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A Beginner's Guide to Thrillers: Staff Favorites

By Skokie Staff

To complement the "Beginner's Guide to Thrillers" blog post, staff share their favorite titles from this genre.

  • Blacktop Wasteland

    2020 by Cosby, S. A.

    This new thriller features an enthusiastic blurb from Dennis Lehane, and readers will note the resemblance. A legendary wheelman who managed to get out of "the life" is roped into doing one more job that, shockingly, doesn't go according to plan. Readers who couldn't care less about cars or guns will nonetheless find themselves fascinated by the protagonist's artistry with both. All the violence carries genuine weight, and nobody walks away unscathed. Recommended by Andrew.

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  • Interred with Their Bones

    2007 by Carrell, Jennifer Lee

    The only manuscript of a hitherto unknown Shakespeare play makes for a fine McGuffin in this immensely enjoyable literary thriller. The author drops a lot of fascinating knowledge over the course of a story whose plot doesn't reinvent the wheel. Essentially, the theater director protagonist and a handsome mystery man are in a race with the bad guys, one of whom enjoys recreating the Bard's most famous onstage deaths. Recommended by Andrew.

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  • Heart of the Hunter: A Novel

    2003 by Meyer, Deon

    Thobela "Tiny" Mpayipheli has spent years getting as far away as possible from his life as "Umzingeli" ("The Hunter"). But with 72 hours to save a friend from the bad old days, he'll race across several countries to deliver a computer disk that holds devastating secrets about his own--and South Africa's--past. Recommended by Andrew.

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  • American Spy: A Novel

    2018 by Wilkinson, Lauren

    Her old training takes over when a woman makes short work of an assassin in the house she shares with her twin sons. How's that for an opening? Violent death is never far away in this novel, which delves into race, family, and the lies people tell. After our introduction to Marie Mitchell, we jump back six years to 1986, when she was one of the only African American women in the FBI's New York office. How did she become a lethal suburban mom? Overall a fantastic example of a fresh take on the classic spy novel. Recommended by Andrew and Megan.

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  • Miracle Creek

    2019 by Kim, Angie

    Literary thriller mystery or mystery thriller--in either case I liked it. A story of Korean American immigrants, a story of parenting kids with autism and other disabilities, a crime mystery, a courtroom suspense scene, a beautiful and skillfully drawn character drama. It reminded me of the best aspects of Celeste Ng's and Liane Moriarty's writing. Loved it! An excellent audiobook narrated by Jennifer Lim and finished with a fascinating interview with the author. Recommended by Megan.

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  • I'm Thinking of Ending Things

    2016 by Reid, Iain

    I think the book was different and gripping, but the Netflix adaptation was almost better. Definitely worth checking out if you're a thriller fan and want to try something different. This is one of the thrillers that many people will either love or hate. I liked the ending but did not really enjoy the buildup toward it. Claustrophobic, dark, suspenseful, thought-provoking. Recommended by Megan.

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  • Catherine House: A Novel

    2020 by Thomas, Elisabeth

    Languidly dreadful, literary, beautifully written college thriller where an overly curious undergraduate uncovers a shocking secret about some students, which impinges on the school's prestige. Recommended by Megan.

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  • The Alienist

    1994 by Carr, Caleb

    Epic in size and ambition, this historical thriller exposes the seamy side of Gilded Age Manhattan while taking readers on a desperate hunt for a depraved serial killer. Fans of The Silence of the Lambs will feel at home in this unflinching exploration of a deranged, murderous mind. Recommended by Steven.

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  • Gentlemen and Players

    2006 by Harris, Joanne

    Anglophiles will adore this battle of wits set in a traditional English boarding school that someone seems determined to bring down. Free from the over-the-top darkness and violence of so many thrillers, it packs a stunning twist that you won't see coming. Recommended by Steven.

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  • Unraveling Oliver

    2017 by Nugent, Liz

    Many thrillers ask the question "How well do you know the person you married?," but few so successfully reveal the dark side of a seemingly good spouse. This novel starts out with a bang that turns into a slow burn as the reader gradually learns what motivated the author of a beloved series of children's books to beat his wife nearly to death. Recommended by Steven.

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  • The Pale Blue Eye: A Novel

    2006 by Bayard, Louis

    The real-life Edgar Allan Poe becomes caught up in the search for a serial killer at West Point, where he's a cadet. As befits a story with Poe, more than a few hints of the supernatural add shivers to this macabre, twisty tale. Recommended by Steven.

