First Words I

Added on 16 October 2009

Dickens opened A Tale Of Two Cities with It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...; Marquez opens One Hundred Years of Solitude with the words: Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice; Hemmingway introduces The Old Man and The Sea with: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. First lines that say so much, and suck a reader in from the very beginning.


But what about the Barney Thomson novels? In the first of a three part series, Long Midnight Publishing artistic director, Elvis Shackleton, in unusually acerbic mood, discusses the opening words of each of the Barney novels with literary crime expert Professor Malcolm Laidlaw of the University of Glasgow.


The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson:


Opening sentence:




Laidlaw: An intriguing first line to the first book in the series. A single word, and yet a word of such depth and beauty, a word that conjures up all the terror and the fear, and yes, the bleak romance of what is to come next. An exceptional opening line.


Shackleton: Really? Isn't it just one word about a dead girl's tits?


Laidlaw: That's the thing, it's not. On one level it's about the tits, but then on other levels it's about the ups and downs of life, the contours, the bumps, the peaks, the sweeping descents. A breathtaking opening of incredible hubris for a first time author.


The Cutting Edge of Barney Thomson (aka The Barber Surgeon's Hairshirt)


Opening sentence:


Brother Festus.


Laidlaw: Again with the dramatic simplicity. Lindsay once more shows incredible chutzpah and bravado to open with such a simple and engaging two word motif. Who is Brother Festus? What does he have to do with Barney Thomson? We are instantly intrigued.


Shackleton: It's not so much a motif as just putting someone's name in a sentence, with not a verb in sight.


Laidlaw: Genius.


A Prayer For Barney Thomson


Opening sentence:


Silver bells, grey clouds, Christmas time in the city.


Shacklteon: Once more, one notices that the sentence if verb deficient.


Laidlaw: Yet it is the juxtaposition of grey and silver, the use of the word Christmas and the connotations that these two words take on once they are placed in that context that makes this sentence so absorbing. One can tell immediately that this is a sentence that the author has crafted out of granite, every word has been eeked over time from the depths of his artistic soul.


Shackleton: Maybe that's why he forgot the verb.


The King Was In His Counting House


Opening sentence:


Melanie Honeyfoot's life was conducted to the tunes of children's rhymes and TV themes, which constantly played in her head.


Shackleton: He'd been to Verb School at last.


Laidlaw: Here we see a master at work, subverting the public's perception of his id.


Shackleton: You think?


Laidlaw: Every time a Barney Thomson book is released upon the world, the public waits to read that crucial first sentence. What will it tell us? It's like the first ball of an Ashes Test series, the first note of a symphony... in and of itself it ought not to represent any more than the first hint of spring, the first snowflake, and yet, and yet, it is the reader's first glimpse into the Pandora's box of magic that will open up before us.


Shackleton: So you're saying that the first sentence is like the first chocolate you take from a box of Quality Street?


Laidlaw: More like the first chocolate you take from a box of fudge.


Next time: Professor Laidlaw examines the first lines of the three remaining Barney Thomson novels, plus the opening to Lost in Juarez; and then, in the final part of the series, together with Elvis Shackleton, Laidlaw looks at lost Barney Thomson first lines, the ones that got away, were discarded without being used, or featured in short stories that have long since disappeared into oblivion.