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Graham Greene and The Art of the Opening Paragraph

Ten great opening paragraphs from one iconic author.

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Graham Greene

It’s no wonder that Graham Greene, a man who sampled so abundantly from life’s many offerings and made it a matter of constitutional pride never to turn down the chance of an adventure, excelled at what we now call world-building. Although sci-fi and fantasy writers tend to get the nod as masters of the craft, world-building has long been a cornerstone of the thriller, especially the international thriller, that rarefied form in which a reader is dropped into a new terrain, a new culture, and has to learn to decipher its signs and signifiers well enough to know when the whole enterprise is being compromised. The literary work must be done swiftly, and to great effect, and there was no one for it like Graham Greene, a writer who could conjure up a life, a setting, a dilemma, and a worldview, all in a few neat lines.

Greene, born in Hertfordshire, lived a complex, globetrotting, ambivalent life. He was a journalist, a teacher, a converted Catholic, an Englishman in frequent exile, a screenwriter, an ambitious novelist, an author of “entertainments,” a spy, a sympathizer of guerrillas and dictators alike, and a man of deeply held moral beliefs. With all that experience, all he’d seen of the world, and with a honed craft, he brought the international thriller (and other styles) to new heights and left an indelible mark on the history of 20th century literature. His stories moved from far-flung locales to the damp streets of English seaside towns. Havana, Saigon, Port-au-Prince, Brighton, Dover, the Mexican countryside, an Argentine border town—he brought each of them to life with rich stories of intrigue and struggle. Often expats and westerners were his subjects (and often his fiction reflected views we now recognize as racist), but he never shied away from exploring the lives of locals and how they’d been disrupted by the intrusions and exploitations of global powers.

Today we’re celebrating one piece of Greene’s craft: the opening paragraph. Assembled here for your reading pleasure are ten of his greatest opening gambits (ranked, roughly). Note how much depth Greene packs into these lines, how he launches the story forward without any ostentatious bells or whistles, just an authenticity of voice and a confidence in craft. Who else could have written these lines but Greene?

“After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinat: he had said, ‘I’ll be with you at latest by ten,’ and when midnight had struck I couldn’t stay quiet any longer and went down into the street. A lot of old women in black trousers squatted on the landing: it was February and I suppose too hot for them in bed. One trishaw driver pedalled slowly by towards the river front and I could see lamps burning where they had disembarked the new American planes. There was no sign of Pyle anywhere in the long street.”

—The Quiet American (1955)

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which, to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who—when he has been seriously noted at all —has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, ‘Speak to him: he hasn’t seen you yet.'”

—The End of the Affair (1951)

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong—belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian watercolour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.”

—Brighton Rock (1938)

“One never knows when the blow may fall. When I saw Rollo Martins first, I made this note on him for my security police files: ‘In normal circumstances a cheerful fool. Drinks too much and may cause a little trouble. Whenever a woman passes raises his eyes and makes some comment, but I get the impression that really he’d rather not be bothered. Has never really grown up and perhaps that accounts for the way he worshiped Lime.’ I wrote there that phrase ‘in normal circumstances’ because I met him first at Harry Lime’s funeral. It was February, and the grave-diggers had been forced to use electric drills to open the frozen ground in Vienna’s central cemetery. It was as if even nature were doing its best to reject Lime, but we got him in at last and laid the earth back on him like bricks. He was vaulted in, and Rollo Martins walked quickly away as though his long gangly legs wanted to break into a run, and the tears of a boy ran down his thirty-five-year-old cheeks. Rollo Martins believed in friendship, and that was why what happened later was a worse shock to him than it would have been to you or me. If only he had come to tell me then, what a lot of trouble would have been saved.”

—The Third Man (1949)

“Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder: out into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few buzzards looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn’t carrion yet. A faint feeling of rebellion stirred in Mr. Tench’s heart, and he wrenched up a piece of the road with splintering finger-nails and tossed it feebly up at them. One of them rose and flapped across the town: over the tiny plaza, over the bust of an ex-president, ex-general, ex-human being, over the two stalls which sold mineral water, towards the river and the sea. It wouldn’t find anything there: the sharks looked after the carrion on that side. Mr. Tench went on across the plaza.”

—The Power and the Glory (1940)

“I met my aunt August for the first time in more than half a century at my mother’s funeral. My mother was approaching eighty-six when she died, and my aunt was some eleven or twelve years younger. I had retired from the bank two years before with an adequate pension and a silver handshake. There had been a takeover by the Westminster and my branch was considered redundant. Everyone thought me lucky, but I found it difficult to occupy my time. I have never married, I have always lived quietly, and, apart from my interest in dahlias, I have no hobby. For those reasons I found myself agreeably excited by my mother’s funeral.”

—Travels with My Aunt (1969)

“When I think of all the grey memorials erected in London to equestrian generals, the heroes of old colonial wars, and to frock-coated politicians who are even more deeply forgotten, I can find no reason to mock the modest stone that commemorates Jones on the far side of the international road which he failed to cross in a country far from home, though I am not to this day absolutely sure of where, geographically speaking, Jones’s home lay. At least he paid for the monument—however unwillingly—with his life, while the generals as a rule came home safe and paid, if at all, with the blood of their men, and as for the politicians—who cares for dead politicians sufficiently to remember with what issues they were identified? Free Trade is less interesting than an Ashanti war, though the London pigeons do not distinguish between the two. Exegi monumentum. Whenever my rather bizarre business takes me north to Monte Cristi and I pass the stone, I feel a certain pride that my action helped to raise it.”

—The Comedians (1966)

“I am now in my twenty-second year and yet the only birthday which I can clearly distinguish among all the rest is my twelfth, for it was on that damp and misty day in September I met the Captain for the first time. I can still remember the wetness of the gravel under my gym shoes in the school quad and how the blown leaves made the cloisters by the chapel slippery as I ran recklessly to escape from my enemies between one class and the next. I slithered and came to an abrupt halt while my pursuers went whistling away, because there in the middle of the quad stood our formidable headmaster talking to a tall man in a bowler hat, a rare sight already at that date, so that he looked a little like an actor in costume—an impression not so far wrong, for I never saw him in a bowler hat again. He carried a walking-stick over his shoulder at the slope like a soldier with a rifle. I had no idea who he might be, nor, of course, did I know how he had won me the previous night, or so he was to claim, in a backgammon game with my father.”

—The Captain and the Enemy (1988)

“The gulls swept over Dover. They sailed out like flakes of the fog, and tacked back towards the hidden town, while the siren mourned with them: other ships replied, a whole wake lifted up their voices—for whose death? The ship moved at half speed through the bitter autumn evening. It reminded D. of a hearse, rolling slowly and discreetly towards the ‘garden of peace,’ the driver careful not to shake the coffin, as if the body minded a jolt or two. Hysterical women shrieked among the shrouds.”

—The Confidential Agent (1939)

“Doctor Eduardo Plarr stood in the small port on the Paraná, among the rails and yellow cranes, watching where a horizontal plume of smoke stretched over the Chaco. It lay between the red bars of the sunset like a stripe on a national flag. Doctor Plarr found himself alone at that hour except for the one sailor who was on guard outside the maritime building. It was an evening which, by some combination of failing light and the smell of an unrecognized plant, brings back to some men the sense of childhood and of future hope and to others the sense of something which has been lost and nearly forgotten.”

—The Honorary Consul (1973)

Dwyer Murphy is the author of An Honest Living (Viking Books) and Editor-in-Chief of CrimeReads.

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published October 2, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.