The Most Shocking First Lines of Mystery Novels

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Elisa Shoenberger


Elisa Shoenberger has been building a library since she was 13. She loves writing about all aspects of books from author interviews, antiquarian books, archives, and everything in between. She also writes regularly for Murder & Mayhem and Library Journal. She's also written articles for Huffington Post, Boston Globe, WIRED, Slate, and many other publications. When she's not writing about reading, she's reading and adventuring to find cool new art. She also plays alto saxophone and occasionally stiltwalks. Find out more on her website or follow her on Twitter @vogontroubadour.

“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” Thus starts Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece Love in the Time of the Cholera. It’s one of my favorite first lines in all of literature; it draws you in and makes you ask so many questions. What smells of bitter almonds? Is there cyanide? Is there a murder? Why does the narrator associate it with unrequited love? What happened in their life? 

Mysteries and thrillers can also have truly shocking beginnings that suck you in immediately. Usually, there are a lot of questions that result (as seen in the example above). Of course, what is considered shocking is going to be subjective, depending on the point of view of the person and/or the time period in which the list was made. For me, the most startling lines seemed to be conventional at first, and then there was a twist at the end. Or the sentence is so quick and neat, like lightning.

So, I’ve gathered together eight of the most shocking first lines in recent mysteries and thrillers. I am focusing on recently published books because they probably haven’t been rounded up in a list like this before, and some of them have truly memorable beginnings. Some books may be across a few genres: mystery, horror, science fiction, and more. So enjoy some of these delightfully shocking first lines. (Note: some are one line, and some are a few first lines).

The Majesties book cover

The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao

“When your sister murders three hundred people, you can’t help but wonder why—especially if you were one of the intended victims—though I do forgive her, if you can believe it.”

So begins the tale of two sisters, Gwendolyn and Estella; Gwen is in the hospital, and Estella is a poisoner. Gwen has to dive into her knowledge of her sister and the family to understand why her sister would commit such an act.

cover image for You're Invited

You’re Invited by Amanda Jayatissa

“I woke up with bruised knuckles and blood under my fingernails, more rested than I had been in years. I guess this is who I am now. The kind of person who would finally get a good night’s sleep after attacking someone.”

This scene opens on the morning of Amaya’s best friend’s wedding in Sri Lanka. Amaya wasn’t expecting to get an invitation; her BFF is marrying Amaya’s ex-boyfriend. But not if she can do something about that.

When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole book cover

When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

“History is f*$%ing wild. 

“Last fall, on a night when my ass was getting well acquainted with the uncomfortable guest chair in Mommy’s hospital room, I’d numbly tapped and swiped my way to an article about a place called Black America. Not the label politicians use to place our concerns into a neat box full of worries they don’t have to attend to or ever, but an actual, tangible place—a slavery theme park that’d opened in Brooklyn at the end of the nineteenth century.”

Soon, Sydney Green will find even more horrible things when she continues to research Brooklyn, where everyone is moving away thanks to gentrification.

My Murder cover

My Murder by Katie Williams

“I was supposed to be getting dressed for the party, the first since my murder.”

This is such a solid opener. IS this a party for ghosts? What does the narrator mean by my murder? Lou was recently brought back to life after a serial killer murdered her. But there are too many questions about what happened to her before her death, along with the killers’ other victims.

Station Eternity book cover

Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty

“Nobody ever believed murders ‘just happened’ around Mallory Viridian. 

Not at first, anyway.”

Chef’s kiss. Viridian just cannot get away from murder. Literally. Everywhere she goes, she finds herself solving murders and getting a lot of untoward attention on her. So she decides that the only thing left is to leave the planet to go to a sentient space station. But murder follows her there…

The Other Half cover

The Other Half by Charlotte Vassell

“A girl is dying. A girl who wears bespoke perfume. She wants you to inhale her deliciousness; to know that she is untouched by the dirt, the smog, the filth of your London.”

These lines are dripping with disdain, perfect for a black-tie dinner for Rupert’s super-chic and expensive 30th birthday party. But do the rich and famous also do murder?

Walking Through Needles book cover

Walking Through Needles by Heather Levy

“Sam twisted her old yellow ducky blanket, the one her grandma said she was swathed in at birth, and wrapped it tight around her throat until she couldn’t breathe.”

Oof, that is a hard one to read. Sam was abused by someone close to her. When she learns years later that her abuser is dead, she does not feel relief because her stepbrother is suspected of the crime. Can Sam help her stepbrother without revealing all their secrets?

cover image for What Never Happened

What Never Happened by Rachel Howzell Hall

“Colette Sienna Weber of Los Angeles, California, is no more. She left this world on Sunday, March 22, 2020. The woman didn’t heed any of our previous warnings.” 

What starts as an obituary turns very dark pretty quickly. Colette Weber could not get away from Catalina Island and leave behind the memories of her entire family shot and killed. She’s made her living writing obituaries, and when she decides to return to the Island for her aging aunt, she gets a job writing obituaries at the local paper. But soon, she realizes that the spate of deaths may be connected and finds herself in serious trouble.

I hope these first lines get you to pick up these incredible books. If you are looking for more shocking first lines in fiction, check out these shocking first lines in fiction. If you want more thrillers and mysteries, check out these twisty books!