I read a lot of novels, about two a week, and although I dip into other genres my favourite genre is the one I write in. I’ve read so many great thrillers and suspense novels over the last twenty years that choosing ten that I rank above the others was no easy task. I’m sure a few of my favourites have temporarily slipped my mind. But here are ten that made a big impact on me and that I heartily recommend to everyone who loves books that take us to the darker side of the street.
1. THE SECRET HISTORY, Donna Tartt – “I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?” The Secret History is a literary thriller that tells the story of a group of Greek students at a New England college who set themselves apart from their fellows and are arrogant, snobbish and beautiful. Led by the strangely charismatic Henry, and enthralled by their elitist tutor Julian, the group commit a terrible crime and go on to plot the murder of one of their own, Bunny, because he threatens to expose them. The first half of the book leads towards this momentous event; the second half reveals the consequences – the guilt, the anguish and the fear of being caught. This perhaps makes it sound serious and gloomy, but it really isn’t. The book is fast-moving, drenched in atmosphere and contains some moments of pure comedy.
The Secret History is not merely my favourite mystery novel – I put it above my favourite album, movie, song, above everything. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m slightly obsessed with it. One of the highlights of my life so far was watching Donna Tartt talk about and read from it in London in 2014. Afterwards, she shook my hand. It was like a Rolling Stones fanatic meeting Mick Jagger. I loved The Goldfinch too, but I know that no matter how many books I read none will ever top The Secret History.
The rest of the books on this list are in no particular order.
2. THE TREATMENT, Mo Hayder – The second book in Hayder’s Jack Caffrey series, The Treatment is also the darkest. It’s the most terrifying, disturbing novel I’ve ever read. A family in south-east London are put through an unspeakable ordeal. Meanwhile, Detective Caffrey is trying to find out what happened to his brother who vanished years ago. This book is so dark that reading it is akin to having icy fingers scrape at your soul…and the experience was intensified for me by the fact that I lived in the area where it’s set. I saw the building in which the killer lived on my walk to work each morning. My children played in the park where a murder victim is found hanging from a tree. Since The Treatment, Mo Hayder has eased off a little on the horror, but the whole series is great, especially the latest entries, Poppet and Wolf (which works as a companion to The Treatment and resolves one of the mysteries left over from that book).
3. INTO THE DARKEST CORNER, Elizabeth Haynes – There have been loads of excellent psychological thrillers published over the last few years but Into the Darkest Corner remains my favourite. A woman with OCD is hiding out, recovering from a terrifying experience, unsure if she is safe…and, of course, she’s not. Haynes nails the psychological thriller here: a damaged, loveable heroine, a truly loathsome villain, her attempts to escape his clutches and rebuild her life. It’s jaw-droopingly good – scary, sexy and impossible to put down. Her subsequent novels have been excellent too but for me this is still her best.
4. RED DRAGON, Thomas Harris – It’s almost obligatory to include a Thomas Harris book in any list of top crime novels and this, the original serial killer thriller, is still hard to beat. Hannibal Lecter remains, with the possible exception of Lisbeth Salander, the greatest character in the genre, and many novelists are still making a living rewriting this book: the twisted killer with a warped back-story, the flawed but brilliant FBI profiler, the game of cat and mouse between the pair. It doesn’t matter if Harris never writes another book, his first two Hannibal books outshine the entire backlists of most writers.
5. THE CONCRETE BLONDE, Michael Connelly – The Harry Bosch series was the first cop series I got into. It’s been consistently brilliant for twenty years and this is my favourite, the novel in which all of the elements come together in perfect, pulse-pounding fusion. I still remember the sensation of reading it, back in the nineties, being completely unable to put it down, desperate to find out what happened next. Connelly writes such hard, clean prose and is a master when it comes to plotting. Bosch is a wonderful creation and the recent TV series was pretty excellent too.
6. THE BLACK DAHLIA, James Ellroy – I read this around the same time that I read The Concrete Blonde and was utterly blown away. It takes about forty pages to really get going but as soon as Elizabeth Short’s tortured, multilated body is found the novel takes off like a rocket, propelled by Elroy’s savage wit and the raw emotion that comes from the connection, in Elroy’s imagination, between the murders of the Black Dahlia and his own mother. The second book in the L.A. Quarter, The Big Nowhere, is even nastier and it’s difficult to choose between the two. L.A. Confidential is another masterpiece. After that, Ellroy’s sentences got shorter and the books got longer and longer, and he never quite recaptured the storytelling genius that made The Black Dahlia such a great read.
7. THE CRY, Helen Fitzgerald – And now for something completely different. Arguably it’s not really a mystery novel but The Cry features an event more terrible than any brutal murder or gangland slaying. A couple flying from the UK to Australia accidentally give their baby an overdose and, gripped by panic and horror, try to cover up what they’ve done. It sounds like a grim topic, and a lesser writer might have turned such a premise into a depressing read. But The Cry manages to be darkly funny about a completely unhumorous topic, and Fitzgerald produces a novel that is compelling, life-affirming and impossible to put down.
8. THE FOLLOWER, Jason Starr – Starr is a New York based writer who should be far more famous as all of his books are brilliant. His speciality is in creating an ordinary protagonist, usually one with a job he or she hates, stuck in a crappy relationship, who makes a terrible mistake and is then sent into a downward spiral of panic and disaster. Starr delights in making his messed-up characters suffer. The Follower was the first of his that I read, and is about a stalker and his victim, told from both their points of view. It’s creepy and very funny. All of his books are brilliant and if the TV adaptation of The Follower happens (Bret Easton Ellis, another of my favourite writers, is involved) it will hopefully catapult Starr into the big league.
9. GONE BABY GONE, Dennis Lehane – I’ve chosen this not just because Lehane is one of the greatest crime writers in the world, who crafts prose that would put many literary novelists to shame, but because it has what I think is the best ending of any novel I’ve read. Warning – SPOILERS AHEAD. (Skip to book 10 if you haven’t read Gone Baby Gone or seen the pretty-decent movie.) After a truly ghastly scene in which Kenzie and Gennaro discover the body of a child, but not the one they were looking for, they discover that little Amanda has been taken away from her deadbeat, junkie mother to be given a better life with a nice, affluent couple. Kenzie has to decide – give Amanda back to her mother or keep the nicer couple’s secret? The reader is willing him to do the latter…but Kenzie’s decision might make you want to throw the book across the room. There’s a follow-up too, Moonlight Mile, which was disappointing though still worth reading. But Gone Baby Gone is a stunning writer at the top of his game.
10. ROSEMARY’S BABY, Ira Levin – Imagine what it must be like to have written four perfect novels, two of which were made into movies that will remain in the public imagination forever: A Kiss Before Dying (noir with an unreliable narrator decades before Gone Girl), The Boys From Brazil, The Stepford Wives and, best of all, Rosemary’s Baby. My book, The Magpies, has been compared to Rosemary’s Baby, but I didn’t read the book or watch the movie until after mine was published. At which point I rushed out to read everything else Levin had written. Everyone knows the premise of Rosemary’s Baby. A young couple move into a creepy old New York apartment block. Rosemary is pregnant. The people next door are…weird and Rosemary’s husband is willing to do anything to help his acting career. It’s acerbic and tense and contains one of the greatest lines ever written: “He has his father’s eyes.” Apparently there’s a sequel in which it’s all revealed to be a dream but I choose to ignore that. Why mess with perfection?