The butler didn't do it
9 thriller books that will add suspense to your humdrum life
We’ve devoured John Grisham’s thrillers, practically memorised every twist in Agatha Christie’s works and zipped through every adaption of Sherlock Holmes there is. Some thrillers fill our morbid curiosity, others leave us feeling uneasy. Why do we get such a kick out of thrillers? Psychologically twisted with slow-burning suspense and tension so heavy you could cut it with a knife.
Thriller books manage to capture our innermost feelings, putting into words the thoughts we’ve kept hidden in the darkest parts of our psyche. The best thriller books, whether crime, domestic or psychological, are the ones that present the human condition in all its complexity. We meet sordid characters while writers create anxiety-riddled environments where it seems anything is possible and nobody is to be trusted.
The best part about thriller books, and perhaps what keeps us engaged is that we know there is a cathartic end coming our way. Even in the darkest narratives, there is some conflict resolution, an unveiling of the face of ‘evil’ that gives us release from the tension, even if there are some loose ends.
For some people, it’s escapism— hopping into a crazy plot and taking a weekend joyride.
In her book Savage Appetites, Rachel Monroe investigates why we, as a society, are drawn to crimes through the telling of four true stories of women who have committed them.
She looks at four different archetypes – the detective, victim, defender and killer – through which we associate ourselves when immersing into these narratives.
Some people identify as the ‘victim’, where the perpetrators are usually powerful men.
Some take on the role of detective, wanting to dig through facts and reason why such a crime happened, what led to it, and so on.
There are defenders who work tirelessly to exonerate wrongful convictions and seeking justice, while the killers are seeking their version of justice and have a desire to let out this aggression, so to speak. What you identify with can change from day to day.
If you’ve already made your way through the heavy-hitters of the genre and are looking for similar reads then look no further. Whether you’re hunting for answers like investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or complex female leads like in Big Little Lies, we’ve puzzled out thriller books for every persuasion. Even if you’re just looking for a modern update to Agatha Christie’s locked-room mysteries.
We recommend you pick up these thriller books on a weekend because you’re not going to want to put them down until they’re over.
Thriller books to set your heart racing
Gillian Flynn’s best-seller Gone Girl tells the story of a seemingly perfect marriage slowly unravelling over time. What would push someone to kill the person they had once wanted to spend the rest of their life with?
For a close look at the dynamics of marriage and complex cover-ups, then read:
Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino
Genius physicist Dr Manabu Yakawa, is a Japanese Sherlock-style consulate with the Tokyo police. Known as Detective Galileo, he manages to unravel even the most tightly knotted up threads of complex crimes. In Salvation of a Saint, part of the Detective Galileo book series by Keigo Higashino, we’re presented with an interesting case.
Yoshitaka Mashiba is a successful businessman who breaks it to his wife Ayane that he’s leaving her for another woman – who happens to be her protege – because she’s been unable to have kids despite it being a year since their wedding. Something they agreed upon before their nuptials.
With a broken heart, Ayane goes to visit her parents, during which time her husband, alone at home, dies by poisoning. The case seems pretty straightforward. A revenge killing by the wife. The whodunnit is cleared up early on, making this case more of a howdunnit. Ayane has an iron-clad alibi. That’s where our detective Galileo steps in to put the pieces together.
This is also where the brilliance of Higashino comes through. Not only for the completely unsuspecting murder weapon but the manner in which Higashino elicits empathy and a kind of relatability for his villain to the point where you’re almost rooting for them.
You probably enjoyed the mind games of an unreliable narrator playing with our perception of what is true and what is imagined, like Paula Hawkins does in The Girl on the Train and AJ Finn in The Woman in the Window.
If you like the author constantly teasing the line between reality and fantasy, then read:
Blood Wedding by Pierre Lemaitre
Lemaitre is a trained psychologist and a very skilled writer – a deadly combination. The twists and turns of this psychological thriller will make you want to devour it in one sitting.
You know those moments where the most common things slip your mind and you wonder to yourself, am I forgetful or losing my marbles?
Sophie is recently widowed, trying to cope with grief and the traumas of her past. She starts to forget things, which slowly turn into full-on blackouts where she has no memory of her actions. One of those blackouts involves the death of a child she’s babysitting.
She flees the city to escape the law. But her troubles follow her, so does death and she’s haunted by memories that seem just out of her grasp. She tries to live a low-key life, takes off-the-books jobs, moves from city to city until she makes a plan to settle down with a new identity and remarry to solidify this new persona.
