E. Lockhart’s jaw-dropper of a novel We Were Liars is out today—and it’s one of those books you should read right away, before someone spoils the ending for you. It’s a book you’ll find yourself reading quickly, way past your bedtime. And to help keep you up for nights to come, Lockhart has recommended her favorite novels of suspense—books that surely influenced the twists and turns of the We Were Liars ride.
The best suspense novels are not escapist.
My favorites catch me up intellectually. I like a puzzle. I adore unstable heroes and sudden plot twists. Most important, I like a thriller that triggers emotion—not just fear but despair, curiosity, and awe.
We Were Liars is the first of my books that could be called a suspense novel. It’s set on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts, where a brilliant, damaged young woman tries to uncover the secrets her family is hiding about the mysterious events of an accident that happened two summers ago, after which her first real love affair fell apart. Writing it, I read and reread a lot of novels where the writer’s sleight of hand is masterful. Here are my top picks:
Patricia Highsmith was always more interested in the warped mind of the criminal than the logical mind of the investigator. Her most famous book, The Talented Mr. Ripley, has several monster plot twists and invests the reader in the heart and brain of a disturbed young man. It also unpacks the follies of privileged rich Americans through the eyes of an outsider who has one foot in their world.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club has an everyman narrator, very relatable in his feelings of fear and frustration—until you realize he is far more complicated than you could possibly have imagined. The plot twist had me literally jumping up and down; I was so elated by it. I’d tell you more, but the “first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.”
Before I Go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson, is an amnesia novel. The heroine forgets everything about her life, every night—a total erasure—but when she begins keeping a journal she suspects her caring husband is not all he seems. I love the way Watson conveys the sense of claustrophobia and isolation amnesia might create, and the way a story conceit became an opportunity for an incredibly creative structure.
Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane, is set on a desolate island that houses a facility for the treatment of the criminally insane. Things there have gone very seriously wrong. Lehane’s hero and his narrator are two different people—and neither is telling you all he knows. It’s an unbelievable trick to pull off, and the ending will absolutely wreck you.
The isolated setting of Shutter Island is a classic device used by suspense novelists. The first such novel I read was Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None—a masterpiece of classic crime fiction and arguably the world’s best-selling mystery. (It was originally published under two other titles.) Christie’s book takes place on a tiny holiday island off the coast of Devon—and someone is committing murder after murder, until there’s almost no one left. I love the feeling of isolation Christie creates, and the idea of a place where the conventional rules of behavior might not apply.
Alex Garland’s The Beach uses the a variation on that scenario—a remote bit of land—but Garland makes his isolated Thai beach so gorgeous you never want to leave, even after you see the horrors that underlie the idyll.
For true crime, I love Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt because of its wonderful sense of atmosphere. You can feel the sweat of those southern nights and hear the lilt of people’s voices—and as you go deeper and deeper into the world, you uncover layers you never suspected were there.
Happy reading and many chills.