Slow cookin’, slow dancing, I’m a big fan. Slow first chapters, you’re probably going to lose me. You see, I’m a big believer in launching your first chapter with a major bang. Ever seen a James Bond movie? Before you’ve had your popcorn good old Bond is zooming along the Autobahn in his Aston Martin where—kaboom!—he gets shot at and skids into a ditch. Undaunted, 007 dons a pair of skis, schusses down a glacier, and ends up piloting a Russian MiG while heat-seeking missiles buzz around him like errant mosquitos. Now that’s what I call a thrilling, reach-out-and-grab-ya opening. And I truly appreciate that same type of nail-biting excitement in the opening chapters of the mysteries and thrillers I read. Back story? There’s a time and a place for it but not in that all-important first chapter. A quick open is an author’s best bet to capture the reader’s attention and elegantly seduce them along for the ride.
A lot of authors do this awfully well. Take for example Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. He kicks off his first chapter with these chilling words: Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth. In my mind this well-crafted opening foreshadows all the kidnapped and murdered women who end up in the deep pit in Jame Gumb’s basement.
Another favorite opening of mine is Gone For Good by Harlan Coben. He tantalizes with these brilliant words: 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. Then, of course, Coben takes us on a whipsaw search for the missing older brother that keeps us turning pages like mad.
I was never a fan of military thrillers until I cracked open Gunmetal Gray by Mark Greaney. He jolted me with this chilling open: The two bodyguards lay unconscious on the floor, arms and legs splayed, an empty bottle of imported whisky on the table between them. This catapults the reader into a bone-bursting adventure with the Gray Man, a sometime CIA agent, sometime freelancer. Besides the fact than we share the same editor, I’ve become a huge Greaney fan and have read every single Gray Man book.
Of course, John Sandford is a master of the killer first chapter. In Invisible Prey he sets the scene for the murder of two rich old ladies this way: Oak Walk was perched on a bluff. The back of the house looked across the lights of St. Paul, down into the valley of the Mississippi where the groove in the river had already gone dark. The front faced Summit Avenue. Oak Walk was the second-richest house in the richest street in town. His description gave me shivers, not only because it’s incredible writing, but because I once had a major dalliance with a wealthy man who lived on that same Summit Avenue in a house that was purported to be haunted. (But who’s talking skeletons in the attic?)
And remember the opening chapter of Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park? Textbook perfect horror in a crime story: A man thinks he is hardened to death; he has walked into hot kitchens covered from floor to ceiling in blood, is an expert, knows that in the summer people seem ready to explode with blood; he even prefers winter’s stiffs. Then a new death mask pops out of the snow. Cruz Smith captures the bleakness of Moscow, the dreariness of winter, and the horror of the mutilated faces. But, strangely enough, we want to know more.
Kudos also go to Diane Mott Davidson, who helped spearhead the culinary cozy and launch it into legitimate genre territory. Here’s how she begins Prime Cut: Like a fudge soufflé, life can collapse. You think you have it all together—fine melted chocolate, clouds of egg white, hints of sugar and vanilla—and then bam. Murder and melted chocolate. In her own way Ms. Davidson helped inspire me to create smack-out-of-the-box excitement and morph my own Tea Shop Mysteries into a kind of hybrid cozy-thriller (a thrillzy!).
I haven’t read Ruth Ware’s new book, The It Girl, yet. But it’s sitting on my nightstand like a radioactive beacon daring me to pick it up. So I flipped it open and took a quick peek. Ms. Ware doesn’t disappoint with her opening lines: Afterwards, it was the door she would remember. It was open, she kept saying to the police. I should have known something was wrong. Shivers, definitely shivers.
In devouring books by these grand masters, I hope I’ve learned a trick or two. In Haunted Hibiscus, one of my favorite Tea Shop Mysteries, I try to pull my readers in with a truly ominous description: Dark clouds bubbled across a purple-black sky, then lifted gently, like velvet curtain in a darkened theatre, to reveal the top two floors of a dilapidated mansion. That’s it, Theodosia said, the place they’ve dubbed the Gray Ghost. Of course, moments later, a woman is tossed from the tower, jewels are stolen, and tea maven Theodosia jumps right into the mix.
For me, the most exciting and terrifying part of writing a book is sussing out that heart-pumping first chapter. Which is why the first chapters of my Tea Shop Mysteries are alive with jewel heists, exploding hot air balloons, hangings at a haunted house, horse races, a convulsive death in a poison garden, motorcycle chases, political assassinations, exploding Mardi Gras floats, kidnappings, drownings, dead bride grooms, and even a stolen pirate skull.
My main character, Theodosia, dares to venture where angels fear to tread, but she can always be counted on to find time to take a breath, enjoy a cup of tea, and (finally!) share a few nits and nats of back story.