After you’ve read Barry Lancet and Anthony Franze’s piece about some of the masters of opening lines, comment below with your own favorite opening from a thriller, mystery, or crime fiction novel and you’ll be entered for a chance to win a copy of Barry’s new novel, PACIFIC BURN, from his acclaimed Jim Brodie series, and Anthony’s upcoming heart-stopper, THE ADVOCATE’S DAUGHTER.
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
Ah, the power of the opening line. The writer’s obsession. To capture the story and the voice that will lure the reader in. That first kiss that (hopefully) leads to the seduction. We all know famous openings from the classics—“Call me Ishmael,” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and the list goes on—but what about the great first lines from popular fiction?
As two thriller writers who live with the obsession ourselves, we compared notes on other thriller, mystery, and crime fiction writers we consider masters of the art of the opening. We had a number of the same names on our respective lists. Here are five:
“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”
The beginning of Gone Girl set the tone for a dark story about a dark marriage. Gillian Flynn didn’t pull any punches when amplifying it. She toyed with the literal image, and then closed the deal later down the page: “Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy?“
Flynn’s earlier work is arguably less subtle, but likewise uses the body to grab attention and create atmosphere that screams “psychological suspense,” like this opener from Dark Places:
“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.”
”I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.”
There’s a matter-of-factness to the opening lines of Lee Child’s first novel, Killing Floor, that is deceptive. A diner, lunchtime, eggs, and coffee—it’s hard to get more matter of fact than that. And yet, this simple opening segment’s immediacy captures our attention. The short, punchy sentences create a rhythm and pull us into the story with a series of equally matter-of-fact whys.
Why was this guy arrested? Why is he eating breakfast at lunchtime? Why was he wet and tired and walking into town in the rain—who does that?
Jack Reacher, of course.
Killing Floor is no stranger to “best of” lists for opening lines, but Child’s later work uses a similar technique to great effect, like the opening to The Hard Way:
“Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever.”
“I sat in the back pew and watched the only woman I would ever love marry another man.”
This first line in Harlan Coben’s Six Years jumpstarts his “domestic thriller.” The book sees a man’s love torn apart in a seemingly impossible manner. This is everyone’s worst nightmare—set down in a single, deceptively smooth sentence. You cannot help but want to read on to figure out how in the world such a thing could have happened.
Coben is a pro at not only grabbing readers by the lapels, but evoking emotion in his openings. Consider the start of Gone for Good:
“Three days before her death, my mother told me—these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close—that my brother was still alive.”
“I feel compelled to report that at the moment of death, my entire life did not pass before my eyes in a flash.”
Sue Grafton may be running out of letters in the alphabet for her series, but not from compelling opening lines. As reflected in the above opening from I is for Innocent, she has a knack for capturing the voice of the feisty yet personable Kinsey Millhone in her openings, while using death to build intrigue.
In the later W is for Wasted she does the same, only she doubles down on death:
“Two dead men changed the course of my life that fall. One of them I knew and the other I’d never laid eyes on until I saw him in the morgue.”
“Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement.”
The opening to Live by Night by one of the reigning kings of crime fiction in a single line tells readers much about the character. The location and the feet in cement suggest he’s been into some bad things. The method of execution is also immediately evocative of the period, in this case the Roaring Twenties, when murders and disappearances often were conducted with brutal simplicity.
Dennis Lehane did it again in Until Gwen, a short story he wrote for The Atlantic:
“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.”
You get a sense that prison was probably inevitable for someone raised by this father-of-the-year, and you feel for the character even though you don’t know what he did to land inside.
These five authors write very different types of books, using very different techniques for openings: psychological imagery, lyrical prose amid an ordinary setting, the power of emotion and death, and backstory. Yet, all five masters of the opening include that one critical ingredient for success—they make the reader want to turn the page.
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Barry Lancet’s latest Jim Brodie mystery-thriller, PACIFIC BURN (Simon & Schuster Feb. 9, 2016), opens with the line“The phone call came far too early to herald anything good.” The first book in the series, JAPANTOWN, won the Barry Award for “Best First Novel,” and the second, TOKYO KILL, was a finalist for a Shamus Award for “Best P.I. Novel of the Year.” Lancet divides his time between Japan and the United States.
Anthony Franze’s upcoming novel, THE ADVOCATE’S DAUGHTER (St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur, Mar. 22, 2016), begins with, “It all started with a bottle of Nikka whiskey and a cold stare.” Anthony is a lawyer in the Supreme Court practice of a prominent D.C. law firm and his novel is a family thriller set in the insular Supreme Court world.