Crime fiction: First lines of note

May 5, 2019 at 10:47 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

I’ve recently come across two memorable beginning sentences in works of crime fiction.

From The Secret Pilgrim by John Le Carre:

Let me confess to you at once that if I had not, on the spur of the moment, picked up my pen  and scribbled a note to George Smiley inviting him to address my passing-out class on the closing evening of their entry course–and had Smiley not against all my expectations, consented–I would not be making so free to you with my heart.

The entire paragraph consists of this one sentence. The Secret Pilgrim is copyright 1990 but might as well be dated 1890, or even earlier, so graceful and old-fashioned is it, in its expressiveness.

For me, A Legacy of Spies (2017) was triumphant return to form for John Le Carre (not that he was ever really off form). And there is a new novel on the horizon: An Agent Running in the Field, due out here in October.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley. The Secret Pilgriim is dedicated by Le Carre to Alec Guinness, “with affection and thanks”

 

John Le Carre, at his home in Cornwall. What kind if expression is that: querulous? quizzical? inscrutable? some combination?

***************

A completely different case is presented by the opening gambit of the story “Dark Waters” by Freeman Wills Crofts:

For years Weller, the solicitor, had handled Marbeck’s affairs, and when he received the old man’s letter saying that he wanted to realise some securities, it struck him like a sentence of death.

Well, gosh! Talk about in medias res!

The story is off to a frantic start; Crofts sustains the pitch right through to the end of this brief and powerful tale.

“Dark Waters” appears in Bodies from the Library, an excellent new anthology featuring, according to the subtitle, Lost Tales of Mystery and Suspense by Agatha Christie and Other Masters of the Golden Age. As for Freeman Wills Crofts, he is one of the Golden Age writers whose works are  currently being reissued as part of the British Library’s Crime Classics initiative.

In the 1920s high culture priest T.S. Eliot, an avid detective fiction reader, classed Crofts with R. Austin Freeman, a still-active contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle, as the two greatest living detective novelists. Of Crofts, Ivor Brown, drama critic and Oxford graduate in the Classics, sics, humbly declared: “Before his invention, mine eyes dazzle.”

Curtis J. Evans, Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920–1961

The meticulous account of detective work, coupled with the ingenuity of the construction (and deconstruction) of the alibi were  to become Freeman Wills Crofts’ hallmarks, and they sett his debut novel apart from the competition. Over the next twenty years, the book sold more than 100,000 copies.

Martin Edwards on The Cask, in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books

The Cask is excellent; I highly recommend it.

Freeman Wills Crofts  1879-1957

 

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