If you appreciate words, stories and style, there’s nothing quite like sitting down and reading Ernest Hemingway, who died on this day in 1961. His opening passages in particular were simply masterful – so here are 6 of his best, and why…
Revered for his economy of words, Hemingway’s writing style has been widely imitated over the years but never quite matched.
In much the same way that an elegant Roger Federer backhand makes playing tennis look easy, Hemingway’s polished, understated prose makes the art of creative writing look simplistic, when of course it’s anything but.
The deceptive ease and rhythmic control he had over his craft is evident from how he started his works. The beginnings of his short stories and novels give you an instant feel that you are about to read something special from a unique and authoritative voice. Here are my top 6 Hemingway opening lines:
It was late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. A Clean, Well-lighted Place
This graceful short story, first published in the New York-based periodical ‘Scribner’s Magazine’ in 1933, depicts how two waiters – one old, one young – gossip about a deaf old man who doesn’t want to leave their café as closing time passes. The haunting loneliness of the old man, and the intrusive scrutiny his life is about to come under from the waiters who want to close up for the night, is immediately made clear, igniting a vivid narrative to come.
It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened. The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
Wow, something clearly has just happened (an event which threatens to mark the proud, high-society protagonist as a coward, as it turns out) in this safari trip tale laced with fear, adultery and tragedy. Hemingway, who loved hunting in Africa, knew all the technical details to make this fascinating but vicious terrain his natural home, and in this short story he lets the pressure build to an exquisite climax.
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. The Old Man and the Sea
So we have the central protagonist, his main problem and his objective all in the first line. Not bad, eh? This is a prime example of Hemingway’s economical style. Each word is given its appropriate weight as he cuts to the bone of the story and the human condition about to be explored. What Hemingway often had to say wasn’t simple – but had to look it, and this unembroidered opening line is a perfect way of introducing us to what unfolds as a nuanced, emotive struggle of a Cuban fisherman. This short novel, the last major fictional work of Hemingway’s published in his lifetime, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and a year later was a contributing factor to him being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The attack had gone across the field, been held up by machine-gun fire from the sunken road and from the group of farmhouses, encountered no resistance in the town, and reached the bank of the river. A Way You’ll Never Be
What I love about this intro is the simple picture it paints, and although it’s in the past tense it feels charged with motion. Hemingway liked to cut the adverbs and any superfluous flourish in order to detach himself from his stories, to let them radiate purity and speak for themselves. This opening line to a short story set in World War One achieves a beautiful balance of the descriptive and the plain. Even in tales like this where Hemingway dealt with the impact of war and violence, springing from his military experience (he served in the Great War for the ambulance service on the Italian front aged 18), he managed to use few words – terse ones at that – to convey themes of life and death.
He came into the room to shut the windows while we were still in bed and I saw he looked ill. A Day’s Wait
A fine example of an intriguing opening line that hooks us into a story of a nine-year-old boy’s escalating illness during a cold winter, and his father’s difficulty in convincing his son that he will recover. Once again each and every word delicately states its own case. Like much of his work related to death, Hemingway’s writing in this piece carries no sentiment whatsoever, the prose always lean and hard (but never stretching into hard-boiled) and leaving so much of the father-son relationship unsaid, thereby intensifying the emotion.
It wasn’t about anything, something about making punch, and then we started fighting and I slipped and he had me down kneeling on my chest and choking me with both hands like he was trying to kill me and all the time I was trying to get the knife out of my pocket to cut him loose. After the Storm
Hemingway often liked to repeat the word ‘and’ in close succession rather than employ a comma. The effect this had was to convey immediacy and to portray a series of startling images at pace, which is particularly the case in this starkly visual opening line. The almost childlike vigour of this sentence leaves us little room to breathe, heightening the drama and the curiosity.
Another link to Ernest Hemingway on this site can be found in my article 7 of the most underrated short stories ever, which features his work, The Killers.
The short story is often regarded as an under-appreciated art form. The mainstream publishers have habitually baulked at supporting them in the face of sales figures that compare unfavourably with those of traditional length novels. This has often led authors, particularly crime and mystery ones, to only pen short stories on commission rather than write them out of pure creative enjoyment.
