Judging Mystery Novels by Their Opening Lines


1st edition (Alfred A. Knopf)

1st edition (Alfred A. Knopf) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two days ago I invited readers to choose one of four mystery novels based on its first line alone. I also challenged readers to identify author and title for each of the opening sentences of the four books. Click here for details.

Here are the opening lines, with title, author and year of publication:

#1: “A blizzard raged on the glacier.” From Operation Napolean, by Arnaldur Indridason (St. Martin’s, 1999).

#2: “Three days before her death, my mother told me—these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close—that my brother was still alive.” From God for Good, by Harlan Coben (2002).

#3: “God, I hate air travel.” Call No Man Father, by William X. Kienzle (1995).

#4: “When they ask me to become President of the United States I’m going to say, ‘Except for Washington DC.'” Spy Hook, by Len Deighton (1989).

I read these books in the following order:

  • Spy Hook
  • Gone for Good
  • Operation Napolean
  • Call No Man Father

Each has its virtues, but ranking them is easy for me. In descending order of preference, this is my ranking:

  1. Call No Man Father
  2. Operation Napolean
  3. Gone for Good
  4. Spy Hook

Next challenge: match book titles with the main characters in each.

  1. Will Klein
  2. Father Koesler
  3. Kristin
  4. Bernard Samson

Can You Judge a Book by Its First Line?


You can’t judge a book by its cover, right? How about judging a book by its first line?

In recent weeks I’ve read four novels by different authors, all of them mysteries. In chronological order these books were first published in 1989, 1995, 1999, and 2002.

The Mystery BookshelfIf you were to decide to read just one of these books this year, based on the first line only, which would you pick? Here are the first lines for each, in random order.

#1: “A blizzard raged on the glacier.”

#2: “Three days before her death, my mother told me—these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close—that my brother was still alive.”

#3: “God, I hate air travel.”

#4: “When they ask me to become President of the United States I’m going to say, ‘Except for Washington DC.'”

If you can identify the author and title for all four of these quotations, you deserve a free copy of each. Of course, we don’t always get what we deserve.

Maybe you can match quotations with year of publication?

Or maybe you can guess which of these books I liked most . . .

The irresistible image used here is from a Twitter site called “Mystery Bookshelf,” username @themysteryblog. Check it out.

[In two days, I’ll connect the dots.]

The Serious Business of Lying and the Enterprise of Fiction


Battle of Borodino

Image via Wikipedia

Ursula Le Guin objects to the idea that science fiction is predictive. In 1976, she wrote:

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

— Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness

Lying, you might say, is serious business. Even when it comes to fiction, when we like to be lied to. But why do we like to be lied to, those of us who read fiction and pay good money to see movies?

There’s a clue in the title of John Dufresne’s guide to writing fiction: The Lie That Tells a Truth. Fiction and film, at their best, package important truths in a tissue of lies. Some of these truths we already know before our fictive experience of them. Others we learn, if we trust the lies, when fiction happens to us. And often it is our capacity to trust the lie that makes us vulnerable to truths.

Some will protest that the novelist and the screenwriter do not lie. After all, we know “it’s only a story.” But since when has this stopped us from believing what we know isn’t so? Isn’t Le Guin onto something when she says,

In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napolean. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

And in the thick of our believing, we don’t want to be reminded that “it’s only a story.” We’re like the lad whose grandfather reads to him in the movie The Princess Bride. He’s not as ambivalent as he pretends. And neither are we. If it’s a really good story.

TR on Reading Fiction for Personal Improvement


Book Cover.TR's Letters to His SonsThe American President that most fascinates and inspires me is Theodore Roosevelt. I’ve read several biographies, the best of which is by Texas A & M historian H. W. Brands. I also enjoy collections of TR’s essays and letters.

In a letter to his son Kermit, written from the White House February 3, 1906, the President reveals something of the way he viewed fiction:

Dear Kermit:

I agree pretty well with your views of David Copperfield. Dora was very cunning and attractive, but I am not sure that the husband would retain enough respect for her to make life quite what it ought to be with her. This is a harsh criticism and I have known plenty of women of the Dora type whom I have felt were a good deal better than the men they married, and I have seen them sometimes make very happy homes. I also feel as you do that if a man had to struggle on and make his way it would be a great deal better to have someone like Sophie. Do you recollect the dinner at which David Copperfield and Traddles were, where they are described as seated at the dinner, one “in the glare of the red velvet lady’ and the other “gloom of Hamlet’s aunt”? I am so glad you like Thackeray. “Pendennis” and “The Newcomes” and “Vanity Fair” I can read over and over again.

If TR felt he could read such titles by Thackery over and over again, it is because he did. Thackery is mentioned in many of his letters. Here the father takes pleasure in a shared enthusiasm with his son. And why is he so pleased with the boy’s reading predilections? Apparently because of the power fiction has to form character, to provoke thought about values and truth, and to encourage wise decisions in life.

Evidence for this dominates the quotation. Notice that TR is, in effect, counseling his son about choices in marriage. He is very subtle in this.

It’s pleasing to see that this accomplished public figure had such a relationship with his children that he would write about such things in his letters from the White House.

From the quoted portion of Roosevelt’s letter to Kermit, there is much of positive value to glean:

  • He takes time for his children in the midst of major official responsibilities.
  • He writes in a slow, reflective pace.
  • He guides by example.
  • He engages his son in discussion of ideas and values on the basis of a shared interest.
  • He shows genuine enthusiasm for great literature outside his range of responsibilities.
  • He exemplifies a manner of reading fiction that is directed by the desire to grow in wisdom.
  • He advises the young without preaching at them in any condescending fashion.
  • He regards his son as a peer in the realm of ideas.
  • He looks for points of contact between the fictional characters he meets with in reading and living individuals he knows personally.

It’s enough to make you want to go back and read David Copperfield, and check out the works he cites by William Thackeray.

William Makepeace Thackery, Painted by Sir John Gilbert

William Makepeace Thackery, Painted by Sir John Gilbert

Works mentioned in this post:

Kindle users should know that there is a Kindle collection of over 100 of Thackery’s publications (including the three mentioned in this post) that you can get with a single purchase (cost: $4.79 at the time of this post). Click here. I like the Kindle!

Book Cover.TR's Letters to His Sons.2The quotation is from page 80 in The Letters and Lessons of Theodore Roosevelt for His Sons, edited and compiled by Doug Phillips.

Quotes on Fiction


“. . . one discovers that an authentic sermon even within the confines of fiction [as in John Updike’s novel Of the Farm] can have a kerygmatic quality: one feels addressed, in a fairly direct way that collapses in part the illusions of fiction. Updike is able here to fix a receptive mood in which the reader is led to respond to the message as well as to the fictive situation.” —Robert Detweiler, “John Updike’s Sermons,” chapter in Breaking the Fall: Religious Readings of Contemporary Fiction

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