Blog – Posted on Wednesday, May 08
The 50 Best Suspense Books of All Time
Whether you need a beach read, an airplane read, or just something to peruse before bed (if you dare), there’s one category you can always count on: suspense books. These tales full of enigmatic intrigue and shocking twists have always enthralled readers, and they’ve become more popular than ever over the past few years.
Now, you might be wondering: what exactly are “suspense books”? Suspense isn’t a genre in and of itself, per se — it’s a category that encompasses mystery, thriller, and even some horror novels. The one thing that unites all suspense novels is, of course, the tantalizing buildup of suspense. Whether it’s about an unsolved murder or a cheating husband (or, as in many a modern domestic thriller, both), a suspense novel will have you on the edge of your seat, heart pounding, blood racing… all that adrenaline-y stuff.
And if you’re a fan of suspense novels, you know that once you start reading them, you can’t stop. Luckily, we’re here to feed your addiction. Here are the 50 best suspense books ever, from well-loved classics to exhilarating new titles.
1. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Perhaps the best-known murder mystery of all time, And Then There Were None absolutely epitomizes suspense. Ten strangers meet on an isolated British isle at the behest of their oddly absent hosts. But when they start dying off one by one — in disturbing parallels to a children’s nursery rhyme — they realize that this is no vacation, but a collective execution. Christie brilliantly immerses the reader in the fear and paranoia of the guests as they try to determine who among them is the killer… before their time runs out.
2. A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell
If you’ve seen the trailers for the recent adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, you know that A Simple Favor smoothly combines 1950s-style noir and twenty-first-century drama. Stephanie is a widowed mommy vlogger whose life suddenly gets a lot more interesting when she meets Emily: a beautiful, mysterious woman who loves garnering others’ secrets, but seems dead-set against anyone else knowing hers. The big question at the heart of A Simple Favor is, who is Emily? And will Stephanie find out the truth about her before it’s too late?
3. Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
This 2018 novel follows a dysfunctional family with a terror of a daughter (you might call her a bad seed). Hanna is seven years old and has never spoken, but that’s the least of her mother’s worries; you’d probably feel the same if your little girl were trying to kill you. As Hanna’s mind games escalate and her father remains oblivious, Hanna’s mother must take matters into her own hands — because baby teeth might look sweet, but they can bite your head clean off.
4. Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson
Every day, Christine Lucas forgets everything about herself, even her name. Suffering from anterograde amnesia, her only clues to her identity come from her journal… but how can she trust this record if she can’t even remember writing it? Needless to say, if you loved Memento, Watson’s mind-bending novel should be next on your reading list.
5. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
If all fiction is lies, Moriarty can still spin ‘em like no other — and her most prominent work, Big Little Lies, takes the concept to a whole new level. In this novel, an idyllic coastal town is sucked into sordid scandal involving a young mother’s traumatic past, another’s secret home life, and a kindergarten scuffle that gets way out of hand. Read the book first, and then watch the excellent Reese Witherspoon-produced HBO series to see the story truly spring to life.
6. Bird Box by Josh Malerman
When the bizarre and terrifying phenomenon of “The Problem” begins to cause mass violence and suicide, one thing becomes clear: no one is safe. Malorie and her two children take refuge against the outside world, training themselves to live without sight, since looking at “The Problem” seems to drive people insane. But as the children grow older, Malorie must choose: venture outside and risk their horrific deaths, or remain trapped in the box forever?
7. The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
Happy suburban couple Anne and Marco Conti seem to have a perfect life — but that illusion quickly shatters when their six-month-old daughter goes missing. With a detective hot on their heels and their neighbors’ suspicions increasing, Anne and Marco soon realize that they’re both hiding huge secrets… secrets that could mean the end of their marriage, or worse.
8. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
If you’ve gone this long without experiencing The Da Vinci Code, you’re in for a jam-packed thrill ride, made all the more affecting by its connection to real historical events. Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is in town on standard business when he’s suddenly called to the Louvre to inspect a murder victim. This victim is none other than the museum’s curator, discovered in the pose of the Vetruvian Man, with strange symbols all over his body. Langdon must team up with cryptographer Sophie Neveu to figure out who did this and why — a mission that leads them down a spiraling path of religious legends and conspiracy theories come true.
9. Descent by Tim Johnston
Another deceptively happy family features in this heart-pounding thriller. The Courtlands are vacationing in the Rocky Mountains right before their daughter Caitlin leaves for college. While the athletic children enjoy the fresh air and mountainous terrain, the parents try desperately to fix their marriage. But all that’s forgotten when Caitlin goes for a run one morning and doesn’t come back. Who — or what — could have taken her down? And what are the Courtlands keeping from each other?
