Wednesday, 2 January 2008

First sentences

I don’t think it’s true that a good opening sentence means that the book as a whole is bound to be equally effective. But it helps. There’s much to be said in favour of grabbing the reader’s attention, although this can be done with subtlety as well as with a shock. Over the years, authors as good – and as different from each other - as Dickens, Orwell, Camus and Daphne du Maurier have created memorable openings to memorable novels.

There have been some wonderful opening sentences to crime novels, too. Ruth Rendell is very good in this department, as she is in almost everything she does in the genre – perhaps best of all at the start of the masterly A Judgment in Stone: ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ Who could not want to know how that happened?

Mind you, some of the Golden Age detective novelists, including some of the best, seemed to work on the principle that the more mundane the opening, the better. Take an example that Harry Keating has quoted in Murder Must Appetise from Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel: ‘The 5.0 p.m. train from Cannon Street runs fast as far as Stourford, where it is due at 6.7. On Thursday, November 14th, it was, as usual, fairly full, but not uncomfortably so.’ At least this method does not raise expectations too high. Yet Burton (aka John Rhode and Cecil Waye) was a successful writer in his day and retains a loyal fan base; some of his novels go for very high prices in the collectors' market.

Of course, precisely how to open a novel is a subject much in mind since I have started work on a new book. Here are some of my past efforts:

‘Do you think I murdered Alison?’ asked Stirrup. (Suspicious Minds.)

‘How long have you been afraid of me?’ (First Cut is the Deepest.)

‘The dead woman smiled. So far, so good.’ (Take My Breath Away.)

‘You’d never believe it to look at me now, but once upon a time I killed a man.' (The Arsenic Labyrinth.’

And here – at least, unless and until I have a change of mind – is the start of the new novel:

‘The books were burning.’



9 comments:

Maxine said...

I've just read and very much enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. The first few chapters concern a young woman who does not read contemporary fiction (for various reasons explained in the book). When she finally does, she is immediately hooked in the way you describe in your post - if not by the first line, by the first paragraph or two.
Mind you, The Thirteenth Tale does not have a great first line: "It was November". Great book, though -- I had no idea it was going to be a "mystery" or "crime" novel but in a way it is -- though you could not pigeonhole it into a narrow genre.

eric-mayer said...

Very interesting entry. I directed my JournalScape readers to it.

http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/2008-01-02-12:01

Julia Buckley said...

And by the way, that was a most excellent novel by Ruth Rendell, although horrifying. :)

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments. Maxine, I'll certainly look out for the Setterfield book. Julia, the Rendell book is one of my all-time favourites - I also saw an extraordinary dramatised version at a Nottingham crime festival during the 1990s.

Maxine said...

I agree, Judgement in Stone is a very good book - I'm tempted to re-read it.

Martin Edwards said...

Isn't that the difficulty, Maxine? So many fine books that it would be good to re-read. So many more that one is desperate to get around to for the first time. I've only managed to read two mysteries from cover to cover this holiday - and it's back to work tomorrow. It feels like under-achievement. The best laid reading plans....

Xavier said...

the Rendell book is one of my all-time favourites - I also saw an extraordinary dramatised version at a Nottingham crime festival during the 1990s.

Have you seen the French film adaptation directed by Claude Chabrol?

Martin Edwards said...

Xavier, I haven't seen the Chabrol film, unfortunately. Is it good?

Xavier said...

I have seen it many times ago and yes, it was excellent, with stellar performances from Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert. Chabrol is fairly uneven a director, but when he's good he's damn good, the best of French directors in exercise.