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Friday, January 18, 2013

Great Beginnings and Great Endings

On my Dan Andriacco Mysteries Facebook fan page, I recently reposted a quote from Mickey Spillane that I have always taken to heart as a writer: "The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book."

Arthur Conan Doyle knew that. He was a writer of great beginning and great endings. This is true even in his short stories. My favorite first and last paragraphs come from the opening the same story, "His Last Bow."

The opening:

It was nine o'clock at night upon the second of August -- the most terrible August in the history of the world. One might have thought already that God's curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air. The sun had long set, but one blood-red gash like an open wound lay low in the distant west. Above, the stars were shining brightly, and below, the lights of the shipping glimmered in the bay. The two famous Germans stood beside the stone parapet of the garden walk, with the long, low, heavily gabled house behind them, and they looked down upon the broad sweep of the beach at the foot of the great chalk cliff in which Von Bork, like some wandering eagle, had perched himself four years before. They stood with their heads close together, talking in low, confidential tones. From below the two glowing ends of their cigars might have been the smouldering eyes of some malignant fiend looking down in the darkness.

The ending, which I memorized as a boy:
The two friends chatted in intimate converse for a few minutes, recalling once again the days of the past, while their prisoner vainly wriggled to undo the bonds that held him. As they turned to the car Holmes pointed back to the moonlit sea and shook a thoughtful head.
 “There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”

“I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”

"Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared. Start her up, Watson, for it's time that we were on our way. I have a check for five hundred pounds which should be cashed early, for the drawer is quite capable of stopping it if he can.”

Some would argue that the last sentence spoils the moment, and perhaps they are right.

What's your favorite beginning or ending of a Sherlock Holmes story?


  1. No, no, no -- the last sentence about cashing the check is what *makes* the moment! (At least for me.) :) That last sentence is Holmes's way of letting us know that the cold, bitter wind won't keep life from marching ever forward. Holmes tacking on that every-day, almost domestic errand to the end of a speech about the coming destruction smacks of a never-say-die attitude, to me -- a sign of his conviction to keep marching forward no matter what comes. I loved that whole ending, but it wasn't until the little triumph of the final sentence that my eyes filled with tears. :)

  2. Brilliant, Rose! I've always loved the last line myself, but I didn't know why until now. Thanks you!

  3. I love this beginning and ending, too. But I believe the ending referred to ACD's concerned about WWI looming on the horizon. The east wind could have been a reference to what was happening in Germany. And the line: "But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared." refers to England's strength to prevail.
    I also agree with Mickey Spillane. I just picked up "One Lonely Night." It contains one of the best first chapters I've even read. And the first sentence is priceless:" Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this." I'm going to use this in my next writing class.
    Nice post, Dan.