13 December 2021

Fifty Opening Lines

Back in 2018, Leigh Lundin posted an opportunity for SleuthSayers readers to identify 100 books and authors by their opening lines. His source was American Book Review's list of 100 Best First Lines from Novels. I got about 25 of them and recognized more that I couldn't identify off the cuff. Let's play again. My list of 50 includes some of ABR's, some culled from various other lists, and some favorites of my own.

As I compiled this list, I realized that the body of common knowledge it depends on is shrinking, but not because people are necessarily reading less. In the culture many of us have lived most of our lives in, to some extent, we all read the same books.

Even crime fiction readers, until ten or twenty years ago, could talk about the classics and favorite current authors and series in the expectation that most other readers of the genre would be familiar with them. That is no longer true. Attendees of Malice Domestic and of ThrillerFest may have widely divergent reading lists. On eclectic mystery lovers e-list DorothyL, reading recommendations have grown exponentially more varied. In the past couple of years, members' Best of Year lists have had almost as many titles as submitters, with only a handful of authors garnering five or six votes. And this year, as we all know, two widely circulated anthologies of the best mystery stories of the year have included widely divergent representatives of the genre. How many lines from any of them, if any, will be remembered in fifty or a hundred years?

So while we still can, let's savor and honor these memorable lines and see how many of them you can identify by title and author.

I was in a parade. I walked just behind the gossiwors and just before the king. It was raining.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a giant cockroach.

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

You better not never tell nobody but God.

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.

In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable.

It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.

I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.

It was a dark and stormy night. In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes.

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I'm thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.

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.

I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.

In the ancient city of London, on a certain autumn day in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, a boy was born to a poor family of the name of Canty, who did not want him.

When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife.

It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

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 eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.

"Take my camel, dear," said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

George is my name; my deeds have been heard of in Tower Hall, and my childhood has been chronicled in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. I am he that was called in those days Billy Bocksfuss—cruel misnomer. For had I indeed a cloven foot I'd not now hobble upon a stick or need ride pick-a-back to class in humid weather. Aye, it was just for want of a proper hoof that in my fourteenth year I was the kicked instead of the kicker; that I lay crippled on the reeking peat and saw my first loved tupped by a brute Angora.

A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace.

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

Mother died today.

Grant lay on his high white cot and stared at the ceiling. Stared at it with loathing. He knew by heart every last minute crack on its nice clean surface. He had made maps of the ceiling and gone exploring on them; rivers, islands, and continents. He had made guessing games of it and discovered hidden objects; faces, birds, and fishes. He had made mathematical calculations of it and resdiscovered his childhood; theorems, angles, and triangles. There was practically nothing else he could do but look at it. He hated the sight of it.

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of a boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

I took the battery out of my arm and fed it into the recharger, and only realized I'd done it when ten seconds later the fingers wouldn't work. How odd, I thought. Recharging the battery, and the maneuver needed to accomplish it, had become such second nature that I had done them instinctively, without conscious decision, like brushing my teeth. And I realized for the first time that I had finally squared my subconscious, at least when I was awake, to the fact that awhat I now had as a left hand was a matter of metal and plastic, not muscle and bone and blood.

There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood. The judge was an old man; so old, he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old, heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robed clashed harshly with the crimson of the roses. He had sat for three days in the stuffy court, but he showed no sign of fatigue.

His green-and-vermilion topknot was as colorful as a parrot's, and in Colleton County's courtroom that afternoon, with its stripped-down modern light oak benches and pale navy carpet, a cherryhead parrot couldn't have looked much more exotic than this Michael Czarnecki.

"I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one. Or at least as close as we're going to get."
"That's what you said about the brother."
"The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability."
"Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He's too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else's will."
"Not if the other person is his enemy."
"So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?"
"If we have to."
"I thought you said you liked this kid."
"If the buggers get him, they'll make me look like his favorite uncle."
"All right. We're saving the world, after all. Take him."

The day they drowned Dendale I were seven years old.

...it was green, all green, all over me, choking, the water, then boiling at first, and roaring, and seething, till all settled down, cooling, clearing, and my sight up drifting with the few last bubbles, till through the glassy water I see the sky clearly, and the sun bright as a lemon, and the birds with wings wide as a windmill's sails slowly drifting round it, and over the bank's rim small dark faces peering, timid as beasts at their watering, nostrils sniffing danger and shy eyes bright and wary, till a current turns me over, and I drift, and still am drifting, and...

A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, and in a shield, the World State's motto, Community, Identity, Stability.

On the first Monday of the month of April, 1625, the market town of Meung, in which the author of Romance of the Rose was born, appeared to be in as perfect a state of revolution as if the Huguenots had just made a second La Rochelle of it. Many citizens, seeing the women flying toward the High Street, leaving their children crying at the open doors, hastened to don the cuirass, and supporting their somewhat uncertain courage with a musket or a partisan, directed their steps toward the hostelry of the Jolly Miller, before which was gathered, increasing every minute, a compact group, vociferous and full of curiosity.

In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best as I could, but when he went upon insult I vowed revenge.

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

I woke up in detox with the taste of stale puke in my mouth. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see twinkling lights. This had happened before as I came out of a blackout. I rolled my head heavily sideways on the pillow. The light came from a drooping strand of blinking bulbs flung over a dispirited looking artificial pine. A plastic Santa, looking as drunk as I remembered being when I went into the blackout, grinned at me from the treetop. I had an awful feeling it was Christmas Day.

And for extra credit: Which opening solves a mystery in the first four words?


  1. I got 23 of them, so not too bad. In the first four words?

    1. Yep. It's a tour de force, and oh so clever by a very clever author.

  2. I got eighteen, and had read seven or eight others so long ago I no longer remembered them. A few of those sounded vaguely familiar. Ah, the joys of aging. The first four words stumps me, too.

    1. Now I don't know whether to tell the answer eventually or not, because it's the perfect spoiler!

  3. My score improved as we went along, but my answers were hit and miss. I guessed one I hadn't read (Little Women), although I had heard it much discussed.

    Charlotte's Web surprised me. I've read it, but I'd forgotten the chilling opening.

    I enjoyed this, Liz. Sometimes I need reminding how brilliant some of these are.

    1. Leigh, you have to read Little Women! It's the only one of the three Great American Novels (four if you count To Kill A Mockingbird) that's still read for pleasure by a majority of American women and girls.

  4. Thank you for this fun and engaging tussle with memory. It brought back many wonderful reading experiences. Great fun!

  5. Reminds me of the radio quiz show "Says You" doing a Halloween show years ago and asking the panel to identify horror novels from first lines!

  6. I've read all but eight of them but could only identify nine from the opening sentences. Sigh.

  7. The secret is assiduous re-rereading for many decades. ;)


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