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Mysterious Opening Lines: Le Carré, Ludlum, and Others

GIGA Quotes, an online source for quotations, has listed 43 pages of first lines from books, beginning with Merrian-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. This amounts to more than 2300 first-line excerpts from “classical, notable and bestselling books” (here).

First lines interest me. They interest me as an author, and as a reader. Surely I’m not the only one who makes decisions about books based on their opening lines. A first line may tempt me to read a book, or choose one book over another by the same author. It may suggest to me—or mislead me about—the nature of the book, or the plot of its story.

First lines are deliberate. And it can be worthwhile to deliberate about them.

First-Lines from Sixteen Mystery/Suspense Novels:

If punctuation is a proper indication, the first line or sentence in Robert Ludlum’s novel, The Bourne Supremacy, is: “Kowloon.”

Contrast this opening sentence from John Le Carré’s The Russia House:

In a broad Moscow street not two hundred yards from the Leningrad station, on the upper floor of an ornate and hideous hotel built by Stalin in the style known to Muscovites as Empire During the Plague, the British Council’s first ever audio fair for the teaching of the English language and the spread of British culture was grinding to its excruciating end.

Alan Furst writes brilliantly in the spy genre, and sets off The Polish Officer with this:

In Poland, on the night of 11 September 1939, Wehrmacht scout and commando units—elements of Kuechler’s Third Army Corps—moved silently around the defenses of Novy Dvor, crossed the Vistula over the partly demolished Jablonka Bridge, and attempted to capture the Warsaw Telephone Exchange at the northern edge of the city.

“God, I hate air travel,” is the first line of William X. Kienzle’s Call No Man Father. Kienzle is author of the fiction series featuring Father Koesler as curate-detective.

Ellis Peters, pen name for another author who does the curate-detective thing (in the figure of “Brother Cadael), begins the volume The Holy Thief with a Prologue, which starts, “In the height of a hot summer, in late August of 1144, Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, deferred to the heat of the sun, and made the final, fatal mistake of his long and opportunist career.”

In the crime fiction category, there are these samples:

  • “Keller flew United to Portland.” (Hit Man, by Lawrence Block)
  • “I’ve always hated parties and, under normal circumstances, never would have attended the one on Saturday.” (Silent Partner, by Joseph Kellerman)
  • “Charlotte Bowen thought she was dead.” (In the Presence of the Enemy, by Elizabeth George)
  • “Mma Ramotse had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill.” (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith)
  • “He sat perfectly still in front of the television set in room 932 of the Biltmore Hotel.” (A Stranger Is Watching, by Mary Higgins Clark)
  • “The dusty RV wailed along the flat interstate, its tires whining on the hot pavement.” (Reign in Hell, by William Diehl)
  • “Because her recent days had been filled with scientific data and research, Europa had paused only for the most basic of human necessities—food, water, bathroom breaks.” (Jupiter’s Bones, by Faye Kellerman)
  • “April Waverly pushed open the heavy glass entrance doors and walked into the cavernous lobby of Parker Center.” (Tequila Mockingbird, by Paul Bishop)
  • “For three weeks, the young killer actually lived inside the walls of an extraordinary fifteen-room beach house.” (Kiss the Girls, by James Patterson)

Gabriel García Márquez was a versatile author who is best known for One Hundred Years of Solitude. He also wrote Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which was a national bestseller. This work, translated from Spanish, begins: “On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.”

And then there’s this: “The room was void and unquickened; it was like a room in a shop-window but larger and emptier; and the man who sat at the desk had never thought to impress himself upon what he entered every day,” from The Daffodil Affair, by Michael Innes.

These samples from sixteen novels by sixteen different novelists have three things in common. First, they are drawn from fiction of broadly the same genre: mystery and suspense. Second, they are first lines of novels I bought recently at my town’s public library. (I also bought almost a dozen other books, by authors such as E. L. Doctorow, Peter Quinn, Christopher Buckley, Cynthia Ozick, Annie Dillard, Oscar Hijuelos, Robert S. McNamara, Victor Frankl, Colonel Jeff O’Leary, A. S. Byatt, and Toni Morrison. And I picked up a four-cassette recording of Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, plus four VHS tapes of dramatic films—Top Gun (have seen), Men in Black (have not seen), Mission: Impossible (have seen), and Independence Day (have not seen). The whole haul came to $20, so the only guilt I feel is that I don’t have any room for them.) Third, the samples are from novels I’ve never read, though I’m familiar with their authors.

* * *

Some Observations:

  1. Robert Ludlum—one word only, a proper noun, the name of a place.
  2. Le Carré—sixty-three words, and only one verb: “was.”
  3. Furst—fifty-two words, three verbs, reveals place, time and action.
  4. Kienzle—five words, one verb, direct address (God? or narrator’s self?), written from first person point of view.
  5. Peters—thirty-seven words, year (1144) and month (August), character named, with ominous allusion to his fate.
  6. Block—five words, individual named, action indicated.
  7. J. Kellerman—first person point of view, attitude toward parties, and allusion to vague time and place (a party on a Saturday).
  8. George—six words, figure’s name (both first and last), verb with reference to a mental act, one whose content is belied by the thought of it.
  9. McCall Smith—fourteen words, individual named (first and last, it would seem), general location indicated.
  10. Clark—seventeen words, reference to an unnamed individual, precise location indicated.
  11. Diehl—fifteen words, action verb, subject not a person but an object (an RV).
  12. F. Kellerman—twenty-seven words, third person POV, “she,” named (first name only), general occupation suggested.
  13. Bishop—eighteen words, woman named (first and last), action indicated.
  14. Patterson—seventeen words, duration, character unnamed but described, in terms of action and location. Most macabre.
  15. Garcia Marquez—twenty-eight words, named individual (first and last), date and precise time.
  16. Innes—thirty-eight words, male character mentioned, description of his location before he is mentioned.

Who? Wehrmacht scout and commando units (elements of Kuechler’s Third Army Corps). The narrator. Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex. Keller. The narrator. Charlotte Brown. Mma Ramotse. He. RV. Europa. April Waverly. The young killer. Santiago Nasar and the bishop. A man at a desk.

What? (including action) The British Council’s first ever audio fair . . . . Air travel. Flew. Party. Thinking of death. Detective agency. Sitting perfectly still in front of a television. Wailing along. Research brake. Waiting for the boat. Room with a desk.

Where? Kowloon. Leningrad, on the upper floor of a hotel, in a street in Moscow, near the train station. Poland, near Novy Dvor, at the Vistula River, at the Jablonka Bridge. Portland. Kgale Hill, Africa. Room 932 of the Biltmore Hotel. An Interstate. The lobby of Parker Center. The inside the walls of a beach house. In a room at a desk.

When? Post-Stalin. 11 September 1939. Late August 1144. Saturday. For three weeks. 5:30 in the morning, the day they were going to kill him.

* * *

Some Questions:

  1. Which of these books would you be most inclined to read, based only on their opening lines?
  2. Is there a pattern in your preferences?
  3. Which of these books would you be most inclined to read, based only on their titles and opening lines?
  4. Which of these books or authors have you read? Would you recommend any?
  5. Do any of the opening lines of these books have greater significance after reading the whole book?

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory