March 7th to 13th: “What is the best debut novel you’ve ever read?”

Join ITW members Karen Dionne, George Ebey, Tracy March, Pat Brown and Neil Plakcy as they discuss the best debut novel they’ve ever read!

All ITW members can sign up for the ITW Roundtable discussions by contacting Dan Levy.  Click the Roundtable link in the members-only section of the ITW website to see the list of upcoming questions, or to learn more. There’s no better way to connect with other ITW authors, readers, and fans!

Detroit native Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of two environmental thrillers, Freezing Point and Boiling Point. She serves on the International Thriller Writers board of directors as Vice President, Technology, and is co-founder of the online writers community Backspace, where she organizes the Backspace Writers Conferences held every May in New York City. Karen is also a member of Sisters in Crime and the Mystery Writers of America.

Tracy March writes about ethical dilemmas in unethical times. As a former pharmaceutical sales executive, Tracy draws inspiration from her experiences and encounters in the medical field and her love/hate relationship with politics. Look for GIRL THREE, Tracy’s debut thriller set in Washington, D.C., in June 2011. Tracy lives in Yorktown, Virginia, with her husband who works for NASA. They recently experienced two years living in D.C, where they discovered enough drama to inspire a lifetime of stories.

Born in Canada, Pat Brown’s approach to life was tempered in the forges of Los Angeles where she was endowed with a fascination for the dark side and the professionals who patrol them. She isn’t afraid to explore the darker sides of her characters and the streets they inhabit, including the ones most people are afraid to walk down. Her vision of L.A. can be found in books like L.A. Heat, L.A. Boneyard, and L.A. Bytes.

Neil Plakcy is the author of Mahu, Mahu Surfer, Mahu Fire and Mahu Vice (August 2009), mystery novels which take place in Hawaii, as well as the collection Mahu Men: Mysterious and Erotic Stories. His M/M romance novels are (MLR Press, 2009), Three Wrong Turns in the Desert (Loose Id, 2009) and Dancing with the Tide (Loose Id, 2010). His mystery novel In Dog We Trust is available for all e-book readers through and Smashwords. He is co-editor of Paws & Reflect: A Special Bond Between Man and Dog (Alyson Books, 2006) and editor of the gay erotica anthologies Hard Hats (Cleis Press, 2008), Surfer Boys (Cleis Press, 2009) and Skater Boys (Cleis Press, 2010). Plakcy is a journalist and book reviewer as well as an assistant professor of English at Broward College’s south campus in Pembroke Pines. He is a member of Sisters in Crime, vice president of the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and a frequent contributor to gay anthologies.

George Ebey is the author of Broken Clock, Dimensions: Tales of Suspense, The Red Bag, and Widowfield. He is a graduate of Kent State University with a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and a minor in writing. He lives with his wife, Gail, in Northeast Ohio.

Latest posts by ITW (see all)
  1. The best first novel I ever read was Tom Rob Smith’s CHILD 44. I think what I most loved about it was the way the novel opened a window on another time and place. I was a child during the Cold War era, and Stalinist Russia has always fascinated me in a “wish I knew what’s behind the curtain” kind of way. Smith drew that curtain back and opened the window wide!

    As it happens, my debut novel was eligible for a thriller award the same year Tom’s was, and while my book wasn’t nominated, I didn’t mind, because I knew it’d never stand a chance against such a fabulous novel as that. And indeed, Tom’s did win!

    1. I never got too far into Child 44– the opening was just too creepy and violent for me– the old woman and the dog, if I recall correctly. I know a lot of people raved about the book, including many whose opinions I value– but a very grisly opening turns me off.

  2. For best debut novel, I’ll have to go with A Simple Plan by Scott Smith.

    Here’s why.

    I can remember seeing it on the paperback shelf at K-Mart back when I was first starting college. Up until then I had a small list of favorite authors that I mostly gravitated toward. As much as I loved those guys I started to wonder what I was missing out on and decided that it was time to start expanding my reading list.

    I chose this one for the usual reasons. The title grabbed me. The cover looked cool. The plot summary on the back was intriguing. By the time I skimmed the first paragraph, I was sold.

    I took it home and became promptly lost in the plot, a gripping tale of money and murder. I don’t remember just how fast I plowed through it, but it was fast. As soon I finished I was convinced that I had just discovered a new master who had obviously been doing this for a long time and likely had a plethora of other great reads out there just waiting to be devoured. Imagine my surprise when I found out that this was a debut novel from a first time writer! Really? Is it possible that a newbie could be that good?

    I immediately added Scott Smith to the top of my reading list and eagerly awaited his next book. I had to wait for thirteen years before The Ruins hit the shelves, but that’s a subject for another discussion.

    1. Oh yes! I LOVED A Simple Plan. Absolutely could NOT put the book down. I didn’t realize it was his debut, but like you, I did keep an eye out for more books from Smith for a very long time.

      Wait a minute. Two books mentioned so far, both by authors named “Smith”? Clearly, I need to rethink the idea of using a pseudonym!

  3. Karen,

    Child 44 was awesome. I’m a history buff as well as a crime buff and that book blended them both beautifully. Great choice.

