Sheila Kohler’s work has been appearing in EQMM for a number of years. The distinguished novelist’s books include Dreaming for Freud, Becoming Jane Eyre, Cracks, which was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and made into a movie starring Eva Green, and the upcoming Open Secrets (Penguin, July 2020). Her short fiction has been included in the Best American Short Stories, and she has twice won an O’Henry Prize, as well as an Open Fiction Award, a Willa Cather Prize, and a Smart Family Foundation Prize. We can think of no one better to address the topic of beginnings in fiction. . . . —Janet Hutchings
What are the essential elements of the opening lines of a great crime novel? What is it that gets us hooked and keeps us reading ? What is it that makes the words at the start of Crime and Punishment or The Stranger or Chronicle of a Death Foretold to name a few, linger on through the years becoming part of our literary tradition? Can we find universal qualities in these great beginnings and thus ascertain what constitute the elements of a great beginning and perhaps use them in our own or at least recognize them in our reading.
One of the essential elements, it seems to me, is simply that the reader believes what you have to say, believes the narrator knows the story he/she is about to tell, often plunging us into the middle of things or even into the end. Here’s the start of Chronicle of a Death Foretold by García Marquéz:
On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit.
We are drawn into this world by a matter-of-fact voice, a cool statement that contrasts with the high drama of a killing, and the kind of precise detail that only the protagonist could seemingly know (the dream, the moment of happiness, the bird shit), so that we believe or are anyway willing to suspend disbelief. All is in the assurance of the tone.
Or on the contrary the voice gains credibility by confessing they do not know all.
Thus Camus’s The Stranger begins with the lines:
Maman died today. Or, yesterday maybe; I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: MOTHER deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours. That doesn’t mean anything; Maybe it was yesterday.
In other words this is a voice that we allow to take us in hand and lead us, our Virgil into the underworld.
The voice is often linked to the material. The telegraphic style in The Stranger, the white spaces between the short truncated sentences, the staccato rhythm evokes the character’s alienation.
We find this too in The Talented Mr. Ripley:
Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt that the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren’t quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.
The narrator in these beginnings finds the right distance from the material with a voice that is sufficiently intimate, drawing the reader close, giving an illusion of intimacy, and yet revealing only what it is strictly necessary: a few evocative, original details; where and when we are, for example, in the beginning of Crime and Punishment:
At the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, towards evening, a young man left the closet he rented from tenants in S. Lane, walked out to the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K. Bridge.
He had safely avoided meeting his landlady on the stairs. His closet was located just under the roof of a tall, five-storied house and was more like a cupboard than a room. As for the landlady from whom he rented this closet with dinner and maid- service included she lived one flight below, and every time he went out he could not fail to pass by the landlady’s kitchen , the door of which almost always stood open. And each time he passed by, the young man felt some painful and cowardly sensation, which made him wince with shame. He was over his head in debt to his landlady and was afraid of meeting her.
Here we have the details important to the plot and the character; the exact number of floors to the house, the size of the room and its location, money.
Above all we have the author’s choice of point of view. How is this chosen? In Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, unable to decide on whose POV to use, he tried out four different ones: the three Compson brothers (like the Brothers Karamazov)— Benjy’s, the intellectually disabled man of thirty who sees without understanding, Quentin’s, the Harvard student who sets out to end his life, and Jason’s—and finally the family servant, Dilsey. These beginnings became the book where the main character Caddy never gets a point of view.
We can start from a certain distance with an unnamed third person: “a young man” as in Crime and Punishment, a closer third person where we have the first name (“Tom glanced behind him”), a first-person narrator as in The Stranger or slipped in after a few lines in Chronicle of a Death Foretold (“Placido Linero, his mother told me twenty years later”), or the very close first person of The Collector by John Fowles:
When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annexe. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like. When I had a free moment from the files and ledgers I stood by the window and used to look down over the road over the frosting and sometimes I’d see her. In the evening I marked it in my observations diary, at first with X, and then when I knew her name with M. I saw her several times outside too. I stood right behind her once in a queue at the public library down Crossfield Street. She didn’t look once at me, but I watched the back of her head and her hair in a long pigtail. It was very pale, silky, like Burnet cocoons. All in one pigtail coming down almost to her waist, sometimes in front, sometimes at the back. Sometimes she wore it up. Only once, before she came to be my guest here, did I have the privilege to see her with it loose, and it took my breath away it was so beautiful, like a mermaid.
In all these examples a moment of change sets off a chain of events. Sometimes this has happened in the past, so that we ask not so much what has happened as why it did. Why is Santiago Nasar killed that day? It takes the whole book to find out. What will happen to Tom who is being followed? How does Miranda come to be Clegg’s “guest”?
The chain of events may, in a sense, go backwards or forwards. What will the mother’s death bring about in The Stranger, and why does the son not even know on what day it happened? Why is the story told in these fragmented sentences with their gaping white spaces between them? Questions are formed in the reader’s mind, events are hinted at , foreshadowed, the stone is set to roll down the hill. Where will it go?
Mystery is created. Much is unknown at the start. We have only the elements of the story. This mystery often comes from conflict.
A series of conflictual desires, opposing forces, are set up at the start. Someone wants something they have difficulty obtaining: there are elements of danger at the start of several of these novels.
From the start of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, we know, is heavily in debt. He wants here to avoid his landlady, to escape without having to talk to her. We have the problem of money and also Raskolnikov’s isolation, his inability to communicate or be with others (here, the landlady). We have his indecision—“and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K. Bridge.”—an indecision which we will soon find out turns around his decision to murder or not, to confess or not, so that the suspense lies in will he or won’t he murder; will he or won’t he be caught.
At the start of The Talented Mr Ripley, Tom wants simply to escape the man who is following him, whom we wrongly deduce is menacing Tom in some way. Instead it is Tom who is menacing Dicky’s father, we discover in a reversal.
In the first lines of The Stranger we have a series of conflicts or juxtaposition of opposites in the language itself: the death of Mersault’s mother is juxtaposed with the dry, emotionless tone, for example, like the polite, rather prissy voice of Clegg in The Collector is juxtaposed with the inherent violence of the act of stalking someone—She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like—which immediately makes us wonder about him.
Language is what happens in these great beginnings, a language which is both specific to the writer (Camus, García Marquéz), to their theme, and to the rhythm of the sentences, which gives one that telltale shiver of poetry.
The theme of the book is announced at the start. The title of the book, of course, comes even before the beginning, and sets up the first sentences and often carries the weight of what the book is about. These great crime novels are also about ideas written at a time of flux when the culture, the place, the ideas are changing, and literature expresses these new ideas.
Camus’s beginning is perhaps one of the clearest to do this for us, as it is a novel of ideas, his truncated sentences with the white spaces in between sum up the alienation of Mersault .
Thus we are drawn in by a believable voice, the mystery of the situation (a coming killing, a coming abduction), the conflict with its juxtaposition of opposites, its hopes of success, and its hints of danger that the protagonist and thus the fascinated reader faces.