Saturday, November 07, 2009

More great first lines

Two days ago I wrote about my haul of five books at Murder by the Book in Houston (since augmented by four more titles).

I've been flipping through my new acquisitions feeling like a kid on Christmas morning. The first three of them reminded me how important it is to grab the reader from the start, whether with the title, the opening line, or both -- and how thrilling it is to be so grabbed.

Colin Cotterill's Aging Disgracefully is subtitled "Short Stories About Atrocious Old People." Know that, and you'll love the title of the first story: "Gran Larceny."

Bill James' Off-Street Parking pulled me right in by addressing and challenging me directly: "I'd like to put you right on something. OK?"

Tower, by Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman, offers two grabber opening lines, the first to a short prologue, the second to the novel proper:
"Griffin coughed blood into my face when I made to slip the chains under his shoulders."
and
"`He beats me.'"
What are your favorite openings? How did they pull you into the story? Why did you like them?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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50 Comments:

Blogger Declan Burke said...

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

" ... and all that David Copperfield kind of crap ..."

Pure genius ...

Cheers, Dec

November 07, 2009  
Anonymous Mike Dennis said...

For me, it's a tie between:

"It had been a pretty good day in many ways, so I might have known it would turn out bad."
--Jim Thompson, "The Criminal"

and...

"Across the bar a lean blond with a missing front tooth is massaging my tits with his eyes, and I get an idea."
--Vicki Hendricks, "Voluntary Madness"

Of course, in the Jim Thompson example, you not only have to read on to see in what way his day turns out bad, but to find the deliciously hellish path to that bad day's end that Thompson will forge as he cuts his way through the stinking jungles and swamps where his characters generally reside.

The Vicki Hendricks line grabbed me because I wanted to see what her "idea" was, and how she would execute it. Being familiar with Hendricks' novels, I knew it would not be pleasant.

November 07, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

With my hopeless memory it won´t be the best in my life, but the best in November 2009:


“She drifted with the waves, falling off their rolling backs and waking to renewed agony every time salt water seared down her throat and into her stomach. During intermittent periods of lucidity when she revisited, always with astonishment, what had happened to her, it was the deliberate breaking of her fingers that remained indelibly printed on her memory, and not the brutality of her rape.”

Minette Walters, The Breaker.

And what I like is also what I abhor: those broken fingers!

November 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Declan, here's evidence that that was a memorable opening: I have not read Catcher in the Rye since high school, and I never fell under its spell even then. But I recognized the opening instantly.

November 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike, Jim Thompson's narrators' days don't generally end pleasatly either, I think.

The Thompson opener is good, but the Vicki Hendricks is electric, one of the best I've read. I've only ever read one of her short stories, and it was superb. But I was talking her up yesterday, and now I'm going to go look for Voluntary Madness. A thousand thanks!

November 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, the gentle rhythm of the first five words is a nice set-up for the brutality of what follows. That's a fine piece of work, I'd say, and November 2009 is off to a good start. Thanks for tgat example. These comments could well enlarge my TBR list.

As with Vicki Hendricks, Denise Mina has also come up in my recent days' conversation. This is what happens when one spend's one's vacation in the company of crime fans -- a delicious way to spend one's vacation.

November 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike, I have just mentioned the Vicki Hendricks line to a friend who said the opening hooked her on the book -- and she gave me a copy.

She also cited the following, from Anthony Neil Smith's Psychosomatic:

"Because Lydia didn't have arms or legs, she shelled out three thousand bucks to a washed-up middleweight named Cap to give her ex-husband the beating of his life."

November 07, 2009  
Anonymous Mike Dennis said...

Peter, you're going to like Vicki Hendricks. Down the road, you might consider checking out "Miami Purity", a great noir story centered around a dry cleaners, complete with big machines constantly hissing steam. That was her first novel.

In any case, enjoy "Voluntary Madness."

By the way, this was a great idea for a post. I'd put something like it on my site, but no one ever goes to it.

November 07, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I recognized "Catcher" too.

From "The classics will always be with us" department:

"Marley was dead, to begin with."

November 07, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Oh, and then there's the mawkish:

"What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?"

November 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike, this day has been an uncanny series of echoes. When I talked up the opening of "Involuntary Madness," my host said: "If you like that, try `Miami Purity.'"

November 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, the Dickens is an oft-cited and amusing opening line. And do you know the first two words of "Hamlet"?

November 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I'm pretty sure I recognize the mawkish one, too.

November 07, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I confess I had to look "Hamlet" up. It's no wonder I don't remember it, it's so innocuous.

I sometimes wonder if Salinger wasn't thinking of Melville when he wrote the opening to "Catcher:"
"Call me Ishmael" is pretty similar.

November 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's why that's such a good question. Even people who know Hamlet's first scene will guess something like "Hark!" opens the play. No one figures two words so stark, so down-to-earth, and so familiar to our 21st-century ears could open the most celebrated work by the most celebrated writer in our language's and possibly any language's history.

November 08, 2009  
Anonymous Reed Farrel Coleman said...

Listen all you Catcher in the Rye lovers and haters. go read the book KING DORK by Frank Portman. It is a total deconstruction and reconstruction of Catcher in the Rye only it's much funnier and better written. Plus you can actually like the protagonist. I think I hated Holden Caufield on sight.

November 08, 2009  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

I was told by a guard who came to the door. He wasn't one I'd seen before, one of the usual ones.

It's from Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.

You just know this is the scene where the cop has come to notify the next of kin.

November 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Reed, I don't think anyone would say Holden Caulfield is a likeable sort. He's snotty from the beginning. And thanks for the King Dork suggestion, I don't know Portman, but that's a tantalizing description.

You might have added that Portman is (likely) more prolific than Salinger, in addition to his other advantages.

November 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, did Roddy Doyle stay funny even after he stopped writing about the folks from The Snapper, et al.? Even toward the end of that series, he was getting darker and more somber, and I had liked the comedy,

November 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Reed, did you hate the guy because of his sarcasm? If I remember right, he referred to Ackley as "a real prince of a fellow." I've often thought of that. Sarcasm is funny, but it does not win friends the way Holden would have if he'd come right out and called Ackley an asshole or a gobshite.

November 08, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Holden's brother just died of cancer, his other brother has abandoned him and gone to LA and he's in prep school surrounded by asshole William Buckley types - cut the kid some slack, he's got every right to be pissed off.

November 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I'd plead innocent by reason of lack of memory. I remember nothing about Holden except the opening lines and the "prince of a fellow" remark. I remember that bit of sarcasm rather than any explosions of rage or anguish.

November 08, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

No Peter you're right. Holden is very funny. I remember the line when he's talking about the Big Game and how "we're all supposed to kill ourselves or something" if we lose.

I also remember his teacher trying to throw the Atlantic Monthly magazine up onto the bed and repeatedly failing and Holden going mental watching him.


And the story of Allie's poem covered baseball mitt just about kills me, to coin a phrase.

I havent read King Dork but I'd be surprised if it was better written than Catcher in the Rye, one of the more carefully crafted novels of the twentieth century.

November 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I hope no one accords much weight to my comments about a novel I have not read since I was around Holden's age. In any case, no reason he could not have been a funny character and a bit of a sarcastic prick, too. The brief quotations here offer evidence of both.

November 08, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

It may sound perverse considering the volumes of criticism devoted to it but I actually think Catcher in the Rye is underrated.

When a Jewish sergeant who has published short stories in the New Yorker lands at Omaha Beach on D Day and fights his way through the entire Normandy campaign until he's actually there for the liberation of the concentration camps writes his first novel about a teenage high school drop-out there might be more going on in the book than at first meets the eye.

For me Catcher deals with the big issues of the modern condition: grief, loss, disenchantment, existential crisis. The fact that Holden deals with this while being sarcastic, funny, silly and kind of charming is why it hasn't dated like other novels from the early 1950s.

November 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't think it's necessarily perverse to call the novel underrated. In fact, it's rare to read a consideration of the book as opposed to of Salinger the personality.

It's similar on a larger scale to what happened over in crime fiction with "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." That book became such a sensation that people were talking about without necessarily having read it.

November 08, 2009  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

'I was born at an early age, my mother was there at the time'

November 09, 2009  
Anonymous Reed Farrel Coleman said...

Okay all you Holden Caufield lovers and apologists, especially you Adrian, here goes. First, for me, a character's likeability isn't a function of his backstory. Even if Holden's entire family had been burned at the stake, it wouldn't make him a likeable protagonist. Sympathetic possibly, but not likeable. And as a reader, I certainly can't worry about the author's backstory. When you write, do you want your readers to consider your personal history? I don't, so why should I consider Salinger's? The art is in the thing itself, not in the artist.

