The Best Thrillers of 2021
They may be (relatively) low on body counts, but the year’s most chilling, atmospheric reads will still set your pulse racing and your heart pounding.
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By Sarah Lyall
- Published Dec. 6, 2021 Updated Dec. 9, 2021
Taste in thrillers is so personal, so specific to a reader’s particular sensibilities. But the ones I like best tend to be (relatively) low on body counts, high on psychological intrigue and suspenseful right to the end. Luckily, lots of books fit that description this year. Here are my favorites.
The pandemic’s terrifying early days make a chilling backdrop to Catherine Ryan Howard’s 56 DAYS (Blackstone, 450 pp., $24.99) , set in Dublin in the spring of 2020. As the city hastily locks down, a young couple who have just met decide to take a chance, as so many did back then, and move in together. They’re perfect for each other except that their romance is based on an elaborate thicket of lies, and one of them is probably a murderer. The tension builds and builds. Don’t think you’ve figured it all out — there’s a shocking final twist.
Who knew that a novel about a bunch of brilliant yet psychopathic college students would end up being so enjoyable? Vera Kurian’s NEVER SAW ME COMING (Park Row, 400 pp., $27.99) is set at a fictional university in Washington, D.C., where a group of officially diagnosed psychopaths are receiving free tuition and board in exchange for participating in a study to see whether they can become noncriminal members of society. But someone is killing them, one by one, leaving the rest to decide whether to work alone or join forces to catch the culprit. You can’t help rooting for the narrator, whose own murderous intent doesn’t supersede her surprisingly strong moral compass.
Geling Yan’s THE SECRET TALKER (HarperVia, 150 pp., $23.99) is a quieter, subtler affair, focusing on the mysteries of the human heart. Its heroine is a Chinese woman living in California. Out of the blue, she receives an email from a stranger claiming that her husband, an American professor, doesn’t understand her at all, which may well be the case. She can’t help responding; it is so enticing to think that someone sees into your very soul, and the ensuing correspondence leads her to face up to her harrowing past while forcing a reckoning with her present. Who is the secret talker? How well do we know those we are closest to, and why is intimacy so painful?
Is there such a thing as a plot so perfect that it will produce a guaranteed best seller for whichever author uses it? That’s the irresistible premise, at least at first, of THE PLOT (Celadon, 336 pp., $28) , Jean Hanff Korelitz’s endlessly entertaining novel about a down-on-his-luck writer, an unpleasant student who has a great idea for a mystery and then vanishes, and the dangerous complications that follow the publication of a book based on his surefire concept. “The Plot” is long and intricate, but every word is worth it. As it hurtles to its unexpected and scary end, we are reminded that “plot” has more than one meaning.
Surely nothing could go wrong when a louche, heaving-with-sexual-innuendo male art teacher arrives at an Irish Catholic boarding school run by repressed nuns and populated by overheated adolescent girls. You don’t have to be a virginal schoolgirl yourself to imagine that this will not end well, as Rachel Donohue points out in her steamy debut, THE TEMPLE HOUSE VANISHING (Algonquin, 304 pp., paper, $16.95) . Years after the school closed down following a terrible scandal in which the teacher vanished with one of the girls, a journalist comes to investigate. The action switches between past and present as the full story — even more tragic, febrile and emotionally fraught than anyone realized at the time — unfolds.
The prolific and endlessly inventive British writer Anthony Horowitz could dash off a mystery set in the waiting line of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, and it would still be a delight. A LINE TO KILL (Harper, 384 pp., $27.99) , the third in his fiendishly clever meta-series about the author “Anthony Horowitz,” a dimmer version of himself, finds the fictional Horowitz at an obscure literary festival with Daniel Hawthorne, the infuriating detective who treats him as little more than a secretary. The clues are opaque and the mystery seemingly unsolvable, until Hawthorne, a modern-day Holmes to Horowitz’s Watson, steps in with his elegant solution. Besides being a satisfying whodunit, the book is an extravagant satire of authors, agents, publishers and literary hangers-on, a knowing sendup of the author himself and a homage to the Golden Age of Mystery.
The most haunting character in Jennifer McMahon’s THE DROWNING KIND (Scout Press, 320 pp., $27) is the homicidal water in Brandenburg Springs, Vt., which grants wishes and heals afflictions, but not for free. “The springs exact a price equal to what was given,” one resident says ominously. Could dead people be living in its murky depths? It is true that the neighborhood suffers from an unusually high mortality rate. The narrative moves between 1929, when a new wife begs the springs to help her conceive a child, and the current day, when a social worker returns home to find her mentally unstable sister floating, face down, in the spring-fed swimming pool where their aunt died a generation earlier. Who will be next?
