I know a lot more about reading mysteries than writing them. Literally a thousand to one, since I just finished my first! Well, finished the I-thought-it-was-the-last-draft-but-it-still-needs-some-work-but-don't-give-up-you've-got-something-there draft.
Reading mysteries, as with any book, starts with the first page. I read that first sentence as slowly as I can. It tells me so much, though I won't know exactly what it means until the last page. How is it even possible to encapsulate a whole book in a single sentence? Whether by instinct or plan, most writers create a first line that does exactly that.
They do the same thing in movies, you know. In really good ones, the opening shot stands in for the whole of the movie. My favorite example in movies is Betty Blue (37°2 le matin), where a man drives like crazy to get home before a pot of chili boils over. It's a rich stand-in for the main conflict of the film, where the man is trying to keep his mentally ill wife from, well, boiling over.
Here's what that looks like in a mystery. In The Spellman Files, the author, Lisa Lutz, has created a beleaguered, spunky, smart-mouthed protagonist. Here's the novel's opening line:
I duck into the garage, hoping to escape.
The book is about a young woman who wants nothing so much as to escape her life. Izzy's parents are her bosses, and her sister is following her. The motif of escape, so much a part of most mystery stories, resonates in this first line and throughout the book.
We learn about a lot more than just the theme of the book. We know it's an intimate first person, we expect a fair bit of action--no safe worlds here! We feel the powerlessness of the protagonist, and her will to overcome it. A lot of heavy lifting for eight words.
Let's try another!
Here's the first line: Our car boiled over again after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.
Now, this isn't exactly a mystery--it's Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, but I find this book to be as tense as any suspense novel.
There's so much in this first line--the image of the narrator, a young man, and his mother, and a divide that will open up between them. There's also simmering anger and passion, represented by the engine that boils over. And there's the strong hint that things haven't been right for a long time, since that engine is boiling over again.
Now, all this may seem like too much analysis--but these little things, each little word, resonate with us as we read. We may not exactly know what the elements mean, but we feel the difficult family relationships that will drive this story to its surprising and emotional end.
I love going back and reading that first sentence again once I've finished a book. Whether the author meant it or not, there are almost always echos of the end in the beginning.
What's your favorite first line?