November 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, I'm afraid I don't recognize that one other than as the mother of a thousand jocose quips.

November 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Reed, circumstances of an author's life can enhance one's interest in ... an author's life, I suppose, but also illuminate aspects of a book, especially if those circumstances are exceptional. But that presupposes sympathy with the book. Adrian likes Catcher in the Rye; Salinger's biography enhances that attraction. You don't, so you regard mention of Salinger's life as odious special pleading. No reason you and McKinty can't mingle in peace at the next Bouchercon.

November 09, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

"There were no street lamps, no lights at all."

"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."


And then there's this list of first lines which I had collected and arranged sometime ago. Most aren't crime novels, one you'll recognize immediately, maybe a couple more.


An April night in Atlanta between thunderstorms: dark and warm
and wet, sidewalks shiny with rain and slick with torn leaves and
fallen azalea blossoms.

A grain of sand, teetering on the brink of the pit, trembled and fell in; the ant lion at the bottom angrily flung it out again.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

I KNOW you are all very uneasy because I have not written for such a
long, long time.

“I am glad you came, Clarke; very glad indeed. I was not sure you could spare the time.”

If you knew how to look, a couple of deaths from the past showed now and then in Iles’s face.

FOX IS A TELEVISION CHARACTER, and she isn’t dead yet.

THERE’S ALWAYS A MOMENT where everything changes.

Mae lived in the last village in the world to go online.

Was there anything quite so under-rated in this shallow, plastic, global-corporate, tall-skinny-latte, kiddy-meal-and-free-toy, united-colors-of-fuck-you-too world, than a good old-fashioned, no-frills, retail blow-job?

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.

I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.

YOU can never tell what a drunken Irishman will do.

The last word ever spoken by a human is said in a language derived from Hindi.

I’ll tell you about Mario the Neapolitan some other time.

November 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm too rushed to reply at length, but the Bill James line is much appreciated. The James Crumley opening is often cited in such discussions, and I am intrigued by "The last word ever spokem by a human ... "

November 09, 2009  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

Mine was from GROUCHO& ME.

November 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And me having listened to Groucho singing "I'm Against It" several times in recent weeks. I should have guessed it.

November 09, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

Don't you feel arranged like that the first lines evoke a certain narrative?


The last word ever spoken by a human is said in a language derived from Hindi.

The only short story,and available online, here.


"There were no street lamps, no lights at all" is Goodis, Shoot the Piano Player.

The others, in order:
-Nicola Griffith, The Blue Place (crime novel by an author before then mostly known for sci-fi)
-Gene Wolfe, The Death Of Doctor Island
-Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
-E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Sandman
-Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan
-Bill James, In Good Hands
-Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners
-Elizabeth Hand, Generation Loss
-Geoff Ryman, Air
-Christopher Brookmyre, The Sacred Art of Stealing
-Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker
-Iain (M.) Banks, The Wasp Factory
-Fredric Brown, The Screaming Mimi
-Rachel Swirsky, Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind
-Amara Lakhous, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio (googled the translation)

November 09, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall.

The Dain Curse. Dashiell Hammett. 1928.

How could one stop after reading that line?! Who does it belong to? How did it get there? What does it mean?

November 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Marco. I had a feeling Elizabeth Hand was on the list. And there were a couple more that I should have recognized.

November 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, that's a nice in medias res line, a fine way to start a crime story.

I have just finished watching The Terra Cotta Dog. I wanted to start from the beginning of the series, but I appear to be the victim of a defective DVD. The second disc worked, though.

Luca Zingaretti was not how I'd have pictured Montalbano. But boy, is he good. Actors, writers and director did a beautiful job of capturing the spirit of Camilleri. Outstanding!

November 09, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, I'm so sorry your DVD is faulty (I presume you tried wiping it with a soft cloth -- sorry if this is too obvious as you've probably done everything you can to make it viewable) but pleased that you did enjoy Terra Cotta Dog. And glad that you liked Zingaretti. Yes, not as we picture Salvo but a fine interpreter of him. I think a couple of your readers have noted that even Camilleri now envisions Zingaretti when he's writing a Montalbano novel.

November 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You give me too much credit. I had not thought of trying a soft cloth, but I would have been unable to use one, at least right away, because I was not at home and am not home now. I'll try the cloth treatment, but I think the trouble may be due to an unformatted disc. I was getting messages to that effect.