10. The Dinner by Herman Koch
Told over the course of a single evening, The Dinner begins with couple Paul and Claire meeting to discuss their children’s future with Paul’s brother and his wife — who also happen to be prominent political figures. However, the nature of the discussion isn’t college admissions or career choices, but something much more sinister. This taut novel sheds light on European sensibilities, complex family dynamics, and how far people are willing to go for those they love.
11. The Dry by Jane Harper
The Dry is an evocative portrait of a small farming community, Kiewarra, plagued by drought… and a recent triple homicide that seems to seal its doomed fate. Detective Aaron Falk returns home to Kiewarra for the funerals and is convinced to stay by the perpetrator’s mother — who believes her son is innocent. Astutely intertwining environmental, economic, and moral degradation, this novel will leave you haunted by how our communities not only shape us, but can destroy us too.
12. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
From the author of Tipping the Velvet comes another gorgeously atmospheric Victorian story. Sue Trinder and Maud Lilly have been raised in opposite circumstances, and when Sue is hired as a maid to defraud the wealthy lady Maud, she thinks of it as a necessary evil. But this is complicated by Sue’s growing attraction to Maud… and thrown into chaos when Sue realizes Maud isn’t who she says she is.
13. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The suspense sensation of 2015, The Girl on the Train follows Rachel Watson, a woman who’s lost everything: her husband, her job, and arguably her mind. Rachel whiles away her days drinking on trains, romanticizing the lives of the picture-perfect suburbanites she passes — until one day she sees something shocking through her window. In that moment, Rachel becomes embroiled in something much bigger than herself… a scandal to which she has a closer connection than she even knows.
14. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
A dark, epic saga that’s spawned widespread acclaim and multiple adaptations, Larsson’s Millennium series begins with this book. Lisbeth Salander is a researcher and computer hacker with a troubled past and a taste for vengeance. Naturally, she’s happy use her skills to help invesitgate a young woman’s murder. But as she and journalist Mikael Blomkvist get closer to the truth, they start to receive their own threats — still, this won’t stop our heroine, who’s determined to bring as many violent misogynists to justice as she can.
15. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Did you really think we’d write a list of the best suspense novels ever and not include Gone Girl? What starts off as a standard domestic thriller about unhappy couple Nick and Amy escalates into an unputdownable tale of love, duplicity, and media distortion. However, the masterful prose and revolutionary plot twists of this zeitgeist-defining novel can really only be appreciated firsthand. If you haven’t read it, go read it right now; and if you have, go back and read it again. Trust us, it holds up.
16. The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
What if your husband wrote you a letter containing his deepest, darkest secret, only to be opened in the event of his death… but you accidentally stumbled upon it long before then? When this predicament befalls Cecelia Pitzpatrick, a happily married mother of three, she must decide whether to open the letter and jeopardize her relationship and blissful life — or live in doubt and fear until her husband’s death. Another stunning work of suspense from Moriarty, The Husband’s Secret takes a relatively simple premise and turns it into something extraordinary.
17. Intensity by Dean Koontz
This pressure-cooker of a novel takes place over a single weekend, closely tracking the movements of college student Chyna Shepherd as she attempts to outwit sociopathic murderer Edgler Vess. If she can stay one step ahead of him, his plans to kill again just might be thwarted — but all this hangs in the balance, as the two remain neck-and-neck the entire book. Seriously, if you want to be sweating bullets while you read, Intensity is for you.
If you want to read more of Koontz's most suspenseful works, check out this list of his 16 best books!
18. In the Woods by Tana French
In the Woods is the first book in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series (which is even darker than it sounds, if that’s possible). This installment revolves around Detective Rob Ryan: a survivor of a strange, inexplicable incident that claimed the lives of two children, and who finds himself facing an eerily similar case when a girl is found murdered in the nearby woods. Ryan must now delve back into his past to solve the mystery of the present… but will he be able to handle what he unearths?
19. Killing Floor by Lee Child
This one’s a little more action-packed than most of the psychological-leaning thrillers on our list — so if you love Mission Impossible and Die Hard, you’ll find your literary fix with Lee Child. Killing Floor kicks off Child’s stellar Jack Reacher series, beginning with the titular Reacher getting arrested for a murder he didn’t commit (though that’s not to say he’s never killed before). Now Reacher has to figure out who really did do the crime, so he himself doesn’t have to do the time. Needless to say, his approach to this is something of a five-fingered intervention.
