8.14.2007

Best Opening Lines in Detective Fiction


I don't write much about mysteries or detective fiction because I don't read as much of them as I do other types of fiction -- perhaps every third of fourth book. But I like a well-written, well-plotted one as much as the next guy. Peter Rozovsky, in his blog, Detectives Beyond Borders: A Forum for International Crime Fiction, posts about great opening lines in crime fiction. He includes one of his own favorites, from Raymond Chandler's "Red Wind:"
"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. 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."
Then there's the round of quotes that readers provided in their comments, such as:
"Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write."
-- Ruth Rendell, A Judgement in Stone; and
"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."
-- Declan Hughes, The Wrong Kind of Blood

Thanks to Book/Daddy for the lead. He notes " how rarely such masters as Dashiell Hammett, Elmore Leonard or Ross Macdonald open with anything more than a clean, simple statement. Yet those declarations draw in expectations, get things rolling, especially when the author keeps the snap for the end." He offers these examples:

"Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns."

-- The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, and

"I sat in my brand-new office with the odor of paint in my nostrils and waited for something to happen."
-- "Find the Woman," from Name is Archer by Ross Macdonald

Makes me want to take a look at all of these, starting with the Rendell.

6 comments:

Peter said...

Then there's the chapters-long opening, as in Fred Vargas' Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand. When you're done with it, you'll know more about the
police station water heater and drinks machine than you will about the case the officers will handle. But it may be the most beguiling opening I've read in a crime novel. I recommend the novel. I'd to hear how (and if!) the opening draws you in.

With respect to "Red Wind," how do you feel about the last line of that opening paragraph?
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

BookGirl said...

Peter, thanks for the recommendation of the Vargas book. Coincidentally, I read my first of her books recently and enjoyed it, so I'll check this one out.

As to the line you mention, I'm not crazy about it. I think it's not of a piece with the tone of the rest of the paragraph. It injects (at least for me) a note of sarcasm that's not in keeping with the rest -- particularly the sentence before it.

Peter said...

Which Vargas have you read? I've just started The Three Evangelists.

You passed the test on "Red Wind." It's a funny line, and what precedes it is a fine piece of atmosphere setting. I'm just not sure the two go together. It reads as if Chandler was embarrassed at having thrown himself wholeheartedly into the description and felt he had to lighten the atmosphere with a joke.

Of course, the joke is also an entry into the story, which opens in a cocktail lounge.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot

Peter said...

Thanks for posting those photos, also. Some gorgeous stuff came out of those crafts workshops.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot

BookGirl said...

Peter, I read Vargas's Have Mercy on Us All, which I enjoyed. I particularly liked the contrast of the characters of the main character and his second. I hope that we see them develop further in relation to each other in the series.

Peter said...

You have much to look forward to in Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, then. Vargas plays up that contrast strongly right from the novel's opening.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot