The Breakout Novel. It’s one of the most sought-after creatures in the literary forest. And one of the rarest.

And yet every so often, it happens: that book that takes an author who was previously only known at the bar at Bouchercon—or other places hardcore readers hang out—and turns her into a household name.

By my definition, the Breakout Book can’t be a debut, which is why you won’t see names like Stieg Larsson, Paula Hawkins, or Patricia Cornwell on this list. Also, I left off The DaVinci Code—despite its 85 million copies sold and the legion of imitators it spawned—because I’m capricious and I want to make room for other novels.

Now on with the list (in no order whatsoever):


The Firm, John Grisham.

The quintessential breakout. Grisham had famously sold his debut, A Time to Kill, out of his trunk to garden club ladies across the south. The Firm fared a bit better. It was the book no one could put down and launched Grisham into the rarified air from which he has yet to descend.


Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn.

True Flynn fans treasure Sharp Objects and Dark Places, but they were too disturbing for mainstream tastes. Gone Girl had the commercial appeal needed to make Flynn a phenomenon. Like Brown’s blockbuster, there are now bookshelves filled with copycats. None compare.

Persuader, Lee Child.

Jack Reacher came out of the box fully formed—Child, an inveterate Yankees fan, has been hitting them out of the park since his debut, Killing Floor. Still, Persuader was his first to hit bestseller lists, and it began turning Jack Reacher into the cultural icon he is today.

L.A. Requiem, Robert Crais.

Crais’s immense writing talent had been evident since his debut, The Monkey’s Raincoat, but it took a few books to rid himself of a penchant for slapstick. L.A. Requiem made readers take Crais seriously, as evidenced by its sweep of the Edgar, Anthony, and Shamus awards.

Dead Until Dark, Charlaine Harris.

Okay, okay, this isn’t really crime. But Harris has written plenty in the mystery genre—and she’s a lovely woman—so we’re happy to count her as one of our own. Plus, her persistence is an inspiration: The first Sookie Stackhouse came twenty years and many books into her career.

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Harlan Coben

Tell No One, Harlan Coben.

Coben’s first seven Myron Bolitar novels were paperback originals that won awards but were largely unread outside the mystery community. This was Coben’s first standalone. Twisty and clever, it made the New York Times bestseller list… as has everything Coben has written since.

Bury Your Dead, Louise Penny.

Louise had already turned the Agatha and Anthony awards into the Louise Penny Awards for a few books running, so it’s not like she was a secret to those in the know. Still, Bury Your Dead was her first book to sell widely. It’s also an exquisitely crafted mystery.

The Poet, Michael Connelly.

After four pitch-perfect procedurals featuring detective Harry Bosch, Connelly returned to his roots as a newspaper reporter for his first standalone, The Poet. A breathtaking read in its own right, what it really did was turn the world onto Bosch—and
Connelly’s unmistakable skill.

The Lock Artist, Steve Hamilton.

Arguably this didn’t sell widely enough to be a true breakout. But it’s too good to leave off this list. In addition to giving us a character we had never read before (a mute safecracker!), it was a master class in structure. It swept the awards that year, including the Edgar—Hamilton’s second.

What The Dead Know, Laura Lippman.

The rare book that kept you guessing throughout, yet the big reveal—while totally astonishing—was also utterly fair, because it was in front of you all along. Tess Monaghan was already a beloved figure for mystery aficionados, but this standalone, her second, made Lippman a star.

Brad Parks is the only author to have won the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty awards. His first standalone, Say Nothing, has garnered starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal. It releases from Dutton Books on March 7.