It’s always fun, when in a bookstore, to pick up a random book and read the opening paragraph. Over the years, this exercise has resulted in the purchase of books I might have otherwise missed or ignored. I discovered Fred Vargas’s The Chalk-Circle Man this way, which soon led me to her other wonderful books. As a teen, the opening lines of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye hooked me instantly. I’ve been a fan of Philip Marlowe’s adventures ever since.
It goes without saying that a great opening sets the tone of a book. Ian Fleming and John Steinbeck are responsible for my two favorite opening paragraphs. Fleming’s introduction to Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel, is brilliant for its sense of atmosphere:
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling–a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension–becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.
The opening to Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is wonderful for its vivid evocation of setting:
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.
While I’m certainly not attempting to compare myself with the likes of Fleming and Steinbeck (!), I thought I’d share the opening paragraphs to my previous books. I hope you enjoy . . .
On the House (Berkley, October 2005):
This story is true. Names have not been changed to protect the innocent, for nearly all the participants were perpetrators of nefarious schemes and bodily harm. They were low-rent thugs and booze-addled crooks surprisingly incompetent in their criminal undertakings. This is not a tale of smooth operators in silk suits. It is, instead, a story of bungling ineptitude, of a crime so convoluted, authorities were “admittedly skeptical” of its veracity when it first came to light. Once the facts were established, Bronx District Attorney Samuel J. Foley declared the scheme to be “the most grotesque chain of events in New York criminal history.”
A dark, cramped space of stagnant air, the bomb shelter’s interior smelled of cold mortar and stale sweat. A stone seat ran the length of one inner wall, while, on the floor, an electric lantern cast a pallid circle of light across the morbid discovery made earlier that morning. The brick-built shelter was one of several on Montague Place, Marylebone—near Regent’s Park in Central London—and one of countless similar structures that lined the streets of the capital. It was just shy of nine o’clock, and a harsh winter’s sun backlit the city’s shattered skyline. Daybreak came hard to London, a metropolis whose landscape had been forever altered by incendiary and high-explosive—but the air-raid sirens had remained silent the night before.
War of Words (Union Square Press, May 2009):
A profession not without risk, the job of newspaper editor attracted men of stern stuff in the testosterone-rich days of old San Francisco. Nearly fatal beatings and bloodletting by pistol and bowie knife were regularly occurring phenomena outside (and sometimes inside) the sanctity of the newsroom. Gunpowder and steel proved highly effective in expressing one’s displeasure with an article–more so than a letter to the editor. An angry reader gunned down a reporter in the autumn of 1852 outside Sacramento after the scribe penned an editorial criticizing the governor. One editor got the picture and posted the following notice on his office door: “Subscriptions received from 9 to 4; challenges from 11 to 12 only.”
Dark City (Ian Allan, London, October 2010):
Christmas shoppers crowded narrow Birchin Lane in the early afternoon hours of Friday, 8 November 1944, their collars turned up against the heavy fog that hung over the city. They paid scant attention to the Vauxhall that turned into the street shortly after two-thirty and came to a stop outside Frank Wordley’s jewelry store at number 23. Three young men, one of them carrying an axe, clambered out of the vehicle and approached the store’s front window.
The Killing Skies (Spellmount/The History Press, London, March 2006):
Memories still lingered. A generation of British men wiped out in the mud-swamped, rat-infested trenches of the Western Front. A war not yet far removed by the passing of time. Now, on a Sunday, a mere two decades after the Great War’s guns fell silent, the BBC carried the subdued tones of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, broadcasting from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street . . . At 11 a.m. on 3 September 1939, as barrage balloons ascended above London, Big Ben tolled the hour of war.