Finding the Next Hot Mystery Writer: The Top of the Thriller Class of 2010/2011

By Clair Lamb – Hard as it is to get a novel published, a first-time author quickly learns that publishing is only half the battle. Bowker’s most recent Books-in-Print data report that more than 47,000 novels were published in traditional formats in the United States last year. Add e-books, and the number soars to over a million. Most of these, surely, were written by authors whose names are already somewhat familiar to booksellers, librarians and readers.

The International Thriller Writers, established in 2004 to recognize and promote the thriller genre, also seeks “to provide opportunities for mentoring, education and collegiality” among thriller writers. As part of this mission, ITW created a Debut Authors program to showcase first-time thriller writers and give them a structure to promote their books, network with each other, and find mentors among ITW’s veteran members. ITW also recognizes the year’s best debut with its Best First Novel Thriller award, given at Thrillerfest, the group’s annual meeting in July. To be eligible, authors must be having their first novel published anywhere, in any format, by a publisher on ITW’s list of recognized publishers.

The Thrill Begins, the official blog of the International Thriller Writers

The 2011 Thriller Award for Best First Novel, presented on July 9, went to Still Missing by Chevy Stevens. Other nominees were The Things That Keep Us Here by Carla Buckley; The Poacher’s Son by Paul Doiron; The Insider by Reece Hirsch; and Drink the Tea by Thomas Kaufman.

Still Missing (St. Martin’s Press), published in July 2010, is the story of Annie O’Sullivan, a Realtor whose life is shattered when she is kidnapped from an open house. She spends the next year as a captive, but is ultimately able to escape. Still Missing intersperses Annie’s account of her year in captivity with her efforts to rebuild her life as a free woman, knowing her captor is still at large. The book drew almost universal rave reviews, hit The New York Times bestseller list, and has been optioned for the movies. Stevens’s second novel, another stand-alone thriller called Never Knowing, was published this month by St. Martin’s, to an equally warm reception. Stevens, a native of the Pacific Northwest, worked in sales and as a realtor before writing Still Missing.

Carla Buckley’s The Things That Keep Us Here (Delacorte) was published in February 2010, and went into a second hardcover printing before being reissued as a paperback in January 2011. Buckley, who chairs ITW’s Debut Authors program, was a technical writer, an analyst for the Smithsonian, and assistant press secretary to a U.S. Senator before publishing her first novel. The Things That Keep Us Here is speculative fiction, a suburban thriller about a woman who must give her estranged husband and his graduate assistant sanctuary when disaster overtakes their community. A finalist for the Ohioana Book Award and Suspense Magazine’s Best Debut as well as for the Thriller, The Things That Keep Us Here has been popular with both critics and book clubs.

The Poacher’s Son (Minotaur) is the first book in a new series, introducing Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch. Bowditch is “the poacher’s son” of the title, and his rocky relationship with his father, a roguish hunting guide, drives the action of this book. Doiron is editor-in-chief of Down East magazine, and a registered Maine guide himself; the book is full of vivid depictions of the Maine wilderness, and offers a balanced, clear-eyed take on issues of development, tourism, and conservation. The book, which has been compared to C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, may be the year’s most-nominated book. It won the Strand Critics Award for best first novel, and was shortlisted for the Anthony, Barry, and Edgar Awards, as well as for the Best First Novel Thriller. Mike Bowditch returns in Trespasser (Minotaur), published in July 2011.

Reece Hirsch’s first novel, The Insider, is unique among this year’s nominees in being published as a paperback original (Berkley). A fast-paced, paranoid thriller in the tradition of Joseph Finder and Christopher Reich, The Insider is attorney Will Connelly, about to make partner at his law firm. When a colleague falls 39 floors to his death, Will takes over as lead attorney on a pending merger between a computer giant and a cutting-edge software company. Celebrating his new partnership, he doesn’t ask the questions he should — including why his colleague died with Will’s building pass in his pocket. The Insider is set in San Francisco, where Reece Hirsch himself is a partner in the local office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.

In his mid-50s, Thomas Kaufman may be the oldest of this year’s debut thriller nominees, but that’s because he’s already had a career as an award-winning cinematographer and director. His first novel, Drink the Tea (Minotaur), was published in 2010 after winning the Private Eye Writers of America’s Best First Private Eye Novel Competition. Drink the Tea introduces Willis Gidney, product of the Washington, DC foster care system, now 35 and struggling to make a living as a private investigator. An old friend asks Gidney to find his daughter, who’s been missing for 25 years; the trail soon turns not only sinister but deadly. Willis returns in Steal the Show, out from Minotaur in July 2011.

The ITW Debut Authors class of 2010/2011 includes 44 authors in addition to those listed here. Of those, several have already published second books, or will do so later this year. ITW’s The Thrill Begins blog offers first-time thriller writers a platform to introduce themselves, as well as links to personal websites and blogs. The class year runs from one Thrillerfest to the next; less than a week after Thrillerfest 2011, eighteen new authors are already part of the Debut Authors class of 2011/2012 .