Lauren Emily Whalen

Theater is life for a specific subset of people. And it’s not just actors and stage managers—for the professional theater critic, the hours spent after the lights go down are just as sacrosanct. Alexis Soloski’s Here in the Dark follows one such critic, a New York City 30-something who finds herself embroiled in a web of deception, sex and murder.

Vivian Parry has loved the theater since childhood, but after her beloved mother’s death and a subsequent psychotic break, the former actor turned to criticism as a way to engage with her passion from a distance. Vivian’s Manhattan life is completely subsumed by her art: Even as she guns for a promotion at her prestigious magazine, Vivian maintains her isolation, disappearing by day in a haze of words, booze and pills until it’s time for that night’s curtain. When Vivian is interviewed by a graduate student who then goes missing, she’s driven to find out what happened to the enigmatic young man. An undercover stint at a Russian gambling startup, the discovery of a corpse (not his) and a fling with an earnest special effects designer follow, with Vivian drinking more and thinking less as she finds herself no closer to the truth. But as the lines between theater and reality blur, she finds herself asking: Is it all just an act?

Soloski is the best possible candidate to write a protagonist like Vivian. She not only holds a doctorate in theater from Columbia University, but also is an award-winning critic for the New York Times, former lead critic at The Village Voice and a past instructor at Barnard College and Columbia. Her debut novel is chock-full of wry observations about lighting design, references to everyone from Shakespeare to Grotowski, and enough industry inner workings to make the hearts of her fellow theater critics (which this reviewer just so happens to be) sing. For those less drama-obsessed, fear not: Here in the Dark is also a tightly paced and expertly crafted noir whose heroine is both hilariously wisecracking and deeply troubled. From curtain up to curtain call, Here in the Dark is flawless.

Theater critic Alexis Soloski’s debut thriller, Here in Dark, is flawless from curtain up to curtain call.

Juicy and dark, Rosemary Hennigan’s The Favorites is a standout dark academia thriller, with shades of Donna Tartt’s modern classic The Secret History and Emerald Fennell’s revenge fantasy film Promising Young Woman. Set at a Philadelphia law school in the days before and after the 2016 presidential election, The Favorites follows a bright young student dead set on avenging her older sister’s demise.

Jessica Mooney-Flynn enters Franklin University with one goal: ruin professor Jay Crane. As “Jessie Mooney,” the liberal Dublin native is accepted to Crane’s extremely select Law and Literature course and immediately begins her quest to become one of his infamous “favorites”: a status that is traditionally a gateway to prestigious clerkships, job opportunities and, if Jessica’s beloved older sister Audrey is any indication, a passionate affair. Back in Dublin, Audrey was the visiting professor’s favorite right before she dropped out of law school, self-isolated from her family and set out traveling, only to perish in a bus accident. Armed with text and email exchanges between the two—the last of which was Audrey’s missive “You know what you did”—Jessica seeks to entrap Crane. But what will happen when she too falls under his spell?

Hennigan knows the cloistered, clannish law school world firsthand: She studied the subject at both Trinity College, Dublin and the University of Pennsylvania. Jessica is a firecracker of a protagonist, intent on vigilante justice while still mourning the loss of her sister and fighting her growing attraction to an undeniably charismatic predator. Thanks to Hennigan’s strong voice and full embrace of the bumpy, twisty nature of retribution and revenge, The Favorites positively sings.

With its strong authorial voice and full embrace of the bumpy, twisty nature of retribution and revenge, The Favorites is a standout dark academia thriller.

The femme fatale is beautiful, desirable and, above all, a survivor. While she was often villainized for that last trait in her film noir heyday, these modern takes on the figure celebrate the ferocious resilience at her core. 

Stone Cold Fox

The wily narrator and antiheroine of Rachel Koller Croft’s Stone Cold Fox introduces herself as Bea—but that wasn’t the name she was born with. As a child, Bea changed her name as she moved from place to place and her mother moved from husband to husband, teaching little Bea the ways to ensnare both the right men and the money and privilege that come with them. Bea’s mother may be out of the picture now, but Bea still seeks to one-up her in every way possible. Thanks to faked credentials, Bea is a high-powered advertising executive who recently became engaged to a former client, the dull but old money wealthy Collin Case. It’s a union Bea knows will set her up for life. But when Collin’s loyal best friend, Gale Wallace-Leicester, and his flirtatious old pal Dave Bradford arrive on the scene, Bea fears that her web of lies and her greedy motivations will come to light. 

Alternating between Bea’s precarious present and her checkered past as the young and vulnerable tag-along to a truly wicked woman, screenwriter Koller Croft’s stellar debut novel is a meticulously crafted thriller that will keep the reader wondering whether Bea’s actions are horrendous or aspirational. 

A Small Affair

Vera, the results-driven narrator of Flora Collins’ A Small Affair, has a similarly aspirational lifestyle. She has a lucrative position at an up-and-coming fashion label, an enviable Instagram feed full of striking photos and unique style, a fun and supportive roommate/best friend and, most recently, an exciting older lover named Tom, a tech guru with a mouthwatering Brooklyn brownstone and wild prowess in bed. But after Vera breaks off the relationship, Tom’s body is found alongside that of his pregnant wife, Odilie, and Vera is named in a note as the cause of the murder-suicide. The story goes viral, and Vera loses it all, with no choice but to slink off to the upstate abode of her controlling hippie mother. One depression-filled year later, Vera seeks to clear her reputation and regain her position as a Manhattan scene queen. Could the late Odilie’s Instagram be the key to solving the mystery of her and Tom’s deaths? 

