The beginning of a novel is crucial. For many readers, if the first bit of the novel doesn’t draw them in and get their interest, they don’t want to bother finishing it. And even readers who are willing to finish a novel with a less-than-interesting beginning won’t feel the same about it as they would if they’d been ‘hooked’ right away.
One advantage crime writers have is that you can always start a story with a murder or a body. That’s often enough to get the reader’s attention. So, it’s little wonder so many crime novels start that way.
Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library begins as Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly, wake up to learn that their maid has found a body in the library of their home, Gossington Hall. It’s a young woman, who is at first unidentified. Colonel Bantry calls the police, which is exactly what he should do. But Dolly Bantry knows better. She calls Miss Marple. Soon enough, the victim gets a name. Eighteen-year-old Ruby Keene, who worked as a professional dancer, has been reported as missing, and the body that the Bantrys’ maid found is identified as hers. It turns out to be a complicated case, and the reader is invited to engage with it right away, since the body is found at the beginning of the novel.
Here’s the first sentence of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna:
‘They found the corpse on the eighth of July just after three o’clock in the afternoon.’
The body, that of an unidentified young woman, is brought up from Lake Vãttern. Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team take part in the investigation, since it looks to be complicated. It takes quite some time, but the woman is finally identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was on a tour of Sweden when she died. It takes months – and some luck – to find out who killed the victim and why, but in the end, Beck and his team find the answers.
Minette Walters’ The Breaker also begins with a body. Brothers Paul and Daniel Spender are exploring one morning near Chapman’s Pool on the Dorset coast. They’ve ‘borrowed’ their father’s expensive binoculars to get a better view of everything. Paul, the older of the two, spots a young woman apparently sunbathing in the nude. It’s not long, though, before it occurs to both brothers that she hasn’t moved in a while, and that, in fact, she’s dead. They give the alarm, and, soon enough, Police Constable (PC) Nick Ingram gets to the scene and begins an investigation. Soon, the woman is identified as Kate Sumner. Her husband, William, reported her missing when it was discovered that their three-year-old daughter, Hannah, was wandering around the town of Poole by herself. Ingram, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) John Galbraith, Woman Police Constable (WPC) Sandra Griffiths, and Superintendent Carpenter, work together to find out who killed Kate. Eventually, they settle on three suspects. One is, as you might guess, the victim’s husband. Another is a local actor named Stephen Harding. A third is Harding’s roommate, a schoolteacher named Tony Bridges. Little by little, the police pull apart the layers of Kate’s complicated life and find out who murdered her.
Gordon Ell’s The Ice Shroud begins as the body of a woman is discovered in a mostly-frozen river not far from Queenstown, on New Zealand’s South Island. Detective Sergeant (DS) Malcolm Buchan is the new head of the local Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB), so he’ll lead the investigation. It’s soon established that the woman is Edie Longstreet, who co-owned an upmarket lingerie shop called Figments. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much motive for murder. But before long, Buchan and his team find that there are several leads. There’s the victim’s ex-husband, there are her business contacts, and there’s the fact that she had a complicated personal life. It’s not going to be an easy case, and it’s going to involve peeling back a layer of secrets. This novel invites the reader to engage right away, as the body is discovered, and the authorities pull it out of the river.
Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, which takes place in 1919, begins with the discovery of the body of Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal. He’s found in an alley in Calcutta/Kolkata, and Captain Sam Wyndham will be in charge of the investigation. He and his assistants, Sub-inspector John Digby and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, will have to be careful. McAuley was an important person and moved in some high circles. So, talking to witnesses and finding out who might have wanted the man killed will be a challenge. It doesn’t help matters that some of the evidence suggests that a group of revolutionaries is responsible. That possibility will involve other government forces. It turns out to be a complicated case, and Wyndham will have to negotiate a lot of the difficult realities of late-Raj India to find out the truth.
One of the novels I’m working on now starts with a death:
The pain started as he buckled his seat belt. At first, he didn’t pay very much attention to it. He was middle-aged now, and aches and pains were starting to be a part of daily life. And he’d started his exercise program yesterday. Still, he felt fine that morning as he went to his office. It was a regular Wednesday morning, like so many others. Stop for coffee, get to the office, catch up with email, return telephone calls, and then a conference with Emma about his schedule for the day. After that a meeting with some of the people at the office, that was all. Everything normal. Must be he just threw something out as he bent to get into the car.
As you can imagine, this is not going to end well.
There are a lot of ways to begin a novel with a ‘hook’ that will invite readers to engage in the story. A dead body is one of them, and it can be very effective. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse’s Roxie.