  4. I don’t have the greatest memory, so I’m going for a debut novel I read in the last year or two– Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley. I picked up an advanced reader’s copy at Bouchercon and brought the book home, but then didn’t look at it for a while. One night, when I had finished what I was reading, I embarked on a mission to clear out my TBR bookcase.
    I started picking up books I knew I wouldn’t like, reading the first 20 or 30 or 50 pages, then tossing them aside. When I saw that Starvation Lake was about a murder during a Michigan winter, involving a hero who played ice hockey for his local team, I was sure I’d be able to get rid of the book in a few minutes.
    Instead, Bryan Gruley’s voice carried me right along, and I found myself turning the pages and staying up late because I couldn’t stop reading.
    That’s one of the hallmarks for me of a great book– a voice that draws me in, despite my lack of interest in the subject matter.
    Soon I became engaged with Gus Carpenter and his problems and the book just flew. I also loved the second in the series, The Hanging Tree, but Starvation Lake remains one of my very favorite debut novels.

  5. Favorite debut novel? It’s a tossup:
    BLACK SUNDAY, Thomas Harris
    THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, Frederick Forsyth
    JAWS, Peter Benchley
    I love thrillers, and these guys nailed it on their first try from page one. JAWS was the first novel I ever read in one sitting. BLACK SUNDAY was the first novel I ever read twice. And THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, well, try putting that one down.

  6. My memory is a lot like Neil’s–not the greatest. So I’m also going to go with a couple of my recent favorite debuts.

    I loved the Edgar Award winning IN THE WOODs by Tana French. She calls herself a literary mystery writer. If angels could write, they would write like Tana French! And then she followed IN THE WOODS with my favorite of hers, THE LIKENESS. Just like Neil, I look for a great voice that draws me in. And Tana French’s voice is nothing short of poetic (to my ‘ear’). It’s nice that the thriller genre includes all sorts of sub-genres.

    And while Kathryn Stockett’s debut, THE HELP, was likely never billed as a thriller, her story and characters were so expertly woven, that I experienced the same excitement reading her story that I do reading a traditional thriller.

    I find that I am often drawn to novelist’s second or third books, and then discover their debuts later. I suppose that speaks to the struggle of most debut authors to get the word out about their debuts. Karen, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this since your second novel is now out and selling well.

    1. Tana French – yes and yes! LOVE her stuff.

      As for second books, I’m actually finding the promotion for book two a bit more of a challenge than it was for the first book for a couple of reasons. I think a lot of reviewers and bloggers are looking for that next big thing, and so they’re more likely to pay attention to an author’s first book than their second. I also suspect there’s a perception among family and friends and readers that once an author has more than one book published, they don’t need the same level of support that they did for the first book – which couldn’t be farther from the truth! Book One, Two, or Ten – each brings their own challenges.

  7. Great point about the debut books,Tracy. Like you, I seem to stumble BACK to the debut of an author I’ve read and enjoyed.

    For example, I read DOWN RIVER by John Hart after hearing him speak at a Sleuthfest conference. Fell in love with it, then went back to read his debut, KING OF LIES. Not sure why I’d never heard of it, but that book was a great read.
    Super nice guy too.

  8. I’ll throw a shout out to Jeff Shaara’s awesome debut Gods and Generals. Not a thriller technically but it definitely has a lot of thrilling moments. It’s an historical epic dealing with the first years of the Civil War leading up to Gettysburg. I read it after Jeff had taken off, but it was the first of his I’d tried and man was it good. I’ve been reading him ever since and as far as I’m concerned, his books are the next best thing to hopping in a time machine and going back to actually meet icons like Lee and Chamberlain.

  9. As the week’s gone on, I’m discovering that this question is a bit of a challenge – in part, because I’m not sure if some of the books I’ve loved were truly the author’s debut. That said, here’s one I should have thought of from the outset – Preston & Child’s RELIC. This book, along with Crichton’s JURASSIC PARK and ANDROMEDA STRAIN is the reason I started writing science thrillers. Doug and Linc definitely hit it out of the park with this one.

    In connection with that, here’s a funny story: A couple of years ago, I went to the Museum of Natural History in NYC (where RELIC takes place) for the first time. As I wandered through the sections that were featured in their book, I kept thinking, “But everything is so *small*!” They definitely made the setting feel bigger and more dangerous in the book!

    Here are a few more recent debuts I’ve read and loved (and Neil, as you can probably tell, I do tend to like darker stuff):

    Marcus Sakey’s THE BLADE ITSELF
    Roger Smith’s MIXED BLOOD
    Brent Ghelfi’s VOLK’S GAME

  10. Thanks, Karen, for commenting about your adventures promoting your second book. Best of luck to you with your promotional efforts.

    I agree that reviewers and bloggers are likely looking for that next big thing, as is the case with agents/publishers. Both dynamics make it more difficult for the author who is looking to build on the solid foundation of a successful debut (like yourself), and writers who are trying to break into the business.

    With that in mind, I’m wondering if we will see less and less debuts from traditional publishers as agents and publishers (especially) are becoming more and more reluctant to take on the so-called risk of a debut author. I suppose that’s where indy publishing may intervene and offer readers a variety of new voices.

    And, back on topic, I seem to revert to reading the classics ever so often when I need some literary grounding (The Scarlett Letter is my absolute favorite, though not a debut). Emily Bronte’s debut, Wuthering Heights, is incredibly emotionally evocative. I am often drawn back to her characters and story.

  11. Interesting discussion for such a difficult topic. Great comments. Thanks for participating and providing some debut titles I’ll be sure to check out.

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVI: Register Today!



One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!