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“It was a dark and stormy night” is one of literature’s most famous opening lines.  So when I decided to write an About Marilyn column featuring great first lines in crime fiction, I naturally turned to Google to find the author of this sentence.

That proved to be a mystery in itself.  The name Edward Bulwer-Lytton came up most often; it was the opening line of his 1841 novel Paul Clifford, a mystery that takes place during the French Revolution.

Two other authors whose names and books came up in the Google search are Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time (1973) and Washington Irving’s satirical piece A History Of New York (1809).  I’m pretty certain that Ms. L’Engle wasn’t trying to take credit for a line that was written more than a hundred years before her book was published, but it’s difficult to know whether Bulwer-Lytton was aware of Irving’s sketch, as copyright laws and the ability of written works to travel across the ocean were definitely different in the 19th century than they are now.

As both Bulwer-Lytton and Irving are no longer around to argue their respective cases, I’m going to say that the line’s authorship is one of those puzzles that may never be solved.  However, below are some outstanding first lines of crime novels whose authorship is not in doubt.  All credit to Greg Levin at his blog

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write. — A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell

The last camel died at noon. The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge. — Darker Than Amber by John D. MacDonald

It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby. In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming

I feel compelled to report that at the moment of death, my entire life did not pass before my eyes in a flash. — I is for Innocent by Sue Grafton

Gordon Michaels stood in the fountain with all of his clothes on. — Banker by Dick Francis

Granted, a great opening line or hook does not necessarily make a great story.  But it certainly can whet the reader’s appetite and make her/him continue reading.  To (somewhat) prove my point, I’ve read and enjoyed five of the six novels listed above; The Key to Rebecca is the only one I haven’t read.  And I’m pretty sure that if I’d picked that book up at a bookstore or at my local library and turned to the first page, I would have continued reading.

Wishing you a wonderful summer, filled with mysteries to enjoy.



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