If you asked me my favourite genre, I wouldn’t have to think twice. I am all about thrillers. It doesn’t matter how many I’ve read, I’m still a really naive reader and don’t often see twists coming, which makes the whole experience very satisfying. Thrillers come in especially handy as a palate-cleanser after I’ve read something dark and heavy (for example, A Little Life), but, realistically, I would rather always be reading a thriller.
Not all thrillers were created equal, though, and some are much more thrilling than others. I never feel more cheated than when the promised thrill fails to materialise, and make a mental note never to trust the author again (except in one instance which I’ll come to, which I still regret). So, I figured it would be useful to do a little roundup of my fave thrillers, and the ones that left me cold.
If you have particular sensitivities or triggers, I have written content notes in white text below each book description which you can highlight to reveal. I thought this was a decent way to indicate themes that people may find difficult without having to give explicit details, and to a lesser extent, key plot details.
Thrillers I rate
Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn
Yes, the Gone Girl woman, except her far, far superior first novel. Slick, sick southern gothic, it’s dark, daring and extremely unexpected. I’ve read all Gillian Flynn’s novels, and this one really stands out as the most memorable and original, without the tricksiness of Gone Girl. It’s utterly unpredictable and totally absorbing, and makes you wonder where the hell she gets her ideas from.
Child abuse via Munchhausen’s by proxy
Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty
As much as I love wild, weird stuff like Sharp Objects, I really love the tense, believable accumulation of mistakes and events that compose Apple Tree Yard. It’s set in a London I can believe, populated by characters I understand, and builds to an unbelievably nerve-wracking conclusion. It brings up essential questions about respectability politics, being a woman, and the consequences of our actions. I read another of her novels (Whatever You Love) and was much less impressed. It felt less tight, too sprawling, not focused enough. Apple Tree Yard, to me, is perfect.
Rape, sexual violence
Disclaimer – Renee Knight
I did not expect to love Disclaimer as much as I did. When I read the plot, it sounded too much like a thriller I had read and hated (Her, by Harriet Lane, which I mention in the second half of this post), but I plunged into it none the less. It’s rescued from any comparisons to Her by being a thousand times more layered and intense and dark and sad and human. One reason I like thrillers is because they’re often so silly and fun that they give you emotional distance, but there’s something about Disclaimer that’s profoundly human and unsettling.
Rape, sexual violence
Irene / Alex – Pierre Lemaitre
Originally I was just going to mention Alex because I think it’s 100% great as opposed to Irene’s 80% great, before remembering that they are a series and just because I read the second book first, it doesn’t mean anyone else will want to. Basically: read Irene so that Alex doesn’t spoiler it for you, but also read Irene to get to Alex. Alex is outstanding. You wonder how the plot (which at first glance is ‘a girl locked in a room on her own to be eaten alive by rats) is going to be sustained after about 40 pages, but the way Pierre Lemaitre builds and sustains an extraordinary storyline with meticulously fleshed-out characters is amazing. Ignore the rubbish cover.
Childhood sexual abuse
A Place of Execution – Val McDermid
I read this while I was a teenager and have thought about it often since then. It’s probably my single favourite thriller. Although I prefer single-timeline stories because I am a Basic Bitch, the past and present timelines work so well in A Place of Execution. It’s of an average length (around 400 pages) but it has the scope and detail of a much longer book, taking in lives and histories and events motivated by entirely credible forces. Now I come to think of it, I think it’s what started off my long-standing love of thrillers. It’s pitch-perfect on human desperation, isolated communities and an inability to forget.
Childhood sexual abuse
The Book Of You – Claire Kendal
The Book of You creates an effect not dissimilar to claustrophobia. It’s chest-tightening, palm-sweating, nausea-inducing. Even if you’ve never experienced anything as extreme as what takes place in this book, I can’t imagine many women who wouldn’t identify with the utterly gendered fear that permeates it. The antagonist is an utter monster while being totally believably human. The kind of absolute creep that we’ve all known and warned our friends against. Chilling.
This section, on thrillers I hated, gives much more detail on plot, so if you’re going to read them, I would recommend skipping my descriptions for a spoiler-free experience.
Thrillers I hate
Her – Harriet Lane
This is the worst thriller I’ve ever read, and I hated it with every fibre of my being. Although it was initially promising and not badly, written, the ending is so extraordinarily bad that it’s unforgivable. The story is about a woman who sees someone from her past, becomes obsessed with her, starts stalking her up to the point where she tries to murder her kid. Why, you might ask? Because her dad flirted with this girl shortly before her parents split up. They didn’t bang. She didn’t run off with him. That’s it. Imagine you’ve invested time and energy in reading a whole book and discover at the end that it’s all built on the fact that the protagonist is a weird little brat. Imagine reading Her.
Daughter – Jane Shemilt
Daughter is another one that I can’t contemplate recommending since the ending is so bad, but it doesn’t even have the decent writing of Her. It’s frustratingly thin, both in terms of writing and plot. It has moments and turns that are memorable, but overall it’s just a whole lot of nothing. It’s not menacing, it’s not scary, it’s not thrilling, it’s not sad. It’s just pointless. Pointless like the conclusion being that she ran away to live on a caravan park.
The Secret Place – Tana French
I’ve read three Tana French thrillers and found only one even partially satisfying. Her books are much too long, and contain so few thrills and surprises that the length is inexplicable. The Secret Place felt particularly flat. I find hardly anyone can write teen/preteen characters convincingly, and Tana French is no exception. The conclusion is really underwhelming, undramatic and I can’t say I would recommend it to anyone at all.
Before We Met – Lucie Whitehouse
This really feels like psychological-thriller-by-numbers. I found very little original material here, which I know is a tall order at this point in the history of literature, but at least when I see derivative stuff it’s often reworked in an engaging way. This isn’t. The writing is fine, but it’s utterly predictable and not particularly exciting. Makes you wonder why bother writing a thriller in the first place. I recently read a similar book to this, which did it about 1,000 times better and I would strongly recommend with a content note for domestic violence, which is I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh.
I don’t know if you noticed anyway, but all but one of these were written by women. Even though I would rather read books by women in general, I’m an equal-opportunities reader. It just happens that women are much better at writing thrillers than men. Why? I don’t know, but I suspect that women are more in tune with the many, many ways there are to be scared, people there are to be scared of, and ways you can be hurt.