Whether readers or writers, we all know the importance of that opening line. It should grab our attention and compel us to read on. Recently I was sitting at my desk struggling over the first line of a new short story I’m working on. I must’ve spent an hour writing and deleting, writing and changing, moving this phrase here, that word over there, ad nauseam. Finally I gave up, pushed my chair away from the desk. I felt like pulling out what hair I have left. It was then I noticed the five stacks of mystery/crime novels piled high to the left and right of my workspace. The lightbulb came on. I grabbed several books from a stack and began reading the first lines of each. After a couple of hours I got back to work and in a matter of minutes I had the opening line I’d struggled so hard to get. And thus was born this humble post of opening lines. Enjoy!
I never knew her in life.
–James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia
It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.
–Julia Spencer-Fleming, In the Bleak Midwinter
Maybe it was the goddamned suit. Tailor-made Italian silk, as light and flimsy as shed snakeskin.
–James Crumley, Bordersnakes
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
–James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss
The bullets lay in a precise rank on the kitchen table, their brass casings dully reflecting the light from the whaler’s lamp hanging in gimbals overhead: thirty-aught-six extra-velocity bullets, hand loaded and carefully crimped, deadly accurate over a range of more than a thousand yards.
–Tucker Halleran, Sudden Death Finish
Even in the dim light of the bar, I could see the bruises.
–Jaden Terrell, Racing the Devil
I was in a deep sleep, alone aboard my houseboat, alone in the half-acre of my bed, alone in a sweaty dream of chase, fear, and monstrous predators.
–John D. MacDonald, The Dreadful Lemon Sky
We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.
–John D. MacDonald, Darker than Amber
The ambulance is still miles away when Dana awakens to the near dark of evening.
–Susan Crawford, The Pocket Wife
The headline made me sit down when I read it, that and the picture next to it and the article that spilled out over two columns underneath.
–Richard Aleas, Little Girl Lost
Duke Pachinko lay propped against the wall, a dripping red sponge where his face used to be.
–L.A. Morse, The Old Dick
I slept rather badly the first few nights after Amanda’s murder.
–Richard Vine, Soho Sins
The guy was dead as hell. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the rug and my gun in his hand.
–Mickey Spillane, Vengeance is Mine!
At fifteen minutes past two o’clock that afternoon, Mildred Crest’s world collapsed about her in a wreckage which left her so completely dazed that her mind became numb and her reasoning faculties simply failed to function.
–Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Footloose Doll
Winter came like an antichrist with a bomb.
–Ed McBain, The Pusher
When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.
–Richard Stark, Firebreak
I was standing on my head in the middle of my office when the door opened and the best looking woman I’d seen in three weeks walked in.
–Robert Crais, Stalking the Angel
There you have it, a list of some of my favorite opening lines from mystery and crime novels. What are some of yours? We’d sure love to have you share, so share! 🙂
E. Michael Helms is the author of the Mac McClellan Mystery series, as well as other books in other genres. He lives in the Upstate region of South Carolina in the shadows of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. He’s currently being harassed by Mac, Kate Bell, and other recurring characters who keep harping at him to finish his work-in-progress, Deadly Verse. Visit his website at: http://www.emichaelhelms.com/