Nothing makes you turn the page faster than a bit of suspense, something that psychological thrillers have in abundance. The best ones leave you off-kilter, wanting more and pondering the final page.
Although not a recorded term until 1925, the themes of contemporary psychological thrillers have their roots in gothic Victorian fiction. Whether exploring the psychology of a sociopath, narrating a mystery or crime, or just dissolving the reader’s sense of reality, the genre offers a deep dive into human minds and behaviour.
Much of their popularity owes to how close they can chime with our own reality. Whereas in horror fiction the enemy might be a supernatural figure, in psychological fiction the enemy is much more likely to be someone a bit closer to home.
This means the genre often explores martial or domestic relationships, family ties, small communities or friendships with most psychological thrillers having the common themes of unreliable narrators, morality and multiple narratives or realities.
While giants of the genre Stephen King and Patricia Highsmith helped make psychological thrillers mainstream, the recent international success of books like Gone Girl (£7.49, Waterstones.com) and The Girl On The Train (£5, Amazon.co.uk) has helped them stay there.
How we tested them
We read these tomes keeping the characteristics of psychological thrillers in mind, looking for character development, satisfying twists, intriguing plots as well as their ability to keep the reader guessing.
From 20th century classics to deliciously haunting debuts, these are some of the best psychological thrillers that will keep you in suspense, intrigue and, maybe, up all night.
The best psychological thrillers for 2021 are:
- Best overall – Misery by Stephen King: £9.99, Waterstones.com
- Best twist – Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk: £4.25, Amazon.co.uk
- Best domestic tragedy – We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: £8.99, Waterstones.com
- Best classic thriller – The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith: £8.36, Bookshop.org
- Best unreliable narrator – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: £7.49, Waterstones.com
- Best memory loss thriller – The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins: £5, Amazon.co.uk
- Best memorable characters – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo By Stieg Larsson: £6.49, Amazon.co.uk
- Best campus novel – The Secret History by Donna Tart: £8.36, Bookshop.org
- Best gothic thriller – Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier: £7.37, Amazon.co.uk
- Best mind-bender – Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane: £7.52, Amazon.co.uk
- Best suspenseful novel – I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid: £8.25, Blackwells.co.uk
- Best fictional serial killer – The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris: £7.37, Amazon.co.uk
- Best comedy thriller – Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: £8.99, Waterstones.com
- Best mystery – The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides: £4.49, Amazon.co.uk
‘Misery' by Stephen King, published by Hodder & Stoughton
Often cited as one of the greatest literary thrillers, lauded author Stephen King’s tome is the horror story of a writer’s imprisonment by a demented fan. After killing off his most famous protagonist Misery in his latest novel, author Paul Sheldon is involved in a horrible car crash. When he wakes up in agony, he’s in the bed of Annie Wilkes who pulled him from the wreckage and brought him back to her isolated mountain home. Bedbound with broken legs, he soon discovers former nurse Annie is his No 1 fan and intending to hold him hostage until he writes Misery back into existence. Gruesome, terrifying and bleak, this is King at his darkest.
‘Fight Club' by Chuck Palahniuk, published by Vintage
You may have seen the classic David Fincher 1999 movie, but have you read the book? If not, get ready for a cynical, darkly satirical and very confusing ride – all in a good way. Palahniuk’s novel follows the experience of an unnamed insomniac protagonist who finds relief from his own suffering by impersonating seriously ill people at support groups.
After meeting a mysterious man named Tyler Durden, he becomes involved in an underground fight club as a form of radical therapy for disaffected men. Whether you know that twist or not, the intrigue is in the way the novel gets there and its exploration of masculinity, dissatisfaction and isolation.
‘We Need To Talk About Kevin' by Lionel Shriver, published by Serpent’s Tail classics
Best: Domestic tragedy
A modern classic that took home the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2010, Shriver’s dark thriller is a chilling and provocative narrative of a mother struggling to come to terms with her son’s murderous spree at his high school. Compelling and often devastating, it follows a woman trying to decide if she was in any way responsible for turning him into a monster, or if he was one all along.
‘The Talented Mr Ripley' by Patricia Highsmith, published by Vintage
Best: Classic thriller
An all-time classic of the genre, Highsmith’s tome follows Tom Ripley – a well-versed scammer – on a trip to Italy to persuade a New York businessman’s prodigal son to return to the US. Once there, the two grow close with Ripley becoming so infatuated with Dickie Greenleaf that he wants to become him. As tensions rise between the two men and Dickie’s girlfriend Marge, Ripley’s talent for murder and self-invention becomes all too clear.
‘Gone Girl' by Gillian Flynn, published by Orion Publishing Co
Best: Unreliable narrator
Flynn’s psychological thriller took the world by storm when it was published in 2012. It has since become a blockbuster film and spawned many similar novels. One of the best examples of an unreliable narrator in recent years, the novel is artful in sending the reader in the wrong direction. The story alternates between the past diary entries of Amy – a woman who inexplicably disappeared – and the present-day narrative of her husband, Nick, who becomes a prime suspect in the case.
