How to Write Crime Fiction - Tip Five: Openings and Hooks
by Kelvin Jones
Your opening is your selling point for your crime novel. It needs to grab the reader's attention by presenting to him/her something unusual or tantalising! We call this THE HOOK!
Examples of Starting a Crime Novel with Good Hooks:
In The Talented Mr Ripley, published in 1956, Patricia Highsmith immediately creates the edgy feeling that pervades the book.
Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt that the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren't quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.
Len Deighton pitches straight into dialogue in these first lines of his spy novel Berlin Game, published in 1984 during the Cold War years. The exchange juxtaposes the personal and political, as the book does.
‘How long have we been sitting here?' I said. I picked up the field glasses and studied the bored young American soldier in his glass-sided box.
‘Nearly a quarter of a century,’ said Werner Volkmann. His arms were resting on the steering wheel and his head was slumped on them. ‘That GI wasn't even born when we first sat here waiting for the dogs to bark.’
Sue Grafton, the creator of Kinsey Millhone who solves the `alphabet murders' in Los Angeles, begins C is for Corpse with a brisk six lines in the voice of her hardboiled heroine. The book was published in 1986.
I met Bobby Callahan on Monday of that week. By Thursday, he was dead. He was convinced someone was trying to kill him and it turned out to be true, but none of us figured it out in time to save him. I've never worked for a dead man before and I hope I won't have to do it again. This report is for him, for whatever it's worth.
P.D. James startles us with the corpse and the central mystery in Unnatural Causes, which came out in 1967. Her beautiful prose is always a counterpoint to the horrors of which she writes. The description of the mutilated corpse in the boat takes up six paragraphs of roughly similar length, indeed the whole of the short first chapter, so I shall quote only the first paragraph. Superintendent Adam Dalgleish doesn't appear until the second chapter, but by that book he was a well-established series hero.
The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy drifting just within sight of the Suffolk coast. It was the body of a middle-aged man, a dapper little cadaver, its shroud a dark pin-striped suit which fitted the narrow body as elegantly in death as it had in life. The hand-made shoes still gleamed except for some scuffing of the toe caps, the silk tie was knotted under the prominent Adam's apple. He had dressed with careful orthodoxy for the town, this hapless voyager, nor for this lonely sea; nor for this death.
Finally, a daring opening to Ruth Rendell's suspense novel, A Judgement in Stone. In one line she gives away the name of the killer, the names of the victims and the killer's motive. And in the next few she reveals the result of the crime.
Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write. There was no real motive and no premeditation; no money was gained and no security. As a result of her crime, Eunice Parchman's disability was made known not to a mere family or handful of villagers but to the whole country. She accomplished nothing by it but disaster for herself, and all along, somewhere in her strange mind, she knew she would accomplish nothing. And yet, although her companion and partner was mad, Eunice was not. She had the awful practical sanity of the atavistic ape disguised as twentieth-century woman.
Keep Polishing those Opening Lines
You may have your own favourites which you can also study to discover what lures you to read on. Once you have identified what you want to achieve in your first lines, try writing them. You might be lucky and get it right at once, but you are more likely to want to polish and improve. Keep all your attempts in case you decide to reconsider. And don't fear that you must perfect your first lines before moving on to write the rest of the scene.
Finally, here is the opening of my fourth John Bottrell crime novel, A Cromer Corpse, an opening which aims at the visceral approach!
He saw it as the net was slowly winched up onto the trawler deck: a white, bloated thing which had lain in the waves for three weeks, a thing like a tailor's dummy, the arms and legs rigid and attenuated, the head a misshapen doll's face, one of the eyes eaten away, the mouth still bloody and wide open. Around the body, fish struggled and squirmed, as if trying to free themselves from this hideous relic of the deep.
As the jib swung across to meet him, Zak smelt it too, the charnel house odour of decaying flesh. He jerked back, gripped by nausea, releasing the control arm. The jib lurched above him, the net slipping with the recoil, jettisoning its grotesque trophy onto the deck where it stared back at him with malevolent intent.
