Ever heard of the page 69 trick? It’s said that, if you want to know whether you’ll enjoy a novel, you should turn to page 69 and start reading. If you like what you see, buy the book. But I think that starting at the beginning is the better (and fairer) test—openings are designed to draw you in, to give you just the right info at the right time. To prove the worth of the page 1 test, here are some of my favorite opening scenes in fiction, all of them followed by stories that more than pay out the early pages’ promise:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami
“When the phone rang, I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.”
From the very first line of Wind-Up Bird, we know we’re in Murakami-land: the pasta, the cool first-person narration, the meticulously sourced jazz. Somewhere in the background is a missing cat, and soon there will be a missing wife, followed by a series of intriguing, occasionally vicious women. But first, back to the opening scene. The narrator picks up the phone, and:
“‘Ten minutes, please,’ said a woman on the other end.
I’m good at recognizing other people’s voices, but this was not one I knew.
‘Excuse me? To whom did you wish to speak?’
‘To you, of course. Ten minutes please. That’s all we need to understand each other.'”
The surreal, erotically tinged phone calls that follow, from a woman who never identifies herself, are the perfect entry into the off-kilter world of Wind-Up Bird, and their open-ended uncanniness flavors everything that follows.
The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
“I was wearing my powder blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”
And so we meet Philip Marlowe, the original hardboiled detective, an honest cynic who likes his brandy “any way at all.” In the same clean, intensely detailed prose, Chandler renders Marlowe’s business call to the lavish estate of the Sternwood family, and introduces the babyish younger daughter of the house. A wild child barely into her “dangerous twenties,” she’s the recent victim of a blackmail attempt. Of course nothing’s ever that simple for Marlowe, and he ends up, as ever, neck-deep in other people’s muck. But rest assured, there will be guns, perps, dames hard and soft, and amazing one-liners (mostly Marlowe’s).
London Fields, by Martin Amis
“This is a true story but I can’t believe it’s really happening.
This is a murder story, too. I can’t believe my luck.
And a love story (I think), of all strange things, so late in the century, so late in the goddamned day.
This is the story of a murder. It hasn’t happened yet. But it will.”
These are the opening words of the narrator, Samson Young, a blocked and dying writer, sitting on an empty red-eye flight from New York to London. He’s in the city to write his final work: an account of a murder that has yet to happen, predetermined and orchestrated by the “murderee,” the fantastically named Nicola Six. The love/hate triangle that precedes the event is narrated at a dry distance by Samson, and backdropped by The Crisis, an international, possibly nuclear situation that’s never fully illuminated, but informs the fatalistic tone if not the plot of London Fields.
What’s your favorite opening scene or sentence in fiction?