Where, or, more accurately, how do you start a mystery novel? Certainly not with the familiar dark and stormy night, the now-cliched beginning penned 185 years ago by British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
When I began writing my mystery/suspense novel, Death in Nostalgia City, I, like many authors, agonized over the first few sentences. I tried one thing then another, turning to help from writer friends and finally settling on something, only to change it just before I submitted the manuscript to my publisher.
First sentences are something like first impressions when you meet someone. Writers try to impress, intrigue, attract. They have a story to tell and they want to begin in a way that encourages you to dig in.
With a mystery, there’s usually murder involved. Why not start with that?
“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” That’s how Graham Greene began his dark 1938 tale, Brighton Rock.
Jonathan Kellerman used a short murder sentence to begin The Murder Book, his 2002 novel. “The day I got the murder book, I was still thinking about Paris.”
Short, declarative sentences. That gets your attention and draws you into the story. Here’s another one, this from noir master James M. Caine. He began his famous, The Postman Always Rings Twice this way: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”
First sentences can do more than just attract attention. Some writers and editors suggest first sentences that introduce readers to a character, a setting, or both.
An excellent example of this comes from an acclaimed, but non-mystery writer, William Kennedy. The beginning of his 1983 Ironweed accomplishes these objectives with grace.
Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods.
Elmore Leonard famously said, “Never open a book with weather,” but that’s exactly what many authors have done, including Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep:
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.
Mystery writer Lilian Jackson Braun used weather to begin The Cat Who Tailed a Thief in 1997: “It was a strange winter in Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere.”
Leonard himself was no slouch with beginnings. In his 1988 novel, Freaky Deaky, he introduces his character and setting in one sentence that has you immediately engrossed in the story:
Chris Manowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.
I don’t think there’s a single formula for a successful beginning, but I think some of the most successful have discernible objectives.
In his 2007 mystery, Tahoe Silence, writer Todd Borg uses his first sentence not only to introduce the title character of the book, but also to draw us into the world of the autistic girl named Silence.
At the first roar of the motorcycles on Pioneer Trail, Silence shut her eyes, tucked her sketchbook under her left arm and plugged her ears with her fingers, turning inward, retreating to her safe zone.
The objective of just attracting your attention quickly can be effective and a quotation can be an easy way to do it.
“Not a bad-looking burglar,” he said. “I don’t suppose you’d happen to have a decent alibi?”
That’s the way Lawrence Block began, The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (1994), using a light touch. Humor can put a reader in a good mood to continue reading and, at the same time, introduce a setting or character as Nevada Barr does in the beginning of 2001’s Blood Lure:
With the exception of a nine-week-old Australian shepherd puppy, sniffing and whining as if he’d discovered a treasure chest and sought a way inside, everyone was politely pretending Anna didn’t stink.
I wanted to use a light touch to introduce my story and my protagonist, ex-cop Lyle Deming. The book’s retro focus comes from the theme park, Nostalgia City, a re-creation of an entire small town from the late 1960s / early 1970s. Lyle, who drives a cab in the park, fits in due, in part, to his view of modernity. I wanted to show this, and introduce him in the beginning.
Whose idea was it to replace the chrome knobs and push buttons on car radios with touch screens? Lyle didn’t have a clue.