Saturday, 30 September 2017

Favourite First Lines

In the words of a Jon McGregor title, there are So Many Ways To Begin. I’ve been in search of the best beginnings, or more specifically first lines, from Notts fiction and discovered a variety of gems. As Graham Greene’s opening sentence in The End of the Affair explains, A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.

The same can be said for the opener. A good first sentence often occurs at a key point of conflict or interest. They operate to hook the reader and sometimes they can stand alone, memorable and compelling. Several years ago, I compiled a list of my favourite first lines from crime fiction. You can read them at the bottom of this post but, before you do, allow me to present some of the best opening sentences - in my opinion - from stories or authors associated in some way with Nottinghamshire.

Probably the best-known first line that can be associated with Nottingham is:

All children, except one, grow up.
Peter Pan by J M Barrie. The story is said to have been partly influenced by the writer's time in Nottingham in 1883/4.

And now for our best offerings:

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. It's possible that there would have been no Brighton Rock if its author had not spent time in Nottingham, in 1925/6.
The moment I heard how McAra died I should have walked away.
The Ghost by Robert Harris

Even on the night she died, Rose Shepherd couldn’t sleep.
Scared To Live by Stephen Booth

I knew I was a target when I opened the cottage door that morning and found, sitting on the doorstep, a pair of false teeth.
Dead on Course by Glenis Wilson

Life through a phone is a lie.
Who’s That Girl? by Mhairi McFarlane

He approached her from behind – as he had done every night since he started to visit her.
Dream Lover by D Michelle Gent

People think when someone is stabbed they just fall down on the ground and die.
Something Might Happen by Julie Myerson

There were ghosts at the loch house long before we arrived with ours.
The Lives of Ghosts by Megan Taylor

Mr. Broke of Covenden had for the enlightenment of his middle life one son and six daughters.
Broke of Covenden by J C Snaith

Some people’d say I was destined for all this killing when Uncle Frank came into my life but it goes back further than that.

The Killing Jar by Nicola Monaghan

They break down the door at the end of December and carry the body away.
Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence

Our best exponent of the first sentence could well be Alan Sillitoe. Here are a few of his finest:

The rowdy gang of singers who sat at the scattered tables saw Arthur walk unsteadily to the head of the stairs, and though they must have all know he was dead drunk, and seen the danger he would soon be in, no one attempted to talk to him and lead him back to his seat.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe

As soon as I got to Borstal they made me a long-distance cross-country runner.
The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe

I remember childhood as an intense and wonderful love-affair that was stamped out by the wilful circumstances of growing up.
A Start in Life by Alan Sillitoe

Facing each other across the table they took care their eyes wouldn’t meet, experienced to know that the ley lines of mutual attraction ought not be played with irresponsibility.
Alligator Playground by Alan Sillitoe

And the award for the longest first sentence (from a Nottingham book) goes to:

It was the night Milt Jackson came to town: Milt Jackson, who for more than twenty years had been a member of one of the most famous jazz groups in the world, the Modern Jazz Quartet; who had gone into the studio on Christmas Eve, 1954, and along with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, recorded one of Resnick’s all-time favourite pieces, ‘Bag’s Groove’; the same Milt Jackson who was standing now behind his vibraphone on the stage of the Broadway Media Centre’s Cinema Two, brought there with his new quartet as part of the Centre’s Film and Jazz Festival; Milt, handsome and dapper in his dark grey suit, black handkerchief poking folded from its breast pocket, floral tie, wedding ring broad on his finger and catching the light as he reaches down for the yellow mallets resting across his instrument; Milton ‘Bags’ Jackson, born Detroit, Michigan on New Year’s Day, 1923, and looking nothing like his seventy-three years, turning now to nod at the young piano player – relatively young – and the crowd that is packed into the auditorium, Resnick amongst them, holds its breath, and as Jackson raises a mallet shoulder high to strike the first note, the bleeper attached to the inside pocket of Resnick’s jacket intrudes its own insistent sound.
Still Water by John Harvey

If you’re wondering if John Harvey’s got a great shorter first line in him, try this belter:

The man running down the middle of the Alfreton Road at five past three that Sunday morning was, as Divine would say later, absolutely stark bollock naked.
Living Proof by John Harvey

With attention now turned to crime fiction, here’s that list I referred to, of my favourite first sentences from crime fiction. Enjoy:

This time there would be no witnesses.
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

It was the bright yellow tape that finally convinced me my sister was dead.
The Damage Done by Hilary Davidson

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
City of Glass by Paul Auster

They were in one of the “I” states when Zeke told Isaac he had to ride in the trunk for a little while.
By a Spider’s Thread by Laura Lippman

I wasn’t doing any work that day, just catching up on my foot-dangling.
Goldfish by Raymond Chandler

I rode a streetcar to the edge of the city limits, then I started to walk, swinging the old thumb whenever I saw a car coming.
After Dark, My Sweet by Jim Thompson

When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.
The Mourner by Richard Stark

I opened my eyes to see the rat taking a piss in my coffee mug.
Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.
Darker Than Amber by John D MacDonald

It is cold at six-forty in the morning on a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.
The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

It’s hard to get lost when you’re coming home from work.
Blonde Faith by Walter Mosley

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement.
Dennis Lehane by Live By Night

A big noisy wind out of the northeast, full of February chill, herded the tourists off the afternoon beach, driving them to cover, complaining bitterly.
The Quick Red Fox by John D MacDonald

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there'.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

She was ten years old, but knew enough to wipe clean the handle of the bloody kitchen knife.
A Bitter Taste by Annie Hauxwell

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

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

Winter came in like an antichrist with a bomb.
The Pusher by Ed McBain

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 by Declan Hughes

It is one of the sorry human habits to play the game of: What was I doing when it happened?
The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper by John D MacDonald

Death is my beat.
The Poet by Michael Connelly

An hour before her shift started, an hour before she was even supposed to be there, they rolled the first corpse through the door.
Girl Missing by Tess Gerritsen

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived he saw a man’s life change forever.
The Hard Way by Lee Child

I never knew her in life.
The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

There were two armed men in his backyard when Detective Ash Rashid came home from work, and neither looked happy to see him.
The Outsider by Chris Culver

The business of murder took time, patience, skill, and a tolerance for the monotonous.
Vengeance in Death by J D Robb

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.
Stalking The Angel by Robert Crais

Four months and twenty-two days after he stopped taking his medication, Robin Greaves dragged the chair out from under the desk and sat down opposite the private investigator.
Two-Way Split by Allan Guthrie

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of the Dancers.
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.
Backflash by Richard Stark

One evening, it was towards the end of October, Harry Arno said to the woman he’d been seeing on and off the past few years, “I’ve made a decision. I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before in my life.”
Pronto by Elmore Leonard

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.
Firebreak by Richard Stark

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.
The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

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

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