Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Old Beginnings 5

All Mystery Novels This Time

Treat 'em as if a fellow minion had submitted them. Would you read on? (Better to say nothing than to merely say, No, because I don't read mysteries.) Sources are posted at the bottom.

1. It was Father Martin's idea that I should write an account of how I found the body. I asked, "You mean, as if I were writing a letter, telling it to a friend?"

Father Martin said, "Writing it down as if it were fiction, as if you were standing outside yourself, watching it happen, remembering what you did, what you felt, as if it were all happening to someone else."

I knew what he meant, but I wasn't sure I knew where to begin. I said, "Everything that happened, Father, or just that walk along the beach, uncovering Ronald's body?"

"Anything and everything you want to say. Write about the college and about your life here if you like. I think you might find it helpful."

"Did you find it helpful, Father?"

2. There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood. The judge was an old man; so old, he seemed to have outlived time- and change and death. His parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old, heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harshly with the crimson of the roses. He had sat for three days in the stuffy court, but he showed no sign of fatigue. He did not look at the prisoner as he gathered his notes into a neat sheaf and turned to address the jury, but the prisoner looked at him. Her eyes, like dark smudges under the heavy square brows, seemed equally without fear and without hope. They waited.

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

4. "How long did it take them to die?" The man this question was posed to didn't seem to hear it. He looked in the rearview mirror again and concentrated on his driving. The hour was just past midnight and the streets in lower Manhattan were icy. A cold front had swept the sky clear and turned an earlier snow to slick glaze on the asphalt and concrete. The two men were in the rattling Band-Aid-mobile, as Clever Vincent had dubbed the tan SUV. It was a few years old; the brakes needed servicing and the tires replacing. But taking a stolen vehicle in for work would not be a wise idea, especially since two of its recent passengers were now murder victims.

5. Following an Easter dinner of ham, peas, and creamed potatoes, Charles "Le Cowboy" Bellemare pinched a twenty from his sister, drove to a crack house in Verdun, and vanished. That summer the crack house was sold up-market. That winter the new homeowners grew frustrated with the draw in their fireplace. On Monday, February seventh, the man of the house opened the flue and thrust upward with a rake handle. A desiccated leg tumbled into the ash bed.

Old Beginnings 5

1. Death in Holy Orders.....P. D. James
2. Strong Poison.....Dorothy L. Sayers
3. The Big Sleep.....Raymond Chandler
4. The Cold Moon.....Jeffery Deaver
5. Cross Bones.....Kathy Reichs


Anonymous said...

I recognized the first two — in both cases I kept reading and was glad I did.

I think I recognize the third, and in any event I would keep reading, just because of the humorous tone (he doesn’t care who knows he’s sober).

In the case of the fourth, I would not keep reading. It sounds to me as if the reader is in for a combination of tedious description, unsympathetic characters and casual brutality.

I would keep reading the fifth even though I usually have no interest whatever in the doings of crackheads. The spare, dry writing style drew me in — the action moves quickly, not a word wasted — and I would expect the quality of the writing to rise above its subject matter.

Anonymous said...

#1 is interesting, the way the character of the kindly Father comes through, but something better happen fast.

Oooh! #2 is by Dorothy Sayers; I recognized it immediately, but now the title has escaped me. Darn! It's the first of the series; Harriet Vane is on trial, Lord Peter is in the audience....I would re-read it. I have re-read it -- I've memorized it, especially the clash between the scarlet robe and the crimson roses.

#3 sounds like Phillip Marlowe -- what's that one...The Big Sleep, with the General and his two devious daughters. I would read it.

#4 has a grittier, more modern feel. These are probably antiheroes, a gang that can't shoot straight, kind of a "Fargo in the Bronx." I probably wouldn't read it because I prefer a cozier read.

#5 is grisly but funny, and I'd probably read it because it sounds like it is a translation of a French mystery novel (because of the mention of Verdun).


Anonymous said...

Wow, I actually recognized "The Big Sleep." Give me a cookie.

Brenda said...

I DO read mysteries, and none of these got me through the first paragraph (which is my system - if the backcover gets me, read the first paragraph.) I had to force myself to sit and re-read them each without scanning.

#1 is okay.

#2 don't care. At all. I don't care what her sentence is. I don't care how old the judge is (or why his age would matter since the sentence is decided most of the time by juries, and this doesn't indicate - at least not yet - that she'd waived the right to a jury.) But why are there freakin' ROSES on the bench???

#3 don't like at all. Too many details on the suit - I care about his SOCKS? Only thing interesting is the last sentence and that could have been written much better than that to give it more punch.

#4 - like it the best so far - may read more than one paragraph at the store before deciding.

