23 January 2024

I Have First-Line Envy

I've written before about a Facebook group I belong to in which we celebrate good first lines (sometimes first paragraphs) in books and stories, often crime stories. A first line can be a thing of beauty, with lyrical language that draws you in. It can have suspense, leading you to need to know what comes next. It can portray a setting that's so beautiful you yearn to live there. It can showcase a character's voice, one that's edgy or interesting or downright funny--someone you can't wait to spend 300 pages with.

I've read a lot of good first lines over the years and some that didn't draw me in. Interestingly, some of the ones I thought weren't great received raves from others, which just goes to show how subjective writing can be.

But before today, I can recall only once reading a first line that made me wish I had written it myself. (More on that other book below.) I haven't read this book (it's coming out next week), but damn, this sentence makes me want to:

It is a sad day, indeed, when even an orgy does not interest me.

That's the first sentence in Of Hoaxes and Homicide by Anastasia Hastings, coming out on January 30th. Why do I love this opening line? To quote Shakespeare, let me count the ways.

First and foremost, this sentence makes me laugh. The voice tells me this is a character I'll enjoy reading about. The sentence is also attention-grabbing. Do I want to learn more about what is going on in this book? Oh yes, I do, especially because the author's word choices let the reader know this isn't a hardboiled book; it's softer, slower-paced, making the mention of an "orgy" all the more interesting and surprising--in the best way. The writing also is lyrical. Imagine the sentence without the word "even." It wouldn't have the same flow, the same punch. The author's words have a wonderful rhythm.

That's a whole lot to accomplish in a first sentence. Anastasia Hastings, I tip my hat to you.

What's the other great first line I wish I'd written? The first sentence in Julia Spencer-Fleming's wonderful first novel, In the Bleak Midwinter:

It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.

I read that sentence, and I was all in. Thankfully, the book lived up to the promise of its first line. Will Of Hoaxes and Homicide do the same? I sure hope so.

Do you have a favorite first line you'd like to share, dear reader? Please do.

Before I go, the Malice Domestic board of directors would like to remind you that this year's convention will run from April 26-28th, and registration is open. If you're not familiar with Malice, it's a fan convention that celebrates the traditional mystery, though you will find attending authors write lighter and darker books too. The convention is held each year in North Bethesda, Maryland. You can learn more at the Malice website: www.malicedomestic.net. Due to technical difficulties, the registration link on the website isn't working, but you can register by clicking here. (And no, I'm not on the Malice board. Just spreading the word for them.)


  1. My favorite first line is: "Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write."
    It's taken from A Judgment in Stone by Ruth Rendell. The novel lived up to the expectations, too.

    1. One of the scariest books I've ever read. That wonderful first sentence tells the whole story. Ruth Rendell sucks you in. Thank you, Anne, for this comment.

  2. "“They shoot the white girl first.” Toni Morrison "Beloved". Definitely worth reading all the way through, as are all of Toni Morrison's books, imho.

  3. Yes to Eve's Morrison line. I used to tell my students that emphasizing the opening sentence can be a trap if you try to be too clever. It has to fit with the tone and plot of the rest of the work, too, so sometimes a good opening paragraph or even page is a better option. But I still have a list of my favorite opening lines, which is three pages long. Here are a few of them:
    It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.
    George Orwell, 1984
    There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I’d been treated by at least six of them.
    Erica Jong, Fear of Flying

    It looked like a good thing, but wait ‘till I tell you.
    O. Henry, “The Ransom of Red Chief”

    They’re out there.
    Ken Kesey, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

    In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.
    John Updike, “A & P”

    Mildred hid the ax beneath the mattress of the cot in the dining room.
    Terry McMillan, Mama
    “I poisoned your drink.”
    Duane Swierczynski, The Blonde
    They’d been on the train for five hours before Arlen Wagner saw the first of the dead men.
    Michael Koryta, The Cypress House

    When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.
    Madeline Miller, Circe

    Sorry, I got carried away.

  4. Thanks for both the post and the plug for Malice Domestic - looking forward to seeing you there.

  5. Thanks, Anne, Eve, and Steve (times nine), for sharing favorite first lines. And thanks, Mark and Leone, for stopping by.

  6. “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.” - Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban.

    “In Watermelon Sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.” ― Richard Brautigan, In Watermelon Sugar

    "The women of Fox Point wore black because someone was always dying." -Luann Rice, "Gold Leaf."

    "If you want to be a good-looking corpse, carbon monoxide is the way to go. Your skin is a lovely shade of pink." - Elaine Viets. "Gotta Go."

    "Looking back, I probably should have let the woman shoot the tuba player, because God knows, he had it coming." - David Housewright. "Seven Fiancees."

    "Even after the crime-scene guys finished wrecking it, Nigel Bowles's trailer looked nicer than my apartment." - Richard Helms. "Shooting Stars."

  7. Frankly, I think Steve's last line above, "Sorry, I got carried away." would make a great opening line! First dibs on it - grin. Melodie

  8. Dang, you're right, Melodie. Knock yourself out. ;-)

  9. I can't think of a grabbing line right now, but I had to laugh, too. It reminds me of the line, (from I forgot where), "She couldn't get a whistle if she walked through a lumber camp naked."

  10. Possibly my favorite first line ever, from Victor Gischler's GUN MONKEYS: "I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should've put some plastic down."

  11. Martha Grimes in "The Knowledge:" "He was a dead man and he knew it."

  12. Good first lines. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by.

  13. My favourite first line is from High-Rise by JG Ballard:
    Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building the previous three months.


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