Thrillers, Mysteries, and Crime Fiction: 5 Masters of Opening Lines

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: 

Gillian Flynn

“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.”

Lee Child

”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.”

Harlan Coben

“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.” 

Sue Grafton

“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.” 

Dennis Lehane

“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.

Comment below with your favorite opening line from a thriller, mystery, or crime fiction novel for a chance to win a copy of Pacific Burn by Barry Lancet and a copy of The Advocate's Daughter by Anthony Franze!

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Masters of Opening Lines Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at beginning at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) January 6, 2016. Sweepstakes ends 12:59 p.m. ET January 20, 2015. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.


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.


  1. Sean

    “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” For me it evokes all these imagery that follows in Stephen Kings The Gunslinger, the first book of his dark tower series

  2. Jane Schwarz

    I do like Poe’s “Once upon a midnight dreary ….” . He immediately sets the tone and you can’t help being drawn in.

  3. Vanessa Galore

    It was to have been a quiet evening at home. Home is the Busted Flush, 52-foot barge-type houseboat, Slip F18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale.

    -John D. MacDonald, The Deep Blue Good-by

  4. Verbal

    These two beginnings are so great, I can’t exclude either one.

    “They threw me off the haytruck about noon.” — James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice

    The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years–if it ever did end–began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” — Stephen King, IT

  5. Gordon Bingham

    “Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting vonder the more flexible v of his mouth.” Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

  6. J. Aaron Sanders

    “Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way.” Patricia Highmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley

  7. Deb Philippon

    *It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday. * The opening to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which engrossed me from start to finish. Pity there won*t be any more.

  8. Philip Swan

    “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could neither read nor write.” Thus did Ruth Rendell open one of her most celebrated novels, A JUDGEMENT IN STONE. She not only revealed the novel’s outcome in its opening line, but by doing so seemed to defy readers not to continue reading. This is the Rendell novel that appears on many “Best” lists.

  9. G.M.

    Although not a Simon & Schuster publication, from “The Meaning of Night” by Michael Cox : “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper”

  10. Todd Henson

    “She lay on her back fastened by leather straps to a narrow bed with a steel frame. The harness was tight across her rib cage. Her hands were manacled to the sides of the bed.” You can feel the tension and suspense from the first words of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire.

  11. Sandra Slack

    “The half naked woman had come from the penthouse– she just hadn’t bothered to use the elevator. Instead, she stepped off the balcony, eleven stories up.” With that sentnce, Rebecca Forester begins her book, Privileged Witness, drawing you into a scene you can see in your mind’s eye, yet refuse to think about.

  12. Russell Moore

    Going back a bit, but one of my favorites: “To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman.” A Scandal in Bohemia

  13. Sharon Kaminski

    “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Charlotte’s Web by EB White.

  14. Irene Menge

    “Delirium brings comfort to the dying.” Second Wind by Dick Francis.
    Since I’m a “horseperson”, I’ve enjoyed Dick Francis’ crime fiction since I read his first book at more than 40 years ago. I have every book he has written and reread them at least once a year.

  15. Katherine Stukel

    From one of the first “grown-up” books I ever read:

    “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” From Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

  16. keith james

    Thanks again for another book that I will read.

  17. Peter W. Horton Jr.

    “I had’nt killed anyone in almost four years. But all good things come to an end, eventually.” From The Detachment by Barry Eisler. Yes!

  18. rickel bart

    first lines. no one will ever top the lead from 100 years of solitude

  19. tiac35

    Great giveaway. Count me in and good luck everyone.

  20. Gary Anderson

    There is a bullet in my chest, less than a centimeter from my heart.

    First line of A Cold Day in Paradise bt Steve Hamilton, 1998.

  21. Gary Anderson

    Great article by the way! All of your openings are perfect examples of how we get sucked into the stories. I think all of the openings mentioned in the comments are great examples, also. There was only one book I didn’t know and I have now searched for it and added it to my list for my next trip to B&N. Thanks.

  22. Stephanie Galbraith

    [color=rgb(6, 35, 68); font-size: 16px; line-height: 24px”>“‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”Web

  23. Kermit Crissey

    “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.” from “Gone Girl” by [b]Gillian Flynn[/b]



  25. Vicky Boackle

    looks good.

  26. Tarah Manning

    ”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.”

    I already want to know more!

