Publishers, editors, and agents all stress the importance of the beginning of a story. There are good reasons for that, not the least of which is that readers usually decide very quickly whether they’re going to invest themselves in a book or not. Some readers decide within ten pages; others take a little more time. Either way, it’s very important to get the reader’s attention right away, and invite the reader to come along for the ride.
There isn’t only one way to do that, and different approaches attract different readers. But there are some crime novels that really do have powerful beginnings. I’m not necessarily referring to the first sentence in the story; rather, I mean the first major scene or revelation. Here are some novels with beginnings that I’ve found particularly powerful. Your list will be different, but I hope this will suffice to show you what I mean.
Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced begins as various residents of the village of Chipping Cleghorn open their copies of the Gazette. In it, they find the following advertisement:
‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 5th, at Little Paddocks at 6:30 pm. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’
It’s an irresistible invitation for the guests. It’s also irresistible for readers. It’s difficult not to wonder whether this is a game, whether there will be a murder, and if so, who the victim will be. When there is, indeed, a killing, Inspector Craddock investigates. With help from Miss Marple, he learns that someone’s done a very effective job of mental manipulation to accomplish the murder.
Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone has a very famous and powerful first line:
‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’
As I say, a powerful beginning is more than just a strong first sentence. But this line sets the tone for the whole book. In it, we learn that the wealthy and educated Coverdales hire Eunice Parchman to serve as their housekeeper. They don’t know, though, that she is keeping a secret – one she is desperate not to reveal. When a member of the family accidentally discovers that secret, this seals everyone’s fate. Rendell uses that strong first sentence and builds the tension as we learn the background to this tragedy.
The first scene in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect is also quite powerful – at least to me. Eighty-year-old George Wilcox is standing next to the body of eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke, whom he has just killed. Right away, the reader knows who the victim is, and who the killer is. That’s powerful enough that it invites the reader to come along and find out the motive and the story behind the murder. When RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg gets word of the case, he begins the investigation. Wilcox is one of his first interviewees, since he called the police. But Alberg doesn’t suspect Wilcox at first. Even after he begins to believe Wilcox may be guilty, he doesn’t know what the motive would be. What’s more, it’s hard for him to get any direct evidence to support his case. Among other things, this is an interesting matching of wits between Wilcox and Alberg.
The first scene in Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip takes place on a cruise of the Florida Everglades. Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone has taken his wife Joey on a trip to celebrate their anniversary, so he tells her. But here’s what happens:
‘At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perrone went overboard from a luxury deck of the cruise liner M.V. Sun Duchess. Joey was too dumb-founded to panic.
I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves…
Joey remained conscious and alert. Of course she did. She had been co-captain of her college swim team, a biographical nugget that her husband obviously had forgotten.’
Right away the reader is invited to wonder why Joey was pushed overboard, and what’s going to happen to her. It turns out that her husband’s been involved in (quite literally) some dirty business. He’s a marine biologist who’s found a way to fake water sample tests so that they come out ‘clean.’ His employer, Samuel ‘Red’ Hammernut has found that skill very useful for keeping eco-minded lawmakers and citizens from disturbing his agribusiness. Joey is rescued by former police officer Mick Stranahan, and together, they come up with a plan to make Chaz pay for what he’s done…
In the first scene of John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, Sonchai Jitpleecheep and his police partner Pinchai are following a grey Mercedes-Benz. They briefly lose their quarry, but by the time they find it again, the driver, William Bradley, is dead of bites from snakes that were trapped in his car with him. Here’s how Burdett puts it:
‘The African American Marine in the grey Mercedes will soon die of bites from Naja siamensis, but we don’t know that yet, Pichai and I (the future is impenetrable, says the Buddha).’
That opening scene is compelling, and it invites the reader to find out who would want to kill Bradley, why that method was chosen, and what the motive is.
And then there’s Scott Turow’s Innocent. That novel begins as Kindle County judge Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich is sitting on the bed where his wife, Barbara, lies dead. As his son Nat, says, that’s not really where the story begins. But it’s the powerful first scene in this novel, and is made all the more powerful because he’s been in that room with her body for almost twenty-four hours. As the novel unfolds, we learn about their history, we learn how she died, and we follow along as Rusty is tried for murdering her. In this novel, things aren’t always what they seem, but from the first bit, we’re presented with a compelling scenario.
There are many different ways for the author to get the reader’s attention and invite the reader to engage in the story. In whatever way the author chooses, the beginning of a novel is really important, as that’s where the reader makes the choice to finish the story or not. Which beginnings have you found most powerful?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Smokey Robinson’s You’re the One For Me.