VJ Books Blog

(Publisher’s Weekly, Nov. 24, Dick Donahue)

Eight mystery debuts

Each season publishers promise thrills and chills from first-time mystery authors. What’s the allure of these debuts, we wondered, for readers and specialty bookstores? According to Maggie Griffin, co-owner of New York City’s Partners & Crime Bookstore, “In the mystery field there’s a strong tradition of supporting each new crop of crime writers. There’s a real thrill in discovering a new talent, a sincere pleasure in helping an unknown crime writer find their readership, and it’s good business to cultivate a customer base that’ll pull out their credit cards when you say, ‘Buy this mystery, you won’t regret it.’ ” Griffin contends that introducing new writers to customers is key to the success of not only the writer but the independent mystery bookstore itself, which depends on establishing a trust with return customers. “We read the books we sell and we listen.”

What follows is a selection of promising first-timers coming in early 2009.

by Josh Bazell
(Little, Brown, Jan.)
First printing: 100,000
Plot: Dr. Peter Brown is an intern at Manhattan’s worst hospital, with a talent for medicine and a shady past. Pietro “Bearclaw” Brnwa is a former mob hit man in the witness protection program. When Dr. Brown’s new patient realizes he looks a lot like “Bearclaw,” the mob, the government and death itself start to descend upon the hospital—and Peter has 24 hours to beat the reaper.
Author’s inspiration: “I read The Godfather and Jaws over the summer between fourth and fifth grades. People should be more careful with those things. (Coma was around that time, also.) I’ve been working at being a novelist ever since. At least it wasn’t Love Story and Flowers in the Attic.”
Clues to success: According to executive editor Reagan Arthur, “This book grabs readers by the throat—or, eventually, around the shin—and refuses to let go. Voice, action, humor, heart, wild originality combined with an obvious love for the traditions of classic crime fiction.”
Body count: Roughly a dozen—but they deserved it.
Hollywood pitch: House calls on The Sopranos.

Loser’s Town
by Daniel Depp
(Simon & Schuster, Mar.)
First printing: 100,000
Plot: A darkly comic debut thriller introducing David Spandau, a PI whose laconic wit and keen Hollywood insider’s sensibility are put to the test when he is hired by a rising actor at the center of a filmmaking—and blackmailing—scheme gone wrong.
Author’s inspiration: “Hollywood somewhere along the way managed to carry illusion off the soundstage and convert it into a lifestyle. As a result, nobody there now has the slightest idea what’s real and what isn’t, and everybody exists in a kind of extended dream. Give any dream long enough and eventually it will become a nightmare. I wanted to write something about people who are trapped by their own dreams.”
Clues to success: Says editor Sarah Hochman, “Loser’s Town is refreshingly funny and sharp, narrated by that laconic, witty, insider’s voice from which the dark humor and sordid underbelly of L.A. life rise to the surface of any good Hollywood thriller.”
Body count: 4.
Hollywood pitch: Get Shorty meets L.A. Confidential.

Starvation Lake
by Bryan Gruley
(Touchstone, Mar.)
First printing: 75,000
Plot: The young hockey goalie who lost his lower Michigan town its one chance for the state championship returns decades later to seek redemption as editor of the weekly newspaper. But he’s soon embroiled in a murder case when his long-dead former coach’s snowmobile turns up without a body and on the wrong lake.
Author’s inspiration: “Knowing I play hockey, my agent said, ‘Why don’t you write about those middle-aged guys who play hockey in the middle of the night?’ I immediately had an idea and decided to set it in a place I loved and knew well, northern Michigan. The rest flowed from those two things.”
Clues to success: Senior editor Trish Lande Grader says, “The manuscript was an immediate in-house favorite, with reps recommending it to their colleagues and saying the comparison to Lehane was completely warranted. We’ve got quotes from Coben, Connelly and Pelecanos, among others, and Bryan’s passion and commitment are unstoppable and contagious.”
Body count: 2.
Hollywood pitch: Mystic River meets Slap Shot in Fargo.

