"I FIRST heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte." You're there already, aren't you?

In the story. Hearing the voice. Wanting to hear more. Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest is some 83 years old, but, as a new Orion reprint proves, it's still alive and kicking. Right from the start.

First lines have to hit hard. Last lines are culminations, carrying all the weight and melancholy and learning of what has gone before. But first lines are about impact, about dragging you in, getting you hooked.

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They also need to tell you something about the world you're entering. Orwell puts us at our unease quite simply in 1984: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." Paul Auster, meanwhile, mashes up hardboiled noir with existential dread in City of Glass: "It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not." You already know what to expect for the rest of the novel from those 31 words.

First lines are show-off lines. Lines where the author often reveals what kind of writer he is. You want to know about Iain Banks? Just read the first line of The Crow Road. "It was the day my grandmother exploded." All the darkness and the teenage ghoulish glee that animates its middle-aged author is on display.

My favourite may be from Toni Morrison's Paradise. "They shoot the white girl first." Just six words. And yet they set up the story, establish the book's concern with race and set us up for the horror that follows. They also burn with a righteous anger. Six words. So few. But they contain so much.