warshawski, the plain-speaking protagonist of twenty-one Paretsky novels and several dozen short stories. As she continued in the novel’s second paragraph, Warshawski took readers in an entirely new direction:
“When I covered my head with a pillow she started to mew piteously. Now thoroughly awake, I rolled over and glared at her. ‘It’s not even five-thirty. You can’t possibly want to get up.’”
Robert B. Parker
The Judas Coat [Book 5 in the Spenser series] (1978)
Hugh Dixon’s home sat on a hill in Weston and looked out over the low Massachusetts hills as if asphalt had not been invented yet.
Robert B. Parker
Hugger Mugger [Book 27 in the Spenser series] (2000)
I was at my desk, in my office, with my feet up on the windowsill, and a yellow pad in my lap, thinking about baseball. It’s what I always think about when I’m not thinking about sex.
In the novel’s opening paragraph, Spenser continued with a reference to Boston therapist Susan Silverman, his longtime girlfriend: “Susan says that supreme happiness for me would probably involve having sex while watching a ball game. Since she knows this, I’ve never understood why, when we’re at Fenway Park, she remains so prudish.”
Robert B. Parker
The Godwulf Manuscript [Book 1 in the Spenser series] (1973)
The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse.
The Godwulf Manuscript was Parker’s debut novel, and the marvelous opening sentence introduced a Boston private investigator known only by the name Spenser. In the opening paragraph, Spenser continued: “It was paneled in big squares of dark walnut, with ornately figured maroon drapes at the long windows. There was maroon carpeting and the furniture was black leather with brass studs. The office was much nicer than the classrooms; maybe I should have worn a tie.“
Spenser went on to become one of history’s most famous fictional private detectives, appearing in forty additional Parker novels—and eight more penned by Ace Atkins after Parker’s death in 2010. In a 2010 obituary in London’s The Independent, mystery writer Frederick Nolan fondly recalled reading the first sentence of The Godwulf Manuscript thirty-seven years earlier. About it, he wrote, “And I was hooked.” The extent to which he was hooked becomes clear in Nolan’s next line: “One by one I found all the Spenser novels and devoured them in single-sitting heaven.”
Parker had been a great fan of detective fiction since childhood, and it was only a matter of time before he would join the genre as a writer. After military service in Korea, he attended Colby College on the G.I. Bill, getting his B.A. in 1954. An outstanding student, he went on to get an M.A. in literature from Boston University in 1957, and a Ph.D. in 1971. The title of his dissertation might be of interest to you: “The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.”
Along Came a Spider [Book 1 in the Alex Cross series] (1993)
Early in the morning of Dec. 21, 1992, I was the picture of contentment on the sun porch of our house on 5th street in Washington, DC. The small, narrow room was cluttered with mildewing winter coats, work boots, and wounded children’s toys. I couldn’t have cared less. This was home.
With these words, readers were first introduced to Alex Cross, a black psychologist (Ph.D. in forensic psychology) who is working as a homicide detective with the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department. Since his wife Maria’s death in an unsolved drive-by shooting three years earlier, he has lived with his grandmother, Nana Mama, and his two children in a predominantly black section of DC.
An urbane, intelligent, and socially-conscious protagonist, Cross was played by Morgan Freeman when the novel was adapted into a 2001 film (Freeman also starred in the 1997 film Kiss the Girls, adapted from Patterson’s 1995 novel, and the second book in the Alex Cross series)
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “I was playing Gershwin on our slightly out-of-tune, formerly grand piano. It was just past 5 a.m., and cold as a meat locker on the porch. I was prepared to sacrifice a little for ‘An American in Paris.’”
Fear No Evil [Book 29 in the Alex Cross series] (2021)
Matthew Butler cocked his head to one side, considering the big-boned blonde in front of him. She was handcuffed and shackled to a heavy oak chair bolted into the concrete floor beneath bright fluorescent lights.
Patterson was 74 years old when his 29th Alex Cross mystery (yes, the 29th!) was published, and he continued to demonstrate impressive novel-opening skills. The narrator continued in the second paragraph: “If the woman was anxious about her predicament, she wasn’t showing it in the least. She was as chill as the yoga outfit she wore. No sweat on her pale brow. Beneath her warm-up hoodie, her chest rose and fell calmly, each breath measured. Her shoulders were relaxed. Even her eyes looked soft.”
In an appearance on CNN’s “Smerconish,” Patterson was asked by host Michael Smerconish, “How important is that first paragraph?” And then, after reading the passage aloud, Smerconish probed further: “Do you go back on that and just make sure that it’s perfect so you hook us from the get-go?” Patterson answered in the affirmative, and explained, “I pretend there’s somebody sitting across from me and I’m telling them a story and I don’t want ‘em to get up until I’m finished. And that’s my strength, and probably my weakness too. I probably could go a little deeper sometimes. But I do, I want to get the reader involved very quickly.”
The Thomas Berryman Number (1976)
Claude, Texas, 1962
The year he and Ben Toy left Claude, Texas—1962—Thomas Berryman had been in the habit of wearing black cowboy boots with distinctive red stars on the ankles. He’d also been stuffing four twenty-dollar bills in each boot sole. By mid-July the money had begun to shred and smell like feet.
These are the opening words of the debut novel of a 29-year-old man who would go on to become one of history’s most prolific and successful writers. A certain flair for crafting a great opening paragraph is already apparent in this first effort and, not surprisingly, the book won the 1977 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.
Patterson went on to write or co-author more than 200 novels, 114 of which became New York Times bestsellers, and 67 which reached the Number One position (the most for any author).
Still Life [Book 1 of Chief Inspector Gamache Series] (2005)
Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all round. Miss Neal’s was not a natural death, unless you’re of the belief everything happens as it’s supposed to.
The narrator continued: “If so, for her seventy-six years Jane Neal had been walking toward this final moment when death met her in the brilliant maple woods on the verge of the village of Three Pines. She’d fallen spread-eagled, as though making angels in the bright and brittle leaves.”
A Fatal Grace [Book 2 of Chief Inspector Gamache Series] (2007)
Had CC de Poitiers known she was going to be murdered she might have bought her husband, Richard, a Christmas gift.
The narrator continued: “She might even have gone to her daughter’s end of term pageant at Miss Edward’s school for Girls, or “girths” as CC liked to tease her expansive daughter. Had CC de Poitiers known the end was near she might have been at work instead of in the cheapest room the Ritz in Montreal had to offer. But the only end she knew was near belonged to a man named Saul.”
The Cruelest Month [Book 3 of Chief Inspector Gamache Series] (2008)
Kneeling in the fragrant moist grass of the village green Clara Morrow carefully hid the Easter egg and thought about raising the dead, which she planned to do right after supper. Wiping a strand of hair from her face, she smeared bits of grass, mud and some other brown stuff that might not be mud into her tangled hair.
I think of a novel’s beginning words as a type of seduction, and this one is downright alluring. The allusion to “raising the dead” in the first sentence piques our curiosity, and the reference to “other brown stuff” in the second brings a smile to our lips. We’re eager to take this to the next level.
The Brutal Telling [Book 5 of Chief Inspector Gamache Series] (2009)
“All of them? Even the children?” The fireplace sputtered and crackled and swallowed his gasp. “Slaughtered?”
There was silence then. And in that hush lived all the things that could be worse than slaughter.
Bury Your Dead [Book 6 of Chief Inspector Gamache Series] (2010)
Up the stairs they raced, taking them two at a time, trying to be as quiet as possible. Gamache struggled to keep his breathing steady, as though he was sitting at home, as though he had not a care in the world.
Come into my cell. Make yourself at home. Take the chair; I’ll sit on the cot. No? You prefer to stand by the window? I understand. You like my little view. Have you noticed that the narrower the view the more you can see. For the first time I understand how old ladies can sit on their porches for years.
The narrator is a New Orleans lawyer named Lancelot Andrews Lamar. As the novel unfolds, we learn he has murdered his wife after discovering another man has fathered his youngest daughter.
Here, at the beginning, Lamar continued: “Don’t I know you? You look very familiar. I’ve been feeling rather depressed and I don’t remember things very well. I think I am here because of that or because I committed a crime. Perhaps both. Is this a prison or a hospital or a prison hospital? A Center for Aberrant Behavior? So that’s it. I have behaved aberrantly. In short, I’m in the nuthouse.”
The Club Dumas (2003)
The flash projected the outline of the hanged man onto the wall. He hung motionless from a light fixture in the center of the room, and as the photographer moved around him, taking pictures, the flashes threw the silhouette onto a succession of paintings, glass cabinets full of porcelain, shelves of books, open curtains framing great windows beyond which the rain was falling.
House Rules (2010)
Everywhere I look, there are signs of a struggle. The mail has been scattered all over the kitchen floor; the stools are overturned. The phone has been knocked off its pedestal, its battery pack hanging loose from an umbilicus of wires. There’s one single faint footprint at the threshold of the living room, pointing toward the dead body of my son, Jacob.
The first paragraph is a classic hook. As soon as readers take the bait, the next two paragraphs begin to reel them in:
“He is sprawled like a starfish in front of the fireplace. Blood covers his temple and his hands. For a moment, I can’t move, can’t breathe.
Suddenly, he sits up. “Mom,” Jacob says, “you’re not even trying.”
Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan
Mad Honey (2022)
From the moment I was having a baby, I wanted it to be a girl. I wandered the aisles of department stores, touching doll-size dresses and tiny sequined shoes. I pictured us with matching nail polish—me, who’d never had a manicure in my life. I imagined the day her fairy hair was long enough to capture in pigtails, her nose pressed to the glass of a school bus window; I saw her first crush, prom dress, heartbreak. Each vision was a bead on a rosary of future memories; I prayed daily.
As it turned out, I was not a zealot…only a martyr.
When I gave birth, and the doctor announced the baby’s sex, I did not believe it at first. I had done such a stellar job of convincing myself of what I wanted that I completely forgot what I needed. But when I held Asher, slippery as a minnow, I was relieved.
Better to have a boy, who would never be someone’s victim.
If some novel openers are hooks, then others, as we see here, are lures, gently teasing and tantalizing until bam! the reader takes the bait. The final words—who would never be someone’s victim—reverberate in our minds as we feel compelled to read on.
The Maid: A Novel (2022)
I am your maid. I’m the one who cleans your hotel room, who enters like a phantom when you’re out gallivanting for the day, no care at all about what you’ve left behind, the mess, or what I might see when you’re gone.
These powerful, perspective-altering words come from the Prologue to the book, and I was delighted to honor them in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).
In a 2022 “Editors’ Picks” post in the Amazon Book Review, Seira Wilson included Prose’s acclaimed novel in an article on “Books with Unputdownable First Lines.” About the protagonist, Wilson wrote:
“Molly is a maid at a nice New York hotel who finds the body of a murder victim who is a very wealthy and frequent guest. Unfortunately, Molly’s quirky mannerisms and affect make her a prime suspect.”
Prose also opened Chapter 1 of the book memorably: “I am well aware that my name is ridiculous. It was not ridiculous before I took this job four years ago. I’m a maid at the Regency Grand Hotel, and my name is Molly. Molly Maid. A joke.”
Prose is a longtime book editor and publishing executive, and The Maid is her debut novel. It quickly became an international bestseller, and nobody was surprised to learn that a film adaptation was already in the works, with the talented British actress Florence Pugh set to appear in the starring role.
A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…
In “Who Cares About Ann Quin?” a 2007 article in The Guardian, editor and writer Lee Rourke wrote:
“For me this is the greatest opening first line of any novel I have ever read. It is from…a debut novel so staggeringly superior to most you’ll never forget it—and by one of our greatest ever novelists too. The thing is, though, no one ever seems to have heard of her. It is something that has rankled within me for a long time now: why, I demand to know, does nobody care about Ann Quin?”
Fatal Voyage [Book 4 of the Temperance Brennan series] (2001)
I stared at the woman flying through the trees.
This intriguing opening line comes from Dr. Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist and medical examiner who has rushed to the scene of a major commercial airline crash in the mountains of North Carolina (we will later learn that eighty-eight passengers and the entire flight crew perished in the accident). Brennan continued:
“Her head was forward, chin raised, arms flung backward like the tiny chrome goddess on the hood of a Rolls-Royce. But the tree lady was naked, and her body ended at the waist. Blood-coated leaves and branches imprisoned her lifeless torso.”
Live Flesh (1986)
The gun was a replica. Spenser told Fleetwood he was ninety-nine per cent sure of that. Fleetwood knew what that meant, that he was really forty-nine per cent sure, but he didn’t attach much weight to what Spenser said anyway. For his own part he didn’t believe the gun was real. Rapists don’t have real guns. A replica does just as well as a means of frightening.
Asta’s Book [written under the pen name Barbara Vine and published in the U.S. under the title Anna’s Book] (1993)
My grandmother was a novelist without knowing it.
The opening line of the novel is the first entry made in a diary begun in 1905 by 25-year-old Asta, a Danish woman living in East London with her husband and two sons. Asta, who is pregnant and hoping for a daughter this time, has no idea as she is writing these words that her diary will one day become famous all over England.
The Blood Doctor [written under the pen name Barbara Vine] (2002)
Blood is going to be its theme. I’ve made that decision long before I shall even begin writing the book.
The opening words come from Martin Nanther, an English biographer who is embarking on a biography about his great-grandfather, an English physician whose specialty was treating patients with hemophilia (hence, “the blood doctor”).
The Killing Doll (1984)
The winter before he was sixteen, Pup sold his soul to the devil.
In a 2015 post on the website DeadGoodBooks.com, Chris Simmons, Editor of CrimeSquad.com, said he was only fourteen when he first got his hands on a copy of The Killing Doll, and his immediate reaction after reading this opening line was, “How could anyone not want to read the rest with such a first line?” He went on to write: “Here was a writer who wanted to show me the dark corridors of people’s minds, those suffering from delusions and obsessions that were totally destructive. This was unchartered territory for me, an unrecognizable country—and I loved it.”
A Judgement in Stone (1977)
Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.
This is one of the most famous opening lines in the history of crime fiction, and it comes from one of Rendell’s most highly regarded novels. In “Ruth Rendell: An Appreciation,” a 2017 article in the journal Contemporary Women’s Writing, English novelist, biographer, and journalist Andrew Wilson wrote: “Rendell was a master of the killer first sentence. There are not many writers who, in their opening lines, can combine intrigue and suspense with dark psychology and a flourish of metafictional awareness.”
In a 2019 “Novel Readings” blog post, Dalhousie University professor Rohan Maitzen described this as a “chilling first line,” and she wrote about the novel: “I’m not sure ‘thriller’ is the right word, but ‘mystery’ seems wrong, as obviously it is not a whodunit—and if you take that opening sentence at face value, it is not a ‘whydunit’ either, as Rendell immediately gives away both the name and the motive of her murderer. The only suspense in A Judgement in Stone comes from wondering exactly how the massacre will happen, and it is a testament to Rendell’s skill as a storyteller that the novel is in fact gripping in spite of our already knowing who, what, when, and why.”
In 1996, the novel was adapted into the French film La Cérémonie, directed by Claude Chabrol. When Janet Maslin reviewed the film in The New York Times, she hailed it as an “instant suspense classic.” About the author of the original novel on which the film was based, Maslin wrote that Rendell’s “view of human nature is every bit as big-hearted as Alfred Hitchcock’s, and almost as fascinatingly macabre.“ And about the novel’s opening line, she added: “This story has a chilling, lethal inevitability from the very start.”
ERROR ALERT: On a number of websites, the opening line of A Judgement in Stone is mistakenly presented as if “Eunice Parchment” killed the Cloverdale family, not Eunice Parchman. The error originated with Richard Critchfield’s An American Looks at Britain (1990), and it continues to be repeated more than three decades later.
Another Roadside Attraction (1971)
The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.
