You’re at the mystery section of an airport bookstore and the loudspeaker has just announced that your flight is in the late stages of boarding. You have maybe three or four minutes to make a choice. (That is your assignment, if you choose to accept it.) How do you go about deciding?
Look at the back cover? No, back-cover copy is written by an advertising flack who probably hasn’t read the book and is trying for something short and punchy like (and I will be making none of this up) “As unpredictable as trade winds” or “It couldn’t get any worse. Until it does”. Besides, rarely will the style of back-cover prose be anything like the style of the book itself, so reading it won’t tell you what you want to know.
Depending on your taste, it might tell you something usefully negative. The moment I spot a reference to any country but this one, I move on. No international settings for me. Ditto for any promise that the book I am holding will be funny. Funny is for sitcoms and stand-up comedians. When it comes to mysteries, I’m a Matthew Arnold guy, all for high seriousness.
How about the blurbs, especially if a few of your favourites are touting the merits of an author new to you? I used to take direction from blurbs until I told a very famous mystery writer that he was right to have praised a book I had bought on his authority. He replied that he didn’t remember it, probably hadn’t read it and was no doubt doing a favour to his publisher. Members of that club, it seems, pass blurbs out to each other like party favours.
The only thing left—and this is sure-fire—is to read the first sentence. The really bad ones leap out at you. Here’s one that has the advantage of being short (you can close the book quickly): “He cut through the morning rush-hour crowd like a shark fin through water.” Enough said. Here’s one that begins OK, except for the heroine’s name, but then goes on a beat and a half too long: “Brianne Parker didn’t look like a bank robber or a murderer—her pleasantly plump baby face fooled everyone.” You don’t need the stuff after the dash. Brianne’s not looking like a murderer is the hook that draws you in to find out why she is one.
The “pleasantly plump baby face” bit lets you off the hook and dumps you on a cliche, which might be all right if the author gave any sign of knowing that it was one. This guy is going to hit false notes for 300 pages, but I won’t be listening.
Sometimes a first sentence is bad because it’s pretentious. “Some stories wait to be told.” That’s an opening Tolstoy or Jane Austen might have considered (although they would have produced superior versions of it). But mystery writers usually aren’t Tolstoys or Austens, and a first sentence like this one is a signal (buyer beware) that the author is intent on contemplating his or her “craft” and wants you to contemplate it, too. No thanks.
Time is running out, the doors will soon be closing. Here’s something much better: “Stromose was in high school when he met the boy who would some day murder his wife and son.” High marks for compression, information and what I call the “angle of lean”. A good first sentence knows about everything that will follow it and leans forward with great force, taking you with it. As you read this one, you already want to find out (a) what was the relationship between the two in high school (b) what happened that turned a “boy” into a murderer and (c) what sequence of events led to his murdering these particular people? The only thing wrong is that the author is as impressed with the sentence as he wants you to be; it is written with a snap and a click of self-satisfaction.
And here, finally, is the real thing, efficient, dense and free of self-preening: “Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.” The name is nicely cadenced and sounds serious; “eleven years old at the time” takes the seriousness away, but it comes back with a vengeance and with a question: descent into murder, how did that happen?
The answer—“with a bus ride”—only deepens the mystery, and we’re off. And look, the book is big and fat. Sold.
Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn professor of law at Florida International University. From International Herald Tribune