She meets Frantz, a seemingly simple man who could make her plan work, but he too has an ugly secret behind his calm facade.
It’s so frightening how easily admiration can turn into obsession. Misery by Stephen King is the perfect example of the lengths a person can go to for what they love the most.
In King’s narrative, it’s romance novelist Paul Sheldon and a crazed fan Annie Wilkes who holds him captive and hooked on drugs to get him to write the book ending that she wants from his series.
For a realistic look at obsession and manipulation, read:
You by Caroline Kepnes
You is probably one of the few occasions where you’re reading from the POV of the villain. In the beginning, you don’t even really feel like Joe Goldberg is the bad guy. He has a meet-cute with Guinevere Beck AKA Beck at the bookstore he manages, and falls for her. But that’s when things get twisted.
Joe gets obsessive, stalking her online, waiting outside her window and hacking her emails to learn as much as he can about her and what she likes to turn himself into the ‘perfect guy’ for her.
There’s manipulation and gaslighting that make you feel guilty for ever liking Joe. Because in reality, no matter how highbrow and charming Kepnes makes him, he goes to extreme lengths to remove any obstacles that hamper his imagined love story with Beck.
You go deep inside Joe’s head in this book. You read him rationalising murders, dismissing Beck’s friends, even hating them. Peach, one of her best friends becomes enemy #1 and as readers, we start to hate her too. But then you realise that you’re reading her from his poisonous point of view.
When Joe starts to realise that Beck isn’t everything he thought she was either, things start to unravel for them as the ideal romance he had manufactured starts to crash and burn.
‘You’ and its sequel ‘Hidden Bodies’ were adapted into a hit TV show that made Joe’s character all the more creepy. Perhaps the most frightening thing about this book is that this could happen to pretty much anyone, even you.
Stepping into the shoes of investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson is a different thrill altogether, almost making it feel like we too could be hired one day by a billionaire to track down his niece who’s been missing for 40 years.
For another journalist-turned-detective, read:
The Singer by Cathi Unsworth
The narrative of The Singer is split between two timelines, both converging in an unexpected ending. One takes you back to the punk era of London with all the grit and grime of a Sex Pistols mosh pit. Here we read about the formation of a punk band, the debauched escapades of its enigmatic frontman Vincent, their rise to fame and the peak of their career as it intersects with another rising band Mood Violet and its lead singer Sylvana.
The second timeline follows journalist Eddie Bracknell whose goal is to figure out how this punk band, at the peak of the career fell apart when Vincent eloped with Sylvana, his subsequent disappearance and Sylvana’s suicide. Bracknell tracks down former bandmates, lovers, friends, fellow writers and band managers to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Unsworth, being a music journalist herself, fills the pages of this book with nostalgia and plenty of references and odes to real-life musicians and bands. By the end of this riveting page-turner, you’ll want to belt out “God save the queen, we mean it maaaan.”
Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra was not much of a whodunnit considering the villain dies right at the beginning. The thrill comes from joining the dots of what led to the crime, while a time bomb ticks towards a worse situation that our protagonist needs to stop.
For a breath-holding narrative, read:
The Fourth Monkey by JD Barker
Barker takes on the serial killer trope with terrifying realism. But he also flips it, beginning the story with the death of the Four Monkey Killer who has been terrorising residents of Chicago. The hook here is that he isn’t killed by the police, it was an accident.
Detective Sam Porter, head of the 4MK task force realises that the killer died while on his way to deliver a message to the police, indicating that he has a victim trapped who may still be alive. They work against the clock to decipher the few clues left behind by the killer.
The key to unlocking this twisted mystery is probably the killer’s personal journal that Porter finds in the jacket of the deceased. Barker tells this story alternating between Porter’s investigation and horrifying diary entries of the killer about his crimes, childhood and more terrifying adulthood.
We’ve grown up hearing about three monkeys – hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil. But there’s a fourth monkey, do no evil. And it’s an ironic moniker for a serial killer. These principles play an integral role in the killer’s crimes that we learn through his journal entries.
You’ll find yourself flipping the pages while holding your breath as the clock winds down on the hunt for the surviving victim before it’s too late.
Complex female characters take the lead in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. A group of women held together and bonded by a traumatic incident, each with secrets and flawed personalities.