I have just watched the first half of "The Shape of Water." I am looking forward to meeting Ingrid for the first time.

November 09, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, sounds like you're watching the DVD's on your computer? I did not have as good luck with them on the computer (stop, start) as I did on our DVD player, once we tinkered with it to make the player "region free". Any chemical-free microfiber cleaning cloth is good to have on hand. I read somewhere that the DVD should not be cleaned like a vinyl record (following the circles) but from the hole to the edge. I'll stop before I sound too much more like a late-night infomercial...

And I think you'll like Ingrid.

November 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, I am watching the DVDs on my computer, and no, I would not be averse to a late-night infomercial on the subject of getting this damned thing to play.

I suspected region problems at first unti I reflected that the discs are being peddled by a Washington-area television station for the U.S. market. And then the second disc worked.

Now, wish me luck for the rest of The Shape of Water.

November 10, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Oh, I just assumed that you had bought your DVD's from the same source we have bought all 4 volumes of the Montalbano DVD's, Australia's "Family Box Office." (Because I didn't know there was another source for them.) English subtitles (one may turn them off) with an Aussie flavor. US dollar vs Aussie dollar is about $1 - $1.08 tonight.

www.fbo.com.au

keyword = montalbano

November 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nope, I got mine from Mhz Networks, Channel 35 in Virginia, which broadcasts all kinds of international crime shows. I've written about these foilks a few times.

November 10, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

One Summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsh in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or the supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous enough and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.

November 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Not exactly stripped-down prose, is it? This may be the time for me to read some Pynchon.

November 10, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

I would have liked to include something by M John Harrison, but while he tends to begin "in medias res", his openings tend to be quiet and perhaps misleading with regard to the overall direction of the story. Nevertheless, a few seem to stick out a little more ( all are from the stories collected in Things That Never Happen) :


With the discovery of God on the far side of the Moon, and the subsequent gigantic and hazardous towing operation that brought Him back to start his reign anew, there began on Earth, as one might assume, a period of far-reaching change.

Egnaro is a secret known to everyone but yourself.

On the day of the enthronement of the new archbishop, the 'badly decomposed' body of a man was found on the roof of York Minster by a TV technician.

The third of September this year I spent the evening watching TV in an upstairs flat in North London. Some story of love and transfiguration, cropped into all the wrong proportions for the small screen.

If you probe in the ashes, they say, you will never learn anything about the fire; its meaning has passed on.


V-word: litsped, which appropriately I take to mean lightspeed.

November 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

while he tends to begin "in medias res", his openings tend to be quiet and perhaps misleading with regard to the overall direction of the story.

I mentioned my recent excitement about opening lines, and my host in Houston brought up the Page 69 test, whereby a prospective reader judges a book not by its opening but by Page 69. Any author will sweat to write a bang-up opening to grab the reader, she suggested (and she may have been quoting Jeffrey Deaver on this), and also a memorable ending, to encourage the reader to buy the next book. But the true test of a book's worth, the thinking goes, lies in the middle -- say, on Page 69 -- where a lesser author might let the book flag.

As always, my only complaint about your comment is that it reminds me how much I have not read. I especially like love and transfiguration being cropped to the wrong proportions for the small scree.

Perhaps litsped is academic jargon for the new field of teaching advanced literature in preschool.

November 10, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

By the way, in a recent post you commented about Europa Editions. If you want to try Carlotto, I once again recommend first and foremost Death's Dark Abyss, followed by The Goodbye Kiss and The Fugitive.
Nordest (Poisonville) is one of his weakest, imho.
There's also a nice new collection by Valeria Parrella, For Grace Received - 4 novellas set in Naples, not really crime stories but crime and its aftermath are omnipresent.
And of course you still have to read Saviano's Gomorra and De Cataldo's Romanzo Criminale (Crime Novel).
You could order the Italian versions - there's no better way to (re)acquaint yourself with a language - that's what I also said to a friend who would like to learn German. Though probably you should choose someone with a simple prose first - another friend told me that in order to practice her Russian she reads Agatha Christie's translations.

November 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm sorry to hear you have a low opinion of Nordest. Its English-language title is one of the more intriguing tributes and title changes I can think of.

As for crime and its aftermath, you know I like The Day of the Owl/Il giorno della civetta.

November 11, 2009  

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