WHAT SELLS BOOKS — THE FIRST SENTENCE
“The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.” — Mickey Spillane
Readers check online or wander through bookstores looking for something to read. What catches their eye first is the cover. The cover draws them to the book. A good cover will grab them by the front of the shirt and yank them to it, make them pick it up. There are few good covers today. Gone is the original art form used for paperbacks from the fifties, sixties into the seventies. Now covers come from an illustrated data base with photos, not art. But some of them may attract the reader. If so, readers pick up the book, turn to the back, and read the brief back cover synopsis. They check inside to see if the author is serious about the writing with several books, or just a one-shot, one-book wonder – or a beginner with this the first effort. Next they might thumb through pages to get a feel for the style. Rarely will they go to the end and read final pages. Eventually, they open to page one, chapter one, and read the first sentence. If that sentence grabs them, they will read the second, then the paragraph, then the chapter. If the writer has done it right, the reader is hooked and will buy the book.
My genre of writing is the noir hardboiled crime novel. Not many are writing in that field today. Agents and editors say there’s no market for such books. When you look at the dictionary meaning for ‘hardboiled’ nobody is writing them today. Today’s PI is usually an ex-cop still in bed with the police department through a buddy connection. Or they are so wrapped in their military past; the books have become military thrillers. Or, they have become bogged down in techno-babble with lots of parts to skip over. There are few rebel noir PIs closer to the criminal element than police connection, except maybe my guy, Logan Sand, and he’s been called tormented.
The masters of the genre were close to cops, were even ex-cops, but their relationship with police was as adversary to the point of hostility. The best of the genre is a criminal, not a PI, and as close to the defined hardboiled as they come—the Donald Westlake/Richard Stark character: Parker. Even his bad books are better than many coming out today. Most Parker novels open with the first word being ‘When’ which puts you right there.
Articles in mystery magazines and blogs show what they call great openings. But those openings might stretch to more than one paragraph. The discussion here is the first sentence, and only the first sentence. We begin with the masters and work our way down.
Dashiell Hammett created Sam Spade and his ‘lanky sunburned girl’ secretary, Effie. The opening sentence for the classic 1929, “The Maltese Falcon” is a description of Spade: Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. The writing of that era demanded much more detailed character description than would be allowed today.
As author of “Double Indemnity” and “Mildred Pierce,” James M. Cain did not have a hardboiled series character but shined at his best with his 1934, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” with a first sentence that gives us an idea where we’re headed: They threw me off the hay truck about noon. That tells us what kind of character we’re dealing with.
Creator of Phillip Marlow, Raymond Chandler sent his guy through many capers, “Farewell My Lovely,” “The Little Sister,” The Long Goodbye” and more. One of his best is his 1939, “The Big Sleep” quickly brought to public attention with the Lauren Bacall/Humphrey Bogart movie. Again this was an age that demanded much description which sometimes established mood: It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. This establishes not only mood but a sense of scene and time.
Evan Hunter under his Ed McBain moniker created the 87th Precinct novels which frankly are about police procedure. He wrote a bunch of them. He did create a series character, Mathew Hope, who is an attorney. I’ve read a few and while enjoyable, I don’t consider Mathew Hope very hardboiled. Most hardboiled guys have some kind of ex-wife; it’s not good when they have kids they visit, as he does in his 1990, “Three Blind Mice.” Like Parker, Hope is written in third person. Unlike Parker, the POV constantly jumps around. Even this opening is not from Mathew Hope; it’s from the murder site: You woke up every morning on sodden sheets, the air heavy with moisture, the bloodred line of the thermometer already standing at seventy-five degrees, and you know the temperature would climb high into the nineties before the day was done. It is included because Ed McBain is as close to hardboiled as many others who have come along.
I include one of my recent releases. Not a series character, but a noir hardboiled protagonist just the same, from the 2012 “Crossfire Diamonds.” It’s easy to pinpoint this guy’s personality: Colt Fallon figured he could shoot all three men from outside the no-glass mountain shack window. None of the characters in this novel step out of the hardboiled genre.
And here is another one, the revised Bay Rumble crime novel, “Catalina Killers.” The bullet punctures in my shoulder and leg hurt like hell. Maybe somebody might want to know how that happened.
James Crumley is unappreciated and not near as popular as he should be. His guy, the PI C.W. Sughrue, who works a topless bar when he’s not sleuthing, adds to the meaning, hardboiled crime. What makes James Crumley a tough read for me is the wallowing in drink and drugs. C.W. is not just involved like most PI’s, he slobbers and blacks out in it. Nevertheless, the first sentence of the 1978 “The Last Good Kiss” is one of his best: 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. Some of his characters have names tough to pronounce. Notice the ‘when’ beginning.
Nobody is tougher than Parker. He has no first name, no wife, no permanent home. He has Claire, but when they met, she made so much noise he thought he might have to kill her. Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark created parker. Movies made are “Payback,” and the classic Lee Marvin, “Point Blank,” and the latest “Parker” with Jason Stratham. In the forward for “Backflash,” Lawrence Block explains about the ‘When’ opening of most Parker novels. It’s action/reaction; when something happens, Parker reacts to it. Lawrence Block also has a list of ‘When’ from various Parker novels. The novels started in 1963, had a decade or so pause then began again. This is from the 1997 “Backflash” which has the classic opening I love: When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.
From the 1963, “The Man with the Getaway Face:” When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.
And this is my favorite opening, from the 1967, “The Rare Coin Score:” Parker spent two weeks on the white sand beach at Biloxi, and on a white sandy bitch named Belle, but he was restless, and one day without thinking about it sent a forwarding address to Handy McKay and moved on to New Orleans. No ‘When” in this first sentence but it still works. This is the novel where he meets Claire.
Jack Reacher is an enigma for me. Created by the wildly popular, Lee Child, Reacher jumps from first person to third person in different books, and while I enjoyed, “The Killing Floor,” I didn’t care much for his, “Gone Tomorrow.” It was like, since he became rich and famous, he now writes rich and famous. While his early books might have been hardboiled crime, his latest read more like ex-military thriller, and the reader might skip past much techno-babble. Reading “Gone Tomorrow” I learned more about the New York subway system than I ever wanted to know—maybe fascinating to New Yorkers but for the rest of us, not so much. I found myself skipping through paragraphs.
Here is the opening sentence for “The Killing Floor:” Nathan Rubin died because he got brave. Good stuff, it makes you go for more.
This is the opening sentence for, “Gone Tomorrow:” Suicide Bombers are easy to spot. Notice the subject difference? This does not read like hardboiled crime, more like ex-military thriller.
Jack Reacher has many traits for the tough, hardboiled crime protagonist, but he doesn’t quite carry it off. Lee Child can continue making his fortune because I’m sure there is a sub-genre for ex-military thrillers.
Finally, here are a couple more first sentences from my novels. From my previous publisher, Books-For-A-Buck Publishing, a hardboiled stand-alone crime novel, “The Farewell Heist:” When Ben Steele pulled five-hundred cash from the ATM on that warm April morning, he briefly thought of his criminal life. No question this is a heist novel.
And “The Calcutta Dragon” introducing Logan Sand, a PI who builds boxes some call art, and is looking for a priceless brooch: When your girlfriend sticks herself with killing liquid and dies, you’re supposed to do something about it.
This doesn’t even scratch the surface. There are Mike Hammer, Travis McGee, Mathew Scudder, Lew Archer, Jesse Stone, Spenser, Shell Scott, etc., and the stand-alone hardboiled master, Elmore Leonard, but this will show other writers and authors the value of the opening sentence and give readers something to look for.
Available books from Seaweed Library Publishing: