Ten Debut Mysteries That Hit It Out of the Park
As a reader, there is nothing better than discovering authors who knock your socks off with their debut. You’ve found a new writer to love and, if this is his or her first effort, things surely are only going to get better from here on out. Here, in no particular order, are ten debut mysteries that, for me, completely hit it out of the park.
Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson (2011)
If any writer wants a master class in creating a killer opening, you can’t do better than Watson’s memorable debut. Christine wakes up in a strange room, next to an older man she doesn’t recognize. But when she looks in the mirror, she finds a woman as old as he looking back. An accident has left her an amnesiac who must face each morning with no memories of the two decades that have gone before. After her husband, Ben, leaves for work, Christine receives a call from a man who says he’s her psychiatrist. He leads her to a journal in which she’s been recording her days. On the first page, in her handwriting, is a chilling note: “Don’t trust Ben.” This tense and twisty tale raises questions that linger long after you reach the end, such as: who are we without our memories? Living in the now has never been so terrifying.
In The Woods by Tana French (2007)
As dusk descends on a Dublin suburb, three children are playing in nearby woods. But only one of them will return home, and with no memory of what has happened to him or his friends. Twenty years later, another child is found murdered in the same woods, and the boy who survived, now a detective in the Murder Squad, catches the case. French’s debut is assured, atmospheric, and multilayered, with an ending that a lesser writer might not have had the courage to stick with. Best of all, if you come to Dublin, you’ll find the city that French’s words build and the real thing are one and the same.
You by Caroline Kepnes (2014)
Sometimes you read a novel that contains so much of what you love, you feel as if it’s been written just for you. In the hugely entertaining You, Caroline Kepnes expertly manages to marry dark humor and pop culture references with intense psychological suspense. Her narrator is the psychopathic stalker, Joe, whom you’ll (inexplicably) find increasingly likeable, even as his behavior gets darker and darker with each page turn. Clever, compulsive, and incredibly fresh, Kepnes’s debut landed her straight on my favorite authors list.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2008)
The Girl that arguably started it all—journalist Larsson’s debut and the first in the Millennium trilogy—had already been a bestseller in his native Swedish before the English translation hit the shelves, unleashing the incomparable Lisbeth Salander on the crime fiction world. Sadly, Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004, years before his Girl would sell millions of copies worldwide and get a faithful and fantastically dark screen adaptation with director David Fincher at the the helm.
Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell (1990)
Once in a while a debut comes along that doesn’t just herald the arrival of a new talent, but completely changes the game. More than a quarter of a century later in a CSI-soaked world, it’s difficult to appreciate just how ground-breaking Cornwell’s debut novel was when it hit the shelves, or remember quite how fresh a take on the police procedural forensic pathologist Dr. Kay Scarpetta represented, but Postmortem really was something completely new. It would start Cornwell on the journey to over 100 million books sold and go on to influence generations of crime writers.
Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes (2012)
When you read a lot of mystery/thriller novels, it becomes increasingly unlikely that you’ll be genuinely unnerved by one. But halfway through Into the Darkest Corner, I regretted my decision to read it at home alone and got up to double-check that the front door was locked. Four years ago, Catherine barely escaped her abusive ex-boyfriend, Lee, with her life. The trauma has left her with crippling OCD and only a shadow of her former self. But things are about to get even worse for Catherine, because Lee has been released from prison. This tense thriller will leave your nerves jangling. Don’t make the same mistake I did: don’t read this one at home alone.
I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh (2016)
Five-year-old Jacob runs out into the street and is killed in a horrific hit-and-run. While a pair of detectives try to solve the crime, Jenna is haunted by memories of the tragedy, grieving the loss of her child and desperately trying to start afresh in a remote cottage on the Welsh coast. You’ll keep telling yourself that you’ll just read one more chapter of Mackintosh’s debut and then go to bed, until you get to that point, about halfway in, when the rug is pulled right out from beneath you and you resign yourself to being up for the night. The ideal book club read, you’ll be desperate to discuss this novel with your friends.
The Black Echo by Michael Connelly (1992)
I’ve been reading Connelly since Void Moon (1999), which, ironically, did not feature his LAPD homicide detective, Harry Bosch. Every year since, I celebrate what I call Michael Connelly Day, when I get his new release on the day of its publication, clear my schedule, and curl up with it on the couch. Without fail, I read it in one sitting and then regret not making it last longer. By now Harry feels like a real person to me, an old friend I get to catch up with once a year. His first appearance was in Connelly’s debut, The Black Echo, where a dead body found in a drainpipe at Mulholland Dam turns out to be a former “tunnel rat” who served alongside Bosch in Vietnam. An undisputed master of the genre.
Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll (2015)
In this devilishly dark and razor-sharp debut, Ani is the girl who seems to have it all: a cool job at a glossy magazine, a fashionable life in New York City, and a handsome, successful fiancé in Luke. But a dark secret lives in Ani’s past and she’s finding it increasingly difficult to keep it there while maintaining her Cool Girl exterior at the same time. I came across an Amazon review that described this as “Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld meets anything by Gillian Flynn,” which is so apt, I can’t do any better. It will take you to unexpected places and grip you by the throat when you arrive. I am awaiting Knoll’s second effort with bated breath.
Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent (2017)
Last but not least, I’ll leave you with a dazzling debut to look forward to: Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent, which—finally!—hits the USA in August of this year. First published here in Ireland in 2014, Unravelling Oliver heralded the arrival of a new star on the crime scene, and #1 bestseller spots and literary awards soon followed. At the opening of this exquisite, psychologically taut tale, the victim, Alice, is already unconscious and the attacker revealed to be her husband, Oliver. What follows is the answer to the question of why he has done such a horrific thing. No need for bookmarks with this one—once you start, you can’t stop. Look out for it in summer 2017.
Catherine Ryan Howard’s debut mystery, Distress Signals, will release in the USA this February 2017 from Blackstone Publishing.