March 18 – 24: “Great opening lines, which one is your favorite?”

It was a dark and stormy night…this week ITW Members Mick Sims, Shannon Baker, Erin HartOwen Fitzstephen and J.H. Bográn turn to great opening lines and try to decide which one is their favorite.


Erin Hart’s archaeological crime novels are set in the mysterious Irish bogs. HAUNTED GROUND (2003), was shortlisted for Anthony and Agatha awards; LAKE OF SORROWS (2004) was a Minnesota Book Award finalist; FALSE MERMAID (2010) made ALA/Booklist’s Top Ten Crime Novels of 2010. THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN will be published in March 2013.

Len Maynard & Mick Sims, Maynard Sims, are authors of six novels, four novellas eight collections. DARK OF THE SUN is their first non-supernatural thriller, but not their last. It has its own website. It features a hero who is quite happy with his lot in life in the Bahamas. Then people start getting killed, and his life is turned upside down and he is dragged into an underworld of intrigue and danger.

Owen Fitzstephen is the author of numerous novels as well as a middle-grade trilogy, THE MISADVENTURES OF EDGAR AND ALLAN POE. Additionally, he is co-author of the non-fiction book, THE WAY OF BASEBALL, FINDING STILLNESS AT 95 MPH. He has taught creative writing and literature at U.C. Irvine, U.C.L.A. and Chapman University. He lives with his wife Julie in southern California.

A lover of mountains, plains, oceans and rivers, Shannon Baker can often be found traipsing around the great outdoors. She is a member of ITW, MWA, SinC and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and makes her home in Boulder, CO. TAINTED MOUNTAIN, the first in her Nora Abbott Mystery Series, is set in Flagstaff, AZ, where she lived for several years and worked for The Grand Canyon Trust, a hotbed of environmentalists who, usually, don’t resort to murder.

J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. He’s a member of the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator. You can find him on Twitter @JHBogran, Facebook and Blogger.

  1. When it comes to favorite opening lines I would have to say I’m stumped, apart from falling back on some fairly classic ones.
    George Orwell’s 1984 – The clock struck thirteen.
    Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend – On those cloudy days. Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

    Having been an avid reader all my life and having read some compelling fiction, I couldn’t pick a favorite.
    So I went back to some of the best selling thriller novels by some of the masters of the genre, to remind myself how compelling the opening lines were.
    James Patterson’s Kiss The Girls – For three weeks, the young killer actually lived inside the walls of an extraordinary fifteen-room beach house.
    Harlan Coben’s Caught – I knew opening that red door would destroy my life.
    Jeffery Deaver’s Edge – The man who wanted to kill the young woman sitting beside me was three-quarters of a mile behind us as we drove through a pastoral setting of tobacco and cotton fields, this humid morning.
    Michael Connelly’s City of Bones – The old lady had changed her mind about dying but by then it was too late.
    Jack Higgins’ The Eagle Has Landed – Someone was digging a grave in one corner of the cemetery as I went in through the lychgate. I remember that quite clearly because it seemed to set the scene for nearly everything that followed.
    Jonathan Kellerman’s Therapy – A few years ago a psychopath burned down my house.

    So there you go, six random choices from my bookshelves. Six very diverse authors who have one thing in common: They all know how to hook you from the first line and, thankfully they also know how to keep you hooked. They are, as I said, masters of the genre, for that very reason.

  2. Ah, first lines. I heard my favorite first line many years ago at a writers’ conference. It won the writer his first book and made me run out and buy the book. From Rich Hanson’s SPARE PARTS: “Never disembowel yourself with a claw hammer and never speak to Margot before noon. These were the rules I lived by. And I would happily break the former as a means to avoid breaking the latter.”

  3. I admire the down to earth, yet resonant, opening sentences in many of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, the formal, other-worldly first sentences in short stories by J.L. Borges, and the imaginative, if pulpy, manipulations of Maurice Leblanc in the first sentences of his Arsene Lupin fictions. However, I regard the opening sentence of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Tell-Tale Start”, as incomparable. “True – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” Contained in these 20 words is a fascinating characterization that indicates we are likely in the company of a passionate but unreliable narrator. Adding further drama to the sentence is Poe’s italicization of the word “will”, which suggests that the narrator’s interviewer, to whom the story is addressed, regards the narrator’s circumstances as mad. So, we wonder what has happened and under what circumstances this desperate plea is being offered. Naturally, we read on.