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  • The Eight: A Novel

    1997 by Neville, Katherine

    Katherine Neville tells two exciting stories--one in the present day, one during the French Revolution--as two brave women strive to keep a jeweled chess set from falling into the wrong hands, thereby changing the fate of the world. If you like your thrillers filled with adventure and historical and scientific lore, this will keep you riveted as Neville takes Dan Brown to school. Recommended by Steven.

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  • The Lying Tongue

    2007 by Wilson, Andrew

    A young man gets far more than he bargained for when he accepts a job in the rundown Venetian palazzo of a mysterious, reclusive author. Hitchcock meets Highsmith in this cat-and-mouse tale, but who is the cat and who the mouse? Recommended by Steven and Cecilia.

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  • Before She Knew Him: A Novel

    2019 by Swanson, Peter

    One of the better thrillers I've read in a while, this nail-biter will keep you up at night. It's fiercely written, with excellent character development. The main female character is caught up in a mess she doesn't completely understand. She's sure of her convictions yet hesitant. The plot moves quickly and is better than most at keeping the reader highly engaged. The ending is more than satisfying. A smart and terrifying read. Recommended by Cecilia.

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  • Alibi: A Novel

    2005 by Kanon, Joseph

    I read this in Venice, so it was a bit of a plus, since this novel is all about the people and places in Venice. Set in the “sinking” city after WWII, the story follows Adam, who falls in love with Claudia, a Jewish woman who may or may not have worked with the Germans during the war. Of course, a murder is committed and a cover-up ensues. As I was reading, I took particular notice of the setting that Kanon uses perfectly…the dark, narrow canals of Venice are made for secret meetings and illicit rendezvous. Recommended by Cecilia.

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  • The Child's Child

    2012 by Vine, Barbara

    This is a strong, fierce thriller that combines social commentary and suspense, all in one well-written story. Rendell was one of the leaders of the mystery genre, especially British mysteries. Writing here as her "thriller" alter-ego Barbara Vine, Rendell wrote what I think is one of her best, lending truth to the adage that some things improve with age. Recommended by Cecilia.

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  • The Savage Garden

    2007 by Mills, Mark

    This book uses the magic and allure of Tuscany to its advantage by setting a taut thriller--more psychological than action-packed--within one of the region’s gardens. The main character, Adam Strickland, is a Cambridge grad student who is given what appears to be the assignment of a lifetime. While in the gardens of Tuscany, which he is to write about, he uncovers a mystery several centuries past, one that leads him to a more recent, equally-as-brutal crime. Recommended by Cecilia.

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  • Rebecca

    2006 by Du Maurier, Daphne

    Du Maurier brings a dead woman alive in this one-of-a-kind tale of love, loss, and unrequited passion. Maxim de Winter is a cold, dark man with a hidden past. His mysterious history mostly revolves around the life and death of his first wife, Rebecca. His shy new bride becomes obsessed with the first Mrs. de Winter until the story takes a surprising and unconventional twist. A classic gothic thriller and love story that should not be missed. Recommended by Cecilia.

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  • Saving Paulo

    2008 by Walker, David J.

    Walker's writing is strong and intense, and this book is filled with suspense but is not overly dramatic. Revolving around a highly flawed main character and set in Chicago, among other locales, this book is a standalone thriller from Walker, who also writes a mystery series. The relationship between a boy and the main character is highly believable. I was hoping against hope that Walker wouldn't ruin the ending, as many authors do, by taking the "Hollywood" way out. But the ending is as strong as the first pages. Recommended by Cecilia.

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  • Into the Blue

    1990 by Goddard, Robert

    A great suspense tale filled with everything: adventure, love, surprises, action, great characters, tension, and more. With the disappearance of a young woman in Greece, the main character (the man who was with the girl when she disappeared) is not always likable or honest. Do we believe he is innocent? As we find out more about him, we’re not sure. We question everything and everyone, and the suspense becomes so high, putting the book down is virtually impossible. Recommended by Cecilia.

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  • When No One Is Watching

    2020 by Cole, Alyssa

    With so many crime and suspense novels out there, they all seem to merge. What Cole does with the thriller genre here is make the kind of statement Jordan Peele made with his movie Get Out. This thriller is a message, even a teaching moment, that racism is deeply rooted in everything. No, it's not a revolutionary point, but it is one rarely focused on in genre fiction. Worth reading because it's more than just a thriller. It's a reminder. Recommended by Cecilia.

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  • The Whisper Man

    2019 by North, Alex

    After the death of his wife, Tom starts with a clean slate for himself and his young son Jake; a new beginning, a new house, a new town. Unfortunately, the town's slate is not so clean and there is a dark past there. There’s a supernatural element to this thriller that was surprising and added thrills and lots of scares! Recommended by Lynnanne.