20. The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson
Swanson’s second novel reimagines a classic Patricia Highsmith book as two strangers, Ted and Lily, meeting on an airplane rather than on a train, and one of them being a woman — which makes the “deal” they strike to co-murder Ted’s wife all the more interesting. Of course, Ted’s only joking… but what he doesn’t realize is that Lily may not be, especially given her past work in this particular field.
21. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Little Fires Everywhere is domestic for sure, if not exactly a thriller. Rather, it’s a 350-page slow burn (no pun intended) following the intricacies of various relationships in Shaker Heights, Ohio in the nineties — the town and era during which the author grew up. Ng brings incisive authenticity to this gripping story of mothers and children struggling with identity and morality — a collective struggle that coalesces into incredible suspense in the final portion of the book.
22. Long Man by Amy Greene
In Long Man, another child goes missing, though this time under particularly dire circumstances: an impending flood. Young mother Annie Clyde Dodson has refused to evacuate her home in eastern Tennessee despite the threat of the Long Man river, in a desperate ploy to save her daughter’s eventual inheritance of their land. But in the middle of an argument with her husband — who wants them to leave and start over in Michigan — Gracie disappears. Will the Dodsons be able to recover her in time for all of them to make it out alive?
23. Memory Man by David Baldacci
David Baldacci has been writing thrillers for over two decades, but it’s his 2015 book Memory Man that takes the cake for dramatic suspense. This novel centers around Amos Decker, a football-player-turned-detective after a traumatic brain injury gave him hyperthymesia. When Decker’s family is murdered under mysterious circumstances, he renounces his career as a full-time investigator… but is pulled back into the game after a local school shooting, which might just have something to do with his family’s deaths.
24. Misery by Stephen King
“I’m your biggest fan” was a perfectly innocent compliment until Misery: a novel about an acclaimed author, Paul Sheldon, being held captive by a deranged fan, Annie Wilkes. Of course, in a story populated by just two people in a remote Colorado cabin, the suspense has to be pretty damn good. Luckily, King delivers. From Wilkes’ unpredictable outbursts and creative methods of torment, to Sheldon’s increasing desperation, you’ll find yourself simultaneously transfixed and terrified right up to the very last page.
25. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Another one of Christie’s most exalted murder mysteries, Murder on the Orient Express is essentially the reverse of And Then There Were None. Instead of one killer and multiple victims, the murder is an isolated incident — and everyone aboard the Orient Express is a suspect. Fortunately, esteemed inspector Hercule Poirot (and his equally esteemed mustache) are on the case. But when each new clue seems to lead him in a different direction, Poirot realizes he’ll have to dig a bit deeper than circumstantial evidence to uncover the true culprit.
26. Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
For fans of Jodi Picoult who want something a bit more substantial, Diane Chamberlain is your solution — and you should start with Necessary Lies, a historical drama about a small town in 1960s North Carolina. Epilepsy-afflicted teenager Ivy Hart and social worker Jane Forrester become friends when Jane begins visiting Ivy’s home, where Ivy cares for her mentally ill sister and elderly grandmother all by herself. The more Jane gets to know the Hart family, however, the more she struggles with the assignment she’s been given by Grace County Hospital. At what point do her lies to the Harts stop being necessary, and start being monstrous?
27. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
A classic of sinister suspense, this novel by Daphne du Maurier is narrated by “the second Mrs. de Winter.” As you might expect, the story revolves around the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, who has passed away… but who still haunts Manderley estate, where the narrator now lives with her new husband. As Mrs. de Winter #2 learns more about her predecessor, she can’t help but wonder what really happened to Rebecca, and whether the same fate will soon befall her.
28. Serena by Ron Rash
Serena is a remarkable woman: strong, capable, and single-minded. She proves all this to her husband George when they move to the mountains in 1929, ready to establish a timber empire together. But when Serena discovers that she is barren — and that George has fathered an illegitimate child who lives in their small mountain community — she flies into a rage. Suddenly that single-mindedness is a menace, as Serena goes after the child and George finds himself unable to stop her… or to keep her from coming after him next.
29. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
You’ve probably detected a common theme of familial dysfunction in these suspense books, but Sharp Objects takes it to the next level. Journalist Camille Preaker left behind her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri long ago, but is forced to return when a young girl is murdered and Camille has to cover the story. This dredges up memories of her younger sister’s death — and before long, she begins to draw disturbing connections between the two. Adding color and intrigue to this story are Camille’s unstable mother, Adora, and her half-sister Amma, an adolescent master of manipulation and disguise.
30. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The year is 1945; the place, Barcelona. Eleven-year-old Daniel Sampere is introduced to The Shadow of the Wind, a mysterious and beautiful volume from his father’s enormous library. Daniel falls in love with the story; however, when he attempts to find more of the author’s work, he realizes it’s being systematically destroyed. Now Daniel’s quest isn’t just to find these books, but to save them… no matter what the cost. A somewhat nontraditional suspense novel, you’ll nevertheless be riveted by Daniel’s magical journey.
31. The Shining by Stephen King
An isolated, possibly haunted hotel in the dead of winter, a volatile alcoholic writer, and his young family — what could go wrong? If you haven’t yet read Joey Tribbiani’s favorite book, just know that The Shining is not only one of the scariest horror novels of all time, but also one of the most suspenseful; as in Misery, King builds up to the climax with deliciously mesmerizing prose.
32. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Hannibal Lecter may be a cannibalistic serial killer, but that doesn’t stop young FBI agent Clarice Starling from confiding in him… in exchange for crucial information about another serial killer, that is. This elegant work of horror relies heavily on tense, psychologically revealing scenes between Lecter and Starling, which would later be immortalized in the 1991 film.
33. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
Alicia Berenson is living the dream, working as a painter in London and happily married to her photographer husband. But even the most idyllic-looking life can be a tenuous illusion — as Alicia demonstrates the day she shoots her husband to death. Now she refuses to speak, even to defend herself. Can a brilliant forensic psychotherapist break her vow of silence — and what horrors will Alicia reveal if he does?
34. The Snowman by Jo Nesbø
A vicious murderer who uses snowmen as his calling cards: pretty chilling concept, no? When Detective Harry Hole realizes that a recent murder in Oslo follows the same pattern as cold cases from twenty years earlier, he understands that only he can track down the killer before it happens again. And no one is outside Hole’s suspicions, not even his own partner.
35. Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton
The main characters of this novel come from completely different worlds: Louise works multiple jobs to pay her NYC rent, while Lavinia is a spoiled socialite partying her life away. Yet the pair forge an unlikely bond after fate brings them together. And once Louise gets a taste of the high life, she’s not about to let it slip away — no matter what it takes.
36. The Surgeon by Tess Garritsen
Did you know that before Rizzoli & Isles was on TNT, it was a series of novels by Tess Garritsen? The Surgeon is the first in that series, about a murderer whose M.O. is torturing and killing women using seemingly medical knowledge — hence his nickname, “the Surgeon.” Detective Jane Rizzoli begins tracking him based on her knowledge of another, very similar case from several years before… the only thing is, the perpetrator in that case was killed. So who is this new Surgeon, and what’s provoking him to such horrific acts?
37. Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine
When her husband turns out to be a serial killer, midwestern mom Gina Royal is forced to completely remake herself to escape the past. Now calling herself Gwen Proctor, and having moved to the remote Stillhouse Lake with her children, she thinks she can finally breathe easy. That is, until a corpse surfaces in the lake and “Gwen” knows it’s a message for her — not from her ex-husband, who’s in prison, but from a new source of evil entirely.
38. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Perhaps only Hitchcock can match Patricia Highsmith in her masterful invocation of classic psychological suspense. The Talented Mr. Ripley was originally published in 1955, and has become since shorthand for sociopathic duplicity: it follows a scam artist named Tom Ripley who kills a wealthy friend and adopts his identity, hoping to live out a life of leisure abroad. But his troubles are far from over, as more innocents are caught in his increasingly complex web of lies. Can Ripley’s talents really pull off this ultimate scam?
39. Tell No One by Harlan Coben
Eight years ago, Dr. David Beck lost his wife after tragedy struck during an anniversary celebration. David is told that she’s dead and it’s time for him to move on. But then a mysterious email arrives one day insinuating that Elizabeth is still very much alive, along with instructions to “tell no one.” And David knows he can’t rest until he tracks her down… even if that means disappearing himself.
40. Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver
Speaking of disappearing, Vanishing Girls is a 2015 YA book from Lauren Oliver, the author of the much-praised Before I Fall. Our narrator is Nicole (“Nick”), and the titular girls are Dara and Madeline: the first, Nick’s sister, and the second a nine-year-old girl who vanishes shortly after Dara. Nick realizes that only she sees the link between these two cases, and must take matters into her own hands to figure out what happened to the girls — despite knowing she’ll be endangered in the process.
41. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
More young, endangered girls feature in The Virgin Suicides, but this time they’re a danger to themselves. The Lisbon family is thrown into disarray when the youngest daughter, Cecelia, inexplicably kills herself, and her sisters Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese are put on suicide watch. But of course, their parents’ restrictions only make the girls more inclined to rebel — especially Lux (played by the inimitable Kirsten Dunst in the movie). The Virgin Suicides is another novel that wouldn’t normally be described as “suspense”; yet the tension between the girls and their parents, and the aura of mystery that surrounds them in the eyes of the neighborhood boys (who narrate the novel), make for a spellbinding read.
