psy·cho·log·i·cal | thrill·er (n.)
“A novel, film, etc., in the thriller genre which focuses on the psychology of its characters, or which psychologically manipulates its audience or readership.”
By definition, when you dig into a book categorized as a psychological thriller, you’re willfully giving yourself to the author to mess with you and to take you on a thrilling ride. So if you dare, here are some psychological thrillers that will completely psyche you out.
Scam artists are the ultimate unreliable narrators, and I love them all so much. This is a genre I didn’t know I needed in my life—I knew I liked CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, and I’ve definitely watched all of the Fyre Festival documentaries, but THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY is a master work about con men being brilliant (and also . . . you know . . . murder). We need more of these books. Con artists are so fascinating, and the fact that there are five books about this one guy, and that they’re called, collectively, the “Ripliad” is just so incredibly right.
There are some books that you sink into immediately. As the pages go by, you start to realize that your thoughts are melding with the characters’: Maybe you feel a little happier while reading that rom com, or a little more schemy when you’re reading that book about the con man. This kind of book isn’t one you necessarily want to sink into, initially, but Lisa Unger cares not, and by about halfway through you are feeling as off-kilter and emotional as the characters. It’s a good feeling, and gets you more invested than you would be in almost any other novel on this list, but it definitely means that you need to read this quickly, for the sake of your sanity.
“I am a scaredy-cat. I can’t get past the opening credits of ‘American Horror Story,’ the poster for ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ gave me nightmares for months, and I still can’t look at a spider without wanting to cry. So maybe reading Lisa Unger’s CRAZY LOVE YOU wasn’t the best idea for me. But I am so glad I did, and I want everyone else to experience this horrifying and wonderful book, too.”
Jane Harper burst onto the scene with her debut novel THE DRY, an atmospheric thriller with more bite than bark. Nothing you read is what it seems to be, and Harper has created a plot so thick you can’t see through it until it wants you to. It’s a satirical novel of what’s “proper” in society, to be sure, but it’s also just a really good time.
There is only one book in existence where I will condone the use of emoji, and HIDDEN BODIES is it. Beyond being the sequel to the iconic YOU (now a Netflix show with Penn Bagdley, which I talk about far too often because I am a dark soul), it’s also the story of a man so interested in the thrill of being in love that he’ll do anything—literally anything—chasing it. So, where’s the emoji, you ask? No spoilers, but when you see it, you will agree with me. I still get chills thinking about it.
Joe is a charming, dangerous antihero whose obsessive quest for the perfect girl takes him to extreme lengths. HIDDEN BODIES is not for the faint of heart—Joe is American Psycho level crazy and self-obsessed—but you’ll be turning pages late into the night.
Paul Cleave is one of those authors who is woefully underrated in my opinion, and TRUST NO ONE is the proof. The main character is an author with Alzheimer’s who admits to committing the murders he’s written about for decades. It seems like an open-and-shut case. But the twists and turns are inevitable, and no one will see (or trust) the end when it comes.
In this “outstanding psychological thriller” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) by the Edgar-nominated author of Joe Victim, a famous crime writer struggles to differentiate between his own reality and the frightening plot lines he’s created for the page.
Jerry Grey is known to most of the world by his crime writing pseudonym, Henry Cutter—a name that has been keeping readers on the edge of their seats for more than a decade. Recently diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of forty-nine, Jerry’s crime writing days are coming to an end. His twelve books tell stories of brutal murders committed by bad men, of a world out of balance, of victims finding the darkest forms of justice. As his dementia begins to break down the wall between his life and the lives of the characters he has created, Jerry confesses his worst secret: The stories are real. He knows this because he committed the crimes. Those close to him, including the nurses at the care home where he now lives, insist that it is all in his head, that his memory is being toyed with and manipulated by his unfortunate disease. But if that were true, then why are so many bad things happening? Why are people dying?
Hailed by critics as a “masterful” (Publishers Weekly) writer who consistently offers “ferocious storytelling that makes you think and feel” (The Listener) and whose fiction evokes “Breaking Bad reworked by the Coen Brothers” (Kirkus Reviews), Paul Cleave takes us down a cleverly twisted path to determine the fine line between an author and his characters, between fact and fiction.
She’s perfect, she’s graceful . . . and she’s got a dark side that will make you uneasy. Honestly, you have to love this sub-sub-genre—the female-led psychological thriller: She (the unreliable female narrator who ends up solving the case / saving the day / risking her life) always has a little extra sass and a story that no one believes (Seriously. No one ever believes these women, and they’re always right). And it’s no different in THE ELIZAS. For fans of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and SHARP OBJECTS, this is the ultimate story about a girl who is just trying to keep it together in the face of everything falling apart—but the twist here is that the protagonist is writing a book (chapters of which alternate with the action itself), making this a two-for-one thrill ride.
It’s hard to remember that the term “gaslighting” came from a 1944 movie in which a man tries to drive his wife crazy by telling her she was imagining the things that he indeed was doing. If you wanted any sort of proof that nothing has changed in the 75 years since that movie came out, go no further than BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. The plot goes back-and-forth between when Jack and Grace—beautiful, smart, and perfect for each other—meet and the present, when Grace is locked in a room twenty-four hours a day and constantly threatened with the death of her sister by master manipulator Jack. Nothing is as it seems. However, this novel grips you in a primal way until the last page. And B. A. Paris has written an ending that is exceptionally emotionally satisfying.
George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 is the original psychological thriller. A man isn’t sure who the good guys are, goes with the girl, gets betrayed a couple of times, and then is faced with the fact that truth is in the hands of the powerful. I mean, we literally call psychologically murky behavior by large organizations, “Orwellian.” If you want to understand the mental manipulations happening in any book on this list, you have to understand Orwell’s “doublespeak,” as in the Party’s slogans War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength.