In Ruth Ware’s twisty thriller In a Dark, Dark Wood, homebody mystery novelist Nora Shaw receives a fateful invitation: Clare, a high school friend she hasn’t seen in a decade, is having a bachelorette weekend at an isolated cabin in the woods. Two days after she arrives at the cabin, Nora awakens in a hospital room, with a policeman standing guard outside her door. What happened in the woods that she can’t seem to recall? Why did Clare want to rekindle their abruptly broken friendship after all those years? And is the police officer protecting her…or keeping her in?
After you read Ware’s debut, the perfect page-turner for the waning days of summer, give these books a try, the author’s own top 10 in psychological thrill rides.
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
I know, I know, I’m only the 1,034th person to recommend this book to you. But it’s just really really good. Toxic marriage, exuberantly nasty characters, twisty plot—what’s not to like?
Endless Night, by Agatha Christie
Christie is often (undeservedly, in my view) dismissed as a purveyor of cosy stories about twee detectives, but Endless Night is one of her genuinely creepy and disturbing standalone novels. With a truly shocking twist and a chilling ending, this story of two newlyweds building their dream home may surprise readers more familiar with Marple and Poirot.
We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart
While it was published as young adult, readers of any age will be gripped by this slow, hypnotic tale of a monied, uptight New England family, and the weight of a secret that unfolds with shocking violence.
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
I’m not 100% sure Rebecca qualifies as a thriller, given it’s three parts screwed-up love story and two parts ghost-story-without-a-ghost, but the mystery at the heart of the novel is what happened to Maxim’s first wife, the eponymous Rebecca, and it’s unravelled with the pacing and finesse of the finest psychological thrillers out there. Add to that a cast of unreliable characters and a distinctly uneasy ending—has our narrator experienced the ultimate gaslighting?—and you have a genuinely shivery story of a marriage so screwed up, it makes Flynn’s narrators look like honeymooners.
Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey
From Martin Guerre to Frederick Bourdin, tales of imposters have always chilled and intrigued. Josephine Tey imagines the story of a con man slipping into the shoes of a long-dead boy and laying claim to his share of their modest family inheritance. What makes it compelling is that the story is seen through the eyes of the trickster, and our sympathy for him, in spite of what he’s doing, grows in tandem with the realization that he’s not the only threat to the family’s safety.
The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
I’m not sure if there’s an agreed-upon “first” psychological thriller, but Collins surely has a claim with The Woman in White, a twisty, gothic tale of mistaken identity and deception that was so popular in Victorian England it inspired perfume and clothing lines in tribute.
Before I Go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson
Watson draws on the same nightmare as the film Memento—a protagonist trapped in the prison of their own memory—but with very different results and back story. Christine wakes up every morning with her memory wiped and has to relearn her face, her life, and her husband afresh each day. But as she struggles to piece together the jigsaw of her past, she starts to suspect that some fragments are missing…
We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
Eva Khatchadourian is often criticized for being an unbearably unlikable narrator, and certainly at times, in spite of its page-turning urgency, the novel can be tough to read for that reason. But it’s the reader’s ambivalence to Eva that has made it such a hot potato for discussion of all kinds. Is Eva’s son, Kevin, innately evil? Or is Eva trying to exculpate her own guilt? This is in no way a whodunit, but the narrative twist in the final pages is carried off with great style.
The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters
Like Rebecca, this is a novel that isn’t always categorized in the psychological thriller section—it’s just as often called a ghost story, or a historical novel. However, it certainly fulfills the “psychological” part, as the once-wealthy inhabitants of Hundreds Hall, the Ayres, are slowly unravelled by the strange events taking over their lives. Like Henry James with The Turn of the Screw, Waters never comes down fully on one side or the other, leaving the reader to make up their own mind about the disintegration of the Ayres family. It’s a truly haunting story in whatever sense you choose to take it.
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
Although we know from the first pages what crime has been committed, right down to the narrator’s own involvement, Tartt’s skill is to draw us inexorably into a world as tinged with nostalgic pain as Brideshead Revisited, and keep us there, desperate to understand the how, the why, and the consequences of what happens.
Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood is out now.