The Alexander Cipher
by Will Adams
(Grand Central, Mar.)
First printing: 40,000
Plot: In the vein of great adventure thrillers comes a rip-roaring archeological thriller about the search for the lost tomb of Alexander the Great.
Author’s inspiration: “I loved the Greek myths when I was growing up, and adventure stories, too. So when I came across the fascinating history of Alexander the Great’s tomb while backpacking in Egypt, it seemed like a perfect fusion of everything I most enjoyed: exotic settings, fabulous lost treasure, intrigue and high stakes.”
Clues to success: Editor Jaime Levine says, “Alexander was the single most popular man on earth and thought to be a god. Now, 2,300 years later, people are still fascinated by him. No one knows where his body ended up, so there’s a real-life puzzle at the book’s core.” Levine notes that Adams’s debut has been sold in 13 languages, with more than 200,000 already sold in Germany, where it has made multiple appearances on the Spiegel paperback bestseller list.
Body count: 10–16.
Hollywood pitch: Plutarch meets a contemporary Indiana Jones.

Dead Men’s Dust
by Matt Hilton
(Morrow, Apr.)
First printing: 30,000
Plot: Joe Hunter is an ex-military officer and, in his own words, “the weapon sent in when the planning is done and all that’s left is the ass kicking.” In this first of a series, Hunter sets out across Southern California after his wayward brother, who has become entangled in a cat-and-mouse game with a serial killer.
Author’s inspiration: “I think of Joe Hunter as a guy with a strong moral code and the necessary skills to help people in difficult situations. I’ve given him a specific set of skills, but want him to be different from other heroes—a kind of vigilante rather than a PI or a detective. Then I put him in a lean, mean cinematic thriller because I just love them.”
Clues to success: Executive editor David Highfill says, “Everyone loves a charismatic hero in an action thriller (think Lee Child’s Jack Reacher), and we have an excellent new guy on the block in Joe Hunter. But then Matt adds fuel to the fire with one of the smartest, most sarcastic and frightening bad guys I’ve read in ages. Their confrontation is memorable—and downright irresistible.”
Body count: 14.
Hollywood pitch: Jack Reacher meets Thomas Harris.

A Tight Lie
by Don Dahler
(St. Martin’s Minotaur, Mar.)
First printing: 25,000
Plot: Huck Doyle, a professional golfer, dreads the possibility of having to return to his law career. Then he gets a phone call from a friend who claims he’s being framed for murder. In accepting his pal’s request to look into things, Huck doesn’t anticipate taking a deep dive into the murky world of the sex industry and killers for hire, where nothing is what it seems.
Author’s inspiration: “I knew if I could weave the things I appreciate most—mystery, beautiful women, fast cars, tough men and golf—into a compelling, believable, fast-paced narrative with a knockout resolution, it would be a book I’d enjoy as much as those I’ve read by favorites like Nelson DeMille, Patricia Cornwell, Gregory McDonald and Dick Francis.”
Clues to success: According to executive editor Pete Wolverton, “There are two factors that are generating in-house buzz for Don’s debut. First off, this is not just another golf mystery; Don has woven a thread of golf into a vicious crime thriller. Secondly, he’s an award-winning TV journalist—currently a news anchor for WCBS-TV—and his industry connections will give us a fantastic platform for getting media coverage.”
Body count: 5.
Hollywood pitch: Chinatown meets The Tin Cup.

In Tongues of the Dead
by Brad Kelln
(ECW Press, Apr.)
First printing: 5,000
Plot: The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library holds an ancient document no one has been able to decipher. When the Vatican learns of an autistic boy who can read the pages of the text, they dispatch agents to protect the secrets of the Bible of the Nephilim at all cost.
Author’s inspiration: “I read an article in Scientific American about one of the world’s great literary mysteries—the Voynich Manuscript, a 500-year-old book that not even modern cryptology can decipher. It was a thriller waiting to be written. So I married this idea to an interesting side story from the Bible about angels having relations with women, threw in a couple of psychologists and a mysterious boy with autism.”
Clues to success: “It’s an old-fashioned page-turner—a riveting story that mixes fact with fiction,” says publisher Jack David. “I see a lot of unsolicited manuscripts; this one had me hooked by page 40. I handed it to one of our editors; he got hooked, too. Since then the IPG reps got hooked, and we sold Greek and German [rights] based on the unedited manuscript.”
Body count: 8.
Hollywood pitch: The Da Vinci Code meets Mercury Rising.