I love crime stories. Heists, long-cons, murder gone wrong, detective stories, police procedurals, I love them all. I love crime as a genre because it is both escapism - the life of a criminal mastermind is pretty far-removed from my own law-abiding, mundane existence- yet at the same time crime manages to worm its way into everyday existence. But I also like crime stories just because I like the style of writing. Hardboiled novels have a bit of a bad rap thanks to all the noir parodies out there (i.e. “She came to the door with nothing on but the radio.”*) but there is a lot to learn from crime fiction, no matter what genre you write in. Over the next few weeks I plan to go through several of the things that crime fiction in particular has helped me with.
Part 1: Opening Sentences
Dashiell Hammett was one of the pioneers of the hardboiled detective novel. His 1929 novel Red Harvest is a particular favourite of mine, in part because of the opening sentence:
“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.”
This opening sentence tells us several things. One, the story’s point of view is a first person narrator who likes to include lots of incidental details in his telling (do we need to know that he heard the nickname in Montana, and the name of the bar he was in? Maybe not, but this kind of detail soon became a trademark of hardboilded fiction). Also, we can see that the author has a gift for names. I mean, Hickey Dewey? A name like that is a good tip that this novel is going to be filled with over the top characters with colourful names (ironically, the protagonist is never named). Most important of all, it tells us what this book is about: not a person, not a thing, but a place. A place that has an officially friendly, welcoming name (‘Personville’) but it more commonly known as a place of moral rot and decay, a poisoned town.
(On a more meta level, it also hints that Hammett isn’t talking about a fictional place at all, but at taking a swipe at Butte, Montana.)
Phew, that’s a lot of heavy lifting for one sentence to do. But I love it. An opening sentence is like firing a bullet from a gun. The rest of the novel should follow naturally, like the trajectory of a bullet until it embeds itself in the back cover of the book.
Next up: Part Two: The Use of Strong Verbs
*Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a fun movie and an affectionate parody of the hardboiled detective genre.