Some Favorite Opening Lines in Mystery/Crime Novels

(Note: This appeared quite some time ago at I came across it while updating my files and thought the readers of this blog might enjoy it. No originality is claimed or presumed.  –E. Michael Helms)

Whether readers or writers, we all know the importance of that opening line. It should grab our attention and compel us to read on. Recently I was sitting at my desk struggling over the first line of a new short story I’m working on. I must’ve spent an hour writing and deleting, writing and changing, moving this phrase here, that word over there, ad nauseam. Finally I gave up, pushed my chair away from the desk. I felt like pulling out what hair I have left. It was then I noticed the five stacks of mystery/crime novels piled high to the left and right of my workspace. The lightbulb came on. I grabbed several books from a stack and began reading the first lines of each. After a couple of hours I got back to work and in a matter of minutes I had the opening line I’d struggled so hard to get. And thus was born this humble post of opening lines. Enjoy!




I never knew her in life.

–James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia


It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.

–Julia Spencer-Fleming, In the Bleak Midwinter


Maybe it was the goddamned suit. Tailor-made Italian silk, as light and flimsy as shed snakeskin.

–James Crumley, Bordersnakes


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

–James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss


The bullets lay in a precise rank on the kitchen table, their brass casings dully reflecting sudden-death-finishthe light from the whaler’s lamp hanging in gimbals overhead: thirty-aught-six extra-velocity bullets, hand loaded and carefully crimped, deadly accurate over a range of more than a thousand yards.

–Tucker Halleran, Sudden Death Finish 


Even in the dim light of the bar, I could see the bruises.

–Jaden Terrell, Racing the Devil


I was in a deep sleep, alone aboard my houseboat, alone in the half-acre of my bed, alone in a sweaty dream of chase, fear, and monstrous predators.

–John D. MacDonald, The Dreadful Lemon Sky                                                       John D. MacDonald


We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.

–John D. MacDonald, Darker than Amber


The ambulance is still miles away when Dana awakens to the near dark of evening.

–Susan Crawford, The Pocket Wife


The headline made me sit down when I read it, that and the picture next to it and the article that spilled out over two columns underneath.

–Richard Aleas, Little Girl Lost


Duke Pachinko lay propped against the wall, a dripping red sponge where his face used to be.

–L.A. Morse, The Old Dick                                                      



I slept rather badly the first few nights after Amanda’s murder.

–Richard Vine, Soho Sins


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 in his hand.

–Mickey Spillane, Vengeance is Mine!


At fifteen minutes past two o’clock that afternoon, Mildred Crest’s world collapsed about her in a wreckage which left her so completely dazed that her mind became numb and her reasoning faculties simply failed to function.

–Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Footloose Doll


Winter came like an antichrist with a bomb.     mcbain-1

–Ed McBain, The Pusher


When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.

–Richard Stark, Firebreak


I was standing on my head in the middle of my office when the door opened and the best looking woman I’d seen in three weeks walked in.

–Robert Crais, Stalking the Angel                              


There you have it, a list of some of my favorite opening lines from mystery and crime novels. What are some of yours? I’d sure love to have you share, so share!  🙂


E. Michael Helms is the author of the Mac McClellan Mystery series, as well as other books ine-michael-helms-headshot other genres. He lives in the Upstate region of South Carolina in the shadows of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. He’s currently being harassed by Mac, Kate Bell, and other recurring characters who keep harping at him to finish his work-in-progress, Deadly Verse. Visit his website at:


29 thoughts on “Some Favorite Opening Lines in Mystery/Crime Novels

  1. These are all powerful first lines, Michael! I love ’em. One of my all-time top first lines comes from Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone: Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.. To me, that’s a first-class first line.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Wonderful openings all. This is a favorite of mine, from what I would call a crime novel in its own way. This I saw some time ago and found deep and haunting. It is a beginning of sorts, at least appears on a beginning page. (I looked it up too so you have an article as well)
        Coming Home – News – Westford Eagle – Westford, MA

        May 27, 2010 · One of my favorite quotes is from E. Michael Helms: “I have died your deaths a thousand times as I have grown old. Yet you sleep forever young in my memory.” (The Proud Bastards)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge”
    Well…that one certainly grabbed my attention! Great post. Have to agree when a book opens up well, it sets the tone for what comes next 😊😊

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Terrific first lines here, Michael and Spencer-Fleming’s sentence brings one up to a sudden halt. ‘It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.’ What??? I’d just have to read on. One of my favourite first lines is from my current favourite book which just blew me away … ‘Beartown’ by Fredrick Bachman. A book like no other, a tour de force. ‘Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barrelled shotgun, walked into the forest and put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there.’

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great picks! Here’s one of my favorites: “Some days hang over Manhattan like a huge pair of unseen pincers, slowly squeezing the city until you can hardly breathe.” Mickey Spillane, The Killing Man

    BTW, stay safe this weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, speaking of pincers I’m worried about that storm Florence (my grandmother’s name) and tried to see where it is going. There is not much specific news at this point. Mainly speculation. Stay safe Michael. I hope you are well out of it!!! I hope you don’t lose your internet. Maybe let us all know how you are?

      Liked by 1 person

      • MJ, the latest report I’ve seen (and they keep changing by the hour, it seems) is that the center of the storm could be right on top of us by Sunday. Of course, by then it will (SHOULD) be just windy (gusts 30-40 mph) and possibly 3-5 inches of rain. Not to much to be concerned about at this time. I grew up on the FL panhandle coast, so I’m familiar with storms. BUT, never say never! I’ll be in touch. 🙂


      • Thanks. They’re even reporting it as a monster from outer space which kind of gives me the creeps. I guess that’s a reason for the space station. Anyway appreciate you keeping us in the loop. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    • The updates are interesting because you’re right there of course and I know you had some bad storms not too long ago. They did say it would fizzle but that as you say does not mean it’s at all over. And the trees are big. Just hoping your nice deck and all (and naturally you, family, and dogs are okay). Send whenever you feel like it and it could be a sort of reporting and interactive post or story……….or whatever you make of it. Thanks. Appreciate you!



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