#5 - First paragraph is not needed. Much better starting out with the second one instead. I'd stopped reading after the 1st paragraph then went back and re-read them all, forcing myself through them. This one caught me at the 2nd paragraph and made me want more.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

I would read 3 because I recognized the opening. But 5? Wow. The wackiness of the events drew me right in. Gonna hunt that one down.

Anonymous said...

Huh. I checked on the plots of the last two books, and boy, was I wrong about the kinds of stories they were.

Although now that I know more about the complete works, I would still not read #4 and would read #5.


Anonymous said...

I recognized them - I am a big P.D. James & Dorothy Sayers fan - since I have read all but one of these before. I think if you judge a whole book on the initial paragraph (a sort of ADD method, IMO)you run the risk of missing a lot of good reading, esp. classics like Raymond Chandler.

Kathy Reichs is one of the best new mystery writers - her style is unmistakable. I haven't read #3, but now I will.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot, EE! Now I've got to add 5 more books to my reading list -which I am waaaaay behind on getting through. Wait. That's a good thing, huh?

I like them all, especially #5.

Anonymous said...

Treating them as if written by minions (and not having read other comments above):

1. This is a very clean opening. I'd read on, and I don't see anything I'd change.

2. The first line evokes a great image. I thought the line about him sitting for three days in court was odd; does it mean three days without ever leaving the room? If not, and it's just three successive days of trial, then that's what he does, so it isn't remarkable. I did think the somewhat overdone description of his age (including the repetition of the word "old") made me think of him as tired before I got to the line where he "showed no signs of fatigue". I like the description of the prisoner's eyes conveying her emotional state. I'd read this, for sure.

3. Didn't like the "sun not shining" bit (because it is, of course, it's just hidden by clouds.) I think the author missed an opportunity to tell us whether the MC is wearing boxers or briefs; we know about every other stich of his clothing. I get the reason for it, at the end, but it still seems a bit much. Overall, though, I am intrigued by the word "sober" (though the whole drunken PI thing is becoming cliche), and the mention of $4M bucks. This one neither turned me on nor off, I'd keep reading for a bit just to see if it sways one way or the other.

4. I've read this one, but merely based on these opening lines, of course. I do think the first line is a great opener. I would suggest changing the name Clever Vincent to something better, perhaps Onion Dingo?

5. Now this is a great opener. Who the hell stuff a body up the chimney? Of did he climb in there himself? Yep, I'd read this.

Looks like I have some books to buy.


Anonymous said...

If I had picked up #1 to read it, I wouldn't put it down on this basis; the writing flows along and nothing stops me. And that last sentence hints at something more interesting to come.

I really like #2, but I also recognize it so that may be unfair.

To me #3 is trying way too hard, and I'd be put off unless the back-cover text or something else had really caught my interest. Money isn't enough of a hook for me to compensate for that suit.

#4 seems well-written and grabby, but indicates a kind of story I don't want to read at the moment (the sordid doings of sordid people)--if that's the novel, I'm just not in its target audience, but if it isn't this is the wrong place to start.

#5 makes me feel a bit ill, but I suspect I'd keep reading anyway, it moves so quickly and deftly. I'd probably be sorry, but I'd read it.

Anonymous said...

I'd read on after #3: I like the focus on body-physical details, and I also like the writing style's smooth straightforward flow. I can't stand choppy writing styles; most of the writing I come across--both fiction and non--is not polished enough (to my eyes at least) and literally gives me a headache while reading.

I wouldn't read on after the others. But then I'm going through a fiction-reading crisis...actually, I've probably been in one for much of my life. It's just really bad right now; practically all fiction makes me nauseous. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

Saralee said "Oooh! #2 is by Dorothy Sayers; I recognized it immediately, but now the title has escaped me."
It's Strong Poison.

Anonymous said...

#2 Strong Poison -- I can't tell you how many times I've read the Peter Wimsey stories.

BTW, to the person who commented on the roses -- she (Sayers) goes back to the rosees on the bench at the end of the book & uses the image as a kind of bookend to tie the end back to the beginning.

#3 The Big Sleep

Love them both, enough to recognize them from the beginning. :-)

#5 I would keep reading.

The others would depend on what I already knew about the book.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read any of these, but I loved #5.

Macuquinas d' Oro said...

I liked them all, but what a juxtaposition of styles!
The only commonality I can point to is this: in each case I immediately felt I was in the hands of a skilled craftsman, and I trusted the author to spin an interesting tale.

Unknown said...

I love this exercise...love reading the openings as if they aren't by published and in some cases, renowned authors.

However - I think it would be really interesting to see if the 'sleeper' openings are generally in the author's third or fourth book, as opposed to in their first. Once the author is a known commodity, both publishers and readers may allow a slower pacing, since they already trust the writer's abilities to keep us engaged.

Anonymous said...

