There's a certain allure to fear, especially if it's a feeling you can control. That's the basic premise behind picking up a suspense novel, isn't it? We crave that spark of adrenaline at the first unforeseen action, the foreboding feeling that builds toward the end of a page, and the rush to reach the answers—or lack thereof—hidden in the final chapter. Suspenseful books provide access to dark emotions and even darker settings, where trust and beauty always seem to have shocking flip sides. And even though we have the ability to escape, to close the covers and leave these worlds behind, the best novels stay with us long after the leading characters meet their fates.
In honor of this genre, we've collected our favorite suspense books of the past and present in a theme-appropriate list of 13 unnerving stories. While we don't suggest you read them alone in the middle of the night, we wouldn't blame you if you do, either.
Here are our picks for the best thrillers to add to your reading list.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Memorable Quote: "There's got to be something wrong with us. To do what we did."
There's a reason Capote's true-crime classic still makes readers' hairs stand up on the backs of their necks. His telling of the 1959 Clutter family murders inside their Holcomb, Kansas home has a lyrical precision to it that balances the facts of their deaths with the type of cunning detail that makes you wonder if this could also happen to you. Capote doesn't just stop there, though. His telling of the capture, trial, and executions of their killers showcases their violence with careful dedication and provides an unsettling glimpse into the world of two men who had no motive for their destruction.
The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton
Memorable Quote: "Rule number one: Never work with strangers. Strangers put you in prison or they put you in the ground."
The namesake character of this fast-paced novel was supposed to serve a prison sentence lasting a quarter-century. It was for a robbery gone wrong—a federal agent died—but for some reason, Nick is being released after just a handful of years. As he leaves the building, a black Escalade pulls beside him and forces him in. He finds out that the prison's crime lord has arranged his release on one condition: Nick has to do whatever he commands. Of course, there are more cops, more murders, and more suspicious strangers every time Nick answers his phone.
The Girls by Emma Cline
Memorable Quote: "At that age, I was, first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power in every interaction onto the other person."
Narrator Evie Boyd is your typical 14-year-old girl: She wants to be a grown-up, but she doesn't know how; she wants to hold onto childhood, but it's beginning to feel distant; and she looks with longing at the seemingly more sophisticated women who are just a few years older than she is. It sounds like a standard coming-of-age story, right? Well, it would've been if Evie didn't befriend and idolize 19-year-old Suzanne one lazy summer, who was a key member of a cult resembling the famous one started by Charles Manson. Cline tells the story of what happened next—including a fictional retelling of the Tate-LaBianca murders—through chapters that flash back from Evie's childhood to her adulthood. The suspense isn't held by the Manson character, and that's the engaging part. Instead, the story centers around the female gaze and how that can be dangerous, too.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Memorable Quote: "But I know human nature, my friend, and I tell you that, suddenly confronted with the possibility of being tried for murder, the most innocent person will lose his head and do the most absurd things."
This is another classic suspense novel that's been captivating fans for generations because of its expertly layered character examination. It is a story that takes place on this stalled namesake train with a central, mysterious question: Who killed a passenger, and are they still among us? As detective Hercule Poirot uncovers evidence—like stab wounds made after a passenger died and seemingly by someone who is ambidextrous—the reader can slowly narrow down who would have possibly done it and why. This is the type of page-turner that makes you question who to trust and when to depend on your instincts.
Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner
Memorable Quote: "All these people locked in their own thoughts, enmeshed in complicated lives, each of us believing we're at the center."
All that authorities have to go on about Edith Hind's disappearance, other than that she is or was a well-loved Cambridge postgraduate student, isn't much. They find two wine glasses, one broken, an open front door, and all her necessary possessions. What happened to her? Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw, a woman going through her own absorbing problems, is working to solve the mystery alongside Edith's mother, the equally unhappy Lady Miriam Hind. As we learn more about Miriam and Manon, and the questionably perfect life of the main character, their understandable flaws play into a larger picture of the condemning systems working beyond their control.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Memorable Quote: "The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you."
When this novel begins, you may think to yourself, I've seen this setup before. It's 1977 in Ohio and a missing girl's body has been discovered in a lake. It's the whodunit scenario we're all familiar with, and there's even a "bad boy" character who's seen as a potential suspect. But the thing that Ng has done so well with this setting is intertwining it with the layers of race—the missing girl is Lydia Lee, the daughter of Chinese-American parents in a small Midwestern town—with the layers of secrecy recognizable in any family. It's as much a time-honored murder mystery as it is an observation about the muddled quality of perceptions.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Memorable Quote: "It wouldn't make for sanity would it, living with the devil."