  4. Great answers, everyone!

    I’m joining a little late, but here are some of my favorite lines from a variety of books found in my house. The list portents no particular order, just throw them together for fun, and because they have impressed me, time and time again, over the years. I included only books that I’ve read more than once.

    “The small boys came early to the hanging.” Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett.

    “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave some advice that I’d been turning over in my mind ever since.” The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

    “Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.” The Godfather, by Mario Puzo.

    “If I’d blinked, I would have missed it.” Learning to Swim, by Sara J. Henry.

    “A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy baloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once.” A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole.

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” The Gunslinger, by Stephen King.


  5. I really love the discussion about first lines and opening paragraphs, because that’s where the writer gets to grab you with only a few words, and make reading the rest of the story seem inevitable. As a lifelong Poe fan, I’m with Owen on the opening line of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I have lots of favorite first lines and opening paragraphs…

    One is from P.D. James’s modern masterpiece of crime fiction, A TASTE FOR DEATH:

    “The bodies were discovered at eight forty-five on the morning of Wednesday 18 September by Miss Emily Wharton, a sixty-five-year-old spinster of the parish of St. Matthew’s in Paddington, London, and Darren Wilkes, aged 10, of no particular parish as far as he knew or cared.”

    It seems to me there’s a particularly British flavor in these matter-of-fact openings, a juxtaposition of unspeakable horror against the rhythm of ordinary, everyday life:

    “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”
    — A JUDGEMENT IN STONE, by Ruth Rendell

    “Arthur Henry Spain, Butcher, of Harlow Place, Flaxborough, awoke one morning from a dream in which he had been asking all his customers how to spell ‘phlegm’ and thought – quite inconsequentially: I haven’t seen anything of Lilian lately.”
    — LONELYHEART 4122, by Colin Watson

    “It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter.”
    — MALICE AFORETHOUGHT, by Francis Iles

    And of course, no one can out-do Raymond Chandler for striking just the right hard-boiled tone for his time and place:

    “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
    — RED WIND, by Raymond Chandler

    I’ve been reading lots of Irish crime writers lately, and liked this opener from Declan Hughes. Resistant to the British style, Irish writers tend to go in for a more hard-boiled flavor, and dark humor:

    “The night of my mother’s funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband.”
    — THE WRONG KIND OF BLOOD, Declan Hughes

    Likewise, Scotland’s taste for dark and bloody crime is captured perfectly by Ian Rankin. Love the twist at the end:

    “He could scream all he liked. They were underground, a place he didn’t know, a cool ancient place but lit by electricity. And he was being punished. The blood dripped off him onto the earth floor. He could hear sounds like distant voices, something beyond the breathing of the men who stood around him. Ghosts, he thought. Shrieks and laughter, the sounds of a good night out. He must be mistaken: he was having a very bad night in.”
    — MORTAL CAUSES, by Ian Rankin

    I also love this (and any) opening by Martin Cruz Smith, who manages to set the tone and the scene all at once, putting you right in the thick of things from the get-go, whether you’re in a frozen park in Moscow, a fishing trawler in the Bering Sea, or the steamy streets of Havana:

    “Like a beast, the net came steaming up the ramp and into the sodium lamps of the trawl deck. Like a gleaming pelt, mats of red, blue, orange strips covered the mesh: plastic ‘chafing hair’ designed to ease the net’s way over the rocks of the sea bottom. The rank breath of the sea made halo of the colors, brilliant in the weepy night. Over the deck poured bruised-looking bullheads, overlapping waves of flatfish and cod. And a girl who slid loose-limbed as a swimmer from the net.”
    — POLAR STAR, by Martin Cruz Smith

    I’ve discovered that my own taste—as a reader and a writer—runs to stories that open with a BANG!

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