The suitcase and its contents, we later learn, belong to John Paul Ziller, an oddball character who, along with his wife Amanda, operated “Captain Kendrick’s Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve” in the Puget Sound region of Washington. The narrator continued: “However significant that discovery may be—and there is the possibility that it could alter the destiny of each and every one of us—it is not the incident with which to begin this report.”
Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Shadow of the Wind (2001)
I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.
In a July 2021 article in The Strand Magazine (“For Openers: Great First Lines of Legendary Novels”) writer Deborah Goodrich Royce wrote: “My socks were knocked off when I first read this opener. I was traveling on a short stint in Singapore, accompanying my husband on a business trip [and] I was so engrossed in this novel that I ended up cancelling my sightseeing to loll in the hotel bed reading the book instead. And Zafón definitely delivered all that was promised from this tidbit: a sinister, dangerous, and otherworldly Barcelona that I could see more clearly than the hotel room surrounding me.”
Dorothy L. Sayers
Have His Carcase (1932)
The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth.
I have a weakness for novels that begin with an authoritative pronouncement or grand declaration—and especially when those first words are flavored with a dash of wit. In this case, the narrator continued: “After being acquitted of murdering her lover, and, indeed, in consequence of that acquittal, Harriett Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal; and although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.”
Carcase, by the way, is an archaic spelling of carcass. The book’s title is from a phrase in William Cowper’s translation of Homer’s Iliad: “The vulture’s maw/Shall have his carcase, and the dog his bones.”
After Delores (1988)
I walked out in the snow trying to get away from Delores’s ghost. It was sitting back in the apartment waiting for me.
This enigmatic opening immediately suggests a range of possibilities. Is Delores someone from the distant past? Someone who recently died? Or maybe an ex-lover? (It turns out she is the latter).
The opening words establish the “voice” of the narrator—who was nicely described by Kinky Friedman in a glowing New York Times review: “The heroine in After Delores is not a professional sleuth. Nor is she the typical lighthearted cocky amateur. She’s a tortured, trouble soul who mesmerizes and repels us, sometimes managing to do both at the same time.”
In his review, Friedman also opined memorably about the novel’s title character: “As for Delores, everyone knows her. She is someone unworthy of your love who breaks your heart. Ms. Schulman’s portrayal of her is painfully and indelibly drawn.”
In the tunnel where I was raped, a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheater, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said I was lucky.
These words appear in an Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, and few memoirs have begun more dramatically and powerfully. Sebold continued in the second paragraph: “But at the time, I felt I had more in common with the dead girl than I did with the large, beefy police officers or my stunned freshman-year girlfriends. The dead girl and I had been in the same low place. We had lain among the dead leaves and broken beer bottles.”
Already stunned by the contents of the Author’s Note, we read the first words of Chapter One with heightened interest: “This is what I remember. My lips were cut. I bit down on them when he grabbed me from behind and covered my mouth. He said these words: ‘I’ll kill you if you scream.’”
The Almost Moon (2007)
When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.
These startling opening words come from Helen Knightly, an adult woman who has for many years lived in a complicated, codependent relationship with a mentally ill mother who now also suffers from dementia. In a New York Times book review (chillingly titled “Mom’s in the Freezer”), critic Lee Siegel wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about the novel, but he wrote, “You have to be in awe of that first sentence, though.”
Siegel went on to write: “Dostoyevsky had to write hundreds of pages before getting to the act of patricide in The Brothers Karamazov. It took Oedipus two whole plays to realize he had killed his father and to ‘work his way through it,’ as we would say, so he could find terrible redemption at Colonus. But in The Almost Moon, right there at the get-go, at the beginning of the long journey that will take her from the motivations for committing her unspeakable crime to some sense of ‘closure,’ Helen is, you know, cool with murdering her mother.”
The Lovely Bones (2002)
My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
The narrator and protagonist is Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who, after having been raped and murdered by a man in her own neighborhood, watches from heaven as life unfolds for her family, friends, and the murderer. The book went on to win the 2003 American Booksellers Association Adult Fiction Book of the Year.
In a 2016 Bustle.com post, actor and writer Charlotte Ahlin included this on her list of “The 10 Most Terrifying Opening Lines from Books.” About it, she wrote: “If gruesome murder terrifies you, then here’s a killer first line. Granted, the rest of The Lovely Bones is more sad than thrilling and terrifying. But there’s something so matter-of-fact about the opening line and the introduction to Susie’s murder. You’re not sure exactly what you’re in for, but you know that something disturbing is coming your way.”
“Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” in More Stories from the Twilight Zone (1961)
It was that uniquely American institution known as the neighborhood bar, small, softly lit and at this moment catering to that unsophisticated pre-cocktail group whose drinking was a serious business undisturbed and uncomplicated by the social frivolities of the five-thirty crowd. The latter group were the cocktail folks whose alcohol was part of a master plan of either business contacts or logistically planned seduction.
“The Midnight Sun,” in New Stories from the Twilight Zone (1962)
“The secret of a successful artist,” an old instructor had told her years ago, “is not just to put paint on canvas—it is to transfer emotion, using oils and brush as a kind of nerve conduit.”
“A Thing About Machines,” in More Stories from the Twilight Zone (1961)
Mr. Bartlett Finchley, tall, tart, and fortyish, looked across his ornate living room to where the television repairman was working behind his set and felt an inner twist of displeasure that the mood of the tastefully decorated room would be so damaged by the T-shirted, dungareed serviceman whose presence was such a foreign element in the room.
“The Whole Truth,” in New Stories from the Twilight Zone (1962)
You could say this of Harvey Hennicutt—he was an exceptional liar.
The narrator continued: “When Harvey peddled one of his used cars, his lying was colorful, imaginative, and had a charm all of its own.”
Florida Straits [Book 1 of Key West Capers series] (1992)
People go to Key West for lots of different reasons. Joey Goldman went there to be a gangster.
One Big Joke [Book 13 of the Key West Capers series] (2018)
“What is it with you lately?” said Marsha Gluck on what might or might not have turned out to be the last evening of her nine-year marriage to the then-unemployed comedy writer Lenny Sullivan.
Shot on Location [Book 9 of the Key West Capers series] (2013)
When the call came in, Jake Benson, ghostwriter extraordinaire, was pinching dead leaves from the last remaining basil plant on a windowsill of his Upper West Side apartment.
Tropical Depression [Book 4 of the Key West Capers series] (1996)
When Murray Zemelman, a.k.a. the Bra King, started up his car that morning, he had no clear idea whether he would go to work as usual, or sit there with the engine idling and the garage door tightly shut until he died.
Key West Normal [Book 16 of Key West Capers series] (2021)
Some folks say you can’t make this stuff up.
When I wrote to tell Shames how much I appreciated the opening line of his latest book, he wrote back: “Speaking as a sort of poor man’s postmodernist, the ambiguity pleases me. So, can you make it up, or can’t you? It’s a novel, so of course it’s made up. So why does the narrator pretend it isn’t? Why would anyone believe him? And who is the narrator anyway? In my mind, at least, so many possibilities come out of those ten syllables.”
In the novel, the narrator—a homeless man named Pineapple—continued: “Who knows? Maybe they’re right. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never tried to make stuff up. I’ve never had to. Why would I? I live in Key West, Florida.”
The Paradise Gig [Book 15 of Key West Capers series] (2020)
Well, the whole thing started with a woman standing on her head.
She was doing this yoga-style, on Smathers Beach in Key West, Florida, just a few short weeks ago. It was a beautifully ordinary day, sunny with a salty breeze. She was minding her own business, upside down, when two men suddenly approached her towel. They might have pushed her over but it’s hard to say for sure. Anyway, she came down off her head, left the beach with them, and wasn’t seen for several days. After that, a bunch of crazy stuff happened, and seemed to happen very fast.
The opening scene is set up by Nacho, an even older Chihuahua this year, in his second narrator role in a series of novels that were described by the Los Angeles Times Book Review as “Funny, elegantly written, and hip.” Nacho continued: “That’s one way of looking at it. But you could also say the story really started way back in 1964, long before I was even born, and that things had been sort of simmering very slowly ever since.”