But that hasn’t stopped many of them rising to the challenge of expressing themselves through brevity. Creating a snappy, compelling tale with fascinating characters and quickly weaving it all into a striking conclusion that stays with the reader is no mean feat, and deserves high praise. But some excellent short stories have received more recognition than others, so this feature is to champion my favourite short pieces of fiction that have been underrated – or even criminally neglected – over the years.
The Five Orange Pips, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Many of Conan Doyle’s 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories have of course received glowing acclaim and been adapted in some way for the screen. The likes of ‘The Speckled Band’, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and ‘The Final Problem’ top many people’s favourite lists, but for me ‘The Five Orange Pips’ has always been left, undeservedly so, in the shade.
First published in The Strand magazine in 1891, this is an off-beat tale laced with fascinating elements. The case – or bizarre mystery – is presented by the client, John Openshaw, who has just received a letter with ‘K.K.K’ scrawled on the inner flap of the envelope and five orange pips enclosed. His father received a similar letter three years previously, as did his uncle five years ago. Each of them died in a suspicious accident a few days after receiving the pips. The day after visiting 221b Baker Street to see Holmes, a newspaper report reveals that Openshaw himself has been found dead in the River Thames. Shaken by the death, an emotional Holmes tells Watson: “I shall be my own police. When I have spun the web they may take the flies, but not before.”
The showcasing of Holmes’ deductive skills that follow is particularly divine, and the ending is wonderfully elegant. Interestingly, this is one of only two Holmes short stories where the detective’s client dies. The 1945 film Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear was partly based on ‘The Five Orange Pips’ while a 2014 episode of the TV show Elementary took some facets of the story.
The Birds Poised to Fly, by Patricia Highsmith
A story of a deranged man whose disappointment in love sparks an irrational reaction that leads to a cruel deception, this is Highsmith at her neurotic best.
Obsessed with dark subject matter throughout her writing career, this story was heavily inspired by a painful moment in Highsmith’s own love life. After engaging in a blissful affair with English doctor Kathryn Cohen during a holiday in Italy in the summer of 1949, Highsmith returned to New York and wrote to her. Each day she awaited a reply from Kathryn that didn’t come, suffering inner torment.
In ‘The Birds Poised to Fly’, Don returns from a holiday romance smitten with Rosalind and writes to her proposing marriage. When she doesn’t respond he convinces himself that her letter was delivered to his neighbour by mistake. He breaks into his neighbour’s mailbox, finds a letter written to him by a lovesick woman called Edith. Don assumes his neighbour’s identity and replies to Edith, arranging to meet her at Grand Central station. Eventually Rosalind replies, refusing Don’s marriage offer. A dejected Don still goes to Grand Central to meet Edith. “The story is so much K and myself” Highsmith later wrote in her diary.
It wasn’t published until 1968, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, before being released as part of Highsmith’s short story collection, Eleven.
The Living Daylights, by Ian Fleming
James Bond is captured in a rare morose mood during this dark, counter-espionage tale that was first published in The Sunday Times supplement of 4 February 1962. Assigned to prevent a prolific KGB sniper – codenamed ‘Trigger’ – from killing a fellow British agent who’s due to make a street crossing between East and West Berlin, Bond waits patiently at his hiding post for three days and nights, contemplating his mission to take out the KGB assassin. A killer killing a killer.
Fleming delves into a corner of Bond’s psyche we’d never quite seen before as he broods over the concept of committing a cold, calculated murder (with no high-octane build-up), something he’s clearly uncomfortable with. Each night he sees an orchestra arriving and leaving a building opposite for practice, a beautiful blonde cellist among them. When the agent is finally ready to cross over to Bond’s side of the street, Bond peers through his rifle scope to see the Russian sniper take up position in the building opposite. ‘Trigger’ is the blonde cellist. Faced with an instant decision and his finger on the trigger, Bond switches aim, shoots the stock of her sub-machine-gun, wounding her hand.
The relieved agent makes it back into MI6 hands safe and sound, but Bond gets an earful from top brass for failing to execute the kill. Bond is always at his most compelling through the theme of disobedience, and Fleming exploits that beautifully in this short work.
