Five Literary Thrillers I’ve Read

I’ve been careful with that heading, not wanting to mislead readers. The qualifier’s there more to indicate what these thrillers aren’t – action packed, techie, blood-soaked, although one does have a gruesome murder – rather than what they are, and I couldn’t think Cover image for Her by Harriet Laneof another word. It’s a genre I tend to watch rather than read but every so often one comes along that hits the spot. Below are five of those, each with a link to my review.

The story of Nina and Emma told in their alternating voices, Harriet Lane’s Her fits into the psychological thriller niche. Out shopping one day, Nina spots a harassed young woman, toddler in tow, recognising the self-assured teenager she once knew. Nina is an artist, quietly successful, elegant, polished and collected, everything that Emma is not, ragged with the exhaustion and the constant small anxieties of child rearing. Through a series of apparent acts of kindness and contrived coincidences, Nina insinuates herself into Emma’s world until the two become friends. What follows is a tale of revenge in which Lane expertly handles the tension between Nina and Emma’s narratives. It’s a one-sitting, riveting read: a cleverly controlled dual narrative with a dark edge.

Annemarie Neary’s Siren gripped me from its superbly dramatic opening when Róisín finds herself Cover image for Siren by AnneMarie Nearywitness to a murder she’s unwittingly helped to set up during Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Mousey and shy, she’s flattered when she’s picked out by the brash, sophisticated new girl in her class who invites her on a night out, unaware that she’s being used. Soon Lonergan comes calling, demanding a second job but this time offering a way out once it’s done. Before she makes her escape, Róisín is witness to another atrocity and it is in the hope of doing justice for this that she takes herself off to Lamb Island, decades later, where Lonergan has a house from which he conducts his dodgy business dealings. Neary takes her time revealing Róisín’s past, feeding small details into her narrative and occasionally bringing her readers up short. A smart, pithy thriller which I enjoyed enough to make me eager to read her second novel, The Orphans.

Set in 1960 against the backdrop of the Cold War, classic thriller territory for many years, Helen Dunmore’s Exposure sees a Cover image for Exposure by Helen Dunmorewoman fighting for her family’s survival when her husband is caught up in an old friend’s treachery. Three people listen to a train whistle blow: Lily’s a little unnerved before realising there’s nothing to worry about; Gus hears it, too, but is unmoved, knowing ‘exactly which train he will catch, if he ever needs to disappear’; ten-year-old Paul adores trains and wonders if his father will take him to King’s Cross again soon. Lily was once Lili, a German-Jewish refugee, now married to Simon who works in the Admiralty together with Gus. Educated, well-travelled, sophisticated and louche, Gus is suspected of dallying with Moscow. When he takes a drunken tumble with classified files in his possession, he turns to the ever-loyal Simon. An engrossing story well spun and replete with period detail, Dunmore’s novel is also a subtle exploration of loyalty, betrayal and love.Cover image for Arab Jazz by Karim Miske

Set in Paris with the odd foray to Brooklyn, Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz moves on from Cold War espionage to post-9/11 thriller territory.  Ahmed becomes aware of something awry when a few drops of blood fall on to his balcony. Using his keys, he enters his neighbour’s apartment to find a particularly grisly murder scene. The hunt for Laura’s murderer takes in a Muslim/Jewish rap band, an ultra-orthodox Jewish Rastafarian, Jehovah’s Witnesses, bent coppers, illicit sky-blue pills and the beginning of a love story. Clues are strewn along the way, clicking the scattered parts of the plot pleasurably into place. The novel has a nice vein of sly wit running through it but its forte is its sharp social observation, taking a scalpel to modern society and its many disparate elements including a well-aimed pop at religious fundamentalism.

Cover image for Based on a True Story by Delphine de ViganCombining elements of a blockbuster thriller with sophisticated literary debate, Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story is a very smart piece of writing. Delphine meets a chic, assured woman who engages her in easy conversation at a party, following it up a few days later with an invitation to coffee. L. quickly becomes the centre around which her world revolves. They have so much in common – experiences, books read, films considered formative. When Delphine talks to L. about her writing plans, a debate about fiction and truth is sparked in which Delphine sees a new, angry side of L. As the year proceeds, Delphine becomes increasingly isolated until L. is her only contact with the outside world. Who is this woman who seems to know so much about her life, who turns up unexpectedly and seems to be watching her every move? An absolutely gripping piece of fiction which really is unputdownable.