1. Yes, definitely.

2. It's not hooking me yet, but I would be willing to give it another couple hundred words before saying no.

3. Yes, definitely.

4. I think the opening has done an effective job of telling me what kind of book it is--the kind I don't like.

5. Yes.

Robin L. said...

#3 is The Big Sleep - I recognized it right away because of the socks with clocks.

Some of you are missing the point of the description. It isn't to tell us exactly what he's wearing - it's to characterization. It's to tell us what kind of person he is that he thinks his powder blue suit and socks with clocks is a) dressed up and looking good b) that you need to dress this way to call on a $4M client. It's not the detail of the clothes that matters, but the fact that the narrator is telling you that matters.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to add that I like the idea of choosing all the examples from the same genre. Both because knowing the genre gives us a starting point and because now we're comparing apples to apples.

Anonymous said...

The opening of The Big Sleep (#3, published in 1939) is one of the most imitated and admired in the genre. Chandler is the concensus heavyweight champ of the original noir stylists, more respected today on literary and entertainment merit than even Dashiell Hammet. One reason the socks are included is to point out that this is a character for whom new socks are not a presumption, and the blue clocks are a period detail.

Hey, EE, this is fun. See if you can get people to criticize something really obscure. Like The Lord of the Rings or Jaws.

Anonymous said...

# 2 is brilliant, so much information and atmosphere in so few words. I want to know why the prisoner looks that way; what happened to her in the past and especially what's going to happen to her now. Talk about beginning in the middle of the action!

#5 pulled me in right away, very succinct; I want to know more.

1 & 3 are good beginnings, too, I liked the writing styles.

The only one that didn't interest me was #4. it started with a good first sentence, then I became a bit bored with the second paragraph.

Kathleen said...

I would keep reading #2 and #5. The other three I really didn't like. #5 was the best, IMHO.I just hate the rearview mirror cliche. So boring!

This is fun!

McKoala said...

1. Stop saying Father! I get it!
I'm ho hum on this one. I might read on, but I'm worred that I might get bored.

2. Yes, I like this one.

3. No, I'm irritated by the character already.

4. No, I'm confused.

5. Yes, I like the choice of detail, although I might have suggested that more be made of the discovery of the leg.

Brenda said...

I understand the REASON things (like the socks) are mentioned. I'm a writer - I get that. As a READER, I did not like it enough. I would pass for the reasons I stated. Life is too short to read books that don't totally draw me in immediately.

Thanks for the info on the roses! Still, the idea of them in a courtroom setting pulled me out of the story and made me question it.

Anonymous said...

Without reading other minion's opinions, here's my initial take on these:

1. Read it. Looking at this opening afresh, it seems slow. If a minion posted it, I'd probably be saying, start where the action starts (sorry to all the minions for my lame opinions!). But I love mystery novels, so I'd keep reading unless the story included something patently offensive (imho, that's usually a stupid main character who has no justification for doing what he's doing other than to put himself into a precarious situation for plot purposes).

2. Read it. This time, I immediately wonder if the judge has been home in 3 days, or if he's really been sitting on the bench all that time (and what kind of trial it would be in that case?). Of course I'd keep reading.

3. Love the POV character already. Love the hook at the end of the paragraph. Minor quibble-Didn't like "the clearness of the foothills." But I'd keep reading.

4. This is okay. I found the sentence about the man to whom the question was posed to be awkward. I don't know who Clever Vincent is. I'm not sure of the relationship here (initially thought conversation was between 2 detectives, but the stolen vehicle bit makes me think this is a suspect). I'd probably keep reading, but not yet greatly enthused.

5. I'm not into reading about crack houses and drug-infused mysteries but I'd keep reading anyway because of the body part up the chimney, indicating death by nefarious means, a murder mystery standard. And clever way to tell us that the victim is Le Cowboy, and give us background quickly and painlessly.

Anonymous said...

I'd continue to read them all because I enjoyed the way all the phrases were turned, and that is what, to me, makes the reading worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

Too funny. My wife read #1, didn't enjoy, so I decided not to read it. I read the opening here, get completely hooked and think "I gotta go out and get this book." So I peek at EE's listing and voila! The book is ten feet to my left on a bookshelf where I never planned to open it. I'm about to read my first PD James novel.

It bummed me out to not like #3 after finding out it was Chandler. Didn't recognize that. I'd read it now, knowing I'd like it more, but the opening didn't do it for me.

Enjoyed #4 enough to keep reading.

#5 was boring, until I got to that part about the chimney flue. I'd keep turning that page now.

Only #2 failed my test. Just didn't pull me in.

Anonymous said...

For me, #4 was the clunker in the bunch, just trying too hard. #5 is beautifully economical. #3 - basically perfect. The character and the attitude of the book are made immediately real.