Nacho Unleashed [Book 14 of the Key West Capers series] (2019)
So it was just another gorgeous day in Key West, sunny, mostly quiet though with a steady background hum of people doing stuff, having fun. Popping beer cans, revving scooter engines, singing along with the radio, that sort of thing. Harmless, goofy, peaceful stuff. No hint whatsoever that, before this day was over, it would turn into a life and death adventure of which I would be the unlikely hero. But we’ll get to that.
The narrator is Nacho, an aging Chihuahua and the pet dog of retired Mafioso, Bert the Shirt. Both have been staples in Shame’s Key West Capers series, but this is the first in which Nacho plays the prominent narrator role. He continued: “In the meantime, the weather, which is after all a big attraction: The humidity was pretty low for Florida, which is to say cars didn’t get wet just sitting there. As for the temperature, it was warm enough for the tourists to go practically naked at Smathers Beach, though it was actually a little cool for my taste; but then, I’m of Mexican descent, bred to hot places.”
At some point, I’ll be featuring this in a post on “20 of the Best Opening Lines from Animal Narrators and Protagonists.” If you’d like to nominate any candidates, let me know.
Relative Humidity (to be published Jan. 26, 2023)
Now and then, not often, life offers up a perfect moment, a moment when everything just fits together, almost as if there was a plan, as if the world had been designed to be at least an occasional Paradise for those who took the trouble to notice its ingenious construction, as if life would be a calm and peaceful pleasure if that moment just went on and on.
But of course it never does.
I’m a big fan of Laurence Shames and a great admirer of his opening lines. The opener of Relative Humidity, his most recent work, is like a combination punch in boxing—first the set-up, then the sting. When I asked Shames if there was a backstory behind the opener, he replied:
“I’ve always enjoyed playing around with the conventions of the mystery novel, turning them upside-down or inside-out whenever possible. In this opening, I wanted to do the complete opposite of the grab-the-reader-by-the-throat first beat. I wanted it to be as quiet as possible—though, of course, if the narrative stayed ‘calm and peaceful’ there would be no book, as every reader of commercial fiction already knows. So the zinger, while inevitable, is meant as a payoff for the reader’s patience and as reassurance that the mayhem will soon begin.”
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818)
You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.
This is the first sentence of a letter from English explorer Robert Walton to his sister Margaret Saville. While on a scientific expedition to the North Pole, Captain Walton’s crew see a man of enormous size driving a dog sled. A few hours later, they discover a half-frozen, emaciated man—Victor Frankenstein—who has been in pursuit of the gigantic figure. The rest of the story slowly unfolds in this epistolary novel that went on to become a classic in world literature.
The story behind the creation of the tale is also quite interesting. On a dark, rainy evening in June of 1816, 18-year-old Mary Shelley and new husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, five years her senior, were guests of Lord Byron, then twenty-eight, at his villa in Geneva, Switzerland. Also present that evening was John Polidori, Byron’s personal physician.
After discussing some German horror stories that had recently appeared in a French translation, Byron offered a whimsical challenge: “We will each write a ghost story.” Mary Shelley struggled at first, but an idea eventually popped into her mind. Here’s how she put it in an 1831 Introduction to a revised version of the story: “Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things; perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together and endured with vital warmth.” Galvanism, you should know, was a recent coinage inspired by the work of Italian physician Italo Galvani (1737-98), who discovered that legs of dead frogs twitched when a current of electricity was applied to them.
Later that evening, Shelley was lying in bed, half-asleep, when an image formed in her mind. A man was “kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” she wrote in that 1831 Introduction. As her imagination took in “the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out,” she opened her eyes in a state of fright—and an idea for a novel was born. The first edition of the tale was published anonymously in London on January 1, 1818, when Shelley was only twenty years old. Her name first appeared in a second edition, published in 1821.
Sleep Till Noon (1950)
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
Four shots ripped into my groin and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life…
But first let me tell you a little about myself.
Opening lines that start off one way, and then quickly dart in another, completely unexpected direction are a staple of novel beginnings—and this one is perfectly executed.
“The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,“ title story of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959)
As soon as I got to Borstal they made me a long-distance cross-country runner. I suppose they thought I was just the build for it because I was long and skinny for my age (and still am) and in any case I didn’t mind it much, to tell you the truth, because running had always been made much of in our family, especially running away from the police.
This delightful opening comes from a young British working-class teenager known only as Smith. After his arrest for robbing a bakery, he’s been sentenced to a youth detention center known in England as a borstal. Shortly after his arrival, authorities become aware of his prowess as a runner and attempt to use him for their own purposes.
In 1962, the story was adapted into a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful film, with novice actor Tom Courtenay in the starring role (he went on to win a BAFTA award for Most Promising New Actor).
Pietr the Latvian (1930; 2013 translation by David Bellos)
Detective Chief Inspector Maigret of the Flying Squad raised his eyes. It seemed to him that the cast-iron stove in the middle of his office with its chimney tube rising to the ceiling wasn’t roaring properly. He pushed the telegram away, rose ponderously to his feet, adjusted the flue and thrust three shovels of coal into the firebox.
With this opening paragraph, Simenon introduced Jules Maigret, a French police inspector who would ultimately achieve iconic status, right up there with Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Perry Mason, Mike Hammer, and others (over the next four decades, Maigret would appear in 75 novels and 28 short stories).
The narrator continued in the second paragraph: “Then he stood with his back to the stove, filled his pipe and adjusted his stud collar, which was irritating his neck even though it wasn’t set very high.”
Many years later, Simenon recalled the exact moment Maigret was born. Sitting in a Paris café on a sunny morning in September 1928, he wrote: “I’d had one, two, maybe three small schnapps laced with a dash of bitters. In any case, an hour later, slightly sleepy, I began to imagine a large powerfully built gentleman I thought would make a passable inspector. As the day wore on, I added various accessories: a pipe, a bowler hat, a thick overcoat with a velvet collar. And since it was cold and damp on my abandoned barge, I put a cast-iron stove in his office.”
The Violin Conspiracy (2022)
On the morning of the worst, most earth-shattering day of Ray McMillan’s life, he ordered room service: scrambled eggs for two, one side of regular bacon (for Nicole), one side of vegan sausage (for him), one coffee (for Nicole), one orange juice (for him).
Unexpected juxtapositions are a staple of great opening lines, and the co-mingling of an earth-shattering day with a routine room service order is clearly designed to get our attention. The subsequent details about the food preferences of the couple we’re about to meet also pique our curiosity.
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued with an insight about a predictable thought process that occurs when people try to make sense out of an event that has shaken their world: “Later, he would try to second-guess those choices and a thousand others that, in hindsight, vibrated in his memory: What if he’d ordered French toast instead of eggs? What if grapefruit juice instead of orange? What if no juice at all?”
Ray McMillan, we will shortly learn, is a black classical violinist who has risen to the world stage after growing up on the edge of poverty in rural North Carolina. As a young child, after taking an interest in fiddle-playing, his grandmother gave him a decrepit and dilapidated old violin that belonged to his great-great-great grandfather, a former enslaved person (the violin, buried in an upstairs attic for decades, was given to “PopPop” as a gift by his former “owner” when he achieved freedom). The violin turns out to be a Stradivarius—but that’s only the beginning of what is essentially a literary trifecta: an exceptional mystery/thriller, a frank exploration of the powerful role still played by systematic racism, and an in-depth portrayal of the world of classical music that brings to mind what The Queen’s Gambit did for the world of championship chess (see the Walter Tevis entry for the opening words of that fine novel).
The Violin Conspiracy is the spectacular debut novel for Slocumb, who clearly built upon his own experiences as a young, black musical prodigy growing up in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In a New York Times review, Joshua Barone described the novel as “a musical bildungsroman cleverly contained within a literary thriller.”
Vengeance is Mine! (1950)
The guy was dead as hell. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the rug and my gun in his hand.
In a 2021 blog post, writer Greg Levin included Spillane’s opener in a post on “25 of the Best Opening Lines in Crime Fiction.” About his selections, including this one, Levin wrote: “I want to shine a light on that elusive literary gem: the phenomenal opening line to a phenomenal novel.”
I, The Jury (1947)
I shook the rain from my hat and walked into the room. Nobody said a word. They stepped back politely and I could feel their eyes on me.
With these words, the world was introduced to Mike Hammer, a hardboiled private detective who would go on to become one of literary history’s most famous sleuths. In the opening paragraph, Hammer continued: “Pat Chambers was standing by the door to the bedroom trying to steady Myrna. The girl’s body was racking with dry sobs. I walked over and put my arms around her.”
A 2006 obituary in the Washington Times provided this interesting backstory on Spillane and his first novel: “When he came home after World War II, he needed $1,000 to buy some land and thought novels the best way to go. Within three weeks, he had completed I, the Jury. The editors at Dutton doubted the writing, but not the market for it; a literary franchise began.”
One Lonely Night (1951)
Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this. The rain was misty enough to be almost fog-like, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance.
In a 2013 Atlantic article (titled “This Did Something Powerful to Me”), Joe Fassler asked a number of authors to identify their “Favorite First Lines” from novels. This was the choice of writer Max Allan Collins, who hastened to remind Fassler that, in the 1950s, Spillane was “much derided” by establishment magazines like The Atlantic.
The Big Kill (1951)
It was one of those nights when the sky came down and wrapped itself around the world. The rain clawed at the windows of the bar like an angry cat and tried to sneak in every time some drunk lurched in the door. The place reeked of stale beer and soggy men with enough cheap perfume thrown in to make you sick.
Close your eyes for a moment, and you’re right there, in the middle of the scene. In the second paragraph, Hammer filled out the picture: “Two drunks with a nickel between them were arguing over what to play on the juke box until a tomato in a dress that was too tight a year ago pushed the key that started off something noisy and hot. One of the drunks wanted to dance and she gave him a shove. So he danced with the other drunk.”
And in the third paragraph, Spillane proved himself to be a master of metaphor when he has Hammer continue: “She saw me sitting there with my stool tipped back against the cigarette machine and change of a fin on the bar, decided I could afford a wet evening for two and walked over with her hips waving hello.”
Richard Stark (pen name of Donald E. Westlake) [see also DONALD E. WESTLAKE]
The Mourner (1963)
When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.
Of the 100-plus novels published by Donald E. Westlake in his long literary career, 24 of them were published under the pen name Richard Stark (with a man known only as Parker, a professional thief, serving as the protagonist). In 16 of the Parker novels, the opening line began with the word When. The opening line of The Mourner is the best of these, in my opinion, but five of the additional fifteen also have superior opening lines. Here they are:
“When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.“
The Man with the Getaway Face (1963)
“When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.”
The Outfit (1963)
“When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.”
The Seventh (1966)
“When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.”
“When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”
Raven Stole the Moon (1998)
She closed her eyes and held herself under the water. She exhaled, sending little bubbles to the surface. It felt good to expel the used air, but then came the pain of empty lungs.
The narrator is describing Jenna Rosen, a Seattle woman who has been distraught since the mysterious disappearance of her 5-year-old son Bobby two years ago. The narrator continued: “She opened her eyes and looked up. She thought about opening her mouth and taking a big breath of water. That would do it. Fill those lungs with something other than oxygen. But she didn’t. She lifted her head out of the water and took a breath of air instead.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Island (1883)
Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow Inn and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.
In a 2012 Guardian article on “The Ten Best First Lines in Fiction,” Robert MCCrum described this introductory paragraph as “Among the most brilliant and enthralling opening lines in the English language.”
Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit [Book 4 of the Kopps Sisters series] (2018)
On the day I took Anna Kayser to the insane asylum, I was first obliged to catch a thief.
This terrific opening sentence from narrator and protagonist Constance Kopp—a fictionalized version of a real-life woman by the same name who became New Jersey’s first female deputy sheriff in 1914—pulls us directly into the book. There’s also something especially attractive about the inclusion of that word obliged.
Sensing our interest in the word, Miss Kopp—one of literary history’s most recent, and most interesting, female detectives—continued: “I say ‘obliged’ as if it were a hardship, but in fact I enjoy a good chase. A man fleeing a crime scene presents any sworn officer with the rare gift of an easy win. Nothing is more heartening than a solid arrest, made after a little gratifying physical exertion, particularly when the thief is caught in the act and there are no bothersome questions later about a lack of evidence or an unreliable witness.”
Too Many Women (1947)
It was the same old rigamarole. Sometimes I found it amusing; sometimes it only bored me; sometimes it gave me a pronounced pain, especially when I had more of Wolfe than was good for either of us.
In most crime/mystery novels, the narrating sidekick plays something of a hero-worshipping role, but in his opening words to Too Many Women, Archie Goodwin begins by reflecting on the frustrations and challenges of working for Nero Wolfe.
The Mother Hunt (1963)
When the doorbell rang a little after eleven that Tuesday morning in early June and I went to the hall and took a look through the one-way glass panel in the front door, I saw what, or whom, I expected to see; a face a little too narrow, gray eyes a little too big, and a figure a little too thin for the best curves.
Archie Goodwin opened many Nero Wolfe novels with memorable words, but this is a special favorite because of that unforgettable phrase: a figure a little too thin for the best curves.
How Like a God (1929)
He had closed the door carefully, silently, behind him, and was in the dim hall with his foot on the first step of the familiar stairs.
These are the opening words of Stout’s debut novel—published five years before he introduced his famous fictional detective, Nero Wolfe, in the 1934 novel Fer-de-Lance—but they already demonstrate his ability to create an initial feeling of suspense after only a few words.
From 1934 to 1975, Stout went on to write 33 novels and 41 novellas featuring the portly Wolfe, making him one of history’s most famous fictional crime-solvers, right up there with Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlow, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple.
Too Many Cooks (1938)
Walking up and down the platform alongside the train in the Pennsylvania Station, having wiped the sweat from my brow, I lit a cigarette with the feeling that after it had calmed my nerves a bit I would be prepared to submit bids for a contract to move the Pyramid of Cheops from Egypt to the top of the Empire State Building with my bare hands, in a swimming suit; after what I had just gone through.
From these introductory words, one might think narrator Archie Goodwin—the live-in assistant to detective Nero Wolfe—had just weathered a horrific ordeal, but he is merely feeling an enormous sense of relief after, with great difficulty, he finally managed to get his obese, finicky, and often recalcitrant boss to the train station and into a Pullman car.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985)
In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His story will be told here.
The narrator continued: “His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name—in contrast to the names of other gifted abominations, de Sade’s, for instance, or Saint-Just’s, Fouché’s, Bonaparte’s, etc.—has been forgotten today, it is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of these more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, to wickedness, but because his gifts and his sole ambition were restricted to a domain that leaves no traces in history: to the fleeting realm of scent.”
Perfume has become one of the best-selling German novels of the 20th century, selling more than twenty million copies in more than twenty different languages.
Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber (1976; with Edward Linn)
What am I doing, I ask myself, standing on a corner at six o’clock in the morning freezing my ass off? Hell, I am almost forty-nine years old. I have been a fugitive for three full years now. I am number one on the FBI Wanted List. If I am caught I will go back to prison for life. They don’t even have to catch me for another bank robbery, all they have to do is get their hands on me.
This is a magnificent opening paragraph to a captivating memoir that might’ve been subtitled, “I Simply Couldn’t Help Myself.” Sutton continued in the second paragraph: “Even to me it makes no sense. I have a safe harbor in Staten Island. I have fifty thousand dollars or so stashed around that I could get my hands on with a couple of phone calls. And still, I am out here on a cold winter morning putting it all on the line in order to rob a bank for money that I neither want nor need.”
