Ready for our list of the 11 best thriller books to read this summer?
As the days grow longer and the temperatures rise, it’s time to plan for those blissful hours of relaxation on the beach. Picture yourself lounging on the warm sand, the rhythmic crash of the waves in your ears, the salty breeze on your face, and a captivating thriller in your hand. Yes, summer is the perfect time to dive into those pulse-pounding, page-turning stories that make us forget everything around us. Just don’t forget the sunscreen.
Whether it’s a complex whodunit, a spine-chilling psychological thriller, or a high-stakes spy novel, a gripping story can transform your relaxing beach day into a roller-coaster ride of suspense and surprise.
This summer, we’ve curated a list of the best thriller books that are sure to keep you on the edge of your sun lounger. Slather on the SPF-50, put on your sunglasses, and prepare yourself for a deep dive into intrigue and suspense.
“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn is a crime thriller novel, published in 2012, that explores a troubled marriage. The story manipulates narrative perspective, presenting the story from the alternating viewpoints of the two protagonists, Nick Dunne and his wife, Amy Dunne.
The central plot revolves around the sudden disappearance of Amy, which occurs on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, and the subsequent suspicions that fall on Nick. The dual perspectives serve to disorient readers, as the narratives provided by both characters diverge from each other, creating a sense of unreliability and leading us to question their veracity.
“Gone Girl” is as much a social critique as it is a mystery, with Flynn using her characters and their relationship to explore societal expectations surrounding gender, marriage, and the media’s role in shaping public opinion.
The novel’s structure, featuring a significant twist, is a testament to Flynn’s storytelling prowess. The shocking turn of events forces readers to reevaluate everything they thought they knew about the characters and their motives. This switch disrupts the reader’s preconceived notions, adding an unexpected layer of complexity to the narrative and making “Gone Girl” an exhilarating psychological ride.
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is the first book in the “Millennium Trilogy” written by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. This thriller weaves together two narrative strands: the investigation into a 40-year-old cold case involving the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, and the journey of Lisbeth Salander, a socially marginalized computer hacker.
The novel shines in its dynamic characters, most notably Lisbeth Salander. She is a complicated figure with a challenging past, highly skilled with computers, fiercely independent, and unwilling to conform to societal norms. Her collaboration with Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist commissioned to solve the Vanger mystery, makes for an intriguing pairing. They share a mutual respect despite their radically different dispositions and worldviews.
Stieg Larsson’s fact-based storytelling style pays careful attention to investigative procedures. The mystery of Harriet Vanger’s disappearance unfolds in a way that engages the reader with numerous suspects and complex familial relationships.
The story doesn’t shy away from addressing dark and controversial societal issues, such as sexual violence, misogyny, and corruption. Consider the book a commentary on the abuse of power, both on an individual and institutional level.
The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
“The Girl on the Train” is a psychological thriller novel by Paula Hawkins, published in 2015. The story unfolds through the unreliable narration of three women: Rachel, Anna, and Megan, which provides a multifaceted view of the events and an intriguing exploration of memory, perception, and self-deception.
The central character, Rachel, is an alcoholic who suffers from blackouts and has lost her job and her marriage. She takes the same train every day, imagining the lives of a couple she sees from the window – “Jess and Jason” as she calls them, but who are actually named Megan and Scott. When Megan goes missing, Rachel believes she has witnessed crucial information but struggles to recall it, given her alcoholic blackouts.
The story’s strength lies in its exploration of the unreliable narrator. Rachel’s alcoholism, coupled with her desperation and loneliness, makes her credibility questionable, even as she strives to piece together her fragmented memories. This keeps the reader second-guessing her interpretations and revelations throughout the narrative, contributing to the book’s suspenseful atmosphere.
Hawkins examines themes such as domesticity, infidelity, and the masks individuals wear in public versus their private realities. The characters in “The Girl on the Train” are flawed, and through them, Hawkins probes the darker aspects of relationships and the devastating effects of maintaining appearances.
The Woman in the Window – AJ Finn
“The Woman in the Window” by A.J. Finn, a pseudonym for American author Daniel Mallory, is a psychological thriller published in 2018. This classic belongs on anyone’s list of best thriller books. The plot follows the protagonist, Dr. Anna Fox, who is dealing with agoraphobia as a result of a traumatic incident. Anna confines herself to her New York City home, observing her neighbors from her window and becoming obsessed with the seemingly perfect Russell family across the street.
Anna is a heavy drinker and takes medication for her condition, which leads to her suffering from hallucinations and memory loss. When she witnesses what she believes to be a crime in the Russell’s home, her reliability is called into question, not only by other characters in the novel but by Anna herself. This imbues the narrative with a constant sense of doubt and suspense.
A.J. Finn’s writing style is particularly effective in conveying Anna’s mental and emotional state. The narrative is laced with elements of film noir and classical suspense cinema, reflecting Anna’s interest in old movies and aligning the novel’s atmosphere with the suspense and tension of the films she watches.
“The Woman in the Window” explores themes of isolation, paranoia, and mental health, with Anna’s agoraphobia both literally and symbolically representing her feelings of confinement and helplessness. The narrative offers an examination of trauma and its lasting impacts on an individual’s life.
The Silence of the Lambs – Thomas Harris
“The Silence of the Lambs” is a psychological thriller by Thomas Harris, published in 1988. It’s the second novel featuring his iconic character, Hannibal Lecter, and it also introduces FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who seeks Lecter’s help to catch a serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill.”
A masterful blend of horror and crime, the story is rooted in its exploration of the psyche of its two main characters – Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is a forensic psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer, while Starling is an ambitious young woman trying to advance in the male-dominated world of the FBI. Their intellectual and psychological interactions form the core of the novel, establishing a unique and complex dynamic that shapes the narrative.
The central theme in “The Silence of the Lambs” is the exploration of evil – personified by Lecter and Buffalo Bill. Both characters offer contrasting views of evil; Lecter is refined, intelligent, and exhibits an intriguing charm, while Bill is chaotic, disturbed, and fueled by a warped sense of identity.
Starling, the heroine, battles not only external horrors but also navigates institutional sexism and her internal struggles, making her journey multi-layered. The character of Starling is symbolic of the fight against evil and a representation of hope, vulnerability, and strength.
A significant part of the novel’s success is the high-stakes cat-and-mouse game that propels the plot. The suspense, generated by the race against time to save the next potential victim, is maintained throughout the book, making it a page-turner.
The Shining – Stephen King
“The Shining,” published in 1977, is one of Stephen King’s most famous novels, combining elements of psychological horror and supernatural thriller. It’s the story of the Torrance family — Jack, Wendy, and their son, Danny — who move into the isolated Overlook Hotel in Colorado, where Jack has been hired as the winter caretaker.
The central character, Jack Torrance, is a recovering alcoholic, struggling writer, and high school teacher who sees a chance to rebuild his life and career. However, the malevolent forces within the hotel influence Jack, who descends into madness. King’s portrayal of Jack’s character, his slow unraveling, and the forces that plague him demonstrate King’s mastery of psychological horror.
Danny, the five-year-old son, possesses psychic abilities (the “shining” of the title), which allows him to witness the hotel’s horrific past. Danny’s character adds a layer of supernatural suspense to the novel and heightens the sense of impending doom.
The isolated and claustrophobic setting of the Overlook Hotel lends an atmosphere of tension and unease. The hotel becomes a character in its own right.
“The Shining” explores themes of isolation, addiction, familial bonds, and the battle between good and evil. King’s exploration of Jack’s alcoholism and the impact it has on his family reflects a deeper social commentary on the destructive nature of addiction.
Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty
“Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty is a contemporary novel that successfully combines elements of mystery, comedy, and drama. Published in 2014, the story is set in the coastal town of Pirriwee, Australia, and revolves around a group of parents whose perfect lives unravel to the point of murder.
A death occurs on trivia night at the local school, but the identity of the victim and the circumstances leading to their death are not revealed until the climax of the novel. This structure creates a consistent undercurrent of suspense that sustains the reader’s interest.
The novel is told from the alternating perspectives of three women – Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. Each wrestles with personal issues: Madeline is dealing with her ex-husband and his new family, Celeste is in an abusive relationship, and Jane is a young single mother with a mysterious past. Their friendship forms the emotional core of the book, and through their stories, Moriarty explores themes of domestic violence, bullying, infidelity, and the pressures of parenthood.
Moriarty’s true strength lies in her keen understanding of human nature and relationships, and her ability to blend humor with serious issues.
“Big Little Lies” provides a critique of society’s expectations and the judgmental nature of small communities. The book shows how damaging gossip and speculation can be, and how people are quick to judge others without understanding their circumstances.
A must for anyone’s list of best thriller books.
The Firm – John Grisham
“The Firm” (1991) by John Grisham is a legal thriller that offers a peek into the world of law and corruption. The protagonist of the story is Mitch McDeere, an ambitious Harvard Law graduate, who joins Bendini, Lambert & Locke, a tax law firm in Memphis. As Mitch settles into his new job, he starts to uncover the firm’s dark secrets.
Grisham, a former attorney, utilizes his understanding of law and legal institutions to create a plausible and intricate plot. The real charm of “The Firm” lies in its ability to draw readers into an obscure realm of the law world – that of tax law and its potential misuses – and make it compelling.
Mitch McDeere is a relatable protagonist as an ambitious young man seduced by the promise of wealth and status, but whose moral compass leads him down a path of risky decisions in order to expose the truth.
One of the central themes of the novel is corruption and how it extends to different sectors of society. The narrative poses questions about ethics and morality in law practice, examining the line between right and wrong and the gray areas that professionals often navigate.
The slow reveal of the firm’s secrets and Mitch’s subsequent entrapment create a sense of tension and dread. Tension ratchets higher until it reaches a breaking point in the final act, turning the novel into a fast-paced thriller.
Misery – Stephen King
“Misery” (1987) is a psychological horror novel by Stephen King. The story centers around Paul Sheldon, a successful author known for his Victorian-era romance novels featuring the character of Misery Chastain.
In the story, Paul has just finished writing a new novel and is traveling home when he gets caught in a severe blizzard and crashes his car. He is rescued by Annie Wilkes, a former nurse, who takes him to her remote home in the Colorado mountains. Paul soon discovers that Annie is not only his self-proclaimed “number one fan,” but also mentally unstable and obsessed with the character of Misery.
When Annie learns that Paul killed off Misery in his latest book in order to focus on more serious works, she snaps. Infuriated, she keeps Paul captive, forcing him to write a new novel that brings Misery back to life. Confined to a wheelchair with his legs mangled from the crash (and later brutally maimed by Annie), Paul has no choice but to acquiesce.
The book is a chilling study of madness and obsession. As Paul writes to keep Annie satisfied, he also plans his escape. The claustrophobic setting of Annie’s isolated house, combined with the gruesome physical and psychological torment Paul suffers, makes “Misery” one of King’s most terrifying and suspenseful novels. It examines themes of imprisonment, the nature of fanaticism, and the struggles of the creative process under extreme duress.
Yes, “Misery” makes the cut for our list of best thriller books. Even if we can’t unsee the infamous leg scene.
Before I Go to Sleep – SJ Watson
“Before I Go To Sleep” is a psychological thriller by S.J. Watson, published in 2011. The story centers around Christine Lucas, a woman suffering from anterograde amnesia, which prevents her from forming new memories. Each morning, Christine wakes up with no memory of her life after her early twenties.
The novel is written from Christine’s perspective in the form of a journal her doctor encouraged her to write, without her husband’s knowledge. This journal helps Christine remember her past each day, and through it, she uncovers disturbing inconsistencies in the narratives about her past.
The journal format provides an intimate look into Christine’s mind, her frustration, fear, and confusion becoming the reader’s own as the story unfolds. The tension escalates as Christine starts doubting the intentions of the people around her, culminating in a climax that offers surprising revelations.
Watson uses the narrative structure and Christine’s amnesia to build suspense. The reader, like Christine, is in the dark about her history and must piece together the truth from her fragmented recollections. This narrative strategy keeps the reader guessing and contributes to a pervasive sense of unease throughout the novel.
The theme of identity and self-perception plays a crucial role in the book. Christine’s inability to remember her past challenges the notion of identity: Without her memories, she struggles to know who she truly is. The novel raises questions about the extent to which our memories shape our identities and how losing those memories can disrupt our understanding of ourselves.
Eye of the Needle – Ken Follett
“Eye of the Needle,” a spy thriller by Ken Follett published in 1978, takes place during the height of World War II. The novel presents a cat-and-mouse game between a German spy and the British intelligence, while introducing a unique element of a civilian caught in the crossfire.
The story’s central character is Henry Faber, a ruthless German spy known as “The Needle” due to his preferred method of assassination – a stiletto. Faber is among the most effective German spies in Britain, because of his uncanny ability to blend in. He stumbles upon critical information regarding the D-Day plans: the Allies’ intention to feint at Calais and attack Normandy.
Meanwhile, British Intelligence becomes aware of a leak and sets out to hunt down the spy, leading to a country-wide chase. Faber’s path leads him to Storm Island off the coast of Scotland, where he meets Lucy Rose, an unhappy and isolated young woman in a loveless marriage to a disabled husband.
Faber aims to escape Britain and convey the plans to Germany, potentially changing the course of the war. Lucy becomes involved in the situation, leading to a tense climax where she must confront and stop Faber, not only for her sake but also to ensure the success of the impending D-Day invasion.
“Eye of the Needle” blends historical events, spy-versus-spy machinations, and personal drama. It engrosses readers with well-researched historical details, high-stakes espionage, and complex character relationships.
Did we list all the best thriller books?
Of course not. But these 11 are a great place to start.
Did we miss your favorite? Share your list of the best thriller books to read this summer.
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