By Travis Richardson
Did you hear the one about the writer walking through the door? Well, unless he/she was a drunk who bumped into the door instead of opening it, there is a high possibility that you haven’t, as most entrances are relatively insignificant. But in fiction, specifically crime fiction, walking through a door often introduces new characters or is part of an action sequence. Originally I had planned to document 25 great entrances, but with the time being as short as it is, I’m settling with these ten. I hope you enjoy them.
Edgar Allen Poe: Tell-Tale Heart
I thought we should start the list of door entering authors with the master of horror and father of the mystery. Tell-Tale Heart is a favorite of mine for the narrator’s egomaniacal insanity. Below, Poe documents the man’s feverish glee as he is about to commit a senseless murder.
Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers –of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back –but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness, (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers,) and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.
Anton Chekhov: The Bet
Chekhov is credited with developing both the modern short story and modern theatre. Last year I started reading and reviewing all of the stories translated into English by Constance Garnett at Chekhovshorts.com. While not known a crime writer, Chekhov wrote a few murder and criminal oriented stories. In the scene below, a man had made a two million ruble bet with a banker that he could stay imprisoned in complete isolation for fifteen years. On the day before the fifteenth year, the banker is bankrupt and feels compelled to kill his prisoner.
The banker tapped at the window with his finger, and the prisoner made no movement whatever in response. Then the banker cautiously broke the seals off the door and put the key in the keyhole. The rusty lock gave a grating sound and the door creaked. The banker expected to hear at once footsteps and a cry of astonishment, but three minutes passed and it was as quiet as ever in the room. He made up his mind to go in.
Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep
Chandler is the father of the hardboiled detective, and Philip Marlowe is his knight errant, chasing down lowlifes for his wealthy clients. While his writing is very heavy handed, its wry, cynical lines are admirable. In the section below, Marlowe has already met his client, General Sternwood, in a greenhouse with “nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men” and just heard a scream come from the house he has been staking out.
I got back on the runway and took all of it and some of the hedge and gave the front door the heavy shoulder. This was foolish. About the only part of a California house you can’t put your foot through is the front door. All it did was hurt my shoulder and make me mad. I climbed over the railing again and kicked the French window in, used my hat for a glove and pulled out most of the lower small pane of glass. I could now reach in and draw a bolt that fastened the window to the sill. The rest was easy. There was no top bolt. The catch gave. I climbed in and pulled the drapes off my face.
Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.
James Ellroy: L.A Confidential
I love L.A. Confidential. It is a book that assaulted my senses with its quick, machine-gun fire prose and the compactness of a ridiculous epic plot. It is a testament to the audacity of Ellroy’s mind. In the following scene, avenging Detective Bud White goes to a house where a kidnapped woman is being held after a gang rape. It is a study of quick efficient writing.
Bud went in the back way — through the alley, a fence vault. On the rear porch: a screen door, inside hook and eye. He lipped the catch with his penknife, walked in on tiptoes.
Elmore Leonard: Get Shorty
The late great Elmore Leonard is almost known for his ten rules on writing as much for his unpredictable, character-driven crime novels. I think the following passage is a great example of Leonard sticking to rule #10: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Seven actions happen in the first sentence alone as mob collector Chili Palmer tracks down the man who stole his jacket.
He put on his black leather gloves going up the stairs to the third floor, knocked on the door three times, waited, pulling the right-hand glove on tight, and when Ray Bones opened the door Chili nailed him. One punch, not seeing any need to throw the left. He got his coat from a chair in the sitting room, looked at Ray Bones bent over holding his nose and mouth, blood all over his hands, his shirt, and walked out. Didn’t say one word.
Don Winslow: Savages
Savages is another book that was a game changer for me. Winslow plays with styles, sometimes writing a stream of consciousness chapter followed by dialogue written in a screenplay format or a two word chapter that summarizes a feeling, an attitude or as the ex-marine turned pot dealer Chon calls it, a badititude.
Chon opens the cabin door.
With his left hand.
Gun his right.
The problem is out cold.
With a woman beside him.
Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian
This book is not for the faint of heart. It is a document about the savagery of the old west and, ultimately, evil consuming evil. McCarthy writes in a unique stripped down style that is visceral and in some places, awe-inspiring. I had hoped to find a section with the story’s embodiment of evil: a nearly seven foot, hairless monster of a man named the Judge. But since most of the story takes place outdoors on the Texas-Mexico border and the Judge makes his entrance through a church revival tent, I’ll give you this violent scene with the kid and his new friend Toadvine. They have just started a fire under a man’s door.
Tap on the door now, said Toadvine.
The kid rose. Toadvine stood up and waited. They could hear the flames crackling inside the room. The kid tapped.
You better tap louder than that. This man drinks some.
He balled his fist and lambasted the door about five times.
Hell fire, said a voice.
Here he comes.
You hot son of a bitch, said the voice. Then the knob turned and the door opened.
He stood in his underwear holding in one hand the towel he’d used to turn the doorknob with. When he saw them he turned and stated back in his room but Toadvine seized him about the neck and road him to the floor and held him by the hair and began to pry an eyeball out with his thumb. The man grabbed his wrist and bit it.
Jim Thompson: Pop. 1280
I love the work of 50’s pulp writer Jim Thompson. He wrote some of the best twisted noir, and sometimes his stories were humorous as well. He’s best known for The Killer Inside of Me which has some great entrances, but I’m going with my favorite, Pop. 1280. It is a first person account from a man who reads like he is the dumbest man in Pottsville, Texas, which would put him in contention to be the stupidest man on earth. But Thompson pulls a brilliant literary slight of hand. Here is a nonviolent introduction to Sheriff Nick Corey’s spiteful wife.
I had to pass Myra’s bedroom on the way downstairs, and she had her door open to catch the breeze, and without realizing that I was doing it, I stopped and looked in. Then I went in and looked at her some more. And then I eased toward the bed on tippy-toe and stood looking down at her, kind of licking my lips and feeling itchy.
Daniel Woodrell: Winter’s Bone
This man is a master of prose and coined the term “Country Noir.” His sense of rural America, the poverty, the crimes, and the intense emotions the people have is spectacular. In this scene, an impoverished high schooler, Ree Dolly, cares for her younger brothers’ sore throats with whiskey and honey. While much of the book has Ree and her Uncle Teardrop knocking on doors, I like how one simple action says so much about Ree’s character.
Then came Harold’s turn, and as he swallowed somebody knocked on the door. Ree glanced at Mom, who got up from her rocker and shuffled away into her dark room without turning on a light. Ree went to the door and opened it with her boot wedged behind as a stopper should a stopper be needed.
Jake Hinkson: Hell on Church Street
Hinkson‘s debut novel is stunning. The story is told by an amoral ex-Baptist youth pastor who fell in love with the preacher’s underaged daughter. Once a corrupt sheriff finds out, Geoffrey Webb is at the mercy of the man and things quickly spiral out of control. Hinkson questions religion, analyzes Arkansan values, and delves into the overall human condition with remarkable precision while maintaining a compelling crime novel pace.
When I turned the doorknob, my hand was slick with sweat. The door creaked like an old casket. I stepped inside. Directly in front of me a lot of moonlight shone through two big windows a few feet apart. It took a couple of long seconds for my eyes to adjust. I wasn’t even sure where the bed was. When my eyes settled down, I saw the big bed between the windows. I also saw Mrs. Norris sitting up and staring at me, cold moonlight glinting off the gun in her hand.
So there are my ten. Did any of those entrances stand out for you? Do you have an example of an entrance that stands out from a typical door opening? Let me know.
Travis Richardson is fortunate to have been nominated for both the Anthony and Macavity short story awards for “Incident on the 405,” featured in MALFEASANCE OCCASIONAL: GIRL TROUBLE. His novella LOST IN CLOVER was listed in Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Crime Fiction of 2012. He has published stories in several online zines and anthologies. He edits the Sisters-In-Crime LA newsletter, reviews Chekhov shorts atwww.chekhovshorts.com and sometimes shoots a short movie. His latest novella is KEEPING THE RECORD. Find out more at: www.tsrichardson.com