Okay, let me be upfront with you right away: crime novels and I do not get along. There’s just something about the traditional crime/thriller/mystery format of following a detective around, trying to suss out whodunnit that inspires nothing in me but the need to doze off. So, when I find one where the premise intrigues me even a little, I jump at the chance to potentially find a thriller I’ll fall in love with. avoidant
Now, I know what you’re gonna say. ‘But if you know you don’t like them why do you bother picking something up you know you probably won’t enjoy?’ And yes, sometimes this is as big a failure as you’d probably expect but every so often I find myself completely enthralled and asking myself, “Um, excuse me, remind me again why you don’t read more thrillers?”
Here are just a few of the crime, mystery and thriller books that well and truly shattered my expectations. There are three Young Adult picks and three Adult ones, with a few familiar titles as well as some lesser-knowns. Whether you’re thriller obsessed or a self-proclaimed “hater” like me, hopefully there will be one here that catches your attention.
The Young Adult picks…
The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe
It’s okay, you don’t have to pretend to be shocked to see this one here. I’m aware I’ve probably talked about this book more than enough for a lot of you at this point but honestly? IT IS SO GOOD. We follow Nora O’Malley, the daughter of a con-artist who, despite escaping her old life, can’t quite seem to leave it behind her. When she finds herself, her current girlfriend and her ex-boyfriend-turned-best-friend as hostages in a bank robbery Nora realises has to call on all the experiences from her past in order to get the people she loves out alive.
I do already have a full, spoiler free, 5 star review up for this one from a little while ago so I won’t blab too much here but so far this is still my favourite book I’ve read in 2021. The way we jump between flashbacks to Nora’s childhood, important points in her histories with Iris and Wes and the present events of the robbery, paired with one of my favourite uses of the found-family trope I’ve seen to date, made this book completely unputdownable. If you’re looking for a whirlwind thriller with an unreliable main character or you’re still breathless after finishing Sadie, this is the one for you.
CW: I will once again direct you to the full list of trigger warnings compiled by the author.
Crossing The Line by Gillian Philip
Nick Geddes’ life is in pieces — his younger sister’s boyfriend has been killed (yet she still speaks to him everyday…) and the boy’s older sister blames Nick for his death. This one is actually the first thriller I ever read, I borrowed it from my high school library when I was in Year Nine and then begged my mum to get me copy when I had to return it. I’m well overdue a reread at this point but I just remember being absolutely enthralled by it.
I don’t know that you can necessarily call this one a thriller as the actual crime in this story has actually already taken place before the main plot starts. It’s more about the aftermath of this tragic event, the impact on the families affected and trying to piece together our main characters’ involvement in what happened. Even though it’s been a good few years since I picked it up, I remember the voices of our central characters so clearly — I will not rest until Shuggie has his own spin-off — and the skill with which humour and tragedy were interwoven. I’m not sure this one as widely available as it once was but if you can track down a copy (or you have a kindle) it is so worth it.
CW: child death, knife crime, trauma, hallucination.
Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher
Another one I read when I was a teen, potentially even the year it came out — god, was 2012 that long ago? This next one follows our teen protagonist Zoe as she recounts the story of her boyfriend’s death and all its secrets to the only person she knows she’s safe to: her pen pal, a Texas Death Row inmate. Now, if that doesn’t intrigue you as much as it did me, I don’t know what to tell you.
I don’t know why there aren’t more mystery/thrillers told in an epistolary format because the use of the letters in this was brilliant. Our protagonist remains anonymous to her pen pal and there’s a really interesting power dynamic as she knows all about his life and the events that put him on death row whereas her own secrets are revealed to him in pieces. Definitely more on the mystery side than a thriller but still a really good read and one that I still find myself recommending on a weekly basis despite it’s age. I’ve also read My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece by this author which was another phenomenal story and I’d really like to read the rest of her backlist at some point too.
CW: murder, death.
The Adult picks…
If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
You’ve probably seen this book recommended a million times at this point but I am here to tell you that it is worth the hype. Oliver Marks has just been released from prison after serving 10 years for a crime he may or may not have committed. He recounts the story of his third year at arts college for the elite, during which one of his fellow thespian classmates is found dead. Told in two timelines, we follow both the seven Shakespeare students as these tragic events play out around them and present day Oliver as he tells his story to the Detective who put behind bars.
I actually buddy-reread this one last year with a bunch of friends and I cannot believe I forgot how much adore this story. These characters mean the absolute world to me and the intricacies of their relationships make for such a tense and engaging read. Even though you know that one of them will die, it’s still so shocking when the details are revealed and seeing the different ways it affects the rest of our players. I think a lot of people have put this one off because of the inclusion of the Shakespeare element, but I would argue that the quotes and speeches are blended in such a way that it never feels pretentious or ‘high-minded’, only adds depth to the story as a whole. I know Cait over at Tea Time Lit is a huge fan of this one and has a spotlight post in the works, so make sure you keep and eye out for it later in the year. Until then, I cannot recommend it enough.
CW: Death, depression, disordered eating, homophobia, murder, PTSD, self-harm, slut shaming, substance abuse and overdose, mentions of suicide, violence.
Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton
From a book with all the hype, to one that deserves so much more than it gets. Set over the course of (you guessed it) 3 hours, this books follows the events of a school shooting in an unassuming small town. It jumps betweens the perspectives of the students and staff inside the school, the hostage negotiator stationed outside and a mother desperately trying to find out if her child is safe.
I can honestly say I have not stopped thinking about this book since the moment I put it down. Between the social commentary, the use of real life newspaper headlines and tweets and the fact that, in 320 pages, we only had one chapter from the gunman’s perspective, Three Hours completely blew me away. If you’ve read Fredrik Backman’s Beartown, I think this is one you would definitely enjoy. There are so many perspectives spread across the school’s grounds and Lupton somehow makes you feel as if you know every single person in that building. I know I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time, and I hope even more people pick it up because it deserves all of the love.
CW: School shooting, child endangerment, murder, death, hostage situation, Islamophobia, PTSD related to war/refugee experiences.
You by Caroline Kepnes
Another super hyped up book — and one that I think maybe won’t be for everyone? — but for me, this was the first thriller I read that just instantly clicked. Joe is working his usual bookstore shift when he meets beautiful aspiring writer, Beck. He quickly becomes obsessed with her, tracking her down and orchestrating a series of events that he’s sure will paint him as her perfect man. And it works. Soon enough he’s fully inserted himself into her life, but Beck is blissfully unaware he’s been taking out every obstacle that stands in their way, by any means necessary.
I think the creepiest thing about this book — apart from society’s complete and utter lack of concern for privacy when it comes to social media and the fact that our narrator is a stalker — is the similarities between Joe’s personality, wit and charm when he’s around Beck and every twenty something in a romance novel. The way he plants himself into her life, appearing to her to be by complete chance, has me thinking: if this book were from Beck’s POV it would probably be a fantastic New Adult romance novel and that thought alone terrifies me. If you’ve still yet to pick this one up I definitely recommend it over watching the show.
CW: Stalking, emotional manipulation, explicit sexual content, sexual violence and sexual assault.
I really hope this helped you to maybe find your next thriller read! Please let me know if you have any recommendations in the comments because I am always looking to add to this list.
Lots of love,