Best Crime Novel Opening Paragraphs

Hook ’em early is a mantra I heard over and over again in various fiction workshops, and it is so true. It is also very tough to pull off, but some of my favorite crime novelists manage to establish a unique voice, a unique setting, a unique situation, and a unique character all within the confines of the introductory paragraph. As a writer myself, I can attest to how freaking hard it is to make all of those elements work over the course of hundreds of pages, but the best in the business–Crumley, Woodrell, Chandler, Thompson to name but a few–can do it in the space of a single opening paragraph. I submit the examples below for your consideration and enjoyment.

The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley

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 Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

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. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The Grifters, Jim Thompson

As Roy Dillon stumbled out of the shop his face was a sickish green, and each breath he drew was an incredible agony. A hard blow in the guts can do that to a man, and Dillon had gotten a hard one. Not with a fist, which would have been bad enough, but from the butt-end of a heavy club.

Miami Blue, Charles Willeford

Frederick J. Frenger, Jr., a blithe psychopath from California, asked the flight attendant in first class for another glass of champagne and some writing materials. . . For the next hour, as he sipped champagne, Freddy practiced writing the signatures of Claude L. Bytell, Ramon Mendez, and Herman T. Gotlieb.

Tomato Red, Daniel Woodrell

You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., and 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 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.


Book Review of Walla Walla Suite (A Room with No View) by Anne Argula

What do you get when you mix together a mitigation investigator doggedly trying to stamp out the death penalty, an ex-cop fighting off constant hot flashes, a barely legitimate business owner who calls his employees Arnie’s Angels, and a beautiful young woman in the prime of her youth? Answer: the basic ingredients to Anne Argula’s excellent PI novel, Walla Walla Suite (A Room with No View). 

The plot starts off as a simple missing person’s case. Eileen, one of Arnie’s Angels, goes missing, and Arnie hires Quinn, a fledgling private investigator, to track her down. But when Eileen turns up dead, the narrative really gets cooking, and the whole book morphs into a rather thoughtful and funny–funny ha-ha and funny sad–commentary on crime and punishment, capital punishment in particular. The only real “action” takes place in the last ten pages of the novel, so if you crave a lot of car chases and fistfights and gun play this isn’t the book for you.  However, there are two other factors that make this book more than worthy of a read.

Quinn, a newly-divorced ex-cop struggling to establish herself as a PI, is half of what makes Walla Walla Suite so enjoyable, so fresh.  Tougher than a two-dollar steak, and every bit as sardonic as James Crumley’s C.W. Sughrue, she is, by her own admission, a second or even third-rate investigator.  But, ironically, this is also part of what I think makes her so dynamic as a character: she is real.  Many detective characters are simply too heroic, too perfect, and Quinn is severely flawed, but in a good way.  She is both sarcastic and self-effacing; she is indifferent and persistent, competent and bumbling.  Not to mention she has some fantastically funny one-liners, mostly about hot flashes and the incurable human condition. Plus, in the end, she does manage to save the day, more or less, and the ending in no way feels forced or contrived. Best of all, the (tragic?) ending affects her not a wit, which I appreciate as it is realistic. Face it, many of us just never learn our lesson, no matter what the scenario, no matter what the outcome.

To the other half of what makes this a good novel: the setting. Full disclosure: I tend to fetishize what I consider cool and/or exotic locations, and Seattle, the setting of Walla Walla Suite, falls under that category.  The descriptions of the dreary weather, the buildings and streets, the waterfronts: all of it is expertly rendered and adds a satisfying layer to the narrative. It made me want to visit the city, which is a testament to the author’s abilities.

Bottom line, I find Quinn to be a welcome addition to the PI genre, and not just because she is a middle-aged woman. But because the character is a living, breathing being, one capable of great comedy and tragedy.  Quinn, it seems, has a nose for trouble, and I, for one, would love to be around when she finds it.

walla walla suite