Extract from The Cromer Corpse by Kelvin Jones: Cunning Crime Books, 2014
Another function of your opening is to preamble or foreshadow the events or crime that is to follow. Some crime writers employ a prologue to do this with. Here is an example from my John Bottrell crime series, Stone Dead:
It was almost dusk by the time Rebecca reached the footpath which led to the old well. Lengthening shadows encircled the hawthorn bushes ahead and a strong odour of damp earth rose to meet her.
She had been here almost exactly a year ago with Paul. She had been happier then. A new place, here, at the end of the world (or so it seemed), nearing the conclusion of her quest. She recalled how they had lain naked in the long grass, hidden in the beech grove and made love that long hot summer afternoon. All that had changed. They were no longer lovers now but friends who kept a discreet distance from each other. She had the shop and the local pagan community. They had sustained her.
Through the ancient trees she could glimpse the outline of the granite stones that formed part of the canopy of the old holy well. Some tattered strips of cloth — clouties as the Cornish called them — fluttered above her in the summer breeze, placed here as a healing ritual.
She shivered. It had grown suddenly cold beneath the trees, which was surprising for the day had been in the upper seventies and somewhat humid. A sudden wind blew up and the branches of the old hawthorn tree danced before her, suddenly animate.
At the entrance to the ruined Celtic chapel, she paused to look back down the path. A full moon had risen in the east, its silver orb brilliant and ivory against the deepening indigo sky.
Unshouldering her bag, she took out a small beeswax candle, lit it and began to descend the lichened steps of the old well. Shafts of sunlight spilled on to the still water beneath her, giving the interior a soft luminescence. She knelt on the lower step and placed the guttering candle in a small stone niche to her left. She had come here to meditate and also for her sister's sake.
After some moments, she opened her eyes, which had grown accustomed to the half-light. From her pocket she drew out a small female figure made from sheaves of wheat. She kissed it gently, then, after a short invocation to Hecate, leant over to place it on the stone at the base of the well.
Then she saw it. A small feathered body, its glazed yellow eye gleaming in the last of the sunlight. She reached out towards it with her free hand but the small body of the wren was stiff and cold to the touch. A ribbon of blood spread from its beak. At first she thought it had been the victim of a predator but when she glimpsed the long steel needle protruding from its side she realized it had been placed there for a reason.
She stood up, extinguished the candle with a shaking hand and made her way back along the shadowed path, breathing fast now, her heart pumping. Someone had been here, to her sacred place, her place of dreams. Someone who knew her. Knew her well.
She pulled the shawl tight about her shoulders and quickened her pace, aware that the wind had risen, presaging the first spots of rain. By the time she reached the car at the roadside she found she was shivering. But it was not cold that made her shiver. It was fear.
Active Tenses Move a Story Along
Finally, a word about active as opposed to passive storytelling. Choose active, not passive verbs. Make sure each scene has SOMETHING happen in it! This way you can heighten suspense...
Here is an example, again from Stone Dead:
Using Heightened Suspense to Keep Readers Engaged
Once off the road, the stench of petrol fumes began to recede and he was able to make his way down a hawthorn-lined footpath, which wound its way eventually to a higher gradient and across open moorland. The keen Atlantic wind billowed his clothes and far off in the direction of Chun Quoit, he could hear the mournful cry of the buzzard as its circled above its prey. The sun, now low on the horizon, had disappeared behind a bank of dark cloud and the mood of the moorland began to shift subtly and disconcertingly. He became aware of how alone he was up here. On all sides the weathered and worn shapes of nature gathered like silent sentinels. He began to feel that he was being watched and he quickened his pace, aware that a low mist had gathered, enveloping the bushes and grey lichened stones. By now he was within a few hundred yards of Chun Quoit, that commanding and solitary place of ancient burial with its curious flat capstone. A light rain was falling and, feeling weary, he decided he would take advantage of the place and shelter in its dry interior.
