Every author must answer that question before typing “Chapter One” at the top of that first page.
Not who will write the story. That’s the author’s job. But who will tell it? Who will serve as the narrator?
One common answer is known as Third Person Omniscient. That’s where the teller of the tale is an unnamed observer who provides the reader with an all-knowing perspective on the story being told. A good example is the opening of Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light “Day” and the darkness he called “Night.” And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Note that God is not the narrator. Instead, the story is told be some unidentified third party who tells the reader what God is doing and what God is saying.
The third-person omniscient narrator is the most common form of storyteller. From Jane Austen to Leo Tolstoy to Earnest Hemingway to the authors of virtually every modern-day thriller, the teller of the tale is that unidentified third-person: the all-knowing fly on the wall.
Another option is the first-person narrator. He or she is either the central character in the novel or someone
close to that character. One of my favorite storytellers is Huck Finn, who famously opens that novel as follows:
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly – Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is – and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.”
As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” That impact resonates a century later in the opening paragraph of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
So what about mystery novels? Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and many other British authors preferred the third-person omniscient, as did many of the earlier American authors. But with a nod toward Hemingway’s quote about Mark Twain, I’d say that some of our best American mystery novels come from one book by Raymond Chandler called The Big Sleep. As is on display in the opening two paragraphs of that wonderful novel, this is first-person narration in all its modern American glory:
“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars
“The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.”
Philip Marlowe, whose voice and essence Chandler so brilliantly captures in those opening paragraphs, has spawned a remarkably large and vibrant collection of successors. You can find Marlowe DNA in a wide array of American private eyes, from Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer to Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warhshawski to Robert Parker’s Spencer to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone to James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux to, dare I say, my own Rachel Gold. Here, for example, are the opening paragraphs of Trophy Widow:
“You’d have thought this was my first time.
“Not even close.
“I don’t specialize in celebrities, but I’ve had my share. The list includes a member of the Chicago Bulls, two Major League Baseball players, and the entire morning drive-time crew for one of the highest rated FM stations in St. Louis. And that only covers contract negotiations and endorsement deals. I’ve sued the Savvis Center on behalf of an Atlanta rap group in a gate receipts dispute. When the case ended, the group’s manager offered me a walk-on in their next music video. I told him I’d prefer to have my fees paid in full. I’ve represented a Hollywood star accused of trashing his hotel suite while on location here for a shoot — and we’re not talking just any star. He made Entertainment Weekly’s “20 Sexiest Men” two years running. Alas, he’s also two inches shorter than me and — as I learned while defending him in a four-hour deposition in a small conference room — afflicted with rhino breath.”
Thank you, Mr. Marlow.