There are readers, and, I suspect, editors and agents who see the first line of a mystery metaphorically, as an anecdote is used. The line is both different from other lines but emblematic of them just as an anecdote is a unique experience in a person’s life but ironically also revealing of the whole life. A great first line uses language in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, with a sense of rhythm much in the same way that a song’s lines might. And, like a reverberating line from a Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen song, a first line can be aphoristic and therefore memorable.
A great first line sets up the whole story or novel. Consider this opening line from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” The story, not routinely listed as one of his mystery stories, is an extraordinary study of the motive and strategy of a murder. Here is the line: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” Look at what this line contains. It has both of the principal characters in the story, the narrator and the tragically misnamed Fortunato. It contains the speaker’s motive: revenge. And it has anticipation through unanswered questions: what will the revenge be? What was the insult that triggered the desire for revenge? We learn the chilling answer to the first question; the second remains a mystery.
A mystery in part provides the intellectual pleasure of a puzzle, but much more importantly it provides an exploration of issues involving our own life and inevitable death. All this has to be contained in a single line. No wonder some writers agonize so painfully over that line.
Of course, it is agonizingly difficult for a writer to construct a first line that contains all of these elements. So most first lines settle on their most crucial task, which is getting us to read the next line. Consider the first line of Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca: “The last camel died at noon.” As a perfect title does, a good first line provides readers with a picture. We can see that camel dying. We have a sense of the setting. There’s a lot of information in those six words. Consider the single word “last.” It’s a crucial word, for camels provide transportation. If the last one has died, will a character or characters be stranded?
Many popular first lines overwhelm us with charm or bowl us over with the power of their imagery and language. Consider, for example, the well-known first line from James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss: "When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon." Now, that’s a line.
My favorite Dashiell Hammett first line is this famous one from Red Harvest: “I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.” The first-person narration Hammett uses, so typical of hardboiled detective fiction, eventually brings us right into the face of the violence. The use of first person prevents us from moving further back from the violence. Hammett’s slang, often borrowed from the underworld, is used by people like prisoners who want to create a special code so as to give themselves power when in fact they are subservient to the prison authorities and, for them and all the rest of us, to the society and world in which we live. Hammett’s detective, the unnamed Continental Op, can size people up quickly using almost a shorthand. First lines need to have a fast delivery.
Here, randomly are other great first lines:
From Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye: "The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers"
From James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice:“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”
From Richard Stark’s The Mourner: “When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.”
Please feel free to comment on your favorite first lines.