When he was just 8 years old, Wayland Maynard saw his father, the “gentle, prim, fastidious” barber in a small Vermont town, shoot himself in the head. The note that was left behind also serves as the title of Eric Rickstand’s strange and engrossing novel, I AM NOT WHO YOU THINK I AM (Blackstone, 229 pp., $25.99) . It’s both an intriguing message and a red herring, as Wayland attempts, years later, to find out the truth about his family. Here is an old-fashioned Gothic tale, involving, among other things, incest, riches, murder and a deadly fire. The reader will entertain many incorrect theories before arriving at the shocker of a finale. The most wrenching moment of all: when we find out what the note really signifies.
Northern Ireland’s brutal era of sectarian conflict did not end with the 1998 peace agreement, Flynn Berry reminds us in NORTHERN SPY (Viking, 278 pp., $26) , an icy and claustrophobic tale of a modern nation poisoned by ancient grievances. (Fruit fanciers will recognize that the title is a type of apple; it figures in the story.) As the book begins, a journalist glances at the TV and sees a horrifying sight — her beloved sister, caught on a security camera wearing a balaclava and robbing a gas station. Even worse: The sister appears to be a member of the Irish Republican Army, which puts the whole family in danger and touches off a tangled series of events involving police informants, weapons caches and double- and triple-crosses. Who’s spying on whom? Tragically, neutrality is not an option.
THE ANOMALY (Other Press, 400 pp., paper, $16.99) , the French novelist Hervé Le Tellier ’s enthralling new novel, arrived in America showered with Gallic praise and basking in the glow of the Prix Goncourt , which it won last year. All of it is richly deserved. The novel — a profoundly affecting examination of free will, fate, reality and the meaning of existence, cloaked in a high-concept plot that could have come from “The Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror” — exists in that most excellent of Venn diagrams, where high entertainment meets serious literature. The story concerns the passengers of Air France Flight 006, which flew into a terrible storm and emerged into an inexplicable situation. Le Tellier, who laces the narrative with scientific theories and philosophical debates, writes with a light touch, aided by Adriana Hunter’s translation, even as he makes you care deeply about a disparate range of characters, from a gay Nigerian pop star hiding his sexuality to an abused young girl in Howard Beach who loves her pet toad. In the end, he invites us to consider the most basic and urgent of questions: If life is beyond our control and we will all die anyway, how should we live?
Sarah Lyall is a writer at large at The Times.
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to a character in Hervé Le Tellier’s novel “The Anomaly.” The abused young girl lives in Howard Beach and has a pet toad. She does not live in Brighton Beach with a pet turtle.
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Sarah Lyall is a writer at large, working for a variety of desks including Sports, Culture, Media and International. Previously she was a correspondent in the London bureau, and a reporter for the Culture and Metro Desks. More about Sarah Lyall
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by Catherine Ryan Howard ‧ RELEASE DATE: Aug. 17, 2021
Each new twist, dispensed with surgical precision, will keep you hooked, nostalgic for the days when Covid-19 was the worst...
A pandemic lockdown romance that ends very badly indeed.
It begins with a casual conversation about the Kennedy Space Center at a Dublin coffee shop. Architectural technologist Oliver Kennedy has never visited the place, and web services concierge Ciara Wyse thinks he really should. They take their coffees to a nearby park, they chat, he invites her to join him at a screening of a documentary about the space program. All super normal, apparently, but then comes the news of the first Irish Covid-19 infection, and then follows the first wave of restrictions, and the pair have to make a momentous decision. After a night at Ciara’s tiny flat, Oliver offers to share the relatively palatial digs his employer, KB Studios, has allotted him as part of his compensation package. The two of them stock up on every necessity they can imagine and prepare to hunker down in the Crossings till the storm has passed. But Howard, in a series of lightning dips into the past and future utterly characteristic of her suspense stories, has already broadcast the endgame for their affair: the arrival of Garda DI Leah Riordan and DS Karl Connolly at the Crossings, summoned by a neighbor alarmed by the telltale stench seeping from Oliver’s flat. The tenant, it turns out, was hiding a horrifying secret from Ciara and everyone else in Ireland, and there are depths still to be revealed beneath his deception.
Pub Date: Aug. 17, 2021
Page Count: 450
Review Posted Online: June 1, 2021
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2021
SUSPENSE | GENERAL & DOMESTIC THRILLER | GENERAL MYSTERY & DETECTIVE | GENERAL THRILLER & SUSPENSE
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by Catherine Ryan Howard
Awards & Accolades
New York Times Bestseller
by Max Brooks ‧ RELEASE DATE: June 16, 2020
A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.
Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).
A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.
Pub Date: June 16, 2020
Page Count: 304
Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine
Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020
GENERAL SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY | GENERAL THRILLER & SUSPENSE | SCIENCE FICTION | SUSPENSE | GENERAL SCIENCE FICTION | SUSPENSE
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BOOK TO SCREEN
by Stephen King ‧ RELEASE DATE: Sept. 5, 2023
Loyal King stans may disagree, but this is a snooze.
A much-beloved author gives a favorite recurring character her own novel.