Once inside, he squatted on his haunches and, reaching for his pipe and tobacco pouch, he was soon inhaling the aromatic, acrid smoke. The faint unease that had troubled him on the St Just road seemed stronger than ever now and, try as he might to dispel it he found himself on edge, more watchful than usual. The rain was sweeping across the moorland in broad vertical swathes and the summer sky was an inky black, huge plumes of rain bearing clouds moving in rapidly from the west. The fatigue of his long journey began to overtake him and, leaning back against one of the great granite uprights, he gave way to fatigue and closed his eyes momentarily, allowing the dense tobacco smoke to curl a slow path through his nostrils lulling him into sleep.
Time passed. When or how he had drifted off into sleep he could not be sure afterwards but when he came to, it was with a rude awakening. When he opened his eyes a dense shadow appeared to have fallen across the entry to the tomb. Before he could react, within an instant a hand reached in and grasped him by the throat. He had only seconds to think. He was wide awake now and fighting for his life, for the hand that gripped and choked the life from him was broad and powerful. Against the outline of the quoit he could see nothing but the dark outline of the head that appeared to him, which was masked and eyeless. Unable to breathe, he tried to raise himself to his feet but he slipped on the wet rock and fell back, banging his head in the process. The figure was on him now. He could hear its deep stentorian breath, smell its strange earthy odour, its damp clothes flapping about him like bat's wings. His strength was leaching away from him now; there were stars before his eyes and his strength was all but gone. With one last, desperate attempt he gripped his door keys and drove them deep into the flesh of the body that pinned him down. There was a sudden sharp cry of pain and then the figure recoiled. Seeing his chance, Bottrell staggered to his feet and, levering himself with his arms against the granite uprights, he lashed out with his feet, delivering a sharp crack to his attacker's legs.
Once outside, for a long while he stood leaning against the quoit, drinking in great lungfuls of air, his body trembling. He could see nothing ahead, for the mist had closed in now and enveloped his attacker, drawing him back into the darkness from whence he had sprung. After what seemed an eternity he picked up his pipe and, gathering his rain-drenched jacket about him, he made his way down the narrow gorse - girt path, until at long last he could make out the lights of the farmhouse ahead.
(Extract from Stone Dead, by Kelvin Jones, Cunning Crime Books 2016)
Kelvin I Jones is the author of the John Bottrell crime series, featuring a Cornish detective, many books about Sherlock Holmes and a biography of Conan Doyle. He has published the definitive guide to Cornish Witchcraft and several books about Cornish folklore. He is also the author of many supernatural stories, among them Carter's Occult Casebook, about a psychic Edwardian detective. Of his many gothic tales, Francis King, the novelist and critic, has written, “(Kelvin's work) piquantly suggest the work of a modern M.R. James.”
His new collection of crime short stories, Inspector Ketch of Norwich is on Kindle and will be available in paperback from 1st September via Amazon.
Kelvin I. Jones has been a prolific UK crime and supernatural fantasy writer for over a quarter of a century. Born in Kent in 1948, he is equally at home writing poetry, plays and novels. He has published six books about Sherlock Holmes and the only definitive study of Conan Doyle’s interest in spiritualism, as well as numerous articles about the Victorian detective (see R De Waal's Universal Sherlock Holmes, online edition, 2000). Ed Hoch, the renowned American crime writer, has said of his Sherlockian work: “Kelvin I Jones reveals a sensibility and knowledge of 19th Century literature that extends far beyond the world of Sherlock Holmes.' He is the author of the Stone Dead series, featuring the intrepid Cornish detective, John Bottrell, and the Inspector Ketch stories, which are set in Norfolk.
Recent publications: Sherlock Holmes: The Plagues of London, Sherlock Holmes: The Baskerville Papers, A Dogged Detective (DCI Ketch), A Grave For The Goddess (John Bottrell).