The intriguing world of captivating book openings, from classics to hidden gems, promises a memorable experience for both avid readers and literary enthusiasts alike.
One of the major factors that leads you to choose a book to read, especially a book you have not heard of before or one by an author you haven’t read earlier, is its first line or the first paragraph. The art of drawing the reader into a book with a first line or a paragraph that may be intriguing, entrancing, exciting, humorous or just plain shocking can be called a hook. All those who read for pleasure have favourite books that they remember being drawn into by the hook at the start.
Some opening lines like ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ (A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens ), ‘Call me Ishmael’ (Moby Dick by Herman Melville ) and ‘It was a pleasure to burn ‘(Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury ) are very well known among readers. There are several, however, that may not be as well known. Here are a few of my favourites.
‘He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.’ Rafael Sabatini’s famous swashbuckler ‘Scaramouche’ starts with this memorable line which in one sentence captures the essence of the personality of the hero and makes us want to accompany him on his adventures.
‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again.’ Daphne Du Maurier’s best known book, the fabulous gothic romance ‘Rebecca’ starts with this line. Once you are under the spell of the author, you understand the reason why the heroine is obsessed with Manderly, the ancestral home of her new husband Maxim De Winter, a house that broods under the shadow of her husband’s late first wife, the enigmatic Rebecca. The book was later immortalized on screen by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940 in one of his very best movies with a star turn by Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. De Winter.
‘Scarlett O’ Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.’ The first line of ‘Gone With the Wind’, the Civil War era historical romance by Margaret Mitchell, again encapsulates the charisma of its heroine. A captivating book which became a memorable film in 1939 starring Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara.
‘…silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.’ The description of Hill House in the opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s wonderfully creepy ghost story. ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ sent a shudder down my spine when I first read it. The book draws the reader willy nilly into the shudderingly ominous plot before the shivery climax where the book ends with the very same lines. Filmed thrice in 1963 and 1999 and 2018, the first version by Robert Wise best captured the frisson you feel while reading the book and transferred it expertly to the screen.
Captivating opening lines
‘To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.’ The first line of the very first story called A Scandal in Bohemia in ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ immediately engaged my attention. Who was the woman referred to by the author, who could elicit the admiration of the world’s greatest detective and make him place her at the head of her sex? Millions of readers read on to find out and the incomparable Irene Adler remains the only adversary who bested Holmes, something even the Machiavellian Prof. Moriarty couldn’t do.
‘They didn’t say anything about this in the books, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back.’ James Herriot’s autobiographical book ‘ ‘If Only They Could Talk ‘ begins with the author, a country vet, on his knees in a barn on the Yorkshire dales in the dead of winter, helping a cow to deliver her calf. Humorous and richly human, this wonderful book inspired me to immediately obtain and devour the rest of the series. The series has been aired twice as a television series.
‘Until I was four I couldn’t tell the difference between the sexes. I was going to say ‘the two sexes’ but today there are so many variations that if one says ‘the two sexes’ your friends are apt to regard you as a withered anachronism, and wonder what rock you have been residing under for the past three decades’. The opening lines of the autobiographical book by legendary American comic actor Groucho Marx of the Marx Brothers is aptly called ‘Memoirs of a Mangy Lover’, and has to be one of the funniest books I have read.
‘More than 300 million people speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to. It would be charitable to say the results are sometimes mixed. ‘ The first lines of Bill Bryson’s paean to the English language called ‘Mother Tongue’ give you a good idea of what the rest of the book is like. Extremely funny but informative and entertaining at the same time .
My all time favourite author is the great Sir P.G. Wodehouse and though several of his books have great opening lines, the first sentence from ‘The Luck of the Bodkins’ is perhaps my favourite. ‘Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes, there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look that announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.’
Another great opening para from the great Wodehouse, this time from ‘ Uncle Fred In the Springtime’ . ‘ The door of the Drones Club swung open and a young man in form fitting tweeds came down the steps and started to walk westward. An observant passer by, scanning his face, would have fancied that he discerned on it a keen tense looklike that of an African hunter stalking a hippopotamus . And he would have been right. Pongo Twistleton, for it was he, was on his way to touch Horace Pendlebury Davenport for two hundred pounds.’
‘ This is my favourite book in all the world, though I have never read it.’ The opening lines of William Goldman’s ‘ The Princess Bride’ , a book that is definitely one of my favourites and one I have read three times and plan to read again. A modern satirical fairy tale adventure like no other , filled with humour, derring do and magic and some absolutely unforgettable quotes.
The biggest selling novelist in the sixties and early seventies was thriller writer Mickey Spillane. The creator of hard boiled and tough as nails heroes like Mike Hammer and Tiger Mann was borderline racist, sexist, misogynistic and totally un politically correct. The man was a born story teller, though, and could grab the reader with his opening lines like the following from ‘ Vengeance Is Mine’. ‘The guy was dead as hell. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the rug and my gun was in his hand.’
‘A small dusty man in a small dusty room. That’s how I always thought of him, just a small dusty man in a small dusty room.’ Scottish thriller writer Alistair MacLean wrote a number of terrific thrillers but this opening from his book ‘The Dark Crusader’ always sticks in my mind. And it’s the only book I have ever read, apart from The Haunting of Hill House, which ends with the very same line with which it began.
‘ When a fresh faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell. The guy said “ Screw you, buddy”, yanked his Chevy back into the stream of traffic and roared on down to the tollbooths. Parker spat in the right hand lane, lit his last cigarette, and walked across the George Washington Bridge. The preceding paragraph, the first in the book ‘Point Blank’ written by novelist Donald E. Westlake under the pseudonym Richard Stark, introduced an unsuspecting world to the criminal anti hero known only as Parker.
The series featuring Parker has since gained cult status and ‘Point Blank’ has been filmed several times with Parker being portrayed by Lee Marvin, Mel Gibson and Jason Statham among others. Among the several noir thriller series I have read this is, hands down , my favourite.
There are several more such examples but this writeup has already meandered on too long. Hopefully this interests you in seeking out some of these books (and movies ). You will not be disappointed.