I came to thrillers later than most, due in large part to a weak stomach and an overactive imagination that still has me checking behind the curtains before bed every night. With the exception of Nancy Drew mysteries, which I inhaled from my local library as a kid, I tended to steer clear of anything threatening to give me ‘thrills’ or ‘chills’ until a friend recommended the novels of Shirley Jackson. I was a lost woman after that, addicted to the heart-in-throat, oh-God-no feeling that comes from reading a truly excellent thriller, and from there, it was a short leap to writing them myself. I’ve discovered that writing thrillers is both extremely hard – the plotting! – and extremely satisfying, not least because the heart-in-throat feeling remains, and I often get to surprise myself with the ending. Nowadays, there’s almost always a mystery or thriller on my bedside table.
Here are five that have influenced me the most.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
The one that started it all! I love The Haunting of Hill House too, of course, but it’s more ghost-y than thriller-y (depending on how you read it, of course). We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a straight-forward mystery, albeit with all the eerie sense of atmosphere and foreboding for which Jackson is known. The novel centers around two sisters living in isolation with their ailing uncle after their remaining family was poisoned to death. It’s a story of twisted family bonds and loneliness and loyalty, but above all it’s scary as hell. I had to stop reading it at night because it was giving me nightmares – surely the highest seal of approval.
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
Lehane is one of my favorite writers, full stop, and for me, this is his masterpiece. His sense of place is impeccable, his dialogue pitch-perfect, and the mystery at the heart of the novel – the murder of an ex-con’s beloved daughter, and the involvement of his two childhood friends – is in turns gripping and devastating. I will read anything Dennis Lehane writes, but this is the one I keep coming back to.
Sunburn by Laura Lippmann
I love Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series, about a female private detective working in Baltimore, but my favorite novel of hers is Sunburn, a stand-alone novel about a woman with a murky past steaming into a small town and leaving havoc in her wake. Lippman is so good at character, and here she outdoes herself, creating the kind of multi-layered, ambiguous strong female protagonist most writers can only dream of. Sunburn is also surprisingly sexy, and the ending is utterly satisfying.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Reading a Gillian Flynn novel makes me want to scrub my skin with a Brillo pad afterwards, in the best possible way. Her characters are so brilliantly dark, and her plots so creepily twisty, and they stay with me long after I’ve turned the last page. Sharp Objects is a masterclass in Southern Gothic, featuring a damaged-but-stoic protagonist, a horrifying series of murders, and surely one of the most deranged mothers in all of fiction. The TV show was great; the book is even better.
Misery by Stephen King
Stephen King is so sickeningly talented that he managed to write a book set almost entirely in one room with a protagonist who’s bedridden and make it one of the most nail-biting, edge-of-my-seat terrifying reading experiences I’ve ever had. We all know the premise – Kathy Bates wielding that sledgehammer is pretty hard to forget – but the novel still has the capacity to shock the reader to the bone. Honestly, they should package it with a bottle of antacids. Or, better yet, sedatives.