Saturday, December 11, 2010

The "Sophomore Slump"

I think we’ve all had this experience: we read a remarkable debut by an author, and can’t wait to read the next novel by the same author. Then, the second novel is published and we eagerly open it, only to find that it doesn’t at all live up to the quality of the first one. You can call it if you wish the “sophomore slump” and it can be a real disappointment. There are a few reasons why this can happen. For instance, if a book is phenomenally successful, publishers and agents want to take advantage of that success and put quite a lot of pressure on the author to quickly produce a new novel. The thing is, though, that writing a good novel doesn’t always happen quickly. Trust me. So the quality of the story may be sacrificed on the altar of publicity. Sometimes, the author decides to try something new with the goal of staying “fresh” as a writer, but it fails. Not every idea is a good one. There are other reasons, too, for the “sophomore slump.” But what’s interesting is that not every author seems to fall into this trap. Many crime fiction writers’ second books are at least as good as, if not better than, their first books. Of course, everyone’s taste is different, so what counts as “good” varies. But there are authors whose second efforts are quite highly regarded.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot made his debut in 1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In that novel, he’s left his native Belgium because of World War I and moved to Styles St. Mary, in Essex. When Poirot’s benefactor, Emily Inglethorp, is poisoned one night, he’s determined to find out who killed her and why. Here, we meet Poirot and his friend Captain Arthur Hastings, who’s been staying at Styles Court, the Inglethorp home. This novel was enthusiastically received when it was published, and since then, it’s remained highly regarded.

The follow-up to The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder on the Links, was also well-received. That’s the story of Canadian émigré to France Paul Renauld. Renauld writes a letter to Poirot, asking him to travel to Merlinville-sur-Mer in France, where Renauld lives. The letter claims that Renauld’s life is in danger because of a secret that he possesses, and begs Poirot’s help. Poirot and Hastings go to the Renauld home, but they’re not in time. When they arrive, they find out that Renauld’s been stabbed. The French authorities are already on the case, and one of them, M. Giraud of the Sûreté, is especially put off by what he sees as Poirot’s interference. But Poirot feels a sense of obligation to his client, even though Renauld is dead, and besides, he’s got very little respect for what he sees as Giraud’s arrogance and bumbling. So he and Hastings look into the case and in the end, Poirot finds out who killed Renauld and why – and wins a 500-franc bet in the process. There’s an argument that not all of Christie’s work was her best, but she certainly doesn’t seem to have suffered from “sophomore slump.”

We could say the same thing for Dorothy Sayers. Her first novel, Whose Body?, introduced readers to Lord Peter Wimsey, who’s a collector of rare books, a connoisseur of wine, and passionately interested in mysteries. When we first meet him, Wimsey solves the mystery of the unidentified dead man found in the bathtub of his mother’s architect, Alfred Thipps. This debut was considered “stunning” and “daring for its time,” and was generally well-received. Of course, there were some criticisms of the novel but in general, it was highly regarded. Sayers followed this up with Clouds of Witness, in which Wimsey is on the case when his older brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, is arrested for murdering his sister Mary’s fiancé. This novel, too, was well-received and in some ways, is considered even better than Sayers’ debut, mostly because Wimsey’s character shows more depth and we learn more about him as a person.

We also see a very strong second novel in the work of Adrian Hyland. In his first novel, Moonlight Downs (AKA Diamond Dove), we’re introduced to Emily Tempest a half-Aborigine/half- White woman who returns to her native encampment in the Australian Outback after years away. She’s soon swept up in the investigation of the brutal murder of an old family friend Lincoln Flinders. That novel received very high praise and in fact, won the Australia’s 2007 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. Hyland’s second Emily Tempest novel, Gunshot Road, is regarded by many people as even better than the first. In that novel, Tempest has accepted a position as an Aboriginal Community police officer. In the course of her duties, she discovers the body of Albert Ozolins, an old prospector whom Tempest knew as a child. When John “Wirelss” Petherbridge turns out to have had a brawl with Ozolins, Tempest’s superior Bruce Cockburn is only too happy to believe the case has been solved. But Tempest isn’t convinced, and undertakes her own investigation.

And then there’s Louise Penny. Her novel Still Life introduced readers to Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. He gets involved with the rural town of Three Pines when local artist and teacher Jane Neal is killed early one Thanksgiving morning as she’s taking a morning walk. At first, it looks as though her death was a tragic bow-hunting accident. Gamache isn’t sure of that, though, and begins to investigate. What he finds is that the more he learns about the town of Three Pines, the more secrets he uncovers. In the end, Gamache finds that Neal’s murder was related to one of those secrets. This novel won the 2006 New Blood Dagger Award in Britain as well as Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel. It was also very well-received both popularly and critically. Penny’s second novel, A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) was also very well-received and highly regarded. In that novel, unpopular and sadistic CC de Poitiers is fatally electrocuted at a curling competition during Three Pines’ Boxing Day festivities. Gamache is called in to investigate and finds that several people had a strong motive to kill de Poitiers. This novel was also very well-regarded and in fact, won the 2007 Agatha Award for Best Novel.

Last Rituals, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s debut novel featuring Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, was very well-received both critically and among crime fiction fans. That’s the story of the murder of German student Harald Guntlieb. At first, the police believe that his former friend Hugi Thórisson is responsible Guntlieb’s family doesn’t think so, though, and they send their banking representative Matthew Reich to work with Thóra to find out who really killed Harald and why. The follow-up to this novel, My Soul to Take, also features Thóra Gudmundsdóttir and Matthew Reich. Thóra agrees to represent a client who believes that he was sold haunted land, and that the previous owners didn’t inform him. Thóra’s not superstitious, but her client owns a posh spa, and she’s looking forward to a relaxing stay at the resort. In the process of investigating her client’s claims, Thóra gets involved in the murder of a successful architect who was also staying at the spa, and whose murder is very likely related to the stories of a child who disappeared from the area long ago. This novel was also very well-received and some readers even think it’s better than the first.

There are a lot of other examples, too, of sophomore efforts that are at least as good as, if not better than, the author’s debut. But it’s not a guarantee. So what makes a second novel equally good? The answer to that question depends on the person who answers, as each reader looks for different things in a novel. But most readers agree that character development, an interesting (i.e. not slapped-together) plot and suspense are important ingredients. But what’s your opinion? Have you ever read any authors who suffered from “sophomore slump?” Which second novels have you thoroughly enjoyed?


  1. I enjoy a number of series by several authors and each seems to have improved with each book. One particular series that comes to mind is J.D. Robb's Eve Dallas. To me each of those books has gotten better because the reader is given more insight into the lives and background of Eve and her husband. There's a continuous development and even though you know what to expect out of the pair, you get a little surprise or a new twist in their lives.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - I think you're right; there are series where the second novel is at least as good as the first - even better - because of the character development. As you read the second/third/fourth...novel, the characters get stronger and more well-rounded.

  3. Some writers, like Elizabeth George, seems to irk me more the further into the series I get. I loved her first book!

    However, Val McDermid, seems to get better and better.

    Also, Edward Martin and Booth are getting better and better as their book series continue.

    In my opinion only.

  4. Clarissa - There are, indeed, some authors whose work improves with time. I like Martin Edwards' work very much, too, and I agree that his Lake District series has improved over time - and I liked The Coffin Trail very much.

    There are other authors, too, whose work seems to fall flat over time. Their first books are memorable. The rest, well, less so. We all have different tastes, so our lists of those authors will vary. But there's no doubt we all have them...

  5. I have found that most authors are able to maintain the tempo of the first book in the second and even third books, but many of them start losing steam after that.
    What irritates me is series where the characters do not grow with the series.

  6. Rayna - Interesting point! The longer a series goes on, the more risk there is that the series may falter. And I know exactly what you mean about characters. If they don't grow, do things, develop, then they're not as real.

  7. I think most slumps come from having a two-book contract, which means there is not enough time to do a good job the second time out.

  8. Patti - I think you have a very good point. Sometimes there really is a whole lot of pressure on the author to push the work out, and that doesn't leave a lot of time for doing it well.

  9. I had no expectations when my first book was published. I was just happy to be a published author. So after my debut was so successful it was inevitable that there would be pressure to live up to that reputation with my second. I was hugely relieved by the good reviews and positive response from my growing fan base. With my third book I'm actually feeling quite confident as I think my writing is improving... but I'm still nervous about how it will be received! I can't imagine that will ever change.

  10. Leigh - I think you're touching on something that most authors go through: that anxiety about whether a book will really be as good as we hope it will. I think that little niggling worm of doubt is a sign that the author cares a lot about her or his work and isn't so overconfident about it as to be arrogant. I do think, too, that you're right that writing gets better as time goes on if the author is learning from earlier novels.

  11. I enjoyed Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs books. I don't think they suffered from a sophmore slump. Their books are always entertaining IMHO regardless if they are writing solo or as a tandem. Lee Child too. He has yet to write a stinker.

  12. Stephen - You bring up some very good examples of authors whose sophomore efforts didn't lag. Everyone's taste is different, but certainly Preston, Childs and Child didn't fade away, so to speak after their first successes.