For more unlikely friends taking the lead, read:
Out by Natsuo Kirino
Out is as much a psychological thriller as it is a critique of patriarchal Japanese society. This crime novel borders on horror, and we must give a trigger warning for this book for the depiction of assault and violence against women.
Our protagonists Masako, Yoshi, Kuniko and Yayoi are a group of unassuming working class women on the night shift at a boxed lunch factory.
They’re ‘responsible’ wives, all coping with the micro-aggressions and traumas faced by women in low-income households. Even when there is back-stabbing, constant jabs and one-upmanship, they only have each other to call friends and companions in an unforgiving society.
They get caught up in a dark web of crime, gambling, loan sharks and the mafia. Starting with the murder of Kenji, Yayoi’s husband. They enter a pact, of sorts, of mutual destruction when they come together to dispose of the body. That’s when the Yakuza comes knocking on the door.
They make up a motley crew of flawed women on the brink of desperation getting entangled in a violent world of crime set into motion by a cover-up.
You can never go wrong with a locked-room mystery, and there’s probably none better than And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. A narrative style that’s a slow burn, where everyone is a suspect with their own hidden motives. And then comes the twist.
If you’re looking to solve another such mystery, read:
The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
What happens when you put a group of friends under one roof and lock the door? Well, murder wouldn’t be our first guess, but that’s what happens in The Hunting Party.
Seven college friends meet at a wilderness hunting lodge to ring in the new year together at a hunting lodge, a yearly tradition. Set against the wintry backdrop of the unforgiving Scottish Highlands, they’re snowed in and then you learn about a missing guest. The raging snowstorm means they’re cut off from the rest of the world, including police officers coming to their rescue.
We don’t know who died until much later in the narrative, but it’s clear to readers that one of the friends is the killer. The story goes back and forth between the celebrations and joviality before the ‘incident’ and the dark secrets that are revealed after. We start to see the fractures in their friendships. Everyone’s a suspect with a complex backstory and it’ll keep you guessing till the end.
Thomas Harris created a twisted symbiotic relationship between a serial killer and an investigator in The Silence of the Lambs.
Few have managed to come close to the impact of Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling’s relationship, if you could call it that. He’s helping her track down another killer, but you’re left guessing why he’s trying to get to know her in the process.
For a real-life version of The Silence Of The Lambs, read:
The Spider and the Fly by Claudia Rowe
Part true crime and part “twisted coming-of-age memoir “, The Spider and the Fly is a documentation of a four-year-long correspondence between young reporter Claudia Rowe and serial killer Kendall Francois.
Francois strangled eight female sex workers and stashed their bodies in the home he shared with his parents and sisters. Rowe gets fascinated with this case, wanting to understand how a seemingly simple and polite young man can commit such heinous crimes and in the process, gaining perspective on her own life and upbringing.
When she reaches out to Francois, he agrees to their correspondence but has one condition – it’s a quid pro quo relationship.
If you’re looking for gritty details of the crime, this book isn’t it. But it does show how a writer’s search for the meaning of evil in turn picks apart her own life.
While trying to figure out how someone can be both a functional human and a hateful killer at the same time, she ends up reflecting on her own actions and behaviours, and what separates the good from the bad.
Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan takes us to a futuristic world where rich people are practically immortal. You can transfer your consciousness into different bodies through spinal ‘stacks’ and travel to different planets with ease.
Takeshi Kovac, a former elite soldier turned rebel, is taken out of life imprisonment to investigate the death of a billionaire who died under mysterious circumstances. We’re left trying to figure out who. is the good guy and who is bad.
For a crime/sci-fi thriller read:
Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff
Jane Charlotte is arrested for murder and upon questioning, she shares that she works for an unknown organisation at the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons, also known as Bad Monkeys. Killing bad guys, in short. It’s a short trip to the psychiatric ward after that, where she’s further questioned. Because even if her claim is true, this particular victim wasn’t evil.
Through the interrogation, we learn about Jane’s recruitment into the organisation and the body count she’s racked up along the way.
There are sci-fi guns, clowns that kill and odd timelines, many of which are called out and fact-checked by the doctor interviewing her. It leaves you wondering what’s real and what’s not. Is Charlotte’s re-telling a reliable truth, is she playing a different game here or does she really belong in the psychiatric wing?
As a New York Times book review called it, this book is a “science-fiction mystery thriller (a trifecta of genres!)”.