Rookie Reads

  • By Art Taylor
  • April 11, 2016

Best first novelists weigh in on the best first novels

Rookie Reads

On the final weekend of this month, as April tips into May, Bethesda will once again host Malice Domestic, one the top conventions in the country for writers and readers of mystery fiction — specifically, traditional mysteries as epitomized by the work of Agatha Christie.

The festival opens on Thursday evening, April 28th, with a talk by “Poison Lady” Luci Zahray and ends on Sunday afternoon, May 1st, with Dame Agatha’s Tea — though hopefully no poison in any of the pots there. In between, Malice offers panel discussions, books sales and signings, and special events celebrating this year’s featured guests, including novelists Victoria Thompson, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Katherine Hall Page; publishers Barbara Peters and Robert Rosenwald of Poisoned Pen Press and Douglas Greene of Crippen & Landru; ghost of honor Sarah Caudwell; and fan guest of honor Linda Smith Rutledge.

Among the other special honorees are the finalists for this year’s Agatha Awards, presented in a range of categories covering novels, short stories, nonfiction, and young-adult books. I’ve been fortunate (beyond belief) to have won two Agathas over the last two years — each in the short-story category — and now to have found my first book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, named a finalist for Best First Novel at this year’s event. And I can’t recommend too highly any and all of the other finalists: Tessa Arlen’s Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman, Cindy Brown’s Macdeath, Ellen Byron’s Plantation Shudders, and Julianne Holmes’ Just Killing Time.

Our Best First Novel group has already become very tight-knit online, and I asked recently what their own favorite first novels were, both to get a glimpse of their tastes (and maybe how those tastes have fed their fiction) and to offer here some suggested reading — in addition to the finalists’ own books, of course!

Here’s what they had to offer:

Tessa Arlen: While Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling is not my absolute favorite of her books — Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love most certainly are — it was the first of her books and the first I read. How lucky I was to discover that old thumbed-through copy, which introduced me to one of the wittiest writers of light comedy that England in the 1930s possibly had to offer. Highland Fling sent me searching for more Mitfordian delights, and I was completely rewarded. However much I adore P.G. Wodehouse and E.F. Benson, whom I believe crowd out all our contemporary writers, it is Nancy Mitford whom I find the most enchanting of a century that produced many!

Cindy Brown: I’m going to cheat and choose two wildly different books that I loved in completely different ways. The first one is A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton. I was immediately hooked by Kinsey Millhone, Grafton’s PI protagonist — her sassy voice; her tiny, funky, shipshape apartment; her love of cheap white wine; and, yes, the fact she is a strong female lead. I felt like I recognized Kinsey from the first moment I met her in Grafton’s book. It may be character that endears Alibi to me, but it’s story that makes The Tiger’s Wife my other favorite first novel. I love the way that Téa Obreht wove past and present, myth and reality, and cruelty and kindness into a book that I couldn’t put down and will never forget. 

Ellen Byron: My favorite first novel is Still Life by Louise Penny. As a lifelong fan of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and her little village of St. Mary Mead, I gravitate toward bucolic settings in series, and Quebec’s Three Pines, where most of Louise’s mysteries are set, fits that bill. In Still Life, I found a book where I was captivated by both the mystery elements and the writing. Not only that, Louise inspires me as an author to go beyond the basics of a murder investigation and create a unique world that feels real and alluring to readers.

Julianne Holmes: Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair is definitely on my list of best firsts. The parallel universe of Thursday Next, literary detective, as she tries to rescue Jane Eyre from the evil villain who can jump into narratives and change plots exploded my imagination. I’ve never been able to think of Miss Havisham the same way again. It is clever, fun, and mind-bending. The entire series is terrific, but The Eyre Affair stands out as a wonderful debut.

Art Taylor: Coming back around to me, three first novels leap to my own mind: Tana French’s In the Woods, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and Cynthia Shearer’s The Wonder Book of the Air — the latter not a mystery novel. I feel maybe most fond of In the Woods; I reviewed French’s debut for the Washington Post (my review is excerpted on the paperback’s cover), and I just recently taught the book at George Mason University, feeling again that sense of amazement at the dense and lyrical prose, the depth of emotion, and the layering of plot elements — and then that daring ending! (No spoilers.) Some of those descriptions would apply equally to the other two books: dense, deep, and daring. I myself write short but often love complex layers in the fiction I read.

Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories. The Agatha Award finalists here are also answering questions at a number of mystery-themed blogs in the lead-up to Malice Domestic. Find them next at Wicked Cozy Authors on Friday, April 15th; at The Stiletto Gang on Monday, April 18th; at Criminal Minds on Friday, April 22nd; and at Chicks on the Case on Monday, April 25th.

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