Any thrillers you’d like to share?

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39 thoughts on “Five Literary Thrillers I’ve Read”

  1. I was brought up on thrillers, from Fleming to MacLean to Frederick Forsyth to John Le Carre and beyond. Give me spies or a heist, science gone bad or something clever in the thriller world, plus straight forward crime of course – I love them all (not really the macho, gun for hire, high body count stuff though). I’ve not read any of your selection, although I own the de Vigan and Lane, and would love to read them both, and the other three you’ve picked out.

    1. I’m glad you like the sound of them, Annabel. The de Vigan, in particular, hit the spot. High body counts are definitely not for me but having already got another five of these planned for a future post, it seems I like a page-turner more than I’d thought!

    2. Same! Pocketbooks still hold a nostalgic appeal for me because of these early reads. But a good literary thriller can scratch the same itch if I know in advance that it’s not going to be another Ludlum or Forsyth!

  2. I’ve read all of these and heartily recommend them too, although I did find Her slightly repetitive (perhaps inevitably so).

  3. Oh, I love a literary thriller (I actively seek out books marketed as thrillers where all the reviewers on Goodreads complain that they are too slow) and Her is one of my favourites, so I’ll definitely have to check your other picks out. In a similar vein, would recommend Kate Murray-Browne’s The Upstairs Room.

  4. I am not really drawn to literary thrillers, but de Vigan’s book and her other works sound very interesting. Polanksi has made a film version of Based on a True Story. I have recently finished reading the new book by Rebecca Makkai’s I have Some Questions for You. It could be classed as a campus thriller (sub-genre?) and revolves around the suspicious death of a student. Deals with misogynic and collusive behaviour, but it is quite a long book.

    1. Not wanting to give too much away, but I wonder how Polanski portrayed the novel’s resolution. I enjoyed the Makkai but felt it was too long, a frequent complaint from me.

      1. Don’t know about film, as I have not seen it, just saw it listed. Yes Makkai’s book was overlong, and I felt had a lot of superfluous content. I saw her at an Irish book festival couple of months back. Very interesting discussion about her work.

  5. I read the Delphine de Vigan a couple of years ago. I see that at the time, I felt positive about it, but felt it was too long. I also said that I would read more by this author, but so far … I haven’t. A timely reminder. For different reasons, all your choices seem worth punt. For some reason, I feel drawn to the Karim Miské – the French connection I suppose. But I wouldn’t turn any of these down.

    1. Good to know this lot sound appealing. I’ve had a patchy experience with de Vigan’s novels, not least her last one, Kids Run the Show, which had an interesting premise but laboured it, sadly. This one’s my favourite.

  6. A first, in that I’ve read all of these! Exposure is the pick of the bunch for me – I thought it was such a clever way of showing the typical spy story from a different angle.

  7. I haven’t read any of these nor on the shelf, but I did recently read a literary horror Where I End by Sophie White without having any idea what that really meant.

    I am intrigued by the idea of the literary thriller though, my mother only read thrillers, so I read a few in my teens until I found the books I really liked and then tried to get her to read them, she complained they were too slow.

    1. I’m too much of a coward for horror which seems to have become quite popular recently. I’m sure readers used to an adrenaline-fuelled read would find all of these too slow!

  8. I haven’t read any of these, but I was very impressed with another of Delphine de Vigan’s books, Nothing Holds Back the Night, which delves into the author’s relationship with her mother. I can’t recall if you’ve read it, but I found it very compelling.

  9. jenniferbeworr

    Exciting titles, as ever! May I ask who the translator was for Based On a True Story? It sounds excellent.

    1. Of course – it’s George Miller who, I think, has translated most of her novels. The last one, Kids Run the Show, was translated by Alison Anderson. Based on a True Story is my favourite of hers so far.

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