First Among Firsts

Writers are always being asked — or told  — about first lines.  Get a good hook. Make those critical beginning words count.

Like most people, I’ve reacted to hundreds and hundreds of first words with sheer boredom, barely passing glances, humour, distaste, revelation, revulsion, hatred, pleasure, wonder and sadness. Sometimes even buoyancy and hope, those being, in my experience, the rarest.  I know that something about the many volumes I’ve read had to draw me in beyond a grabby cover, an interesting sounding author, a compelling plot description on the dust jacket.  Something had to make me want to sit back in my chair and read.

The odd thing is that when this topic presented itself, the only good first line – practically the only line – I could think of off the bat was “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” I mean you can’t reach the age of puberty without knowing that one. Pitiful.

So, I decided to take a look through a couple of bookshelves and see what had really nailed me from the get go. But good lines don’t stick with me. Good authors do.  And good books. So I went to the ones whose covers were falling off, which were held together with rubber bands, whose pages were wrinkled from reading in the shower (yes, I admit it, hell on books but great for moments of boredom accompanied only by soap and water).

One belonging to the last category was a David Wiltse book, Close to the Bone. I had high expectations. And was not disappointed.

“His grandmother could no longer negotiate the stairs, so Leon Brade took his victims to the basement.”

Creepy.  Silence of the Lambs creepy. Here’s another one from Wiltse. Home Again, this time:

“My father was hunting someone when I was born.”

Must go to the second sentence, which also doesn’t disappoint.

“He was always hunting someone in those days.”

I gobbled up Wiltse a couple of decades ago before he seemed to disappear into the maw of playwriting. This exercise having reminded me of his talent, I’ll look on Amazon and see what I can find of his that I haven’t read.

Of course, the hottest ticket for my money on first lines is Dick Francis. Get this one from Proof:

“Agony is socially unacceptable.”

Or this, from In the Frame:

“I stood on the outside of disaster, looking in.”

From Nerve’s:

“Art Matthews shot himself loudly and messily in the center of the parade ring at Dunstable races.”

Or in Hot Money, this gem:

“I intensely disliked my father’s fifth wife, but not to the point of murder.”

My favorite opens Risk:

Thursday, March 17, I spent the morning in anxiety, the afternoon in ecstasy, and the evening unconscious.”

Dick Francis could write a hell of a first sentence.

Then there’s Agatha Christie, who really had no need of good first lines because her short stories and books were so well known starting early on and so looked forward to even after her death.  Still, I liked this one from They Came to Baghdad:

“Captain Crosbie came out of the bank with the pleased air of one who has cashed a cheque and has discovered that there is just a little more in his account than he thought there was.”

I’m not sure my bank visits have ever resulted in that situation but I’d sure like them to.

Here’s a well-known one, not from a mystery or because of the author, David Niven, who used it in his book Bring on the Empty Horses, but because of who is quoted. The lines read:

“When Gertrude Stein returned to New York after a short sojourn in Hollywood, somebody asked her, ‘What is it like – out there?’

“To which, with little delay and the minimum of careful thought, the sage replied, ‘There is no ‘there’ – there.’”

Niven started his book with that in 1975. Not much has changed “there” or “not there” except that Stein’s line has become imbedded in modern literature.

Here’s one I like from P. D. James’ Devices and Desires:

“The Whistler’s fourth victim was his youngest, Valerie Mitchell, aged fifteen years, eight months and four days, and she died because she missed the 9:40 bus from Easthaven to Cobb’s Marsh.”

Sad. Intriguing. And maddening. All good qualities for a first line.

A couple more. James W. Hall’s Gone Wild:

“Allison Farleigh felt the dull tingle of a leech on her neck.”


John D. MacDonald’s One Fearful Yellow Eye:

“Around and around we went, like circling through wads of lint in a dirty pocket.”

I could go on for hours – and actually I’ve come close. But finding these long-lost sentences has become addictive.

Now, for something entirely different, here are the beginning lines from my own novels. The first, from Message in Panama:

“Death turned its sights on me Tuesday morning. With bougainvillea high-stepping in a hot, salty breeze and the effervescent noises of mankind surrounding me, dying was the last thing on my mind.”

I cheated a bit. That was two sentences.

And from Escape to Panama:

The girl in the bamboo cage was slick with blood.”

Does either of those make you want to read past the period at the end of the sentence?

As J. D. Robb starts out Witness in Death:

“There is always an audience for murder.”

Are you part of my audience?

~~ Jane Vasarhelyi

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