Monday, November 15, 2010

Great opening lines in literature (special "severed body parts" edition)

I find I have to stretch the concept of "greatness" a bit for this one, but it's a sentence that it's certainly tough to read without having a strong sense that here is a short story that is definitely going somewhere.

It's the opening sentence from "The Head" (the title's another pretty conspicuous signal, right there), by Manuel Komroff, reprinted in The Third Omnibus of Crime, edited by Dorothy L. Sayers (1935).

On the same day that Handsome Dan shot the seargeant of detectives, the newspapers announced that some Russian scientists had made a wonderful discovery.

(The Third Omnibus is devilishly hard to track down online. I have a fairly decent copy that I found in a little bookshop in Multnomah Village about 15 years ago. Here's a summary, including a microreview of the Komroff story.)

The Omnibus of Crime (also edited by Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey), was published in 1929, at a time when the Golden Age of mystery writing was in full flower, but it found itself in much the same self-conscious position as hip-hop music before MTV finally launched "Yo! MTV Raps" around 1990: It was hugely popular commercially, but still struggling to prove that it was a legitimate artistic form. The first Omnibus establishes its subject's pedigree by tracing its literary descent from the equivalent of the Flood: the short mystery stories by Edgar Alan Poe, including "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter," written some 80 years earlier. The first Omnibus struggles to set forth the respectable characteristics of the genre, including the all-important principle of Fair Play.

By the time of the Third Omnibus, only six years later, the biggest issue facing Sayers appeared to be differentiating the mystery story from the horror story (hence the presence of odd bits like "The Head" in that volume.)

And there things stood for some time, even though Dashiel Hammett had published The Maltese Falcon in that interval. (One likes to imagine, on the day that Falcon appeared in print on the other side of the Atlantic, Ms. Sayers writing in her diary, "Nothing of interest happened today.")

Raymond Chandler's magnificent The Simple Art of Murder (written in 1944, republished in 1950) was the Declaration of Independence for that uniquely-American creation, the hard-boiled detective. Chandler provided the rationale for separating the detective story from its older, more genteel British cousin, the mystery story, and instigated his readers to chuck overboard all those train schedules, exotic poisons and candles guttered on the side closest to the open window. The emphasis would henceforth be, instead, on the pleasures of the gun, the bourbon, the femme fatale, and -- O, this above all -- the mean streets.

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