  27. Marie-Louise Molloy

    April 9-10, 2009. Augie Odenkirk had a 1997 Datsun that still ran well in spite of high mileage, but gas was expensive, especially for a man with no job, and City Center was on the far side of town, so he decided to take the last bus of the night. Mr. Mercedes: Stephen King

  28. Eleanor (Ellie) Miller

    Apparently I’m not alone in this choice, but the opening line to Rebecca has no equal to my mind: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

  29. Eleanor (Ellie) Miller

    Apparently I’m not alone in this choice, but the opening line to Rebecca has no equal to my mind: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

  30. Susan Pertierra

    “The eyewitness said he didn’t actually see it happen.” from A Wanted Man by Lee Child.

  31. Charries Semidey

    [b]”Your going to be so sorry when you realize what you made me do…the good news is that I have NO regrets.” #JOE[/b]

    [b]YOU by Caroline Kepnes [/b]

    [b]Addicting in every way- “Hidden Bodies” sequel to “YOU” coming this February 2016[/b]

  32. ellie lewis

    The last camel collapsed at noon. The Key to rebecca by Ken Follett.

  33. theresa norris

    “The statutory definition of homicide is the “unlawful killing of one human being by another.” Sue Grafton, “K” is for Killer

  34. Laura Shangraw

    Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.-Rebecca


    I have reread this every year since I was 12…..
    “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again-Rebecca

    watch the movie at least yearly, too!

  36. susan beamon

    Last night, I found a gun. Or you could say I stole it. I’m not really sure. – The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Allison Markin Powell, the next book on my To Be Read pile.

  37. pearl berger

    Death is my beat. The Poet by Michael Connelly

  38. Michael Carter

    “There are places I’ll remember all my life—Red Square with a hot wind howling across it, my mother’s bedroom on the wrong side of Eight Mile, the endless gardens of a fancy foster home, a man waiting to kill me in a ruins known as the Theater of Death.”
    —- ‘I Am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes

    Thanks and best wishes!

  39. Joanne Mielczarski

    Thanks for the opportunity – something I am definitely going to read.

  40. Sara Staben

    “Stranger things happen in the dark dreams of the Great Persuader…”

    March Violets by Philip Kerr (1st in the Bernie Gunther series)

  41. JuneUlkoski Ulkoski

    I’ve read hundreds of novels since, but the best first line to me is still the opening of Rebecca, as others posted above.

  42. charles j hauser jr

    Although I have always been partial to the noir style the best first lines are always the ones that seduce you keep you reading until the very last line. Among these are gems of the past and one of them is from the long forgotten E.P. Oppenheim who wrote The Great Impersonator. “The trouble from which great events were to come began when Everard Dominey, who had been fighting his way through the scrub for the last three quarters of an hour towards those thin, spiral wisps of smoke, urged his pony to a last despairing effort and came crashing through the great oleander shrub to pitch forward on his head in the little clearing”

  43. Lori Walker


  44. Lori P

    I’ve always been impressed by the ease with which John le Carre commandeers a reader’s attention in a few, succinct sentences, as exemplified by these seemingly simple opening lines for ‘The Tailor of Panama’:
    “It was a perfectly ordinary Friday afternoon in tropical Panama until Andrew Osnard barged into Harry Pendel’s shopasking to be measured for a suit. When he barged in, Pendelwas one person. By the time be barged out again Pendel was another.”

  45. lasvegasnv

    no fav line

  46. Eric Jewett

    “October 12 was a good day for a killing.” The Hangman’s Daughter

    Sometimes, understatement just pulls you in.

  47. Crystal Blackburn

    “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” [b]The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Adventure I, A Scandal in Bohemia[/b]

  48. Brenda Tucker

    First lines begin a novel well or not. I chose , “The skeleton had been
    in the ground for a long time.” “The Killing Game” by Iris Johansen

  49. Jenn Brown

    The opening line of Gone Girl is hard to top (pardon the pun).

  50. wordygirl

    From Louise Penny’s “A Fatal Grace”:
    Had CC de Poitiers known she was going to be murdered she might have bought her husband, Richard, a Christmas gift.

  51. Wayne Smith

    One afternoon in late spring, Jane Whitaker went to the store for some milk and some eggs, and forgot who she was. – Joy Fielding, See Jane Run

  52. Jackie Wisherd

    There are some really great opening lines but this one recently kept me reading until I’d finished the first three chapters.
    “Stromsoe was in high school when he met the boy who would someday murder his wife and son. The boy’s name was Mike Tavarez.” from the book Storm Runnersby T. Jefferson Parker.

