Great First Lines In Badass Literature | Books | Forum
So this morning I started reading The Doomsters, one of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels, and was immediately floored by its amazing first sentence: "I was dreaming about a hairless ape who lived in a cage by himself." This got me thinking about first lines of novels. Normally, Macdonald's opening lines are not that great. Almost invariably, his novels start with a description of the view from the driveway of the home of whatever decadently decaying rich person has hired Archer this time. They're well written sentences but they don't really hook you. I've always felt the first sentence was the most important in a novel. It's got to grab you, but not be self-conscious about it, as if it's been workshopped into oblivion. It's got to seem offhand yet declarative, dropping you right into the action at just the right moment, with no apologies. I've never been a fan of the "It was a dark and stormy night" style opener that just establishes the locale or atmosphere, unless it pulls double duty with a killer image that pulls some symbolic weight. I've always liked the way Elmore Leonard starts his novels, mid-conversation, daring you to catch up.
Anyway, what are some of you guys' favorite opening sentences?
When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.
(Backflash by Richard Stark)
That's amazing! I just finished a Stark novel the other day: Lemons Never Lie, starring Parker's theater-owning associate, Alan Grofield.
How about this one:
"Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns." (The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins)
"The guy was dead as hell." (Vengeance Is Mine by Mickey Spillane)
Some of you guys saw my link to all the Parker first lines in that other thread, right?
What the hell. I'll just block-quote them:
First Lines to Richard Stark's Parker Books
- Hunter (December 1962): "When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell."
- The Man With the Getaway Face (March 1963): "When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger."
- The Outfit (September 1963): "When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed."
- The Mourner (December 1963): "When the guy with the asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away."
- The Score (July 1964): "When the bellboy left, Parker went over to the house phone and made his call."
- The Jugger (July 1965): "When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page."
- The Handle (February 1966): "When the engine stopped, Parker came up on deck for a look around."
- The Seventh (March 1966): "When he didn't get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in."
- The Rare Coin Score (1967): "Parker spent two weeks on the white sand beach at Biloxi, and on a white sandy bitch named Belle, but he was restless, and one day without thinking about it he checked out and sent a forwarding address to Handy McKay and moved on to New Orleans."
- The Green Eagle Score (1967): "Parker looked in at the beach and there was a guy in a black suit standing there, surrounded by all the bodies in bathing suits."
- The Black Ice Score (1968): "Parker walked into his hotel room, and there was a guy in there going through his suitcase laid out on his bed."
- The Sour Lemon Score (1969): "Parker put the revolver away and looked out the windshield."
- Deadly Edge (1971): "Up here, the music was just a throbbing under the feet, a distant pulse."
- Slayground (1971): "Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other."
- Plunder Squad (1972): "Hearing the click behind him, Parker threw his glass straight back over his right shoulder, and dove off his chair to the left."
- Butcher's Moon (1974): "Running toward the light, Parker fired twice over his left shoulder, not caring whether he hit anything or not."
- Comeback (1997): "When the angel opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage."
- Backflash (1998): "When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first."
- Flashfire (2000): "When the dashboard clock read 2:40, Parker drove out of the drugstore parking lot and across the sunlit road to the convenience store/gas station."
- Firebreak (2001): "When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man."
- Breakout (2002) : "When the alarm went off, Parker and Armiston were far to the rear of the warehouse, Armiston with the clipboard, checking off the boxes they'd want."
- Nobody Runs Forever (2004): "When he saw that the one called Harbin was wearing a wire, Parker said, 'Deal me out a hand,' and got to his feet."
- Ask the Parrot (2006): "When the helicopter swept northward and lifted out of sight over the top of the hill, Parker stepped away from the tree he'd waited beside and continued his climb."
- Dirty Money (2008): "When the silver Toyota Avalon bumped down the dirt road out of the woods and across the railroad tracks, Parker put the Infiniti into low and stepped out onto the gravel."
I'll also quote Charles Willeford's Miami Blues, since somebody is bound to sooner or later:
"Frederick J. Frenger, Jr., a blithe psychopath from California, asked the flight attendant in first class for another glass of champagne and some writing materials."
"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."
THE LAST GOOD KISS by James Crumley. I'd read a collection of the Milo Milodragovitch detective stories many years ago, but only recently remembered Crumley's name. Good stuff.
Just started rereading Joel Townsley Rogers' The Red Right Hand, and man, I can't believe I forgot about this one. The first sentence is pretty terrific by itself, but I can't just quit there:
There is one thing that is most important, in all the dark mystery of tonight, and that is how that ugly little auburn-haired red-eyed man, with his torn ear and his sharp dog-pointed teeth, with his twisted corkscrew legs and his truncated height, and all the other extraordinary details about him, could have got away and vanished so completely from the face of the countryside after killing Inis St. Erme. That is Point One of the whole problem. Point Two is the question of what he did with St. Erme's right hand, if the state troopers and the posse of neighboring farmers haven't yet found it on the Swamp Road, along with the rest of the young millionaire bridegroom's body, by the time I have finished setting down the details for analysis. For St. Erme had a right hand, that much is indisputable. And it must be found.
And yeah, he keeps up that deranged florid style through the entire book, and it's glorious.
"'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.'
THE LAST GOOD KISS by James Crumley. I'd read a collection of the Milo Milodragovitch detective stories many years ago, but only recently remembered Crumley's name. Good stuff."
I just noticed this post, Jam, which is funny, because I just picked up a copy of Crumley's DANCING BEAR, which prompted me to revisit the excellent first line of THE LAST GOOD KISS, which I'd read and adored a few years ago. Have you ever read its long-delayed sequel, THE MEXICAN TREE DUCK? The first line is nothing special, but it's a great read, full of action and melancholy. I don't know why Crumley isn't better known. He's really great.
A great book I recently read that's in a similar "70s malaise" crime fictional vein to THE LAST GOOD KISS is Newton Thornburg's CUTTER AND BONE, filmed in 1981 as the also pretty awesome Jeff Bridges/John Heard movie CUTTER'S WAY. The first line is precisely detailed, funny and flippant yet very telling of its callow playboy protagonist.
"It was not the first time Richard Bone had shaved with a Lady Remington, nor did he expect it to be the last."
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