More Criminal Openings …

Going back to the opening of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest as I did in my last post, made me think of the distinctive ways in which other crime books begin. Some, like the Hammett, are short and punchy, grabbing the attention at the same time as having a close to perfect satisfaction of their own … others are longer, a deliberately complex sentence that winds you along its length and so into both the style and the narrative, others are paragraph length that draws you in more carefully and often then stays in the memory, sometimes after the book itself has been read, enjoyed and set aside.

Here is a selection of my favourite single sentence beginnings,some of which will be familiar, others perhaps less so …

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

James M.Cain : The Postman Always Rings Twice

Cain

Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.

George V. Higgins : The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Higgins

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 Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

James Crumley : The Last Good Kiss

Crumley

Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake.

James Sallis : Drive

Sallis

When she was killed by three chest knife blows in a station car park, Megan Harpur had been on her way home to tell her husband that she was leaving him for another man.

Bill James : Roses, Roses

James

And here are two of my favourites of the longer variety, each humorous in its own way; the first is, of course, a well-known classic, the second by Brian Thompson, a writer whose forays into crime writing, Bad to the Bone [Viking, 1991] and Ladder of Angels [Slow Dancer, 1999] deserve to be better known and appreciated than I think they are.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard set rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blu 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.

Raymond Chandler : The Big Sleep

Chandler

Mrs Evans was teaching me the tango. As it happened, I already knew the rudiments of this exciting dance, but never as interpreted by Mrs Evans, naked save for her high heels and some Mexican silver earrings – a present, she claimed, from Acapulco. The high heels were there to add grace and I suppose authenticity, but even with them on, the lady’s head barely reached my chin. We swooped about the room, exceedingly drunk, to the most famous tango of them all, the Blue one. It was past two in the morning and the rain that had been forecast had arrived as grounded cloud, moping blindly about the streets, tearful and incoherent. But we were okay – we were up on the third floor, looking down on the damned cloud and having a whale of a time. Mrs Evans was warm and sit to the touch and her make-up was beginning to melt. For some reason a piece of Sellotape was stuck to her quivering bottom, and as we danced I tried to solve this small but endearing mystery. It came to me at last; it was her sister’s birthday and earlier in the evening she had parcelled up a head scarf, some knickers and a Joanna Trollope paperback.

Brian Thompson : Ladder of Angels

Thompson

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Crumley’s Last Good Kiss

Crumley 2

The fact that, not before time, an enterprising publisher – Transworld – had opted to reissue James Crumley’s idiosyncratic and marvellous novel, The Last Good Kiss (and that Waterstones have had the nous to install it as their Thriller of the Month) sent me back to a piece I wrote for Peter Messent’s Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel * in 1997. Here are the opening paragraphs …

I know that the first Crumley novel I read was The Last Good Kiss, but can’t remember too clearest when this was, nor the exact circumstances which resulted in my possession of a RandomHouse, hardcover first edition. But here it is, a little soiled now and ragged, behind Stan Zagorowski’s slightly surreal jacket design – a section of Western town, all brash signs and Hopper colours before a backdrop of towering, featureless mountains and, hanging above Mary’s Bar, a pair of full-blooded red lips that seem to have floated off from a Max Ernst canvas in an outsize offer of sexual promise and threat.

I suspect the year was 1978 or 1979.Not long off a brief series of mawkish, London-based, sub-Chandler private eye novels (James Ellroy was right: follow old Ray down those mean streets and sumptuous sub-clauses at your peril!), and embarked upon a sequence of ten paperback Westerns featuring Hart the Regulator, reading The Last Good Kiss affected me in the same way as listening to Philly Joe Jones when I was trying to be a drummer. All the things I hd wanted to do, plus several I hadn’t thought of, and all with such apparent ease. if I hadn’t already signed the contract, my electric typewriter might well have followed the drum kit into the small ads columns of the local newspaper.

I instinctively knew this was the best private eye novel I’d read since Robert B.Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript, some five years before. I think I knew that Crumley’s book had elements over and above the freshness of Parker’s debut, and that these were something to do with the Western setting and something else I had yet to identify. Whatever the case, having read it once, I immediately set to read it again and have enjoyed reading it every few years since. And even if I still don’t understand the poem it works – or the final playing out of the plot – if there’s a more singular and compelling PI novel to have been written in the past, almost, twenty years, I don’t know what it is.

Crumley 3

  • “The Last Good Place: James Crumley, the West and the Detective Novel” in Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel, edited by Peter Messent, Pluto Press, London & Chicago, 1997