The Openings Of 5 Great Suspense Novels No.1

Christopher Fowler
images I have to review a lot of thrillers. Many start out with a paragraph describing the weather. They go in the bin. Others starts with a cop pulling on a cigarette and staring at a dead body. Just as predictable as the weather - bin. But it shouldn't be like this, particularly in a thriller. You should be grabbed and dragged into the story from the outset. Here are five good openings, picked at random from the shelves of books I hang onto. 1. Rosemary's Baby - Ira Levin In the first paragraph we discover that Rosemary and Guy want to buy an apartment. But Levin instantly creates an insurmountable problem for them on the very first page - they've just signed the lease on their second choice the previous day. How will they get out of it? From that moment on, you're sucked into their world. 2. No Way To Treat A Lady - William Goldman You usually know a little about a book before you buy it. Goldman plays on this on his first page, in which a priest knocks on a woman's door and asks to see her. She tells him she's not dressed, and that she doesn't know him. He says he's new to the area and insists on seeing her. Goldman doesn't assume his readers are stupid. Tension rises off that first page like steam. 3. The Forever War - Joe Haldeman This astonishing SF/war thriller starts with a sergeant telling his recruits that there are eight silent ways to kill a man. It's no ordinary troop - they're being trained to kill aliens, and the hero gets sex on the second page in his bunk; it's a mixed-sex regiment (although I suppose it needn't have been). And the frontline is 1,200 years away...you're hooked. 4. Blackwater - Michael McDowell This six volume epic by the creator of 'Beetlejuice' starts with a long descriptive passage, which is a brave move. It paints a picture of a town - nothing unusual there, except that it's underwater. Who could resist the description of a flood in the Bayou? It's an overheated suspenseful
history of a family that mixes melodrama and just a hint of the supernatural to superior effect. 5. Love Lies Bleeding - Edmund Crispin It's not one of his best books, but this is a good example of another type of opening. The author asks you to draw a map starting at Piccadilly Circus, and then proceeds to explain why he needs you to draw it. I did something similar when I started 'Psychoville' by explaining how to make an incendiary bomb at home. (I left out one crucial component.) Instructions are always a great hook.  


Dan Terrell (not verified) Wed, 24/04/2013 - 12:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Wow, great list. Mine would match yours, except for Haldeman's The Forever War. I've read many of his books - including all his Hap novels - and will now add have to add this one to my backed-up and waiting list.
Glad to see you include Blackwater it IS overheated and a bit of a guilty pleasure, but really good.
It came out in six paperback volumes, published one a month, starting in May of ?? and stretched through October, which nicely covered the summer vacation. Read the first three at a favorite VA beach, but then it was agony waiting for the rest to be released monthly. The "fishy" thing that rose up from the rapidly running stream was particularly chilling.
(King did something similar with the release of The Green Mile).
Now all set to place an Amazon/UK order for the next B&M.

Cathy Adamson (not verified) Wed, 24/04/2013 - 16:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Best opening lines ever - 1984.

Helen Martin (not verified) Wed, 24/04/2013 - 17:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

And when you say the next B&M will be out in March we realize it will be an entire year before it comes into our hands. Patience is a virtue, they say. (Virtue is a grace and Grace is a little girl with dirt upon her face.)

agatha hamilton (not verified) Wed, 24/04/2013 - 22:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Would you allow the weather in other genres? Bleak house - cracking beginning?

Christopher Fowler Thu, 25/04/2013 - 05:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes Agatha, I would definitely include Bleak House and let weather in for novels where atmosphere plays an important role - say, as in Daphne Du Maurier. But Dickens's opening didn't just mention weather - it added a dinosaur, which takes true genius!

Anne Fernie (not verified) Thu, 25/04/2013 - 11:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

When it is start becoming the thing to have the first 2 or three pages in italics indicating some sort of stream of consciousness 'stage setting' exercise before the narrative actually starts properly? I'm finding it every other book I read these days and it's becoming increasingly irritating. If not that then whole chapters are in italics to indicate the 'inner voice' of some protagonist or other - PLEASE STOP!!!

Helen Martin (not verified) Thu, 25/04/2013 - 19:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Modern novels are assumed to start without introductions, just dive into the action as it were. There was a while when the first couple of pages were taken from the end of the story with the rest of the novel being an explanation of how that result was arrived at. That was often annoying. The italic thing is nearly always annoying and any other *trick* beginning becomes an annoyance when large numbers of authors adopt it. Just tell the story.

Cathy Adamson (not verified) Fri, 26/04/2013 - 23:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It's "Frequent Hearses", not "Love Lies Bleeding" which starts with the invitation to the reader to draw a map....sorry for being so pedantic! The latter has a wonderful conversation between two head teachers at the beginning.