Sunday, August 26, 2007

Zingers 3: More First Lines with Grab

I love the first few lines of novels. When they are done well they set the tone, theme, and just about everything else that makes a story a story. They all also act as a hook—they need grab, or the reader will put them back on the bookstore shelf and move down the line until they find a book with an opening that appeals to them, and bam. If it has grab they’ll be at the cash register before the clerk can ask them if they need help.

As usual I have three opening lines, or paragraphs as the case may be, that were especially appealing when I picked these books up. They are from three divergent genres—the first is a mystery and traditional western rolled into one, the second is a techno-thriller, while the third is an adventure / spy novel.

There are two things you can’t escape out here in the West: dust and death. They sort of swirl together in the wind, and a fellow never knows when a fresh gust is going to blow one or the other right in his face. So while I’m yet a young man, I’ve already laid eyes on every manner of demise you could put a name to. I’ve seen folks drowned, shot, stabbed, starved, frozen, poisoned, hung, crushed, gored by steers, dragged by horses, bitten by snakes, and carried off by an assortment of illnesses with which I could fill the rest of this book and another besides.

So it’s quite a compliment I bestow when I say that the remains we came across the day after the big storm were the most frightful I’d ever seen.

This is the opening paragraph and some from Steve Hockensmith’s humorous hybrid mystery / western Holmes on the Range. The opening line sets up the entire story so well that it only takes a few seconds to realize there is something special and different about this novel. And the rest of the novel certainly doesn’t let you down.

Most of the time they didn’t f*ck around with the executions. A bullet in the back of the head or a blade drawn across the throat and the body left pretty much where it fell. But when Rashid was there it was different. Rashid liked to play.

This is one of the coolest openings I have read recently. It creates a situation of change seemingly effortlessly—we don’t know whose perspective it is coming from, but we do know that he is in a bad situation that just got much, much worse. This one is from Overkill by James Barrington.

There were times when Jean Mercier wondered what life was all about and this was definitely one of them. Somewhere beyond the boat in the darkness was a shoreline that he could only guess, and the lack of navigation lights wasn’t helping.

This is the opener for Jack Higgins’ A Fine Night for Dying, and like everything written by Higgins—at least his early work—the opening is smashing. Why the hell are the navigation lights not on? And why didn’t Mr. Mercier start thinking before he decided to take a midnight cruise?

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