Thursday, March 22, 2012


The First Sentence

I've been reading Stanley Fish's, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. This is a slim volume (only 164 pages) but it's dense and complex and demanding. It's a rewarding read though and I find myself dipping into it again and again.

It's a book to be lingered over and pondered rather than gulped whole in some sort of speed-reading frenzy. Fish is a connoisseur of sentences and he quotes his favourites liberally. He acknowledges Strunk and White but takes The Elements of Style to another level. He asks the reader to enjoy a sentence that is not just grammatically correct and faultlessly logical but a feast for the soul. In one instance he quotes a particularly fine sentence and then invites the reader to try his hand at composing a similar one. It's an intriguing exercise.

Fish has devoted an entire chapter to first sentences and he quotes some splendid ones. I was interested to note that some of the first sentences we were forced to memorize as children are not his first choice. The first line from A Tale of Two Cities - "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times etc." - is summarily dismissed.

In Fish's opinion first sentences should have what he refers to as "an angle of lean". They incline towards the rest of the novel, giving a hint of where the book is going. He starts with the first sentence of Agatha Christie's Nemesis . "In the afternoons it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper." Fish tells us the sentence seems simple but in fact it communicates a surprising amount of information. "Miss Marple has a routine," he says, "she follows it and it occurs daily." It is not a custom easily trifled with. The reader knows immediately that there will be something written in this second newspaper that will be pivotal to the novel that follows.

Here are a few first lines that I think meet Stanley Fish's criteria:

"They're all dead now," from Anne Marie MacDonald's Fall on you Knees.

Once read, who could ever forget Ruth Rendell's first line in Judgment in Stone? "Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write."

Declan Hughes gets off a zinger in The Wrong Kind of Blood: "The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband."

Peter Temple, my favourite Australian crime novelist, writes many exquisite sentences. Here's the first line from Bad Debts: "I found Edward Dollery, age forty-seven, defrocked accountant, big spender and dishonest person, living in a house rented in the name of Carol Pick."

And finally, I'm a big fan of Mary Jane Maffini's Camilla MacPhee series. Here's the first line from Speak Ill of the Dead: "That particular morning all I could think about was getting rid of Alvin." Whenever I read that line I feel an instant empathy for Camilla but it turns out Maffini's fans are divided on the issue. Some of us would cheerfully drown the irritating twerp but others can't get enough of him and have even formed the Alvin Ferguson Fan Club.

Have you a first sentence that you particularly like and that you'd share with us here?

Sue Pike has published a couple of dozen stories and won several awards including an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story. Her latest, Where the Snow Lay Dinted will appear in the January issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Sue and her husband and an opinionated Australian Shepherd named Cooper spend the winter months in Ottawa and the rest of the time at a mysterious cottage on the Rideau Lakes.

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