A. S. Byatt on why Middlemarch may be the greatest English novel. A wonderful essay. Not only reminds you why Eliot is so good but Byatt, too.

book/daddy is happy that Gail Collins is back writing regular op-ed columns for the New York Times. She's a funnier, sharper political writer than Maureen Dowd. But you have to have TimeSelect to read her online.

And while still at the Times, Stephen Metcalf has fun with the political conversion experiences of conservatives when they were still in college -- compiled in a new anthology about turning right. Having taught quite a few at UT-Austin, book/daddy says Metcalf pegs it just about right -- except that the well-off, conservative, white male students only think of themselves as downtrodden outcasts with the campus liberals as the alpha dogs. At a university like UT -- with its tiny black student population and a campus run by oil millionaires -- the conservative students have their successful connections waiting for them.

Over at Detectives Beyond Borders, Peter Rozovsky asked about favorite opening lines for detective stories, and readers offered some, including the great first sighting of Fireball Roberts at the start of James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss. Surely, one of the most memorable is John Gregory Dunne's opener for True Confessions: "None of the merry-go-rounds seem to work anymore."

But a flourish to open with, a drumroll, a fanfare -- these can call too much attention to themselves as eye-catchers. Affectations. James Ellroy -- book/daddy's favorite example of a prose stylist with a heavy mitt on the "Overwrought" button -- likes to go socko from the get-go and keep beating the shit out of a reader because that's the gutsy, tabloid-y, hard-boiled, sub-Norman Mailer way, innit?

"An abandoned auto court in the San Berdoo foothills, Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousands dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic and a switchblade he'd bought off a pachuco at the border -- right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootjack a piece of his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River" -- L.A. Confidential. For book/daddy, it's the "San Berdoo," the "pachuco" and the "bootjack a piece of his goodies" that make this particularly chucklesome-bad.

It's worth noting how rarely such masters as Dashiell Hammett, Elmore Leonard or Ross Macdonald open with anything more than a clean, simple statement. Yet those declarations draw in expectations, get things rolling, especially when the author keeps the snap for the end:

"Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns" -- The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins.

"I sat in my brand-new office with the odor of paint in my nostrils and waited for something to happen" -- "Find the Woman" from The Name is Archer by Ross Macdonald.

August 5, 2007 10:03 PM | | Comments (4)



Actually, the entire first paragraph is worth quoting because the first line sounds like some slangy, tough-guy quip, but then Hammett has his narrator demonstrate an almost donnish interest in regional accents, giving the entire opening a wry touch, as it's the narrator's wisening-up that becomes the subject:

"I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name. Later I heard men who could manage their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better."

The opening line of Dashiell Hammett's "Red Harvest" is a masterpiece.

Hurray for Gail Collins, and the rumor (maybe fact by now?) is that the Times P-P-V op/ed page is being discontinued.

You anticipated a further point I was going to make about opening lines, that too much in the opening sentence can be, well, too much. I actually think the Crumley opening teeters in that direction, though I'd better read the damned book before I presume to pass judgment.

I agree wholeheartedly with your dissection of L.A. Confidential's opening although, oddly enough, I remember liking the book when I read it a few years ago.
Detectives Beyond Borders
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Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



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