7 of Our Favorite First Lines in Crime Fiction
We’ve all heard the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but we have to start somewhere. And when there are as many intriguing crime novels releasing every day as there are now… I don’t know about y’all, but the books need to get my attention pretty much immediately. I want the first line to grab me by the collar, sit me down, point a finger in my face and say, You will fall in love with me. These are our favorite first lines, in random order, that do just that:
"Los Angeles burns."
Welcome to Mae Pruett’s Los Angeles, where “Nobody talks. But everybody whispers.” As a “black-bag” publicist tasked not with letting the good news out but keeping the bad news in, Mae works for one of LA’s most powerful and sought-after crisis PR firms, at the center of a sprawling web of lawyers, PR flaks, and private security firms she calls “The Beast.” They protect the rich and powerful and depraved by any means necessary.
After her boss is gunned down in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel in a random attack, Mae takes it upon herself to investigate and runs headfirst into The Beast’s lawless machinations and the twisted systems it exists to perpetuate. It takes her on a roving neon joyride through a Los Angeles full of influencers pumped full of pills and fillers; sprawling mansions footsteps away from sprawling homeless encampments; crooked cops and mysterious wrecking crews in the middle of the night.
Related: Read an Excerpt from Everybody Knows by Jordan Harper
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"I hear the crack of his skull before the spattering of blood reaches me."
Lowen Ashleigh is a struggling writer on the brink of financial ruin when she accepts the job offer of a lifetime. Jeremy Crawford, husband of bestselling author Verity Crawford, has hired Lowen to complete the remaining books in a successful series his injured wife is unable to finish.
Lowen arrives at the Crawford home, ready to sort through years of Verity’s notes and outlines, hoping to find enough material to get her started. What Lowen doesn’t expect to uncover in the chaotic office is an unfinished autobiography Verity never intended for anyone to read. Page after page of bone-chilling admissions, including Verity's recollection of the night her family was forever altered.
Lowen decides to keep the manuscript hidden from Jeremy, knowing its contents could devastate the already grieving father. But as Lowen’s feelings for Jeremy begin to intensify, she recognizes all the ways she could benefit if he were to read his wife’s words. After all, no matter how devoted Jeremy is to his injured wife, a truth this horrifying would make it impossible for him to continue loving her.
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No Country for Old Men
"I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville."
The time is our own, when rustlers have given way to drug-runners and small towns have become free-fire zones. One day, a good old boy named Llewellyn Moss finds a pickup truck surrounded by a bodyguard of dead men. A load of heroin and two million dollars in cash are still in the back. When Moss takes the money, he sets off a chain reaction of catastrophic violence that not even the law—in the person of aging, disillusioned Sheriff Bell—can contain.
As Moss tries to evade his pursuers—in particular a mysterious mastermind who flips coins for human lives—McCarthy simultaneously strips down the American crime novel and broadens its concerns to encompass themes as ancient as the Bible and as bloodily contemporary as this morning’s headlines.
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All That Is Wicked
Kate Winkler Dawson
"It’s strenuous work to saw through a skull."
Edward Rulloff was a brilliant yet utterly amoral murderer—some have called him a “Victorian-era Hannibal Lecter”—whose crimes spanned decades and whose victims were chosen out of revenge, out of envy, and sometimes out of necessity. From his humble beginnings in upstate New York to the dazzling salons and social life he established in New York City, at every turn Rulloff used his intelligence and regal bearing to evade detection and avoid punishment. He could talk his way out of any crime...until one day, Rulloff's luck ran out.
By 1871 Rulloff sat chained in his cell—a psychopath holding court while curious 19th-century "mindhunters" tried to understand what made him tick. From alienists (early psychiatrists who tried to analyze the source of his madness) to neurologists (who wanted to dissect his brain) to phrenologists (who analyzed the bumps on his head to determine his character), each one thought he held the key to understanding the essential question: is evil born or made? Eventually, Rulloff’s brain would be placed in a jar at Cornell University as the prize specimen of their anatomy collection...where it still sits today, slowly moldering in a dusty jar. But his story—and its implications for the emerging field of criminal psychology—were just beginning.
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"Death is my beat."
Death is reporter Jack McEvoy’s beat: his calling, his obsession. But this time, death brings McEvoy the story he never wanted to write–and the mystery he desperately needs to solve. A serial killer of unprecedented savagery and cunning is at large. His targets: homicide cops, each haunted by a murder case he couldn’t crack. The killer’s calling card: a quotation from the works of Edgar Allan Poe. His latest victim is McEvoy’s own brother. And his last…may be McEvoy himself.
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"Max Rupert laced his fingers behind his head and settled into his pillow to await the ghosts."
Max Rupert has left his position as a Minneapolis homicide detective to live in solitude. Mourning the tragic death of his wife, he's also racked by guilt—he alone knows what happened to her killer. But then the former local sheriff, Lyle Voight, arrives with a desperate plea: Lyle’s daughter Sandy and his six-year-old grandson Pip have disappeared. Lyle’s certain Sandy's ex-husband Reed is behind it, but the new sheriff is refusing to investigate.
When Max reluctantly looks into their disappearance, he too becomes convinced something has gone very wrong. But the closer Max and Lyle get to finding proof, the more slippery Reed becomes, until he makes a break for the beautiful but formidable Boundary Waters wilderness with vulnerable Pip in tow.
Racing after the most dangerous kind of criminal—a desperate father—and with the ghosts of their own pasts never far behind, Max and Lyle go on the hunt within a treacherous landscape, determined to bring an evil man to justice, and to bring a terrified child home alive.
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The Damage Done
"It was the bright yellow tape that finally convinced me my sister was dead."
Lily Moore, a successful travel writer, fled to Spain to get away from her troubled, drug-addicted younger sister, Claudia. But when Claudia is found dead in a bathtub on the anniversary of their mother’s suicide, Lily must return to New York to deal with the aftermath.
The situation shifts from tragic to baffling when the body at the morgue turns out to be a stranger’s. The dead woman had been using Claudia’s identity for months. The real Claudia had vanished, reappearing briefly on the day her impostor died. As Claudia transforms from victim to suspect in the eyes of the police, Lily becomes determined to find her before they do.
Is Claudia actually missing, or is she playing an elaborate con game? And who’s responsible for the body that was found in the bathtub? An obsessive ex-lover? An emotionally disturbed young man with a rich and powerful father? Or Lily’s own former fiancé, who turns out to be more deeply involved with Claudia than he admits?
As Lily searches for answers, a shadowy figure stalks her and the danger to her grows. Determined to learn the truth at any cost, she is unprepared for the terrible toll it will take on her and those she loves.
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What to Read Next
Mary Kay McBrayer is the author of America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster. You can find her short works at Oxford American, Narratively, Mental Floss, and FANGORIA, among other publications. She co-hosts Everything Trying to Kill You, the comedy podcast that analyzes your favorite horror movies from the perspectives of women of color. Follow Mary Kay McBrayer on Instagram and Twitter, or check out her author site here.