The title of Sutton’s memoir comes from a legendary story that he once said “That’s where the money is” to a reporter who asked, “Why do you rob banks?” The clever reply was so deeply embedded in American culture that Sutton decided to capitalize on it for the book’s title—even though he confessed in the memoir that he never said anything of the sort. About it, he wrote: “I never said it. The credit belongs to some enterprising reporter who apparently felt a need to fill out his copy. I can’t even remember when I first read it. It just seemed to appear one day, and then it was everywhere.”
The Little Friend (2002)
For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son’s death because she had decided to have the Mother’s Day dinner at six in the evening instead of noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it.
This is the first sentence of the Prologue, and they clearly meet the oft-stated goal of “setting a tone” for the remainder of the story.
The opening words of the first chapter are equally impressive: “Twelve years after Robin’s death, no one knew any more about how he ended up hanged from a tree in his own yard than they had on the day it happened. People in the town still discussed the death. Usually they referred to it as ‘the accident,’ though the facts (as discussed at bridge luncheons, at the barber’s, in bait shacks and doctors’ waiting rooms and in the main dining room of the Country Club) tended to suggest otherwise. Certainly it was difficult to imagine a nine-year-old managing to hang himself through mischance or bad luck.”
The Secret History (1992)
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
In a 2012 Guardian article, writer and critic Robert McCrum selected this as one of “The 10 Best First Lines in Fiction.” He went on to explain: “In this spooky opening, Tartt plunges the reader into the middle of a crime whose consequences will reverberate throughout the ensuing pages. Like all the best beginnings, the sentence also tells us something about the narrator, Richard Papen. He’s the outsider in a group of worldly students at Hampden College in rural Vermont. He was expecting a break from his bland suburban Californian life, but he doesn’t quite understand what he’s got himself into.”
To Love and Be Wise (1951)
Grant paused with his foot on the lowest step, and listened to the shrieking from the floor above. As well as the shrieks there was a dull continuous roar; an elemental sound, like a forest fire or a river in spate. As his reluctant legs bore him upwards he arrived at the inevitable deduction: the party was being a success.
The Daughter of Time (1951)
Grant lay on his high white cot and stared at the ceiling. Stared at it with loathing. He knew by heart every last minute crack on its nice clean surface.
The book begins with Scotland Yard Inspector Allan Grant confined to a London hospital bed as he recovers from a broken leg. The narrator continued: “He had made maps of the ceiling and gone exploring on them; rivers, islands, and continents. He had made guessing games of it and discovered hidden objects; faces, birds, and fishes. He had made mathematical calculations of it and rediscovered his childhood; theorems, angles, triangles. There was practically nothing else he could do but look at it. He hated the sight of it.”
In 1990, The Daughter of Time came in first on the British Crime Writers’ Association survey of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time (beating out Chandler’s The Big Sleep and le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). In a 1995 Mystery Writers of America survey, it came in at number four.
Shaft felt warm, loose, in step as he turned east at Thirty-ninth Street for the truncated block between Seventh Avenue and Broadway.
The opening line introduces John Shaft, a black New York City private detective who went on to become one of the most prominent African-American heroes of the era. Tidyman created such a convincing character that most people simply assumed he was a black writer. He was not, and he is one of only a handful of white people to receive a NAACP Image Award. In the novel, the narrator continued:
“It had been a long walk from her place in the far West Twenties. Long and good. The city was still fresh that early. Even the exhaust fans of the coffee shops along the way were blowing fresh smells, bacon, egg, and toasted bagel smells, into the fact of the gray spring morning. He had been digging it all the way. Digging it, walking fast, and thinking mostly about the girl.”
In 1971, Gordon Parks directed a film adaptation of the novel, with Richard Roundtree making a spectacular debut as Shaft. People of my generation can still vividly recall the opening scene, with Roundtree climbing up the stairs of a subway station and jauntily striding down the street, all perfectly synchronized to the “Theme from Shaft,” an Isaac Hayes instrumental song that went on to win both an Oscar and a Grammy award. The film and the film’s soundtrack are now regarded as American classics.
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir (2020)
The last image of my mother, but for the photographs taken of her body at the crime scene, is the formal portrait made only a few months before her death.
The winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the former U. S. Poet Laureate (2012-13), Trethewey brings her exceptional talent to the world of memoir in a moving work that begins with a haunting, understated reference to a crime—the brutal murder of her mother by her former stepfather.
In a Washington Post review, Lisa Page wrote: “We know from the first page of this riveting memoir that poet Natasha Tretewey’s mother is dead.” A few moments later, she went on to write: “Trethewey excavates her mother’s life, transforming her from tragic victim to luminous human being.”
The Last Trial [book 11 of Kindle County Series] (2020)
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury,” says Mr. Alejandro Stern. For nearly sixty years, he has offered this greeting to start his defense of the accused, and with the words today, a vapor of melancholy scuttles across his heart. But he is here. We live in the everlasting present. And he knows this much with iron certainty: He has had his turn.
Alejandro “Sandy” Stern made an appearance in all of Turow’s Kindle County novels, but was the protagonist in only one, The Burden of Proof (1990). About him, Turow said in a recent Crimereads.com interview: “I initially started writing about Sandy Stern in the mid-1980’s, and he has appeared as a character, sometimes centerstage, usually in the background, in every novel I have published. I feel like thanking him too, for the pleasure of living again in his skin.” In this 2020 book, Stern is 85 and cancer-stricken, but still able to ply his trade at the highest level.
The Prologue to the book also opens memorably: “A woman screams. Shrill and desolate, the brief sound rips through the solemn hush in the corridors of the old federal courthouse.” In a 2012 New York Times interview that he conducted with writer Alex Finlay, Turow said: “My editor, Ben Sevier, proposed the Prologue after I thought the book might be done. I wasn’t sure it was a great idea, but I thought I’d give two hours to it, at which point the pages came out virtually intact, including the first line.”
Presumed Innocent [book 1 of Kindle County Series] (1987)
This is how I always start:
“I am the prosecutor.
“I represent the state. I am here to present to you the evidence of a crime. Together you will weigh the evidence. You will deliberate upon it. You will decide if it proves the defendant’s guilt.
“This man—” And here I point.
In these four short opening paragraphs, readers are introduced to Rusty Sabich, an assistant prosecuting attorney in Kindle County, a fictional county that feels a whole lot like Illinois’s Cook County. In the novel, Sabich continued:
“You must always point, Rusty, I was told by John White. That was the day I started in the office. The sheriff took my fingerprints, the chief judge swore me in, and John White brought me up to watch the first jury trial I’d ever seen. Ned Halsey was making the opening statement for the state, and as he gestured across the courtroom, John, in his generous avuncular way, with the humid scent of alcohol on his breath at ten in the morning, whispered my initial lesson. He was the chief deputy P.A. then, a half Irishman with white hair wild as cornsilk. It was almost a dozen years ago, long before I had formed even the most secret ambition to hold John’s job myself. If you don’t have the courage to point, John White whispered, you can’t expect them to have the courage to convict.”
Earthly Possessions (1977)
The marriage wasn’t going well and I decided to leave my husband. I went to the bank to get cash for the trip.
These simple-but-powerful opening words come from thirty-five-year old Charlotte Emory, a Maryland wife and mother who is stuck in an unsatisfying marriage to her husband, a local preacher. She continued: “This was on a Wednesday, a rainy afternoon in March. The streets were nearly empty and the bank had just a few customers, none of them familiar to me.”
Based on these opening words, we’re already “into” the tale, but what we don’t know at the moment is that the story is about to abruptly change direction. While waiting in line to make a withdrawal, a recent prison escapee puts his arm around her neck and hollers out, “Anybody move and I’ll kill her.“ As the bank robbery ends, Charlotte is dragged out of the bank by the ex-con and the highly unusual hostage drama unfolds.
In 1999, the film was adapted into an HBO movie starring Susan Sarandon, Stephen Dorff, and Elisabeth Moss.
Beautiful Lies (Book 1 of the Ridley Jones series] (2006)
It’s dark in that awful way that allows you to make out objects but not the black spaces behind them. My breathing comes ragged from exertion and fear. The only person I trust in the world lies on the floor beside me.
