I told the boys to stay quiet while I went to fetch my gun. (Twice Shy)
When I read those first words of Twice Shy by Dick Francis, my immediate thought was, “Now there’s a powerful opening hook!” Then I put the thought aside and kept on reading, because first and foremost I love a good story. Time enough to analyze how Francis hooked me and try (hope) to bring that power to my own writing after I’d read the story.
So began my study of beginnings. The opening hooks I loved most were the ones that not only promised, but also delivered an amazing read. Many of them were written by Dick Francis.
E. C. Sheedy introduced me to the idea of searching for the power words in writing that impresses me. Gun is definitely a powerful word, associated with violence and death. Paired with boys, which implies youth, it becomes even more dangerous and powerful. The command to stay quiet implies a threat, increasing the dangerous stakes.
In seventeen words, Dick Francis completely hooked me. When the next paragraph reveales that the first person narrator is a Physics teacher in a boys school, using the gun as a prop for a lesson on ballistics, I’m even more intrigued. I know the gun is going to be important – after all, this is a mystery. The narrator will be the detective character, and I’ll be staying up late to read this book.
Dick Francis didn’t disappoint me.
I intensely disliked my father’s fifth wife, but not to the point of murder. (Hot Money )
Hot Money begins with the above statement by jockey Ian Pembroke, whose mother was his father’s second wife. I love the way the author blends powerful words like intensely, disliked and murder with details that skillfully reveal the murdered wife was preceded by four others, one of whom will be Ian’s mother. I anticipate family discord, and I expect Ian to be the innocent prime suspect.
Hot Money delivers on the promise of its opening sentence with a delightfully complex family arranged in factions around three ex-wives, an intriguing mystery, and the delight of discovering Ian’s complex relationship with the father who, when his own life is threatened, turns for help to his estranged son – the one person everyone else suspects of the murder.
Here are a few more great openings from Dick Francis novels:
Dying slowly of bone cancer, the old man, shrivelled now, sat as ever in his great armchair, tears of lonely pain sliding down crepuscular cheeks. (Wild Horses)
I had told the drivers never on any account to pick up a hitchhiker but of course one day they did, and by the time they reached my house he was dead. (Driving Force)
I don’t think my stepfather much minded dying. That he almost took me with him wasn’t really his fault. (To the Hilt)
And then there’s Straight, which I believe is Dick Francis’ most brilliantly crafted novel:
I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me. ( Straight)
The violence implied by killed is preceded by a tantalizing blend of what seem to be small details (his desk, his gadgets) and the threat implied in inheriting his enemies and his mistress.
What elevates this book beyond the status of a truly great mystery is the way every one of those inherited items became meaningful: not only in solving a murder, but also in painting the evocative portrait of the uncompromisingly Straight man whose death preceded the story’s beginning.
Dick Francis was a master who continues to fascinate me. Every time I re-read one of his novels I hope to soak up some of the magic of his storytelling.
Dick Francis died on February 24, 2010, survived by two sons and a legacy of best-selling mysteries. The fascinating story of his life and its real-life mystery is revealed in family friend Graham Lord’s biography Dick Francis: A Racing Life, which I discovered (and bought) while writing this blog.