Though as readers we try our best to keep an open mind, we have a confession. We admit it, it’s a dirty word to us: genre fiction. That said, when we were breathlessly devouring Tana French’s newly-released Broken Harbor , we were struck by something: the power of a well-written, perfectly plotted, tightly-wound literary thriller. While the “t” word might throw off some high-minded snobs (admittedly, us), there’s absolutely nothing wrong in delighting in a great book that is, well, thrilling. As an entry point, we’ve gathered some of our favorite recent literary thrillers here, for your perusal. Note that we set the guideline of “recent” (so, please, no “where’s Agatha Christie?”), we chose not to focus on true crime (though we did have to make one exception), and that we highly recommend all of these. Also note that we don’t recommend starting any of them before bedtime.
Tana French, Broken Harbor
Everything Tana French touches turns to thrilling, nightmare-creating gold. In The Woods became an instant thriller classic, and every other entry into her “Dublin Murder Squad” series has been just as good, if not better. Broken Harbour puts detective Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy (ridiculous name, but stay with us) and his new partner, rookie Richie, on what seems like an open-and-shut, albeit grizzly, murder. It appears standard: husband kills wife and family and then himself. Things get incredibly strange very quickly, though as they discover random holes in the walls of the family’s house being videotaped, and, in a reddit-ish plot twist, increasingly unhinged forum posts from the father. Broken Harbor is the great writing nightmares are born from.
Franck Thilliez, Syndrome E
If you couldn’t handle The Ring, stop here with this selection and move on. We won’t be mad. Syndrome E may actually be more terrifying in concept than The Ring, because it’s grounded in fact. A man acquires a bevy of old films from a yard sale, watches an unlabeled one, and goes blind. Somehow, this is connected to a trail of international murders involving in which the corpses have their heads cut open and the brains/eyes removed. As Inspector Franck Sharko and detective Lucie Hennebelle travel around the world to piece seemingly unconnected events together, they unravel an authentically terrifying piece of history that time forgot. Your every sense will be disturbed. And you’ll love it.
Richard Lloyd Parry, People Who Eat Darkness
This is the one exception to the “no true crime” rule of this post. The full title of the book is People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo — and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up , and that about sums it up. When Lucie Blackman disappeared in Tokyo in 2000, she descended into the deepest, darkest parts of the city’s underground. Journalist Richard Lloyd Parry embarked on a discovery for truth in the case, and in doing so created a stunningly bizarre and frightening account of how a person can simply vanish into hell.
Stieg Larsson, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
While you’re shedding your genre prejudices, go ahead and toss your mass-market prejudices with them. Larsson’s ubiquitous Millennium Trilogy deserves the acclaim, if only for the awesome character of Lisbeth Salander. Just don’t ask our opinion on the American film.
Emily St John Mandel, The Lola Quartet
We’re going to posit something: Emily St John Mandel is secretly a thriller author. The Lola Quartet, like Mandel’s first two novels, works with a quiet kind of passion. Disgraced, laid-off journalist Gavin Sasaki retreats to Florida to live with his sister and, in the process, re-encounters his long-lost high school girlfriend Anna, their apparent child, and their on-the-run life from drug lords. As in all of Mandel’s novels, there’s no truly “happy ending,” merely characters drifting seamlessly into their assigned places in Mandel’s fever dream of a world.
Laura Lippman, What The Dead Know
Laura Lippmann is well-known amongst mystery and thriller readers as an absolute must. The writing in her books featuring her beloved Tess Monaghan character is wound and compelling, a piece of art wrapped in a codex. We have a little trouble digging into ongoing series, though, so our money’s on What The Dead Know, Lippman’s first stand-alone novel. When a long-closed case of two sisters disappearing comes back into play as a car accident victim claims to be one of them, it unlocks a chain of events in which Lippman juxtaposes past and present in a remarkable way. It’s the sort of “then-and-now” writing that very few authors can pull off without being jarring or choppy, but What The Dead Know flows like black water.
Sophie Hannah, Little Face
We’re really surprised that when we mention this book to people, the majority of the time the response is “Who is Sophie Hannah?” Vital, that’s who. Your assignment is to read every single thing she’s written (her work is so compelling and thrilling you can do it in a weekend if you stop watching Hulu), starting with her debut novel, Little Face. The premise is simple: a mother comes home one day to find out her child has been replaced with another one.
Yeah, you won’t be sleeping ever again.
Donna Tartt, The Secret History
Oh ho, there, see, you do like thrillers! If you’ve never read The Secret History, you’re in for a debauched treat. Long story short, Tartt’s classic is about when happens when a liberal arts education goes terribly wrong. Just kidding. Actually not kidding. We all killed someone with our group of friends while getting our B.A., right? Right?
Benjamin Black, Christine Falls
Benjamin Black, aka John Banville, must have buckets of fun writing about Quirke, his lovably surly pathologist protagonist, and he brings that joy to the way he paints the Dublin cityscapes and pastures in with varying shades of subtle tones. All of the Benjamin Black books are a macabre joy to devour, so start here, at the beginning.
Lauren Grodstein, A Friend Of The Family
Not technically a “thriller” in the traditional sense, but borrowing that genre’s breathless, adrenaline-fueled writing style and superimposing it on a family drama, A Friend Of The Family is wrecking. Everything is right for Pete Dizinoff: he has a wonderful family and wife, a good job, a lot of friends. But when one of those friends’ daughter sets her sights on his son, his pride-and-joy and on whom he’s pinned all of his hopes for the future, Pete decides to stop the romance at any cost. This is a modern, suburban Falling Down that will leave you unsettled to your core.
Derek Nikitas, The Long Division
Derek Nikitas first novel, the Edgar-award nominee Pyres , was delicious and disturbing, but there was a slight fantastical element near the end that didn’t sit quite right with us. The Long Division, though, is perfect. Nikitas juggles a myriad of threads, with a housekeeper stealing from her employer and making off to find her long lost son, a SUNY student tries to find a friend’s missing sister, and a police officer struggling with his dying wife all converging with and collapsing away from one another like a spider’s web until the explosive end. If there is a god, pray he has the omnipotence of Derek Nikitas.