30 Thriller Books That Will Keep You on the Edge of Your Seat
Looking to add the best thriller books to your to-be-read pile? Look no further than this mix of the newest mysteries and psychological thrillers along with all-time classic crime novels.
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Psychological thriller books: From the brainteasing to the terrifying
Our updated canon of psychological thrillers and crime novels contains exciting new titles from writers of diverse backgrounds and perspectives to go along with many all-time classics of the genre. With 30 of the best thriller books on your TBR shelf, you’ll spend the whole of 2021 perched on the edge of your seat. Some of these picks are thoroughly modern, while others are compelling historical fiction books, and still others rank among the scariest books ever written. But they’re all books everyone should read in their lifetime. You just might not want to read them when you’re home alone! If you need something a little lighter after your journey into this genre, check out this list of the funniest books of all time next.
These Women by Ivy Pochada
This gorgeously written crime novel is about a neighborhood serial killer, but more than anything, it’s a story of female empowerment and social change. Five women—a dancer, mother, police officer, artist, and wife—who, like far too many women today and throughout history, are forced to live their lives following countless unspoken rules, none of which they were allowed to have a hand in making. They do this to stay alive, but a pair of murders are bringing their facade of safety to its knees. Proving that you actually can sometimes judge a book by its cover, These Women is an evocative read.
The Diviners Series by Libba Bray
This four-book series paints a haunting picture of 1920s America, from the explosive growth of New York City to the horrors of the eugenics movement. It has so many parallels to today’s politics and societal struggles that you’ll cringe while falling in love with the diverse characters and sly humor. At its heart, though, is a thrilling tale of reckoning with a flawed nation’s bloody past as it hurtles toward a bright future still being dreamed up.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
The New York Times says My Sister, the Serial Killer is less a murder mystery and more a study in the strange complexity of sibling bonds, adding that as far as the best thriller books go, it’s a bombshell of a read—sharp, explosive, and also hilarious. Braithwaite employs short, rhythmic chapters to march you along as if a drumbeat is propelling your page-turning, all while inching you closer to the edge of your seat as this stunning story reveals itself and you discover if blood is truly thicker than water.
Lakewood by Megan Giddings
In this provocative debut and one of the best thriller books of 2021, you will be confronted with not only horrors but also moral dilemmas as you reckon with the true underbelly of America’s dark past. This is because, in crafting a thrilling fictional tale, Giddings pulls from real-life nightmares, namely the experimentation on and exploitation of black bodies in the name of science. You’ll likely read Lakewood quickly, be enthralled, and come away with questions that need answering, and if so, this glorious work of psychological fiction has done its job.
Bluebird by Attica Locke
Locke (a former writer and producer on Empire) has said of the first in her Highway 59 series that it’s “a love letter to Black Texans.” This noir novel is a thriller set in East Texas that marinates in America’s troubled past and still-precarious present, using the unique locale, as well as the modern struggles of race, to deliver a fictional take on a man who doesn’t belong and whose world is crumbling around his feet. If you love thriller books, you’ve probably already read some Attica Locke. Don’t miss these other books by Black authors you’ll want to know about.
Don’t Turn Around by Jessica Barry
This controversial thriller explores the Me Too movement, cancel culture, reproductive rights, and White male extremism. Without a doubt, this book is very much of the moment and cuts close to the bone for anyone who has suffered through years of gaslighting, misogyny, and “boys will be boys” excuse-making for horrendous behavior perpetrated against them. This suspenseful novel unfurls on a desolate road in New Mexico as two women are hunted by an unknown killer. In the process, secrets are revealed and a delicate trust must be forged by women who have had their confidence abused in the past. This heart-pounding adventure will leave you breathless.
The Order by Daniel Silva
Don’t miss any of Daniel Silva’s novels featuring Gabriel Allon, an art restorer and former Israeli assassin. The most recent, The Order, came out in 2020 and kicks into gear after the pope dies suddenly. After Allon is summoned to Rome, he finds that there’s a long-suppressed gospel questioning the accuracy of the New Testament. What follows is a thrilling tale of a shadowy Catholic society, the European far-right, and a plot to seize control of the papacy with a final twist you won’t see coming.
People Like Her by Ellery Lloyd
In this suspenseful thriller that only could have been written in the 21st century, a social media star and digital influencer mom who makes a mint monetizing family life and is the focus of millions of fans faces a threat to her actual life by one madman. This thoroughly modern novel explores the darker side of influencer culture, the IRL dangers of exposing too much of yourself and your kids online, and our desperate need to be seen, validated, and appreciated. If you ever wanted to be a celebrity, this debut psychological thriller from the husband-and-wife writing team of Collette Lyons and Paul Vlitos, aka Ellery Lloyd, will probably end that fantasy.
The Lost Man by Jane Harper
While Harper’s newest, The Survivors, was just released, it’s her 2019 novel that will stay with you the longest. One of the best thriller books in recent times, The Lost Man uses place as a living, breathing character more than any book published over the past few years. The arid, atmospheric Australian Outback plays as big a role, though the two brothers ultimately get top billing. When one turns up dead, a series of family secrets become the heart of this masterfully written literary thriller. Here are more of the best fiction books to read this year—in every genre.
