Some of My Favorite Opening Lines in Mystery/Crime Novels

pulling out hair

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 sudden-death-finishthe 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                                                       John D. MacDonald

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.     mcbain-1

–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 ine-michael-helms-headshot 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:



15 thoughts on “Some of My Favorite Opening Lines in Mystery/Crime Novels

  1. You hit three of mine above. The Ellroy and the MacDonald. MacDonald in particular was a genius. Way back when a writing teacher once said, if you story comes to you with the perfect title, it’s a short story, if it comes with a first line, There’s some truth to that.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You’ve chosen some great opening lines, Michael. They certainly pack a punch. One I like the best is this:

    Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.
    – Ruth Rendell, A Judgement in Stone

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Some very striking first sentences Michael. Very entertaining post. I have moved around and shed books with each move
    . Here is an opening i like ” At the moment she was born, five hundred miles away, a small boy, his mouth ringed with jam, paused in his play on the carpet.” From “The Folded World” by Amity Gaige.

    If I had a favorite first line for that novel it would be “The sun pulsed, hot on his blond head, and the paisley of the carpet pulsed, and the room smelled vividly and wonderfully of sun damage, and he felt, all at once, like a struck match, and that was the first time he ever thought of Alice.”

    which appears further down the first page.

    I imagine I could find some Faulkner starts if I could have kept all my books.

    Not mysteries, but I bring what I have. 🙂

    I thought your quote “Duke Pachinko lay propped against the wall, a dripping sponge where his face used to be”,( L.A. Morse, “The Old Dick” ) was original and a real attention getter.

    Compelling post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for sharing those, MJ. Good openings are good openings, not matter the genre. We can all learn from reading outside our main interest at the time. Yep, L.A. Morse is a kick! I believe I picked up that novel on Amazon for a penny (plus the dreaded shipping). Fun book! 🙂


  5. Great openings. I’ve always enjoyed that Crais opener. (If I recall correctly, the character is in a yoga position.)

    An obscure opening line that intrigued me: The day my life fell apart began like any other (A Cure for Night by Justin Peacock). Really compelled me to keep reading.

    Best wishes,

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Peter, and thanks for sharing that opening with us. I must admit I’m not familiar with the book or author, but it sure is a good one! On my way to check him out. Thanks again, and also for your support of MMO. Much appreciated! 🙂


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