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?