Broke and the Bookish asks for our top ten debut books of any year. In my humble opinion, debut novels come in three flavours.
Firstly, there are the debuts of great writers that are not, in themselves, great books. As exhibit A for this, I give you The Pothunters by P.G. Wodehouse. In my not-so-humble opinion, the greatest comic writer of the 20th Century (and maybe even all-time), he gave us Jeeves and
, Lord Emsworth, Psmith, Ukridge and other great characters. Unfortunately, he started by writing a couple of public school stories, of which The Pothunters was the first. It is of some interest if you like school stories but, at heart, it is just a bit rubbish. Wooster
Secondly, there are great books by authors who don’t “train on” and end up not being considered “great”? This is a bit harder to quantify. Can anyone think of examples?
Finally, there are great first novels by authors who then don’t write another book. Clearly, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the poster child for this group but are there others? And, doesn’t “debut novel” somewhat imply that there are other, later books?
Anyway, on that thought, here is my list. In no particular order:
1. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Now this wasn’t his first book but it was his first novel and first book for a non-academic readership, so on that ground, I think it can be included here. After all, there’s not much similarity between this and his academic works. I don’t really need to say anything about this. If you want to read my views, here is my post. Simply wonderful.
2. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh. This satire on aspects of English society in the ‘20s was by no means the greatest of Waugh’s novels but it is mordantly hilarious in its depiction of the moral confusion and social uncertainty that was prevalent in inter-war
. Written before Waugh’s divorce from his first wife, She-Evelyn, and his conversion to Catholicism, it shows a lighter view of the world than his later works. Decline and Fall is comparable to some of Wodehouse’s writing but with a liberal dose of acid. England
3. The Natural by Bernard Malamud. Malamud’s debut novel gave us the classic fictional baseball hero, Roy Hobbs. A “natural” talent,
’s story is one of lost opportunities, a career that failed to be what it could have been and the temptations that can derail men’s lives. The novel ends with Hobbs being accused of throwing the final game of the season and one of the great closing lines of modern literature as a young newsboy plaintively demands, “Say it ain’t so, Roy!” Great stuff. Roy
4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. The first book in a “trilogy in four parts” (later expanded to five), Douglas Adams’ debut novel introduced us to Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the Paranoid Android and the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything (42 if you don’t already know). Funny, insane and studded with wisdom, this is a modern classic. I first read this book as an 11 year old, having listened to part of the BBC radio series with a friend and fell in love with it. It was a childhood experience that has remained with me all my adult life. Don’t watch the extraordinarily average film, read the book – now.
5. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Set in a mid-19th Century England where magic used to exist and has been brought back to life by the titular characters, Susanna Clarke’s debut novel is a strange, dreamlike piece that captivated me when I first read it. Critics have spotted likenesses to both Dickens and Austen and it is a wonderful read.
6. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. I suspect this one had to be here. I don’t really need to say any more. This was the start of the phenomenon.
7. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. The only remarkable thing about this book is that it introduces one Hercule Poirot, one of the most famous fictional detectives of all time. When this was published in 1921, could anyone have foreseen that Ms Christie would go on to be the best-selling novelist of all-time? Well, she did. Love her or loathe her, Poirot, Marple et al have captured the world’s imagination more than any other.
8. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming. Yes, I know, Bond is a sexist pig and the films are trash. The novels are, however, much darker (albeit still trashy!). Bond does not rely upon Q’s gadgets and is a more thoughtful and cynical man than in the films. Casino Royale introduces him with one of the great opening paragraphs and doesn’t let up after that. A superior thriller, with one of the classic gambling scenes and one of the most painful torture scenes in literature.
9. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There’s no need to say much about this one – you all know it. One of the foundation stones of the horror and gothic genres. Fabulous.
10. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I am pretty sure this was his first full length novel and, as it introduces one of the great literary characters of all time, I feel justified in including it here. Yes, this was the book that welcomed Sherlock Holmes into the world. Need I say more?