Holly Gibney made her first appearance in print with a small role in Mr. Mercedes (2014). She played a larger role in The Outsider (2018). And she was the central character in If It Bleeds , a novella in the 2020 collection of the same name. King has said that the character “stole his heart.” Readers adore her, too. One way to look at this book is as several hundred pages of fan service. King offers a lot of callbacks to these earlier works that are undoubtedly a treat for his most loyal devotees. That these easter eggs are meaningless and even befuddling to new readers might make sense in terms of costs and benefits. King isn’t exactly an author desperate to grow his audience; pleasing the people who keep him at the top of the bestseller lists is probably a smart strategy, and this writer achieved the kind of status that whatever he writes is going to be published. Having said all that, it’s possible that even his hardcore fans might find this story a bit slow. There are also issues in terms of style. Much of the language King uses and the cultural references he drops feel a bit creaky. The word slacks occurs with distracting frequency. King uses the phrase keeping it on the down-low in a way that suggests he probably doesn’t understand how this phrase is currently used—and has been used for quite a while. But the biggest problem is that this narrative is framed as a mystery without delivering the pleasures of a mystery. The reader knows who the bad guys are from the start. This can be an effective storytelling device, but in this case, waiting for the private investigator heroine to get to where the reader is at the beginning of the story feels interminable.
Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2023
Page Count: 464
Review Posted Online: July 13, 2023
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2023
THRILLER | PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER | GENERAL THRILLER & SUSPENSE | SUSPENSE | SUSPENSE
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56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard, a review
by Malissa - QuotationRe:Marks | book reviews , reviews | 0 comments
This post may contain affiliate links. For more info on this, visit my disclosure page . Thank you for your support in this way!
56 Days Review: Back-of-Book Description
‘Bloody good.” — The New York Times ”Timely, surprising, emotionally alive, this is about as good as suspense fiction gets.” –Washington Post No one even knew they were together. Now one of them is dead. 56 DAYS AGO Ciara and Oliver meet in a supermarket queue in Dublin and start dating the same week COVID-19 reaches Irish shores. 35 DAYS AGO When lockdown threatens to keep them apart, Oliver suggests they move in together. Ciara sees a unique opportunity for a relationship to flourish without the scrutiny of family and friends. Oliver sees a chance to hide who—and what—he really is. TODAY Detectives arrive at Oliver’s apartment to discover a decomposing body inside. Can they determine what really happened, or has lockdown created an opportunity for someone to commit the perfect crime?
The Covid books had arrived! But wait – before you go running in the other direction… 56 Days is fiction and takes place in Ireland. So it’s different than the United States experience (if that’s where you’re reading this from). Also, it only adds to the setting of the thriller, it doesn’t act as its own “character” so to speak.
Anyways! This was a Book of The Month pick recently and even though I was a bit hesitant about reading a Covid-related story I gave it a shot. And I’m glad I did!
56 Days was intriguing right from the start of the book. And the start of it was right before Covid became the thing it is now – before anything shut down at all. So the fact that it was looming on the horizon to be this long-term thing that would force people into their homes felt like it added an ominous mystery to the whole plot.
The plot itself was very twisty! In the beginning, I was thinking it’d go one way, then found out I was wrong…then later thought for sure I’d figured it out…but nope! It was something different and even crazier than I’d imagined. Ugh! A fun roller-coaster of “what’s really happening here!?”
The author tells the story from three different points of view – the detective, the main guy, and the main girl. It was really interesting the way it flipped back and forward in time and then also showed how things looked from two perspectives in the past. It was a cool way to tell the story, in my opinion.
The characters felt well-rounded and fully fleshed out. They also each felt relatable in their own ways. The dialogue was smooth and natural, including the inner dialogue presented for each character. There was a lot of questioning and uncertainty on all sides and the author handled that well.
The settings were all well done and easy to picture. Both the city in Ireland and the fact that the Coronavirus was affecting people. It was almost like ready about people in a storm or something, with the way people had to plan and change their behavior. It was cool.
Overall the writing was really good and I very much enjoyed the book. The author has written other books and I fully intend to check some of the others out soon.
Buy It Now!
Favorite quotes from 56 days.
“People think the decisions you make that change the course of your life are the big ones. Marriage proposals. House moves. Job applications. But she knows it’s the little ones, the tiny moments, that really plot the course.” “The only way you can lose your own shadow is to stand in the dark.” “None of us know what we’re capable of, if the circumstances were right. Or wrong.” “Do you ever think that maybe you have your shit together, it’s just that your shit doesn’t look like everybody else’s?” “It’s hard to hear you through the glass house you’re standing in.”
I thought this book was super good and enjoyable. 56 Days gets 4.5 stars from me! The only downfall was that there were a few repetitive parts, but it’s probably pretty necessary for the story. I didn’t find it too troublesome myself but I know some other people might not be a fan of that aspect.
I would recommend this book to anyone who likes suspense or mystery novels. It’s classified as a thriller and it is thrilling, but the mystery and the “who done it” is what stood out the most for me.
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