Writing a mystery can be murder, says Maggie Griffin, co-owner of New York City's Partners & Crime bookstore. "Readers demand more. Some novels can get away with a considerable amount of navel-gazing or a vague ending, but those won't hack it as mysteries. Traditional mysteries require a structured plot, a quest for something tangible or intangible and, most definitely, a resolution which provides that 'Ahhhh' moment." And, according to Warner Books senior publicity manager Susan Richman, getting published can be equally difficult: "This field has always been popular, and it's more crowded now than ever. Publishers are getting a lot more selective."
One might wonder, then, why so many authors take a stab at the category—especially since, according to R.R. Bowker, the number of mystery books published last year was 5,107. That's a whopping 33% leap from the 2003 total of 3,840. When it comes to bestsellerdom, brand names predominate—Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Walter Mosley, Patricia Cornwell, Janet Evanovich, Elizabeth George. So who are the writers who might become the next brand names?
Searching for clues, we divided the spring mystery roster into three areas: debuts, traditionally accompanied by high hopes and hefty promotional campaigns; switch-hitters, those writers who, often with several books to their credit, strike out in new directions; and—perhaps most frustrating (at least to their publishers)—those writers who have garnered consistently excellent notices, occasionally snagging an Edgar Award here or a Shamus prize there, but have not yet crossed over into bestsellerdom. In eyeballing the new books, we noted authors in each of the preceding "categories" whose books would seem to augur success.
If pedigree counts for anything, there's one new author who should hit the lists in a snap—just as his mom and dad do. Jesse Kellerman's Sunstroke (he is the son of Jonathan and Faye) is billed by Putnam as "a brilliantly crafted modern noir filled with secrets, heartbreak and mordant humor." Kellerman, 27, is a recent Harvard grad who also holds a master's degree in playwriting from Brandeis University. His novel, out next month, comes with an impressive list of endorsements from the likes of Harlan Coben, Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker and Tony Hillerman. According to his editor, Christine Pepe, Kellerman "makes a promise on the first page to take you on a great ride, and he delivers—this is a story that just sucks you in."
As a med student at Stanford, Joshua Spanogle found himself surrounded by the accoutrements of many a suspense yarn. Inspired by the likes of Michael Palmer and Robin Cook, the Yale University grad penned—between lab classes, perhaps?—the medical thriller Isolation Ward, in which a physician from the Centers for Disease Control is called to a Baltimore hospital when the staff suspects that three recent deaths might point to bioterrorism. Author Stephen White dubs this March Delacorte release "a topical, compelling and terrific first novel," while Bantam Dell executive editor Kate Miciak says, "It was impossible to resist—electrifying suspense combined with a wonderfully complex hero who walks the tightrope between medical ethics and personal responsibility."
And what would a mystery season be without a legal thriller? Warner provides what looks like a corker in The Jury Master by Robert Dugoni, who apparently knows the territory—he was a civil litigator in San Francisco and Seattle for 17 years. He evidently knows a thing or two about writing as well: his nonfiction debut, The Cyanide Canary, was a Washington Post 2004 Best Book of the Year. Blurbs come from such bestselling folk as Nelson DeMille ("Dugoni has put the thrills back into the genre") and Tess Gerritsen ("an exhilarating thriller about heroes who won't take 'no' for an answer"). As Warner points out in its catalogue, "Lawyers turned thriller writers are some of publishing's greatest success stories," citing the debuts of David Baldacci (Absolute Power) and Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent).
Turning the Tables
A number of established authors attempt to expand their readership by launching a new series or moving from a series to a stand-alone (or vice versa). In 2001, Dennis Lehane hit paydirt when he abandoned his series starring Boston PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro (A Drink Before Dying, etc.) to write Mystic River. Mystic spent 29 weeks on PW's lists in hardcover and paperback; the movie grossed more than $150 million worldwide.
An interesting spin on the familiar books-into-movies migration can be found in a February Carroll & Graf release: Peter James, author of Dead Simple, is a prominent movie producer (the recent Merchant of Venice et al.). He's also made a name for himself as a mystery writer, mainly in the U.K. But C&G publisher Will Balliett has high hopes for stateside success for James's latest: "The police procedural is a definite change of pace for Peter, as he introduces Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. [Dead Simple] has become a huge breakout book internationally—in both England and Germany, with other sales around the world." The fact that James is already entertaining film and TV offers for his new book, Balliett adds, "warms a publisher's heart and couldn't be more deserved."
Yet another lawyer-turned-author is James Grippando, who spent 12 years in Janet Reno's Miami law firm (trying 13 death penalty cases) before turning his hand to writing in 1994. He's since produced six legal thrillers, and now number seven strikes out in a new direction. In Got the Look (HarperCollins, Jan.), Grippando launches a series that centers on Miami criminal attorney Jack Swyteck, a character he introduced in his first novel, The Pardon. According to HC associate publicity director Katherine Beitner, "Every Harper channel is working to ensure that this is that hit that makes Grippando a household name." The publisher has moved Grippando out of the crowded summer mystery season, Beitner explains, and given the new book and his backlist titles a brand-new look. And in the advance praise department, no less an author than James Patterson declares Grippando "really good."
So Where's the Love?
Or: Why Isn't This Author a Household Name (and/or National Bestseller)? The mystery ranks are rife with writers who fill this bill; here are two.
In the words of Henry Holt publicity director Claire McKinney, "Jacqueline Winspear fills the void left by Dorothy Sayers and others of her ilk." With only three novels to her credit (Maisie Dobbs, 2003; Birds of a Feather, 2004; Pardonable Lies, Aug. 2005), this British author has been nominated for an Edgar and won the Macavity Award in 2004. She also received the Agatha Award for First Novel and went on to win the Agatha for Best Novel—the first time an author has won for two consecutive years. In addition, Maisie Dobbs was a New York Times Notable Book in 2003. PW's starred review of Winspear's latest said she "writes seamlessly, enriching the whole with vivid details of English life on a variety of social levels." And Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times called Winspear's whip-smart, circa-1930s heroine "a sleuth to treasure."
William Kent Krueger is another author who, judging from the evidence, deserves a wider readership. Iron Lake, the first book in his Cork O'Conner series—starring a part Irish, part Anishinaabe Indian former sheriff of Aurora, Minn.—received a glowing PW review back in 1998, as did books two, three, four and five (the just-published Mercy Falls). In addition, the first and fourth entries in the series garnered Anthony Awards; the fourth (Blood Hollow) just beat out such heavyweight contenders as T. Jefferson Parker and Laura Lippman at September's Bouchercon. Krueger's next two books have already been signed by Atria Books, whose executive editorial director, Emily Bestler, calls him "one of the best writers in the genre today—he's a real bookseller favorite. People who seek mysteries out on a regular basis truly love his books." And who can ask for more than that... except maybe a berth on one of those bestseller lists?