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  • The Wife between Us

    2018 by Hendricks, Greer

    The story of the complexities of an enviable marriage and the dangerous truths people ignore in the name of love. This book is very twisty and well written, with surprisingly likable characters. It really kept me guessing (confused!) but it all came together with a clever end. Recommended by Lukie.

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  • The End of Everything: A Novel

    2011 by Abbott, Megan E.

    A slower-paced book that builds an atmosphere of distrust that kept me immersed from the get-go. I was captivated by the young protagonist trying to solve the puzzle of her friend's disappearance all on her own, somewhat like The Lovely Bones. Recommended by Lukie.

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  • Then She Was Gone: A Novel

    2018 by Jewell, Lisa

    A decade after her teenage daughter disappeared, a woman meets a single father whose child seems eerily familiar. A sad thriller. I don't think there are many of those, so, to me, this one stands out. Recommended by Lukie.

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  • The Woman in the Window

    2018 by Finn, A. J.

    An older woman home alone, mysterious neighbors, a murder witnessed through the window...how much more noir could you get? I liked that it was creepily complicated. Recommended by Lukie.

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  • Before I Go to Sleep: A Novel

    2011 by Watson, S. J.

    After a mysterious accident, a woman, who cannot remember her past or form new memories desperately tries to uncover the truth about who she is and who she can trust. If you're looking for an atmosphere of unease and a tension that builds tighter and tighter, this is a good choice. Recommended by Lukie.

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  • The Death of Mrs. Westaway

    2018 by Ware, Ruth

    I loved the setting and atmosphere of this book. It's got a Gothic mansion and dark family secrets that unfold in a beautifully well-fleshed-out world. The main character, a witty, spirited woman, is a tarot card reader whose cold reading skills allow her to become part of a thrilling plot. She doesn't make the most honorable life choices, but there is something very relatable and admirable about her. This book is a slow burn, with surprising reveals that unravel each part of the mystery, leaving you wanting more. Recommended by Michelle.

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  • Alias Grace

    1997 by Atwood, Margaret

    This book had two of my worlds colliding: my love for thrillers/true crime and my passion for mental health. The story unfolds between the life of a young, cutting-edge doctor interested in the new field of psychology and a young housekeeper who may have been involved in a homicide and may have amnesia. Atwood seamlessly weaves twists and surprising reveals that literally had me gasping and longing for more story and more answers. Recommended by Michelle.

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  • 11/22/63: A Novel

    2011 by King, Stephen

    It's a psychological, science fiction, political, and literary thriller all in one. I think this book features some of King's most touching and thrilling writing to date, and I am always fascinated by the question: What if we could change one important event in the past? Recommended by Jarrett.

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  • Illegal

    2020 by Stork, Francisco X.

    This political and psychological young adult thriller is set in Mexico, where young women are disappearing at alarming rates. When the main characters Sara and Emiliano set out to find the answers, they run afoul of some terrifying people. Stork always writes with heart and thoughtfulness, and this time he also writes great action. Recommended by Jarrett.

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  • Any Second

    2018 by Emerson, Kevin

    This young adult thriller follows a teen kidnapping victim who has been released from captivity and is forced to re-enter regular high school life while helping the FBI find his kidnapper. It opens with a failed suicide bomb attempt in a mall and goes from there. Yikes. Recommended by Jarrett.

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  • August Snow

    2017 by Jones, Stephen Mack

    This book follows a biracial Black and Mexican American police officer in Detroit who navigates being an officer in a radically corrupt system. He also becomes involved with a wealthy and powerful businesswoman, and that only brings him further into the whole system. It has a lot of moving parts, but is well written and suspenseful. Recommended by Jimmy.

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  • One of Us Is Lying

    2017 by McManus, Karen M.

    This young adult book was extremely popular during my first or second year of college. I read a few excerpts for an assignment and then decided to read the book. I recall a classmate saying that it gave her Pretty Little Liars vibes. I've never seen that show, but I felt it gave off Hitchcock and Heathers vibes, for sure. Recommended by Jimmy.

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  • #MurderTrending

    2018 by McNeil, Gretchen

    This is a young adult book, but I read it as I became a Gen Z adult and thought it was...creative. It's almost like 16th century France meets social media as executions are public again, but all via a livestreaming app. The main character, Dee, spends the novel trying to prove her innocence of a murder while navigating a modern-day Alcatraz! Super suspenseful, since she is literally almost on the chopping block at nearly every turn. Recommended by Jimmy.

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