“In the beginning…” A Compilation of Some of My Favorite Opening Lines.

By James Hayman

You can’t beat a great first line or maybe first paragraph.  Do it right and you’ll sell a zillion books and maybe even get quoted in a blog. Do it wrong and it won’t matter because, most likely, nobody will read what comes next.

Just for the fun of it I thought I’d list a few of my favorite opening lines skipping the obvious classics like Melville’s  “Call me Ishmael” and Jane Austin’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”   Instead, I put down openers that I found especially memorable from more recent mysteries and other popular fiction or, in one case, from a movie.

Since ten seems like the right number for any list of favorites, here are my ten. I invite any and all of you to add your own favorites.

“Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional reputation on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker.” Michael Connelly, The Poet

“Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay.” Grace Metalious, Peyton Place

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind.

“Three days before her death, my mother told me—they weren’t her last words but they were pretty close—that my brother was still alive.” Harlan Coben,  Gone For Good

“The last camel collapsed at noon.”  Ken Follett, The Key to Rebecca

 “It is cold at six-forty in the morning of a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by a firing squad.” Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackel

 “Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.” Elmore Leonard,  Freaky Deaky

 “The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.” Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Daphne DuMaurier, Rebecca

And, for number ten, here’s a favorite opener that’s not from a book but a movie:

“Saigon, shit. I’m still only in Saigon.” John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now

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10 Responses to “In the beginning…” A Compilation of Some of My Favorite Opening Lines.

  1. Vicki Doudera says:

    I did mention this one in my post Monday about Casino Royale, but Ian Fleming’s opener bears repeating: The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    How about the way Troy Cook’s Edgar-nominated 47 Rules of Highly Effective Bank Robbers begins: At the tender age of nine, Tara Evans was one of the youngest bank robbers in history.

    Or anything by the wonderful Tim Hallinan. This, from Breathing Water: The man behind the desk is a dim shape framed in blinding light, a god emerging from the brilliance of infinity.

    Great fun post, Jim.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    I love Follett’s “The last camel died at noon,” too!

    Other favorites:
    Thomas H. Cook, Red Leaves: “Family photos always lie.”
    Victor Lodato, Mathilda Savitch: “I want to be awful.”
    Sharyn McCrumb, Ghost Riders: “The boy stood still in the moonlight watching the riders approach.”

    Always a fun exercise!

  4. Barry Ergang says:

    When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart out of a fine spring afternoon. –James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss

    Never disembowel yourself with a claw hammer and never speak to Margot before noon. These were the rules I lived by. And I would happily break the former as a means to avoid breaking the latter. –Rick Hanson, Spare Parts

  5. Deanna says:

    I cannot remember the name of the book, but the opening line was “May I borrow your camel, Dear?”

  6. MCWriTers says:

    Great fun getting more of these. A friend of mine named Rita Kissen reminded me of a wonderfully menacing opening line in a book one would never have thought of as menacing, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web which starts: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table.”

  7. Donald A. Coffin says:

    I’ve always loved this one:

    “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 little 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.”

    The Big Sleep, of course.

  8. Funny, I tend to remember last lines more than first. My all time favorite is by Doris Miles Disney–I won’t spoil it for you–just recommend that you read WINIFRED. And Laura Lippman’s latest, THE MOST DANGEROUS THING, contains the best last line I’ve read all year.

  9. Barry Ergang says:

    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. –Raymond Chandler, “Red Wind”

  10. Brenda says:

    “Pretty is as Pretty Dies” has this great one in the opening sentence of the prologue: “Parke Stoddard wouldn’t have ended up popped-over-the-head dead if she hadn’t been bent on mischief-making that morning.”

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