This is an exceptional in media res opening (Latin for “into the middle of things”) that thrusts readers immediately into the action. It is also the first appearance of narrator and protagonist Ridley Jones, who continued in the opening paragraph: “The only person I trust in the world lies on the floor beside me. I lean into him and hear that he’s still breathing but it’s shallow and hard won. He’s hurt, I know. But I can’t see how badly. I whisper his name in his ear but he doesn’t respond. I feel his body but there’s no blood that I can tell. The sound of his body hitting the floor minutes before was the worst thing I ever heard.”
After writing four previous novels under her birth name (Lisa Miscione), Beautiful Lies was the first published under the pen name of Lisa Unger. An immediate bestseller, writer Lisa Gardner wrote about it: “Lisa Unger’s taut prose grabs the reader from word one and never lets go.”
Confessions on the 7:45 (2020)
Selena loved the liminal spaces. Those precious slivers of time between the roles she played in her life.
Some opening lines succeed because they introduce a new or unfamiliar concept—like liminal spaces—and then fully exploit it to launch a story. The narrator continued about Selena Murphy, a Manhattan literary agent: “She missed the 5:40 train because her client meeting ran long, knowing before she even left the conference room table that there was no way she would be home in time for dinner with her husband Graham and their two maniac boys, Stephen and Oliver.”
With the next train scheduled to leave at 7:45, Selena returned to her office, opened her computer, and began to examine the video feed of a nanny cam she had recently installed in her children’s playroom. Normally, as the novel’s opening line suggests, Selena loved the liminal spaces in her life, but not this one.
Last Girl Ghosted (2021)
Modern dating. Let’s be honest. It sucks.
The opening words of the first chapter come from narrator and protagonist Wren Greenwood, a Manhattan advice columnist who is in a crowded East Village bar waiting to meet a man she has recently communicated with on a dating app. In the novel’s second paragraph, she reflects: “Is there anything more awkward, more nervous-making than waiting for a person you’ve only seen online to show up in the flesh.”
As soon as she sees hunky Adam Harper walk in the front door, she experiences an unexpected sensation (“Something that has been dormant within me awakens,” she writes). And then, after quickly falling for a man she hardly knows, she is ghosted, and so begins what New York Times reviewer Sarah Lyall described as “A five-alarm fire of a situation.”
Murdering Mr. Monti (1994)
I am not the murdering kind, but I am planning to kill Mr. Monti because he is doing harm to my family. I don’t look like the murdering kind, being a short, blond, rounded, very married lady, with bifocals and a softness under the chin.
The words come from protagonist Brenda Kovner, a middle-aged newspaper advice columnist and mother of a son she believes to be in danger. She continues with a description that significantly enhances our interest in her story: “On the other hand, I don’t look like the kind who, just a few weeks before her forty-sixth birthday, slept with three different men within twenty-four hours. And since I indeed did do that, I might indeed be able to murder Mr. Monti.”
“The Snow,” in All Soul’s Night: A Book of Stories (1933)
The second Mrs. Ryder was a young woman not easily frightened, but now she stood in the dusk of the passage leaning back against the wall, her hand on her heart, looking at the grey-faced window beyond which the snow was steadily falling against the lamplight.
In the story’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “The passage where she was led from the study to the dining-room, and the window looked out on to the little paved path that ran at the edge of the Cathedral green. As she stared down the passage she couldn’t be sure whether the woman were there or no. How absurd of her! She knew the woman was not there. But if the woman was not, how was it that she could discern so clearly the old-fashioned grey cloak, the untidy grey hair and the sharp outline of the pale cheek and pointed chin? Yes, and more than that, the long sweep of the grey dress, falling in folds to the ground, the flash of a gold ring on the white hand. No. No. NO. This was madness. There was no one and nothing there. Hallucination…” [ellipsis in original]
I can’t be certain, but I have a feeling that Daphne du Maurier might have been inspired by this Walpole story when she created the second Mrs. de Winter for her classic 1938 novel Rebecca. In both cases, the second wives are unable to free themselves from the ghosts of their husbands’ first wives.
“The Tarn,” in The Silver Thorn: A Book of Stories (1928)
As Foster moved unconsciously across the room, bent towards the bookcase, and stood leaning forward a little, choosing now one book, now another with his eye, his host, seeing the muscles of the back of his thin, scraggy neck stand out above his low flannel collar, thought of the ease with which he could squeeze that throat and the pleasure, the triumphant, lustful pleasure, that such an action would give him.
One of the great pleasures of my Great Opening Lines project has been discovering intriguing openers from authors I’ve heard of, but never read. “The Tarn” is one of Walpole’s darker short stories, and the opening scene is so beautifully described you can close your eyes and bring every detail to life in your mind’s eye. Go ahead, try it.
A guest in another man’s home, absorbed by the books in his library, has no idea that the man standing just behind him is having dark, delicious fantasies of strangling him. At this point, readers have no idea what the man has done to stimulate such ferocious rage, or if the host will actually follow through. How could they stop themselves from reading on?
As the story unfolds, we learn that both men are writers—and a familiar literary theme emerges. In a 2021 blog post, speculative fiction writer Matthew Rettino described the story this way: “A highly relatable tale of literary jealousy and sweet revenge.”
Robert Penn Warren
Night Rider (1939)
When the train slowed at the first jarring application of the brakes, the crowd packed in the aisle of the coach swayed crushingly forward, with the grinding, heavy momentum of the start of a landslip.
The narrator continued: “Percy Munn, feeling the first pressure as the man behind him lurched into contact. arched his back and tried to brace himself to feel the full impact which, instinctively, he knew would come.” Opening lines commonly provide a preview of the novel’s central theme, and that appears to be the case here: a single man buffeted around by powerful outside forces that are far bigger than him.
Lonelyheart 4122 [Book 4 of the Inspector Furbright Mysteries] (1967)
Arthur Henry Spain, butcher, of Harlow Place, Flaxborough, awoke one morning from a dream in which he had been asking all his customers how to spell “phlegm” and thought, quite inconsequentially: I haven’t seen anything of Lilian lately.
A popular technique in the world of Great Opening Lines is to begin with a strange or unusual juxtaposition, and this is a particularly fine example. In a New York Times review, writer and critic Anthony Boucher described Watson as “a fine maverick talent.“ The opening line above is consistent with another thing Boucher admired about the British detective writer’s work: “Mr. Watson writes lightly and skillfully, and has an unforgivably sharp eye for the ridiculous.”
Trust No One (2020)
“Just tell me where she is, and we can take this down a notch.” Kerri took a breath, let it out slowly. “I’ll lower my weapon. You have my word. All I want is your cooperation.”
The narrator continued about Detective Kerri Devlin: “Her palms were sweating. Arms shaking from maintaining the firing stance for so long. She didn’t trust this bastard, but she damned sure hadn’t followed him here to do this. Now she had a situation.”
Donald E. Westlake [see also RICHARD STARK]
Somebody Owes Me Money (1969)
I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent.
This opening line—one of Westlake’s most famous—comes from Chester “Chet” Conway, a larger-than-life New York City cab driver with a weakness for playing the ponies. He continued: “That’s always been my problem, eloquence, though some might claim my problem was something else again.”
Donald E. Westlake [see also RICHARD STARK]
Each ant emerged from the skull bearing an infinitesimal portion of brain.
It’s a grisly opening, true, but unsurpassed in its ability to snare a reader’s interest. The narrator continued: “The double thread of ants shuttling between corpse and nest crossed at a diagonal the human trail beside which the murdered woman had been thrown.”
Donald E. Westlake [see also RICHARD STARK]
Bad News (2001)
John Dortmunder was a man on whom the sun shone only when he needed darkness.
In a 2001 review in January magazine, Spider Robinson wrote: “Dortmunder is a professional thief of long experience, and pretty much everything you need to know about him going in is masterfully summarized in the opening sentence.”
Donald E. Westlake [see also RICHARD STARK]
Watch Your Back! (2005)
When John Dortmunder, a free man, not even on parole, walked into the O. J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that Friday night in July, just before ten o’clock, the regulars were discussing the afterlife.
Donald E. Westlake [see also RICHARD STARK]
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner (1974)
Sometimes I think I’m good and sometimes I think I’m bad. I wish I could make up my mind, so I’d know what stance to take.
The first thing Warden Gadmore said to me was, “Basically, you’re not a bad person, Kunt.“
“Künt,” I said quickly, pronouncing it the right way, as in koont. “With an umlaut,” I explained.
In a 2018 review of a reissue of the book published under the Hard Case Crime imprint, Levi Stahl wrote of this opening: “Four sentences in, and Westlake is saying: I want to be clear about the kind of book this is. I intend to make you laugh, and I will even do it with a joke like this if it seems like that’s what’s needed.”
War in Heaven (1930)
The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.
This is a classic opening line, and a special favorite among lovers of mystery and crime fiction. In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “A few moments later, there was. Lionel Rackstraw, strolling back from lunch, heard in the corridor the sound of the bell in his room, and, entering at a run, took up the receiver.”
“It Had to Be Murder,” in Dime Detective magazine (February 1942; orig. published under the penname William Irish)
I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices. I didn’t even know them by sight, strictly speaking, for their faces were too small to fill in with identifiable features at that distance. Yet I could have constructed a timetable of their comings and goings, their daily habits and activities. They were the rear-window dwellers around me.
This is the opening paragraph of a story Woolrich originally titled “Murder from a Fixed Viewpoint,” but the Dime Detective editors decided to change it. In the story, protagonist Hal Jeffries’s broken leg has confined him to the bedroom of his apartment. To pass the time, he unobtrusively peers out of his bedroom’s bay window to eavesdrop on his neighbors on the other side of a courtyard. After a time, he begins to suspect that one of his neighbors has murdered his wife. Given his immobility, there’s not much he can do on his own, so he enlists the help of Sam, a “day houseman” who makes daily visits to his flat, and a police detective named Boyne. If the story sounds familiar, read on.
Two years after the short story’s publication, it was re-issued in After-Dinner Story, a 1944 anthology of Woolrich’s crime-fiction tales. This time, the title was changed to “Rear Window,” and that was one of the things that attracted Alfred Hitchcock’s attention. Almost immediately, he decided to adapt it into a film—and it would ultimately become the 1954 cinema classic starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly.
Even though few modern readers are familiar with his name, Corrnell Woolrich is one of a handful of writers who invented the crime-fiction genre now known as noir.
“The Man Who Lived Underground,” in The Man Who Was Almost a Man (1940)
I’ve got to hide, he told himself. His chest heaved as he waited, crouching in a dark corner of the vestibule.
With these words, the reader is thrust immediately into a scene in which the unnamed protagonist senses a great deal of danger. The opening paragraph continues: “He was tired of running and dodging. Either he had to find a place to hide, or he had to surrender. A police car swished by through the rain. Its siren rising sharply. They’re looking for me all over.”
Native Son (1940)
An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room. A bed spring creaked. A woman’s voice sang out impatiently:
“Bigger, shut that thing off!”
A surly grunt sounded above the tinny ring of metal. Naked feet swished dryly across the planks in the wooden floor and the clang ceased abruptly.
In these four brief paragraphs, the literary world was introduced to Bigger Thomas, a 19-year-old black man living in a ghetto neighborhood of Chicago in the 1930s (many believe the protagonist’s first name was Wright’s deliberate play off the infamous N-word). About the protagonist, Vincent Canby wrote in a 1986 New York Times article that Bigger Thomas “is not easy to take either as a character or as a man, but he’s a figure of mythic proportions. He’s a mountain in the flat literary landscape that surrounds him.”
Canby went on to write: “At the time of the novel’s publication, Wright understood that he was taking a terrible chance with Bigger Thomas, a character that would confirm the worst nightmares of white racists—who saw every black man as a rapist—and outrage all upwardly striving, middle-class blacks, who were doing their best to prove their worth. Wright’s intention, he said at the time, was a novel that ‘would be so hard and deep’ that it would have to be faced ‘without the consolation of tears.’“
The Coyotes of Carthage (2020)
Andre marvels, watching a kid, a stranger of maybe sixteen, pinch another wallet.
In his debut novel, Wright, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, gets off to an intriguing in media res beginning. From the outset, there is a clear suggestion that the narrator, a black political operative named Andre Ross, has more than just a passing familiarity with the art of pickpocketing.
The narrator continued in the opening paragraph: “This lift makes the kid’s fifth, at least that Andre’s seen this morning—two on the train, two on the underground platform, and now this one on the jam-packed escalator that climbs toward the surface. The kid’s got skills, mad skills.”
The Coyotes of Carthage was shortlisted for the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. The novel was described as “riveting” by the Washington Post, and John Grisham welcomed Wright as “a major new voice in the world of political thrillers.”
Famous in Cedarville (2019)
Samson got the call because he skipped church most Sundays, not because he had any experience with removing a body.
It’s Sunday morning, and a guy gets a call to help remove—not move, remove—a body. I’m already curious. In the opening paragraph, the narrator adds further tantalizing hints about the situation and the man who’s being asked to perform the grisly duty:
“Still, when the Meeker brothers asked for a favor, you found your coat. He let his own pickup warm for ten minutes before putting it into gear, so he was the last to arrive on the hill. The other men watched him approach, their expressions hard to read. The town had gotten used to him over the years, but he was nobody’s first choice.”
We will soon learn that Samson Delaware is a local antiques restorer who, after two local women are murdered, becomes an unlikely crime sleuth. A 2019 New York Times review by Marilyn Stasio described the novel as “a clever little whodunit.”
Nightbitch: A Novel (2021)
When she had referred to herself as Nightbitch, she meant it as a good-natured self-deprecating joke—because that’s the sort of lady she was, a good sport, able to poke fun at herself, definitely not uptight, not wound really tight, not so freakishly tight that she couldn’t see the humor in a light-hearted not-meant-as-an-insult situation—but in the days following this new naming, she found the patch of coarse black hair sprouting from the base of her neck and was, like, What the fuck.
The narrator—an unnamed 37-year-old artist who has become a frustrated stay-at-home mother of a toddler—continued in the second paragraph: “I think I’m turning into a dog, she said to her husband when he arrived home after a week away for work. He laughed and she didn’t.”
After two paragraphs, we sense we’re in for a wild ride—and after a few more, we’ve not only suspended our disbelief, we’re thinking, “If Kafka were alive today, he’d be tweeting enthusiastically about Yoder’s debut novel.“ I was pleased to include the spectacular first paragraph in my list of “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
Nightbitch went on to become one of the most acclaimed novels of the year, appearing on many “Best of the Year” lists. In an Esquire article on the fifty best books of 2021, Adrienne Westenfeld wrote: “Yoder touches on a kaleidoscope of themes, from the towering inferno of female rage to grieving the loss of self that accompanies motherhood, all of it undergirded by feral, ferocious scenes of our heroine feasting on rabbits and pissing on the lawn. Nightbitch will grab you by the scruff and refuse to let go.“
The success of the novel even surprised the author. Yoder tweeted in the summer of 2021: “I wrote NIGHTBITCH because I felt so alone, so angry, & so hopeless in early motherhood. Never did I imagine what it would become.“ As it turns out, the novel is still in the process of becoming, with a film adaptation, starring Amy Adams, expected to be released sometime in 2023.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Shadow of the Wind (2001)
I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.
In a July 2021 article in The Strand Magazine (“For Openers: Great First Lines of Legendary Novels”) writer Deborah Goodrich Royce wrote: “My socks were knocked off when I first read this opener. I was traveling on a short stint in Singapore, accompanying my husband on a business trip [and] I was so engrossed in this novel that I ended up cancelling my sightseeing to loll in the hotel bed reading the book instead. And Zafón definitely delivered all that was promised from this tidbit: a sinister, dangerous, and otherworldly Barcelona that I could see more clearly than the hotel room surrounding me.”