Top 10 Psychological Thriller Books That Mess with Your Head

Nisal Prabashanaz
Read Time:5 Minute, 45 Second

Here we share our edit of the most exciting thriller books to come in 2020 & 2021, from historical crime thrillers to gripping psychological page-turners, the best thrillers of 2020, and the very best thriller novels of all time.

Halley Sutton, The Lady Upstairs

Sometimes publishers make this job easy: Sutton’s debut has praise from Elizabeth Little, Amy Gentry, and Layne Fargo (who discovered Sutton in the slush pile of Pitch Wars), which is the list of x’s I might have compiled in an “if you like x, then try y” about Sutton’s book. She has the knowledge and love for L.A. and noir bits of Little’s Pretty as a Picture, the cracking wise feminism of Gentry’s last book, Last Woman Standing, and the sultry atmosphere that made Fargo’s Tempera standout. The plot: Jo, a woman in Los Angeles who blackmails powerful sleazeballs for a living, is part of a crew run by the Lady Upstairs. A job gets complicated after her mark is found murdered, and Jo decides she wants out—but this is not a two weeks’ notice kind of job and the Lady is displeased. Come for the atmosphere; stay for the clever twists.

Cassidy Lucas, Santa Monica

When Claire is just seven years old, her teenage sister Alison vanishes while they are on holiday with their parents on the Carribean island Saint X. When Alison’s body is found days later two men are arrested, but the evidence is slim, and they’re later released without charge. As the story hits the tabloids, the lives of Claire and her parents are changed forever.

Years later, Claire is living in New York when she unwittingly gets into a taxi with one of the men accused of her sister’s murder. Sure this is fate, she engineers another meeting and begins an obsessive search for the truth. This moving, atmospheric novel has all the tension of a crime thriller novel as it hurtles towards a devastating end.

Emily m. Danforth, Plain Bad Heroines

Any book called a queer gothic has my attention, and Heroines also cleverly engages with the history of the novel as a corrupting force for women. If you’ve spent any time reading Samuel Richardson’s delightful rape romp Pamela and its offspring—basically, novels—you will recognize the territory Danforth is treading upon. In skewering the tradition of the novel and worries about the purity of its heroines—there were unlikeable women in novels since, well, Pamela—Danforth delivers a clever and refreshing book.

Alyssa Cole, When No One Is Watching

Cole is best known as a romance writer, but she’s been transitioning over to thrillers with a soupçon of romance. Her latest, When No One Was Watching, is a chronicle of Brooklyn gentrification (has anywhere else ever had such well-documented gentrification?). Native Sydney Green is watching her neighborhood get invaded by condos and condo-sized strollers (I made that second part up, but it’s true). When she finds herself getting involved with one of her new neighbors, a man named Theo, Sydney is suddenly stricken with panic and paranoia. Can she trust this newcomer? Does he have good intentions for the neighborhood and for Sydney, or is he playing a game she does not know?

Suzanne Rindell, The Two Mrs. Carlyles

Rindell is one of those talented writers who move between the crime fiction and literary worlds with style and ease: we should just invent a new category called literary crime fiction for the likes of Rindell, Sara Gran, James Sallis, Laura Lippman, Steph Cha, and Dennis Lehane (for starters). Her previous books, the Highsmith-Esque The Other Typist and the Rona Jaffe-Esque Three Martini Lunch, had crime fiction elements and were excellent straight-up novels. The same goes for The Two Mrs. Carlyles, set in San Francisco right after the 1906 earthquake, a perfect backdrop for a psychological thriller that I can’t recall encountering before (feel free to correct me if I overlooked something). From the title, a savvy reader might guess this is her Du Maurier-esque book, and she would be correct. Rindell is better than most of the writers compared to these oft-mentioned forerunners of domestic suspense: she’s a talented world-builder and an evocative writer who is not getting the praise she merits. Let’s help her out.

Ivy Pochoda, These Women

Pochoda is one of the bright young things of LA crime writing, along with Elizabeth Little, Steph Cha, Rachel Howzell Hall, and Joe Ide. Pochoda combines the diversity of her LA setting with well-drawn characters to give us a prismatic crime novel about five different women who live in the same general neighborhood near the sleaze and easy pleasures of Western Avenue (also, not coincidentally, where Pochoda lives). Despite their superficial differences, the five women—these women—all will be connected by a serial killer hunting in their neighborhood. Pochoda simultaneously reminds us that crime can thrive in our own backyards and that it will touch the lives of people who never should have met.

Jennifer Hillier, Little Secrets

It’s probably weird to say Jennifer Hillier is now my favorite crime writer about serial killers, but she is (well, in North America, since as long as Scot Val McDermid is writing Tony and Carol novels she will have a special place in my cold, black, shriveled little heart). Hillier has two formidable tricks as a writer: she is very good at finding and communicating her characters’ flaws, which is precisely the thing that makes them attractive victims. She also is very, very good at writing from the criminal’s point of view, so we see the victims not just from the narrator’s point of view but also as they are being stalked and attacked. Put those two talents together and you have a bang-up thriller every time, and Little Secrets is no exception.

Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa

My Dark Vanessa has extraordinary ambitions. It wants to be Lolita rewritten so the nymphet pulls the strings—or she thinks she does. Vanessa Wye was 15 years old when she had an affair with her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, a few years ago. She never imagined the affair was anything but consensual, though when it was discovered she was asked to leave her tony boarding school. It is not until she hears that Strane is having an affair with another student that she really examines the way he gaslighted, manipulated, and controlled her. Score one for the #MeToo movement; this is among the best crime fiction to emerge steeped those issues, from consent to grooming to what counts as sexual assault.

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