‘The Girl On The Train' by Paula Hawkins, published by Doubleday
Best: Memory loss thriller
Hitting bestseller lists around the world, Hawkins’s thriller details three women’s respective problems with binge drinking. With a Gone Girl-esque use of unreliable narrators, we begin with commuter Rachel who catches daily glimpses from the train of a seemingly perfect couple. Then one day, Rachel witnesses something shocking and after informing the police, she learns that a woman has gone missing. Hesitant to trust her own blurry memories, she begins her own investigation while the police increasingly believe she’s a prime suspect.
‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' By Stieg Larsson, published by MacLehose Press
Best: Memorable characters
The first book in an internationally bestselling trilogy, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo begins with the hiring of disgraced financial reporter Mikael Blomkvist by a wealthy Swedish industrialist to investigate the 40-year-old murder of his niece, Harriet, believing that she was killed by a member of his own family. He soon teams up with private investigator and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander whose own past is just as mysterious. Together, they begin to uncover corruption, financial intrigue and a dark family history. The complex, gripping and fast-paced plot is matched by two intriguing main characters who keep the reader guessing.
‘The Secret History' by Donna Tart, published by Penguin Books
Best: Campus novel
Part psychological thriller and part story of disaffected university students, Tart’s tome follows a group of clever misfits at an elite New England college and the chain of events that led to the death of a classmate. Although from a lower-class family, newbie Richard is accepted into the clique of students who are all under the cult-like influence of their charismatic Greek classics professor. When one member of the group threatens to reveal the group’s role in the murder, tensions rise and the second half of the novel explores the psychological consequences of hiding such a terrible secret.
‘Rebecca' by Daphne Du Maurier, published by Virago
Best: Gothic thriller
A classic of the genre, Rebecca follows an unnamed young woman to the south of France, where she falls for the handsome widower Maxim de Winter. They soon marry and she moves into his grand home, Manderley, prompting a profound change in her husband. Isolated and alone, the ghostly presence of Maxim’s first wife Rebecca begins to haunt the new Mrs de Winter. When ship wreckage is discovered with Rebecca’s body inside, secrets unravel and suspense builds as the narrator becomes increasingly obsessed with her predecessor.
‘Shutter Island' by Dennis Lehane, published by Bantam
Set in 1954, Lehane’s psychological thriller follows widower US Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels and his new partner Chuck Aule to Shutter Island, home to a hospital for the clinically insane. Sent there to investigate the disappearance of a patient who was incarcerated for drowning her three children, a storm immediately traps them there for four days. We soon learn of Teddy’s own mental state and the deep-seated trauma he has following his wife’s death in an apartment fire. Throughout the novel, dream sequences reveal hidden truths that Teddy refuses to admit, while the reader is kept guessing about which narrative to believe.
‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things' by Iain Reid, published by Text Publishing Company
Best: Suspenseful novel
This intriguing novel is as ambiguous as its illusive title suggests. Despite the nameless narrator’s apparent doubts about her relationship, the story nevertheless begins with her journeying alongside new boyfriend Jake to visit his parents at their remote farm. The creepy atmosphere is established from the off, with the couple arriving at a pitch-black house. All seems well until after dinner, when both the parents and the boyfriend begin to act odd and off kilter. Throughout, Reid signposts that something sinister is just round the corner with the reader kept guessing until the novel’s crescendo. It’s also been made into a great film that’s available to stream on Netflix right now.
‘The Silence of the Lambs' by Thomas Harris, published by Arrow
Best: Fictional serial killer
A classic brought to life by Jodie Foster in the 1991 film, Harris’s novel follows FBI trainee Clarice Starling who is attempting to understand the mind of serial killer Buffalo Bill, in a bid to hunt him down before he abducts more women. To do so, she presents a questionnaire to forensic psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter, who is serving nine consecutive life sentences in a mental institution for a series of murders. The novel’s deep dive into the inner workings of a psychopath and the chain of events retold will haunt you beyond the last page.
‘Eileen' by Ottessa Moshfegh, published by Penguin
Best: Comedy thriller
Reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith, Moshfegh’s novel follows a lonely and damaged woman whose dark fantasies and toxic behaviour culminate in a terrible crime. Eileen Dunlop works in a juvenile correctional facility for boys and lives with her alcoholic father, filling her weekends shoplifting and stalking a handsome prison guard while filled with resentment. When a charming new counsellor arrives at work, Eileen becomes infatuated with her and is ultimately pulled into complicity with the novel’s climactic crime. Although utterly repellent, nasty and mercilessly observant, Moshfegh succeeds in making Eileen somewhat sympathetic and often very funny.
‘The Silent Patient' by Alex Michaelides, published by Orion
An international bestseller in 2019, Michaelides’s thriller tells the story of Alicia Berenson, a famous painter who seemingly lived an idyllic life married to an in-demand fashion photographer. That is until six years prior, when she shot her husband in the head five times and since hasn’t spoken a word. When the domestic tragedy captures the public’s imagination and Alice becomes famous, a criminal psychotherapist latches onto the case, becoming obsessed with discovering her motive.
The verdict: Psychological thriller books
For a classic thriller that in equal parts terrifies and grips you to the final page, pick up Stephen King’s Misery. King expertly narrates an author’s tormented psyche at the hands of his psychopathic captor, keeping the reader in suspense and horror throughout.
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