I Knew Right Away, From the Very First Day*

Powerful BeginningsPublishers, 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.

32 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, John Burdett, L.R. Wright, Ruth Rendell, Scott Turow

32 responses to “I Knew Right Away, From the Very First Day*

  1. What great examples you’ve lined up for us there, Margot! I love that John Burdett one – the whole first chapter is so strong (and fierce and sad). And of course that Ruth Rendell one is a classic, one of the best first lines in crime fiction – and breaking all the rules, as it gives us the victim, the murderer and the motive.

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia. I’ve always thought the Rendell one of the most powerful openers in crime fiction. Just brilliant; and, as you say, it breaks the rules. But it works! And yes, the Burdett is very strong, too. And what I love about it is that it gives you real character insights.

  2. Love these examples Margot. Sometimes first lines just come naturally, other times they need to be worked on, either way it needs to capture the imagination straight off the bat and these do just that 🙂

    • Thanks, D.S. I really like those examples very much, too. And you’re absolutely right that they do invite the reader to be drawn in, right from the first moment. That’s part of what makes these memorable.

  3. jean-paul

    Very interesting comments. Yes first lines or first paragraphs matter a lot.

    ps: typo “when” should be “went” in : ‘At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perrone when overboard from a luxury deck of the cruise liner M.V. Sun Duchess. Joey was too dumb-founded to panic

  4. As you know A Judgement In Stone is one of my favourite books and it does have a killer opening. I also like the sound of The Suspect, the set-up certainly has caught my attention.

  5. jean-paul

    The French translation of SKINNY DIP is pretty awful ! Such a shame !!

  6. Col

    Posts like these highlight how poor my memory is! I’ll look forward to both the Rendell and the Wright books when I get there.

    • I think you’ll like the Wright, Col. It’s a really interesting study of a murder (at least in my opinion). The Rendell is a classic, too. As to memory…. what was your name? 😉

  7. Two of my recent reads have had great openings that have really pulled me straight in – both quite hard to discuss without spoilers though, since in each it’s the element of surprise that does the trick. Ian Rankin’s ‘Even Dogs in the Wild’ starts with two thugs in a forest in order to bury a body, but things don’t quite go as planned. And in Johan Theorin’s ‘The Voices Beyond’ there’s an incredibly atmospheric and creepy opening when a young boy’s dinghy gets run down by a boat, and on climbing aboard the boat to save himself, he finds… well, let’s just say it’s a great opening!

    • Oh, wonderful, FictionFan! And both are novels that are coming up soon on my TBR list, so (as ever!) thank you for not spoiling. I do think both authors are quite good at drawing the reader in, right from the beginning. They’re quite different, but they are both so skilled in that way.

  8. Excellent topic. A Judgement in Stone is brilliant. I’d also put in a word for The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake and Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles.

    • Thank you, Martin. I couldn’t agree more about the Rendell. It really is memorable, isn’t it? And thanks for your other two suggestions. One of these times, I really must put Blake and Iles in the spotlight…

  9. A terrific and timely post, Margot, as I’m taking crime writing masterclass next week and planned to show examples of great openings. I weigh in later with a couple I’ve read recently.

  10. Kathy D.

    Yes. First paragraphs or pages can make the difference for me if I’ll read a book or not sometimes. The Suspect is a case in point. Once I read the beginning, I was hooked.
    Many mysteries have this particular characteristic. Those invariably pull me into the book.
    Another book that sucked me right in is The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant: a nun is found dead in 15th-century Florence. She has a snake tattoo on her torso going up to her neck. Needless to say, I was hooked.
    Fascinating story, a piece of historical fiction and fun to read.

    • It sure sounds that way, Kathy. And I’m with you about those first pages and paragraphs. They really do make all the difference. Even if one doesn’t think one’s going to like a book, just one chapter can draw the reader in, and The Suspect is, I think, a good example of that. I’ve heard great things about the Dunant, too.

  11. Margot, these are some terrific examples of great openings. A good opening, especially one that is original and unconventional, is good enough for me to read a book right through, because I know just what kind of narrative style to expect. Again, Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury come to mind.

  12. jean-paul

    One of the most famous opening lines in French literature is: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.” L’Étranger, Albert Camus (1942)
    So famous that no two English translators seem to agree on how to translate it ! http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/lost-in-translation-what-the-first-line-of-the-stranger-should-be

    My favourite ones in English are “My first act on entering this world was to kill my mother.” The New Confessions. William Boyd and “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen

    • Thank you, Jean-Paul. I like Camus’ writing, too, so I am very glad you mentioned his work. And about translators? It’s always difficult to get people to agree on, especially, a nuanced sentence. And Austen’s and Boyd’s works are classic.

  13. Margot: A great beginning need not always be dramatic to draw a reader. An opening that intrigues can be very effective. Janice Macdonald starts Another Margaret, an academic mystery, with:

    Whoever said “when things get rough you can always fall back on
    teaching” probably had not considered the rigors of pedagogy. Of course,
    they probably had no idea what the word pedagogy meant in the first
    place.

    It caught me.

    • I like that beginning, too, Bill – thanks. And you’re absolutely right that a beginning doesn’t have to be dramatic. A simple, but very well-written, beginning can be just as much of a draw.

  14. Really good examples, Margot. I tend to invoke Chandler a lot, but I can’t resist quoting the opening The Big Sleep:
    “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.”

    • I love that example, Bryan. It certainly sets the scene beautifully, and sets the reader up for Marlowe’s visit to the Sternwoods. And feel free to refer to Chandler any time 🙂

  15. I’ve mentioned it before, Margot, but I think one of my favorite scene-setting first lines is in the opening sentence of Hake Talbot’s brilliant Rim of the Pit: “I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.” Good opening for an impossible crime mystery, no? And, if you’re wondering, the speaker means that literally…

  16. Some great examples here, Margot. That description of the opening for John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 entices me to read it soon.

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