  53. ktpotat

    Who is John Galt.
    It was the best of times ,it was the worst of times.

  54. L

    “A man begins dying at the moment of his birth. Most people live in denial of Death’s patient courtship until, late in life and deep in sickness, they become aware of him sitting bedside.” ~”The Husband” by Dean Koontz

  55. Darlene Slocum

    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.
    Lee Child-I like his books

  56. Andrew Kuligowski

    ” Bob Barnes says they got a dead body out on BLM land. ” Craig Johnson, in The Cold Dish, starts not only a novel, but what turned out to be a series of novels and eventually a television series, with a basic tone-setting line. Of course, nothing beats the first line of the last verse of David Allen Coe’s You Never Even Call Me By My Name, ” I was drunk the day that Mom got out of prison “.

  57. Joy Isley

    Despite the horror of his crime, there was a chance Eugene Tupp might go free. The legal system was a board game. Right didn’t always prevail. That’s what Jack Ruskin was afraid of—THE FIFTH ANGEL by Tim Green


    Love Mysteries.
    Winter is here & I need new books to read.

  59. marie johnson

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

  60. Kim Keithline

    sounds great sign me up

  61. vicki wurgler

    The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming, Glitz by Elmore Leonard

  62. John Clark

    “Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch.”-Dragon Tears by Dean Koontz.

  63. Linda Peters

    great winter reading

  64. Leslie Davis

    True, nervous very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?- Tell-Tale Heart

  65. Mitchell Glavas

    “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

    Does it get any better than that? No, it does not.

  66. Anastasia

    I’d love to check it out 🙂

  67. Barbara Miller

    Great contest. I’d love to win.

  68. Susan Smith

    I feel compelled to report that at the moment of death, my entire life did not pass before my eyes in a flash. From I is for Innocent Sue Grafton

  69. Susan Smoaks

    “It was a pleasure to burn,” Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451.

  70. Rhonda Stefani

    “Help me! Dear Father in heaven, please! She had to find a way to save herself and her children. For the love of God, she had to save them.”
    Close to Home- Lisa Jackson
    I love the opening lines of her books, always have!

  71. simon1980

    she had to[] save[/url] them.

  72. julie hawkins

    I really want to read these

  73. Johannah Brookwell

    I didn’t know what I missed until they finally told me what came before. My own!

  74. Sandra Slack

    There are too many to list.. all of Lisa Jackson’s for instance.

  75. LL Laughlin

    “It was a pleasure to burn,” Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451.

  76. Ann Muth

    I am an invisible man. HG Wells , The Invisible Man

  77. Ed Nemmers

    In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

  78. Jeanette Jackson

    The Poet by Michael Connelly- Death is my beat.

  79. Tad Ottman

    I would love to read these!

  80. Tad Ottman

    Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other. Slayground by Richard Stark

  81. trish mckee

    You’ve been here before. Needful Things by Stephen King

  82. Betty Curran

    The cemetery overlooked a schoolyard. One False Move by Harlan Coben

  83. Shari Klyn

    The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas , a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’
    In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  84. Lily

    Thannks for the great giveaway!

  85. barbara stenby

    would love to wim!

  86. Heather Cowley

    “Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch.”

    Dean Koontz Dragon Tears

  87. JULES M.

    Even before the events in the supermarket, Jim Ironheart should have known that trouble was coming. (Cold Fire)

  88. Jim Belcher

    Moving a guy as big as Keeve wasn’t easy. It wsa like trying to wrestle a king-size mattress off a waterbed. So they buried him close to the house.

    Make Me by Lee Child

  89. Carol Gowett

    If there’s a maniac or an ax murderer within a hundred-mile radius, he–or she–will come straight to me, Clare Westbrook, hapless attorney at law, like steel filings to a magnet. Never Look Back, Linda Lael Miller

  90. Deb Tilton

    [b]my favorite opening is still this one: [/b]
    “It was a dark and stormy night.”
    please enter me in to win

  91. Female Graphic Novel

    The article can be good source of knowledge. You can avoid future mistakes from these reasons. But most importantly you have to stick to one idea you can’t just wait and choose one of the above given reasons and not try to get the book published.

  92. La Crime Story

    To update you need proper information and need to be kept with utmost care and caution, the informations are not easily found so hence need to be specially taken care of. Very nice piece of work, keep updating and all the best for the write up.

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