15 December 2011 0 Comments

The Best First Paragraphs in Crime Fiction: Part 1

If you have a lot of time to waste, you never judge a book by its cover. But don’t try telling me you don’t judge it by its first paragraph.

What makes a great first paragraph? And which are the greatest? We all have favorites, some of which have become clichéd –– as happens to anything, whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, or if you grew up in a family that was unhappy in its own way. See what I mean?

In general it’s hard to beat Hemingway’s opening to “The Sun Also Rises” for laying out the narrator’s character, as well as the character being described: “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed with that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.”

But what about crime fiction? Over the next few weeks, I’m going to look at some of the best first lines and paragraphs in the genre. Next week, we’ll do a little Chandler (how did you guess?) and then we’ll be on to Simenon, who was a nasty enough man to write perfectly bitter downbeat prose from the very start of his books.

Let’s begin, though, with the man who in many ways beats them all: Dashiell Hammett.

I bet you think I’m going to talk about “The Maltese Falcon,” which in the first paragraph describes Sam Spade as looking “rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”

But I’m not.

No, we’re going to have a quick gander at the opening of “Red Harvest,” Hammett’s first novel, in which his Continental Op heads to a corrupt small town. It starts this way:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.

Here we get the introduction to the Op and a lot of insight into him. We learn that he’s a man who has been drinking in a bar in Butte, which implies that he likes rough places and cheap alcohol. He knows the jokes thieves make and so we learn that the “men who could manage their r’s” were thieves too. We also get our introduction to Personville, which is after all to be a central character, as it were, in the book.

Most important, perhaps, given that this was Hammett’s first full-length novel: We get the voice. The voice of Hammett and the Op. The worldly, experienced voice of a man who has mixed with criminals long enough to have heard repeated references to one small town over the course of years. A man who, in the course of the book, will do criminal things for decent ends.

It also has that Hammett trademark: the kicker in the final sentence of the opening paragraph (note that the “blond Satan” does this for “The Maltese Falcon.”) If a writer’s trying to hook a reader into his book with this first paragraph –– on the basis that it’s as far as a casual browser will bother to read –– he has to view the opening paragraph the way a journalist does his lead. It must include information about the kind of book it is and where it might be going. But it must also give us a clever line that jumps our eye further into the book –– once you’ve read the second paragraph, you’ll probably figure you ought to buy it.

Unless, that is, you’re one of those bums who doesn’t buy books and reads them in bookshops without paying for them. If you’re one of those guys, then hear this: I won’t be copying out any more of “Red Harvest” on this blog. Buy it and read it.

Next week: Part 2 –– Big Ray C. Meantime, see if you can guess which Chandler book gets the nod for the best opening paragraph.

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