Are you into thrillers? (They’re definitely having a moment.) One of the most white-knuckle books I read recently was Tana French’s crime novel The Trespasser. And, although I’m looking forward to more new books, it made me remember the classic thrillers I’ve enjoyed over the years. Have you read anything by, say, Stephen King or Agatha Christie? They’ve stood the test of time and are bone-chillingly scary. Here are 10 all-time greats…
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, 1847
If you’re up for a 19th-Century Gothic thriller/romance, this is your novel. It has thoroughly haunted me since I read it for the first time 20 years ago. (Let’s just say I’m not a fan of attics.) Here’s the premise: A young governess, who had some supernatural run-ins as a child orphan, takes a job in Mr. Rochester’s creaky Thornfield Hall. It’s surrounded by the bleak Yorkshire moors, though the spooky landscape can’t hold a candle to what lies beyond the mansion’s walls. I won’t say more — no spoilers for those who haven’t read it — but Jane Eyre is a beautiful, hair-raising classic.
Dracula by Bram Stoker, 1897
Um, vampires. Need I say more? One of the original horror thrillers, Dracula recounts the story, through a series of letters, diary entries and newspaper clippings, of Count Dracula’s attempt to move from his castle in Transylvania to England. (He’s in search of new blood to feast on and new humans to convert to the dark side.) As a reader, you feel like you’re riding along on a massive, macabre adventure and witnessing a battle royale between the living and the undead. Can you already hear the bats screeching?
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1902
A suspicious death takes place in England’s Great Grimpen Mire, a deep bog stretching as far as the eye can see — where detectives find “the footprints of a gigantic hound” near the body of a man who had been fleeing in fright just before he died. Many fans of Conan Doyle’s beloved Sherlock Holmes detective thrillers name this one as his sinister tour de force (it involves a family curse and glow-in-the-dark dogs — how can you resist?). So, if you haven’t read any, start here and see what you think.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, 1927
In middle school, I devoured dozens of Agatha Christie books — and when I recently reread this one, it totally stood up. In 2013, the British Crime Writers’ Association voted The Murder of Roger Ackroyd the best crime novel ever, and it has topped the list of most influential thrillers for more than 80 years. To summarize, detective Hercule Poirot’s friend is murdered, bringing him out of retirement to investigate. Blackmail, heroin, a will, a sketchy doctor and 1,000 plot twists are just a handful of the things that ensue. I’ve never used the phrase “blood-curdling” to describe something before, but it’s truly fitting in this case.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, 1966
This true crime story takes place in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959, where four members of the Clutter family were brutally murdered. The plot follows the investigation’s circuitous path until the mystery is finally solved. Even though In Cold Blood is written as a novel, with literary elements such as imagined dialogue, the reader’s knowledge that the crime actually happened makes it especially chilling (like, get-up-and-lock-the-front-door-right-now chilling).
The Stand by Stephen King, 1978
Warning: This book is over 800 pages long. But! No list of classic thrillers would be complete without the masterful Stephen King, who once said, “I recognize terror as the finest emotion.” Most readers of King’s oeuvre say The Stand is The One. (If you’d prefer something shorter, try his amazing short story collection Night Shift. His other two masterpieces — The Shining and It — are each over 1,000 pages!) The Stand is a post-apocalyptic fantasy thriller about a man who escapes from a research facility carrying a wipe-out strain of the flu. What could possibly go wrong?
Kiss the Girls by James Patterson, 1995
If you’re getting into thrillers, try James Patterson, who has written nearly 150 of them. His books may not rise to the level of literary genius, but they’re pretty irresistible as action-packed, suspenseful beach reads. Kiss the Girls — Patterson’s scariest and most unforgettable tale — involves two killers working in tandem in L.A. and Washington, D.C.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, 2003
Hoo-boy! This one is possibly the most talked-about 21st-Century thriller, having sold 10 million copies and spawned thousands of websites, fan clubs and warring code-breaking factions. Here’s the deal: After a curator is murdered in the Louvre museum in Paris, a Harvard professor and a French cryptographer team up to solve the case. Little do they know that it will lead them on a quest for the Holy Grail — the actual Holy Grail — and through thousands of years of religious and art history. For a 454-page book, the reading experience is breakneck (every chapter ends with a cliffhanger, so you have to keep going) and will keep your blood pumping as the two main characters run from their pursuers.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, 2005
I read this book in one day; it was that good. Based in Sweden, the plot follows a troubled 24-year-old hacker with a photographic memory (and a dragon tattoo) who’s hired to help investigate the mystery of a teenager who disappeared 40 years earlier. There’s corporate espionage, jaw-dropping family secrets, an unlikely romance and one of the most surprising conclusions you’ll ever read.
In the Woods by Tana French, 2008
Mystery writers Stephen King and Gillian Flynn (author of Gone Girl) are both huge fans of Irish writer Tana French, whom the Washington Post called “the most interesting, most important crime novelist to emerge in the past 10 years.” The six books in her Dublin Murder Squad series, the latest of which is The Trespasser, are stay-up-all-night reads. I recommend starting from the beginning, with In the Woods, a psychological thriller that opens with three missing children.
Have you read any of these? Which others — classics or new — would you recommend? I can’t wait to hear. (On previous book posts, readers have raved about Dark Places by Gillian Flynn and Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry.)