19 March 2012

What's My Line?

I think there was an old television show called "What's My Line?" but I'm not sure. I'm either too old or too young to remember it. Too old if my memory is slipping; too young if I was just a toddler then.

Lines fascinate me, almost, if not more, than words. When a songwriter comes up with a great line, it usually becomes the hook in a chorus. When single folks come up with a great line, it sometimes helps them get "lucky." When I hear a great line, it goes into my little black notebook of ideas and may later appear in a story or novel.

Flipping through the notebook's pages, I found this: In response to, "How are you?" the answer line is, "I'm always good; sometimes I'm excellent!" (Ask Velma to read that to you. I'm sure she'll know exactly the right intonation!)

Some of you might be relieved if I didn't share with you the best "line" a guy ever used to get a date with me, but I'll tell you anyway. I was in my forties, had gained ten (okay, fifteen) pounds, and attended a rockin' wedding reception. This man kept talking to me, politely hittin' on me, and being overly charming. I said, "This place is full of younger, beautiful women giving you the eye. Why are you hanging here with me?"

His reply: "Women are like cars. Depends on whether a man wants to drive a Pinto or a Mercedes. You, my dear, are a Mercedes." (Yes, I did date him for several years, and if men are also like cars, he was a Jaguar.)

Since the general emphasis of SleuthSayers is writing books and short stories, let's turn our attention to what I consider the most important sentence in either: the first line.

One of my favorite books since second grade has been Huck Finn. I learned recently that Twain changed that first line three times before settling on:

"You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter."
— Mark Twain - Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Other favorites include:

"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show."
— Charles Dickens - David Copperfield

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
— J. D. Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye

"Through the fence, between curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting."
— William Faulkner - The Sound and the Fury

"Mother died today."
— Albert Camus (tr. Stuart Gilbert) - The Stranger

"All this happened, more or less."
— Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse-Five

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."
— C. S. Lewis - The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."
— Ernest Hemingway - The Old Man and the Sea

"Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eyes is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me."
— Gunter Grass (tr. Ralph Manheim)-The Tin Drum

"Call me Ishmael."
— Herman Melville - Moby Dick

I've read that many people consider the opening line of Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens as the greatest opening line of all time.

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." The problem is that those twelve words are not the opening sentence of the book. The opening line goes on for about fifty words more than that last "times," which is followed by a semi-colon, not a period.
— Charles Dickens - Tale of Two Cities

My two favorite opening sentences are both short and a bit gritty.

"The guy was dead as hell."
— Mickey Spillane - Vengeance Is Mine

… and …

"Elmer Gantry was drunk."
— Sinclair Lewis - Elmer Gantry

Closer to Home

All this thought led me to take a look at my own first sentences.

A Tisket, a Tasket, a Fancy Stolen Casket - "Eager to pump up my new underwear, I dashed into my apartment just as the phone rang."

Hey Diddle, Diddle, the Corpse & the Fiddle - "The sweat trapped in the bottom of my bra was making me crazy."

Casket Case - "Melvin Dawkins floated facedown in the steamy, bubbling water of the hot tub." No underwear in the first paragraph but she does mention she's not wearing any in the second paragraph.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, There's a Body in the Car - "A fly sat on the old geezer's nose." What? No underwear in the first paragraph? Nope, but Callie mentions fanny-padded panties on the first page.

What about you? Do you have a favorite opening line (short story or novel) from your or another author's work? Please share it with us. Meanwhile, I've got to check with Liz to see if Callie's tendency to open with statements about underwear show any deep, underlying psychosis in her creator.

Until we meet again… take care of you!


  1. Fran, I think I'm about your age, and I never watched it, but I know that "What's My Line?" was about people's line of work, not literary or even pickup lines. I wouldn't call a psychosis "deep, underlying"--that's a better descriptor of a personality disorder, while a psychosis might be florid, ie the person is in crisis, decompensating, or having a break (NOT a "nervous breakdown"). Oh, and did you know that in some quarters, eg what's called modern analysis, "neurotic" is a synonym for healthy? And the first line of my first mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, which I hope made it clear that this was not a cozy, although it did have an amateur sleuth: "I woke up in detox with the taste of stale puke in my mouth."

  2. Great openings but how do you pump up underwear?

  3. What's My Line was on at 10:30 Eastern on Sunday nights. The moderator was John Charles Daly and the panelists included Bennett Cerf, Dorothy Killgallen and Arlene Francis (who was brilliant). Killgallen died right after one of the live shows -- a bad reaction to a cocktail on top of a tranquelizer. I probably could have gotten all of this on Google, but trust me -- it's all from my (old) brain!

  4. Good column, Fran!

    Yep, I remember What's My Line?--the set, the panelists, everything. We watched it every Sunday night--for us, it was on at 9:30. Whoa, was that a long time ago!

  5. “Fontana liked to think he wasn’t a murderer.” – Earl Emerson, Black Hearts and Slow Dancing (introdcuing a new hero)

    “I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.” -Earl Emerson, Fat Tuesday

    “Winter came in like an anarchist with a bomb.” – Ed McBain, The Pusher.

    “Since it was the deciding factor, I might as well begin by describing it. It was a pink slip of paper three inches wide and seven inches long, and it told the First National Bank to pay to the order of Nero Wolfe one hundred thousand and 00/100 dollars.” – Rex Stout, The Doorbell Rang

    “June seventeenth turned out to be a six-biscuit day, and Vernon Lowe hated six-buscuit days.” – Robert Greer, The Devil’s Red Nickel

    Ahd Dick Francis was a master of great openings:

    “Art Matthews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the center of the parade ring at Dunstable races.” –Nerve

    “I looked at my friend and saw a man who had robbed me.” –High Stakes

    “I have told the drivers never on any account to pick up a hitchhiker, but of course one day they did, and by the time they reached my house he was dead.” –Driving Force

    “Gordon Michael stood in the fountain with all his clothes on.” –Banker

    “There was a God-awful cock-up in Bologna.” –The Danger

  6. Thanks for your comments, all of which were interesting.

    Liz, my first husband said he could never tell when I was kidding, and I think sometimes you're in the same boat with him. Love your first line though.

    Janice, if you will send me your snail mail address to franrizer at gmail dot com, I will send you the first Callie book which explains all about inflatable underwear.

    Dale and John, thanks for the info. My Sunday night television memories are of Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty.

    Rob, thanks for your lines. I agree with you about Dick Francis.

    PS - Mickey Spillane told me that opening lines sell books and closing lines sell the next book. I might start checking out some closings.

  7. I like Callie. She's a bit ditzy but smart, sometimes vulnerable and very funny. Also, her inflatable underwear has lifesaving potential. Who could ask for more?


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