42. White is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
This modern work of cosmic horror from Helen Oyeyemi is another atypical suspense novel — not exactly thrilling, but penetratingly creepy. Miranda Silver has just lost her mother, and her habits are growing stranger and stranger: namely, eating mass quantities of chalk and attempting to communicate with the spirit world. When she disappears, her family knows she isn’t truly gone — they only have to look for her in the right place. But do they even want to find her, and what will happen when they do?
43. Where Are the Children? by Mary Higgins Clark
Imagine losing your husband, having your children brutally murdered, and then being accused of carrying out the massacre yourself. Imagine moving across the country to leave all that behind, marrying again, and starting a new family… only for the same pattern to start anew. This is the horror of Where Are the Children?, a deeply unsettling work of suspense that takes a mother’s worst nightmare and makes it real — not once, but twice.
44. The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
One of our best books of 2018, this novel alternates between the POVs of two women, Vanessa and Nellie, who are opposites in every way but one: they’re in love with the same man. Both are battling for his attention and love — but only one can win, and only one does. It just won’t be in the way you might think. Hendricks and Pekkanen are undoubtedly masters of deception, and the twist in this book will give you a new gold standard for psychological thrillers.
45. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
Sean Phillips may live in a small apartment, but his “true world” is fantastical and infinitely expanding: he is the creator of Trace Italian, a wildly successful text-based roleplaying game. But when two of the Trace Italian’s players bring the game into the real world, the consequences are dire enough to make Phillips second-guess his career. His choose-your-own-adventure-style game provides a framework for Phillips to reimagine what life would’ve been like if he’d chosen different paths, and Wolf in White Van explores these paths in a brilliantly non-linear manner… such that the reader often can’t be sure what’s real and what’s not.
46. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
If you enjoyed The Girl on the Train (#13 up top, if you need a refresher!), The Woman in Cabin 10 is its nautical remix. Travel journalist Lo Blacklock has just been assigned to write about her weeklong stay on a luxury cruise ship. Which is a pretty sweet gig — until she sees a woman being thrown overboard. But when all the guests on the ship are accounted for, Lo thinks she must be imagining things… or is she?
47. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
Alternatively, if you’d like to get back to some good ol’-fashioned Rear Window-style snooping, check out The Woman in the Window. Anna Fox is a pill-popping, wine-swilling, former child psychologist whose main non-substance-related pastime is spying on her neighbors. One night, she witnesses something more disturbing than all of her past clients’ problems combined… yet this classic unreliable narrator can’t even trust herself, and is going to need to do some more detective work before she can be sure of what she may have seen. Of course, that’s assuming she won’t be too late.
48. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
The Woman in White was actually one of the very first mystery/suspense novels, with elements of melodrama that established the “sensation novels” subgenre. It also marks one of the first uses of the “doubles” trope in suspense fiction — the titular woman in white bears a striking resemblance to another character, and this becomes a major plot device in the novel. The full plot is a bit too complex to explain here, but it involves some very Dickensian drama, including a scheme to steal an inheritance, intense romantic rivals, and someone contracting typhus.
49. The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh
Part love story, part meta-storytelling, and all nail-biting suspense, The Wrath and the Dawn eloquently retells One Thousand and One Nights for a modern audience. Sixteen-year-old Shahrzad becomes betrothed to the murderous Caliph of Khorasan, who’s killed every one of his past brides after a single day and night. But Shahrzad is determined to prove her worth and stay alive — which she does by telling the Caliph eloquently-woven stories every night, stories that evolve more and more imaginatively and urgently. Will he tire of her tricks and wrap a cord around her neck, or will Shahrzad and the Caliph succumb to the unique power they hold over each other?
50. You by Caroline Kepnes
As you can probably tell from having read this far, suspense books make for great adaptation material, and our final entry is no exception. Before You was a Netflix thriller series, it was a book about an aspiring writer, Beck, and her ever-so-slightly overbearing boyfriend Joe. And by ever-so-slightly, we mean a lot. But in a refreshing turn of events, Beck ends up being pretty twisted herself. We won’t give away any more, but suffice to say that You is an electrifying tale of obsession and destruction that will leave you reeling.
Hungry for more? Check out this ranking of every Stephen King novel, or this list of 23 psychological thrillers that will mess with your head. And don't forget to keep an eye out for new thriller & suspense books on Reedsy Discovery!