A good mystery sings from the get-go.
“It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.”
Those dozen words opened Julia Spencer-Fleming’s 2002 debut novel, In the Bleak Midwinter. I’ve never forgotten them. Julia made good on the promise of that line, spinning out a powerful tale about an abandoned baby, a dead young mother, and a small community where despite the fact everybody knows most everybody else, some manage to keep their secrets. In The Bleak Midwinter won a pile of important awards and launched Julia’s successful series that now numbers nine books with the tenth on the way.
Chris Holm knit together four perfect sentences to kick off his award-winning 2015 novel The Killing Kind:
“The streets of downtown Miami shimmered in the evening heat, the summer air rich with spice and song. Neon and rum and the warm ocean breeze conspired to make the city thrum with lurid anticipation. It was, after all, a Friday night in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. Still, no one who walked that night beneath the broad modern portico of the Morales Incorporated Building suspected they’d briefly occupied the spot where a man was about to die.”
I can feel the sticky Florida air. My nose reacts to the capsaicin from the frying peppers. The early evening energy has me jumpy with anticipation. And because Chris is a master at this, now I want to know what will disrupt this setting, so I sit down and lose myself in the story of a hit man with a specialty – he only kills other hitmen.
My friend Robyn Gigl’s newest book Remain Silent, starts with this bang:
“Erin eyes the camera in the corner of the ceiling. After almost twelve years as a criminal defense lawyer, she had been in enough interrogation rooms to know that it probably wasn’t the only one focused on her.”
In Remain Silent, Erin, an openly transgender attorney, is targeted by ruthless political players who fear she knows things about them they don’t want known. Though I don’t do criminal defense work, that scenario Robyn uses to kick off this powerful third book in her Erin McCabe series—a lawyer winding up on the wrong side of the table—chills me as it would anyone who cares about perversion of the rule of law by those who claim to revere it.
British author Ann Cleeves uses precise, telling details to raise the tension from a simmer to a boil in Raven Black, the first book in her Shetland Island series, featuring Inspector Jimmy Perez:
“Twenty past one in the morning on New Year’s Day, Magnus knew the time because of the fat clock, his mother’s clock, which squatted on the shelf over the fire. In the corner the raven in the wicker cage muttered and croaked in its sleep. Magnus waited. The room was prepared for visitors, the fire banked with peat and on the table a bottle of whisky and the ginger cake he’d bought in Safeway’s the last time he was in Lerwick. He could feel himself dozing, but he didn’t want to go to bed in case someone should call at the house. If there was a light at the window someone might come, full of laughter and drams and stories. For eight years nobody had visited to wish him happy new year, but still he waited just in case.”
I don’t need to tell you that visitors do appear. Lonely Magnus winds up a suspect when one of them is later found dead and some in the rural community hear the echo of a similar killing years ago. I knew when I finished that first paragraph the story would be compelling on many levels, and that is an understatement.
Attica Locke is another writer who uses detail to draw the reader into a world where quiet menace bubbles beneath a placid surface. Bluebird, Bluebird, her 2017 novel set in an East Texas town where racial tension informs every single thing, does not start with a bang. Her writing is so smooth, so seductive, it doesn’t have to:
“Geneva Sweet ran an orange extension cord past Mayva Greenwood, Beloved Wife and Mother, May She Rest with Her Heavenly Father. Late morning sunlight pinpricked through the trees, dotting a constellation of light on the blanket of pine needles at Geneva’s feet as she snaked the cord between Mayva’s sister and her husband Leland, Father and Brother in Christ. She gave the cord a good tug, making her way up the modest hill, careful not to step on the graves themselves, only the well-worn grooves between the headstones, which were spaced at haphazard and odd angles, like the teeth of a pauper.”
Doesn’t that make you just keep on reading?
What crime novels feature your favorite opening lines/passages? Hold forth in the comments, friends, and if you want to toss in any recommendations for vacation reading, have at it!
Brenda Buchanan brings years of experience as a journalist and a lawyer to her crime fiction. She has published three books featuring Joe Gale, a newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. She’s now hard at work on a new novel and several short stories. FMI, go to http://brendabuchananwrites.com