It's always a pleasure to discover new novelists who have written works that compare favorably to those of more-established authors. On a recent train trip to Vermont to see family, I had the luxury of time (it's an 11-hour ride), and happily read my way through the autumn countryside views and three debut novels.
Hilary Davidson has been known in crime fiction circles for a while due to her short stories, published in such venues as ThugLit, A Twist of Noir, Rose and Thorn, CrimeFactory and Spinetingler, with her story "Anniversary" selected for A Prisoner of Memory: And 24 of the Year's Finest Crime and Mystery Stories in 2008. She's also a travel writer and her debut novel The Damage Done features travel journalist Lily Moore, who returns to New York upon the news that her sister Claudia, a recovering heroin addict, has allegedly drowned in her bathtub on the anniversary of their mother's suicide—only to learn the corpse isn't that of her sister, but a lookalike stranger who's been posing as Claudia. Thus begins a frantic search for her missing sister and the murderer of the stranger (with the assistance of her best friend Jessie and two sympathetic cops) that may involve Claudia's former lover, wealthy Tariq Lawrence, and Lily's ex-fiancé, real-estate tycoon Martin Sklar. Davidson maintains the suspense at a high level but also manages terrific character development, vivid imagery, and an engaging mystery, to boot. Her next novel, The Next One to Fall, is due out October 2011 and will be one to look for.
Helen Grant worked in marketing for ten years to fund her love of travelling, eventually moving to Bad Müenstereifel in Germany. It was exploring the legends of that beautiful historic town that inspired her to write her first novel (after having a few supernatural short stories published), The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, which is set there and features local folk tales and legends. Publishers Weekly called Grant's debut "a charming horror novel," but that's a good description, dealing as it does with 10-year-old Pia Kolvenbach, whose grandmother accidentally sets herself on fire and burns to death. Becoming an outcast afterward, Pia's only friend is the most unpopular boy in her class, nicknamed StinkStefan. The duo begin visiting an elderly man who entertains them with folk tales that Pia and StinkStefan hope will help them solve the mystery of local girls who have gone missing, including Katharina Linden—a girl last seen alive by Pia. Although the mystery is an integral part of the novel, its real strength lies in the pitch-perfect setting and the coming-of-age lessons that teach Pia the adult world is even darker than ghost stories and all too real.
Avner Mandelman was born in Israel and served in the Israeli Air Force during the Six-Day War. He started out writing short stories (a recurring theme for these debuters!), and his story collection Talking to the Enemy was chosen by Kirkus as one of the 25 best books of 2005 and by the ALA as the first recipient of the Sophie Brody Medal for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. His first novel is the thriller The Debba—a mythical Arab hyena that can turn into a man and lure Jewish children away from their families to teach them the language of the beasts. To the Arabs, he is a heroic national symbol; to the Jews, he is a terrorist; to the novel's protagonist David Starkman, the Debba is a controversial play written by his war-hero father that was only performed only once and caused a massive riot. David had renounced his Israeli citizenship and moved to Canada, but when he learns his estranged father has been gruesomely murdered and the Will stipulates David stage the play within 45 days, he returns to his homeland and gets drawn into a world where the sins of the fathers are painfully and dangerously revisited upon the sons. It's a biting and pensive debut work that also turns a microscope upon the unrelenting Arab-Israeli conflict.