ICU, by Dennis Lehane
Intrigue lays at the heart of this tale, which formed part of Lehane’s collection of short stories titled Coronado, released in 2006.
Tension is present from the off when the protagonist, Daniel, is told by a woman regular in his local bar that a couple of guys were in earlier asking after him. Wearing smart suits and ties. A worried Daniel visits his ex-wife, who describes the same guys stopping by earlier looking for him. The mysterious well-dressed men (possibly federal agents, although it’s never revealed) are soon pursuing Daniel in a car chase. He takes refuge in the grounds of a large hospital, shifting from one specialist area to another before settling in the vast ICU unit.
Daniel, seemingly ignorant of his offence, remains in hiding there, becoming acquainted with family members of critically ill patients in the waiting room, and pretending to be a relative of one himself. His world is now one of helplessness, quiet anticipation and confinement.
Lehane’s exquisite turn of phrase and tight prose comes to the fore here, unravelling the character at his own pace and always keeping the reader guessing – not to mention engrossed. The story, more than a passing nod to Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, depicts one man’s journey to grasping the concepts of empathy and humanity, but without making any moral judgements. A fascinating read.
The Killers, by Ernest Hemingway
This 1927 story is an immaculate piece of writing but, perhaps due to its style (minimalist to the core, there is hardly any plot), never attracted as much praise as some of Hemingway’s more famous short pieces such as ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ and ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’.
Two hit men walk into an Illinois diner looking for Swedish boxer Ole Anderson, who they plan to kill ‘for a friend’. The duo tie up the proprietor, George, the cook, Sam, and the lunchroom’s only customer, Nick Adams (a recurring character in Hemingway’s short fiction), and wait for Anderson, who they’re expecting to walk in. But he doesn’t show up and the frustrated duo leave.
George knows the boarding house Anderson is staying at and sends Nick over there to warn him. When told about what happened, Anderson is resigned to his fate and tells Nick there is nothing to be done.
Having spent his younger years in Chicago during Al Capone’s rise to power, Hemingway had a strong knowledge of prohibition-era organised crime and weaves this understated story with an authoritative voice and from a marvellously objective viewpoint.
Duffers of the Apocalypse, by Victor Gischler
Part of the 2006 Damn Near Dead anthology, a collection of invigorating short stories based around senior-aged criminals, this story is dripping with smart, black humour.
Set on a golf course in the grounds of an Oklahoma retirement community (“the land of broken hips and strokes and backs thrown way, way out”), three old timers, narrator Roscoe Carter and friends Tony DeLuca and Pete Dexter, are having a round. A wayward tee shot from Tony strikes a course groundskeeper in the skull, killing him as he’d been raking a bunker. Tony, hinting that he has a bad history with cops, convinces Roscoe and Pete to help bury the guy in the sand.
Roscoe, a retired army veteran who’s just been told he has four months to live with stomach cancer, wants to spend his remaining time playing golf, not seeing the course closed down as a crime scene.
News of a major fire sweeping through the state towards them causes many of the panicked residents to flee, but Roscoe has no relatives who’ll take him in and is in no mood to go anywhere. “All I had was a set of Ping irons and a tee time.” He gets in his cart, takes to the course, flames swirling in, smoke burning his eyes, the course record for the over-65s the only thing on his mind. Gischler’s riveting prose makes this a darkly perverse, hilarious yarn.
The Shooter, by Irvine Welsh
The first entry in Welsh’s 1994 short story collection, The Acid House, this taut, stark thriller set in Hackney is a classic example of what makes a gripping short story.
An underlying sense of unease is present throughout as the narrator Jock sits through an uncomfortable meal with his bad-tempered mate Gary, his wife Marge and their young daughter. Later, Gary, recently out of prison for theft, and Jock talk through a plan to scare Tony Whitworth, who owes them two grand. They agree to pay Whitworth a visit that night. Jock turns up with a baseball bat, Gary brings a sawn-off shotgun.
Gradually that sense of unease turns into outright menace as Welsh skilfully cranks up the tension, the anxiety and curiosity peaking within the reader, until laying out a shocking and valiant ending where everything is at stake.[Top]