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First Lines

May 23, 2011 in Books, Writing

Typewriter 5We’re all about page turning here at Mulholland Books and one of the things that really gets you reading is a fabulous first line. We’ve compiled a few that we like, but this is just a starting point. Really, we want to know YOUR favorite first lines. Please contribute your pick in the comments! We might even have Mulholland tote bags for those who particularly surprise us.

“Death is my beat.” –The Poet by Michael Connelly

“Clouds like gusted shadows of the dead moved past the Lenten moon, drifting west toward Jersey. Louie saw them.” –Cut Numbers by Nick Tosches

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

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

“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

“Fuck you.” –Savages by Don Winslow

“Garfield Potter sat low behind the wheel of an idling Caprice, his thumb stroking the rubber grip of the Colt revolver loosely fitted between his legs.” –Hell to Pay by George Pelecanos

“Her stomach clutched at the sight of the water tower hovering above the still, bare trees, a spaceship come to earth.” –What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

“You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a grand day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., with a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of Tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin’ down with a miserable bluesy beat and there’s two girls millin’ about that probably can be had but they seem to like certain things and crank is one of those certain things, and a fistful of party straws tumble from a woven handbag somebody brung, the crank gets cut into lines, and the next time you notice the time it’s three or four Sunday mornin’ and you ain’t slept since Thursday night and one of the girl voices, the one you want most and ain’t had yet though her teeth are the size of shoe-peg corn and look like maybe they’d taste sort of sour, suggests something to do, ‘cause with crank you just want something, anything, to do, and this cajoling voice suggests we all rob this certain house on this certain street in that rich area where folks can afford to wallow in their vices and likely have a bunch of recreational dope stashed around the mansion and goin’ to waste since an article in The Scroll said the rich people whisked off to France or some such on a noteworthy vacation.” –Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

“When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.” –The Hunter by Richard Stark

Keep the list going! Contribute in the comments.

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43 Responses »

  1. The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said, “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything. — WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak

  2. “It all began with her missing hymen.”
    HELLO KITTY MUST DIE by Angela S. Choi

  3. “It was Friday the thirteenth and yesterday’s snow storm lingered in the streets like a leftover curse.” -Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

    “The guy was dead as hell.” – Vengeance Is Mine! by Mickey Spillane

  4. “Walking into her apartment, both of them laughing at something he’d said, the man made a mock bow for her to precede him, his eyes already seeing the room, darting around it, looking for something to kill her with.”

    Tony Kenrick, Neon Tough

  5. I’ve always loved the first line of John D. MacDonald’s “Darker Than Amber”:

    “We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.”

  6. A simple phrase that keeps haunting me ever since I read this book: “Everybody lies.”- The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly.

  7. I must be dead for there is nothing but blue snow and the furious silence of a gunshot.

    – “Kiss Me, Judas” by Will Christopher Baer

    • You took mine, Rob. Beautiful first sentence. That whole first paragraph is sheer poetry. What a book.

      But, another opener that gets me every time, from fellow velveteer Craig Clevenger’s second novel, DERMAPHORIA: “I panicked and swallowed a handful of fireflies and black widows the inferno had not.

      And, the first line of his debut novel, THE CONTORTIONIST’S HANDBOOK, is worth mentioning, too: “I can count my overdoses on one hand:”

      • Shit, that opener from DERMAPHORIA is good.

      • Doc – right? Baer is amazing. Dude needs to write more books, STAT.

        Clevenger’s stuff is also fantastic. I’ve had the pleasure to work with him in some on-line writing classes, and the guy is a beast. He really knows how to break down the science of the art.

        The fun of TCH’s opening line, too, is that I seem to recall he then ticks off six overdoses, foreshadowing the narrator’s polydactylism. Which, it’s a little thing, but how cool is that?

  8. ‘Fuck you.’

    –SAVAGES by Don Winslow

  9. There’s James Crumley of course.

    “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 (1978)

  10. Without question, Westlake (as Stark) owns the all-time winner in my book:

    “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.” — Firebreak (2001)

  11. I salute that line from The Hunter, but a different Parker novel holds the all-time crown, as far as I’m concerned:

    “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.” (from Firebreak.)

  12. “My worst dreams have always contained images of brown water and fields of elephant grass and the downdraft of helicopter blades.”

    ‘The Tin Roof Blowdown,’ by James Lee Burke

  13. “I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer’s headless body in the trunk, and all the time I’m thinking I should’ve put some plastic down.”

    “Gun Monkeys” by Victor Gischler

    • That was the first book I thought of for a first line quote.

      Going with another book,

      “I opened my eyes to see the rat taking a piss in my coffee mug.”

      “Crooked Little Vein” by Warren Ellis

  14. “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)

  15. “The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse.”

    THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT by Robert B. Parker

  16. Here’s my favorite:

    Across the bar a lean blond with a missing front tooth is massaging my tits with his eyes, and I get an idea.

    VOLUNTARY MADNESS by Vicki Hendricks

  17. Was gonna do Woodrell’s Tomato Red opener, but you already used it

    How ’bout Roger Smith’s Wake Up Dead?

    “The night they were hijacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore.”

    • That one came to mind to me too as I was looking through the comments too, Jed. A great book.

      I’ll add this one because it hasn’t been mentioned before:

      “The American handed Leamas a cup of coffee and said, “Why don’t you go back to sleep? We can ring you if he shows up.”

      which is, of course, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD by John Le Carré.

  18. Has to be J.G. Ballard’s High Rise. “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

  19. “The story I am about to tell you is how I, Red Baker, lost my job, my pride, my family, and came damned close to losing my home and life, but through an act of ingenuity got them all (for the time being) back again.” – Red Baker by Robert Ward

    “The woman appeared with the first light, struggling across the dunes, a figure from the Revelation.” – Tijuana Straits by Kem Nunn

  20. “His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky.” – First Blood by David Morrell

    “That boy dies in four hours.” – Hunter by James Byron Huggins

    I also have to second… “I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer’s headless body in the trunk, and all the time I’m thinking I should’ve put some plastic down.” – Gun Monkeys by Victor Gischler

  21. “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
    A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving.

  22. “Fame requires every kind of excess.”–Don DeLillo, “Great Jones Street”

    “On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.”–Richard Matheson, “I Am Legend”

  23. “FROM THE WAY her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be good in bed.”

    — Solomon’s Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer

  24. “Imagine that you have to break someone’s arm.”

    –The Gun Seller, by Hugh Laurie

    A personal favorite that has haunted me since I first read it:

    “You are reading this for the wrong reason.”

    –Endymion, by Dan Simmons

  25. “Jackie Brown at 26, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.”

    From “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” by George V. Higgins.

    I love the rhythm of this phrase and it remains my favorite.
    The only equal rhythm-wise that I’ve read is the Crumley line from “The Last Good Kiss”.

    • This is one of my favourites. The rhythm draws you right in and continues throughout.

      Cogan’s Trade’s first sentence ain’t too shabby either:

      “Amato in a gray suit with a muted red stripe, textured pink shirt with his initials on the left French cuff, a maroon and gold tie, sat at the kidney-shaped, walnut veneer desk and stared.”

  26. I found another favorite, five opening sentences in fact (apologies for that):

    “The redheaded homicide detective stepped through the door at 7:30 A.M. and out into the August heat that already had reached 88 degrees. By noon the temperature would hit 100, and by two or three o’clock it would be hovering around 105. Frayed nerves would then start to snap and produce a marked increase in the detective’s business. Breadknife weather, the detective thought. Breadknives in the afternoon.”

    From the classic Ross Thomas novel “Briarpatch”.

  27. “I poisoned your drink.” The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski

    It was one of those hot sticky nights that makes Manhattan show its age. Nightfall by David Goodis

    It’s almost impossible to be thrown out of the Garda Siochana. The Guards by Ken Bruen

  28. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

    Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

  29. “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.” ~Paul Auster, City of Glass

  30. The are classics (“Lolita” [Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.] “Gravity’s Rainbow” [A screaming comes across the sky.] “Pride and Prejudice” [It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.] “Catcher in the Rye” “Anna Karenina” “Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” etc.) but my favorite is the bravura opening sentence of Donald Antrim’s “The Hundred Brothers.” I recommend dropping into your local bookstore, asking them to stock a copy on the shelf, and then when it comes in take a seat and read this sentence. You’ll have a good time, and also know why I haven’t quoted it here.

  31. “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

    Murphy, Samuel Beckett.

  32. My favourite opening paragraph:

    “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 husband’s necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

    Red Wind by Raymond Chandler

  33. “An abandoned auto court in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic and a switchblade he’d bought off a pauchuco at the border–right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tiguana cops standing by to bootjack a piece of his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.”
    James Ellroy, LA Confidential

    “Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munsonm, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.”
    Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away

    “The storm came in over the lake, bowing the shaggy heads of young trees and snapping branches off the old, blowing out of Metairie where the white folks live.”
    James Sallis, Eye of the Cricket

    “When I was a kid, my father took me up on the roof of a freshly burned building.”
    Dennis Lehane; Darkness, Take My Hand

    “I had a family errand to run, that’s all, but I decided to take a pistol.”
    Daniel Woodrell, Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir

  34. “So I’m on my way to work and I stop to watch a pigeon fight a rat in the snow, and some fuckhead tries to mug me!” Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell

  35. “I want the legs” QUEENPIN, by Megan Abbott


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