In another novel that uses flashbacks to build suspense, Rebecca has long been lauded as one of the best examples of this genre. The nameless heroine is working as a companion to a wealthy American when she meets Maxim, and in a few weeks, she's a new wife in his historic estate, Manderley. But here's the twist in the midst of romance: Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, drowned on the grounds the year before. The heroine learns how revered Rebecca was, especially by the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, and she wonders if her husband is still in love with her. It's a story of jealousy and deceit and another instance about how those closest to us can hold the most secrets.
Dancing With the Tiger by Lili Wright
Memorable Quote: "I've worn a mask most of my life. Most people do…For years I thought wearing a mask was a way to start over, become someone new. Now I know better."
Protagonist Anna Ramsey has a noble plan. She'll travel from her home in New England to Mexico to find Montezuma's death mask, and once she does, she'll use the rare artifact to restore the reputation of her father's work. But she soon realizes that she isn't the only person who is interested in this mask. Other characters arise, some more peculiar than the next—like an American expat, a drug addict, and an artist—to complicate Ramsey's good intentions with questions of nationality, grief, and attraction. Somehow, too, Wright makes the simple pleasure of recurring suspense work out of an otherwise highbrow question: How moral is archaeology, really?
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Memorable Quote: "What if the most traumatic or the most beautiful experiences we have trap us in a kind of feedback loop, where at least some part of our minds remains obsessed, even as our bodies move on?"
Eleven people board a chartered plane on a summer night. Two men among them, David Bateman and Ben Kipling, are exceedingly wealthy from their respective jobs in television and on Wall Street, and they're traveling with their wives, the Bateman children, a security guard, and a failed artist. Hawley gives the readers just enough to get to know these characters before he suspends the plane in the air for 18 minutes and then allows it to crash into the Atlantic. The crash, of course, is important, since there was no mayday call. But the most intriguing aspect of this mystery is uncovering the secrets held by those who fell into the ocean. As the media examines this story, the reader learns of the characters' misfortunes in chapters that also reveal the failings of sensational news.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré
Memorable Quote: "He met failure as one day he would probably meet death, with cynical resentment and the courage of a solitary."
This spy novel set in the midst of the Cold War has been a favorite of suspense-loving readers since it debuted in 1963, probably because Carré used his own experience in British Intelligence to help create the deceitful characters and nerve-wracking settings. Carré centers his story on British agent Alec Leamas, who agrees to take on one more assignment to East Germany before retiring—or so he thinks. As part of his mission, Leamas is asked to act as a double agent to defeat the head of the Communist Intelligence. And yet, a mix of fickle characters and strong booze derails his original goal, and Leamas's own mistakes force him to question his already precarious objectives.
Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson
Memorable Quote: "We're constantly changing facts, rewriting history to make things easier, to make them fit in with our preferred version of events. We do it automatically. We invent memories."
A woman wakes up next to a man she doesn't know and in a room she doesn't recognize. But that isn't where the suspense lies: It's what happens when she looks at herself in a bathroom mirror. In her mind, she doesn't recognize anything about her appearance, from her shorter hair to the wrinkles on her skin. She doesn't remember who she is—she thought she was young, but she looks old, and nothing else has any context—and this profound memory loss produces the type of confusion that develops into a scary void. She goes to a doctor who explains that she has amnesia, and as he works with her to rebuild her identity, she is forced to question these so-called remembered truths. It's a story about the familiar stories we tell ourselves, and how the flimsiness of memory can be a powerful tool.
A Simple Plan by Scott Smith
Memorable Quote: "By doing one wrong thing, I thought I could make everything right."
Hank Mitchell is, by all accounts, an ordinary person: He lives in the Midwest and works at a feed store. One day, he and his brother Jacob are driving on a snowy country road with their friend Lou. A fox runs onto the road and causes them to crash, and Jacob's dog runs after it into the woods. That's where the men discover plane wreckage. When they go inside and uncover a dead pilot, they also find something that shifts them into the extraordinary: a bag filled with $4.4 million. The three men decide to keep the money as a shared secret and allow Hank to hold onto it until some time passes. But this decision is the first in a series of other poor choices that lead to multiple alarming murders and a discussion of how even the most moral people are subject to vast immorality.
A Separation by Katie Kitamura
Memorable Quote: "In the end, what is a relationship but two people, and between two people there will always be room for surprises and misapprehensions, things that cannot be explained."
Kitamura's novel creates suspense in its exploration of intimate power dynamics and a simple question: How well do we know the people we claim to love? The narrator is a mysterious 30-something wife of a successful Londoner, although she's been secretly separated from him for six months after learning of his infidelities. One day, his mother calls in a panic—a feeling the narrator doesn't share—because he isn't responding to her calls. The narrator agrees to go to Greece to confront him at a resort where he is presumed to be hiding out. When she finds him, the reader is pulled into a world of manipulation, where human connection seems as foreign as an unfamiliar place.