The Whisper Man by Alex North
In this suspenseful novel, a father moves himself and his son to a new town after the death of his wife. Unbeknownst to the pair, a serial killer ravaged this same town 20 years earlier. He was called the Whisper Man because kids would tell their parents of a person creepily whispering to them outside their window, and soon after, they’d go missing. Although the killer is still locked up, another child has gone missing, the son is being whispered to, and the old case is reopened with fears that there was an accomplice to the original killings. This haunting thriller, with a father and son navigating their grief at its core, uses a variety of perspectives to paint a terrifying picture that will have you on the edge of your seat until the very end.
The Burning Girls by C. J. Tudor
A female vicar and her daughter are sent, without their desire or request, to a small English town full of horrific secrets in C. J. Tudor’s newest thriller. Hundreds of years earlier, this town burned eight of its own people at the stake. Then, 30 years ago, two locals girls went missing, and just before their arrival, the church’s vicar hung himself. In this roller coaster of unexpected twists, you will be shocked over and over again as the mysterious town and its suspicious people reveal themselves in ways you’ll never see coming.
The Chalk Man by C. J. Tudor
Tudor is a master of the psychological thriller, so much so that even Stephen King told his loyal readers, “If you like my stuff, you’ll like this,” so she has earned a second mention on our list of the best new thriller books. Set in the mid-1980s, this book starts with a group of kids trying to get through a boring summer by writing one another secret messages for fun—stick figures drawn in chalk. When the friends all get the same chalk-man message sending them into the woods, they find the body of a teenage girl, and then the story hurtles us into the present day. Though they’re no longer in touch as adults, they all receive a new chalk message one day. Now, the group is reunited and a whole new terrifying situation is set in motion. Trust us when we say that The Chalk Man is one of the most haunting stories you’ll ever read. If you love delving into the stuff of nightmares, take a look at this list of the best scary podcasts.
The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson
The Darkness is an atmospheric thriller that brings you into the Icelandic cold to tell the tale of a Detective Inspector who is forced into early retirement but allowed two final weeks on the force and her choice of any cold case to investigate. She selects the murder of a Russian immigrant only to find a deeper and even more mysterious layer to the original case. As she attempts to solve why another woman went missing around the same time, the detective finds herself battling her own peers and racing against the clock, which inches closer to her deadline.
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Set in the City of Brotherly Love, the fourth and latest novel by Philadelphia resident Liz Moore aims its literary lens on a pair of sisters and the bond, connectivity, and eternal love within those delicate relationships. Mickey is a single mom and a cop who patrols a neighborhood decimated by the opioid crisis. When Mickey’s sister, who struggled with addiction and life on the streets, goes missing, Moore deftly shuttles between scenes from the sisters’ childhood and the present-day mystery at hand. Having been named one of President Barack Obama’s favorite books, a best book by NPR, and translated into 18 languages to date, Long Bright River is as compassionate as it is thrilling—a true work of beautiful, heartbreaking art.
The Circle by Dave Eggers
This is a 21st-century, seat-of-your-chair thriller that’ll make you think about where we are as a society and where we could be headed in the future. Set inside the biggest social media company on Earth, this novel pits the idealism of a single person against the ambitions of a corrupt system. You’ll likely start asking more questions about privacy, democracy, and corporate and political transparency, and maybe even delete your Facebook account when you’re finished it. Here are the surprising books every teen should read before they graduate high school.
The Stand by Stephen King
Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic novel is an undisputed classic. And because it focuses on a strand of a virus that can wipe out 99 percent of the world’s population, it’s one of the best thriller books that’s more eerily familiar now than when it was originally published, when the master of horror released a longer, “uncut” version in 1990, or when the paperback incarnation arrived in the summer of 2012. Terrifying at any length and more terrifying today during a global pandemic, The Stand was made into a poorly received TV series at the end of 2020, but the book will keep you on the edge of your seat no matter when you read it. Here are some more of the best-selling books behind TV shows.
Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosley
This stand-alone mystery thriller follows Joe King Oliver, a brand-new character from a legendary author who has brought to life a number of favorites over the years, including Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill. Oliver is a Black man who served on the NYPD until his coworkers framed him for a crime. When we meet him, he’s out of Rikers Island and running a private detective agency with the help of his teenage daughter, Aja-Denise. Now tasked with solving a case about a Black journalist accused of killing a pair of corrupt cops, Oliver must also reckon with his own case and the dirty cops responsible for breaking him so many years ago—as well as keep his daughter and himself safe.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré
John le Carré is the quintessential espionage thriller writer. Set in East Germany, behind the just-built Berlin Wall during the Cold War, this rich tale still captivates with its spellbinding portrayal of the world of secret agents and spies. It features a desperate man using himself as the bait to catch and kill for revenge.
From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming
Ian Fleming started it all with James Bond and his arsenal of clever gadgets, some of which are not so far-fetched anymore. As you seek out the best new thriller books, it’s essential that you also read classics like these early James Bond titles (this is the fifth of the original 14 Bond books) to see how a master of the genre crafted a story that would go on to become a famous film franchise. This one involves a sexy Russian spy, the Orient Express, deadly assassins, and, of course, the dapper 007, so it’s no wonder it’s an all-time favorite.
The Good House by Tananarive Due
In The Good House, a fascinatingly modern and thoroughly topical take on the classic haunted house story, Angela Touissant is a Haitian-American who does battle with a mysterious evil that’s driving people to violence and suicide. At the same time, she must face, answer, and overcome her own questions and struggles with identity and belonging, making this not only a must-read psychological thriller but also a universally relatable tale for our time. Check out these great ways to read free books online.
The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
Long before the radio drama would shake audiences to their core, H. G. Wells pioneered thriller books, introducing this genre, unknown at the time, to worldwide acclaim. Involving a Martian invasion of Earth, this first-person sci-fi classic is moving, important, and beautifully told from the English countryside. If you love science fiction thriller books but haven’t read the one that spawned the entire genre, 2021 is the perfect year to do so.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
If you get your adrenaline rush from mind games rather than chase scenes, psychological suspense is for you. For sheer creepiness and terror, nothing beats Thomas Harris’ book that is every bit as thrilling as the Anthony Hopkins–led movie that once kept you up all night in fear. If you’re reading it for the first time, pro tip: Don’t read it alone or at night!
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
In The Ghost Bride—now a Netflix original series—Li Lan, a young woman living in colonial Malaya, is offered the chance to be a “ghost bride” for a wealthy family whose only son died unexpectedly. Soon, she finds herself entwined in terrifying and intriguing forces of the afterlife while also confronting feelings for the family’s living heir. Looking for more of a love story? Peruse this list of the 60 best romance novels of all time.
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
Featuring terrific characters, a deftly executed plot, and fascinating legal insight, this is the definitive legal thriller. Turow’s first novel still shines bright today because of the accuracy of its depiction of the inner workings of the legal system, which we learn about when a prosecuting attorney (played by Harrison Ford in the film adaptation) is assigned to the case of his murdered former colleague before becoming the lead suspect. Despite what’s considered a somewhat weak final twist, Presumed Innocent is beloved and helped launch the author’s career.
A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas
Yes, there are arguably too many Sherlock Holmes adaptations. This one, though, the first of Thomas’ The Lady Sherlock Series, features a genius “Sherlock” who’s a woman named Charlotte, and it’s written by a woman of color. In this historical mystery, Charlotte takes up the mantle of Detective Sherlock Holmes when her sister and father are blamed for a trio of murders. Instead of Watson, Charlotte has help from a kind-hearted widow, a police inspector, and a man who loves her. As she defies societal expectations to solve the case, you’ll find yourself hungry for more. Thankfully, the series has reached book 5, Murder on Cold Street, which was released last fall.
The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
Sure, he’s done dinosaurs and television emergency rooms, but Michael Crichton’s first novel under his own name, The Andromeda Strain, still ranks as one of the top science fiction thrillers of all time. Because, as we now know all too well, what could be scarier than microscopic killer germs running amok across the globe? While this novel involves a satellite that captured microorganisms from space capable of killing through nearly instantaneous blood clotting and not a virus transmitted by sneezing or breathing on someone, it still may be too close to home to read it right now.
The Little Death by Michael Nava
Henry Rios is an openly gay protagonist who’s a criminal defense lawyer in Michael Nava’s The Little Death, the first in the Henry Rios Mysteries series (the ninth volume of which, Lies with Man, was released in April). A perplexing new case draws him back into the fold when Hugh Paris comes to him insisting that his wealthy grandfather is plotting his murder—and then, shortly after, he winds up dead. Though his death is ruled an overdose, Rios suspects foul play and dives into San Francisco’s network of wealthy elite families and their secrets. Written in 1986 by a gay Latino man, this book was far ahead of its time, and the series continues to tell stories and feature characters too often ignored by the mainstream publishing industry. Here are more of the best LGBTQ+ books to read right now.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Yes, real life can be stranger than fiction, and true-crime thrillers prove this. The most famous book in this nonfiction genre is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The famed author spent months in the Midwest painstakingly retracing the steps of two young rural killers, and the result is one of the most legendary crime novels of all time. Follow up your reading of this classic by watching Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance as Capote in the eponymous film. Then tune in to these true crime podcasts you’ll want to binge on.
Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read
This novel set the gold standard for heroic survival stories, with this true tale of a rugby team from Uruguay whose plane crashes, resulting in an incredible 10-week physical and emotional ordeal. The true story of the 1972 crash was written by interviewing many of the survivors as well as the family members of the passengers and was told as is, without embellishment or exaggeration. When you read this thrilling account of perseverance and sacrifice, you’ll understand why nothing needed to be fictionalized. Next, check out more of the best nonfiction books of all time.