Vera is a fascinating contemporary femme fatale who will stop at nothing to claw her way back to the top, even if it means faking a friendship with Page, Odilie’s naive younger sister who may have secret ambitions of her own, and deep diving into Tom’s sordid life, which is full of grisly secrets that only money can protect. Collins’ second novel (after 2021’s Nanny Dearest) rotates among the perspectives of Vera, Tom and Odilie, a trifecta of complicated personalities desperate to make it in the cutthroat city that never sleeps. The result is a twisted tale of multiple femmes fatales who will use everything they’ve got to get what they want.

Two thrillers celebrate the ferocious resilience of an iconic female archetype.

In The Soulmate, New York Times bestselling author Sally Hepworth follows two women who each thought she’d found once-in-a-lifetime love. One relies on memories to reconcile the partner she thought she knew—who is now suspected of murder—while the other speaks from beyond the grave, bereft of her beloved. As you would expect, the women’s stories are more intertwined than is immediately apparent.

Pippa has it all: a successful career, two gorgeous little girls, an adoring husband, Gabe, and a gorgeous new waterfront house situated on a cliff. There’s just one macabre drawback: The cliff is a frequent location for suicides. Shortly after they move in, Gabe becomes something of a guardian angel and talks multiple people out of killing themselves. But one fateful night, a woman approaches the cliff and, despite Gabe’s entreaties, jumps to her death. At least, that’s what Gabe claims, though the local authorities think otherwise. As Pippa reflects on her relationship with her soulmate—a dramatic saga full of lost jobs and sudden moves—so does Amanda, the woman at the cliff. Past and present collide as the reasons for Amanda’s journey to the cliff, and the extent to which Pippa has worked to protect the man she loves, become clear.

Hepworth is a master of suspense, teasing out a complicated and deadly tale as well as she teases out the complicated and occasionally deadly individuals behind it. None of the four “soulmates”—Pippa, Gabe, Amanda and Amanda’s husband—are all good or bad. The reality is far more interesting and intense, rife with professional ambition, struggles for power in the boardroom and bedroom and, for Pippa and Amanda, a never-ending quest to understand the men to whom they’re devoted. One character deals with severe mental illness, which Hepworth reveals and analyzes in ways both sensitive and true to life, and another holds onto a family secret with disturbing consequences. From its inciting incident to its final shocking twist, The Soulmate will keep readers in its thrall, making them wonder how well someone can really know their partner.

From its inciting incident to its final shocking twist, Sally Hepworth’s The Soulmate keeps readers in its thrall.

Is there truly honor among thieves? When one half of a con woman duo ghosts her partner, their loyalty to each other is put to the ultimate test. Promising Young Woman meets Heartbreakers in Wendy Heard’s sharp and sexy You Can Trust Me

Summer (not her real name) has been thieving since childhood and learned from the best: her itinerant mother, who abandoned Summer when she was 17 years old. Now almost 30 and based in Los Angeles, Summer has taken in a younger stray named Leo who ran away as a teenager after an unspeakable family tragedy. The women live together in a tricked-out van and relish in their specialties: Summer pickpockets rich, drunk clubgoers, and Leo cozies up to older men before financially sucking them dry. But when Leo unexpectedly falls for tech entrepreneur and environmentalist Michael Forrester and accepts an invitation to his private island, Summer finds herself alone . . . and worried. Where is Leo? Why hasn’t she reached out since her first night with Michael? And how can Summer get her friend back?

Heard, author of The Kill Club, She’s Too Pretty to Burn and other stylish thrillers, deftly alternates between Summer’s and Leo’s perspectives. Leo’s timeline lags a few days behind Summer’s but gradually catches up as the two keep narrowly missing each other and encounter the same deceptive, deadly characters set on eradicating them both. Heard keeps the stakes high—Summer doesn’t want to get the authorities involved, as she doesn’t even have a birth certificate—and the secrets plentiful, as Leo recalls the painful personal history she’s never even told Summer. Both protagonists are equal parts savvy and vulnerable, as well as all too aware of materialistic LA culture (Heard lives in LA herself) and the ways they can take advantage of it. You Can Trust Me blends realistic character development and nail-biting heists, resulting in a tale of a most unique, potentially murderous alliance.

You Can Trust Me blends realistic character development and nail-biting heists as it follows two con women who are in over their heads.

Libraries are seen as havens, full of community resources, endless stacks of books and peace and quiet, with librarians as the keepers of the flame. However, Laura Sims’ How Can I Help You defies this image, especially the “peace and quiet” part, as a disgraced nurse and an aspiring novelist go head-to-head in the small-town library where they both work.

Margo relishes her job as a librarian in Carlyle, Indiana, especially the opportunity to help others—even if that means keeping a close eye on “Friday guy,” a patron who uses the library internet to watch porn. It’s a far cry from Margo’s former career under her real name: As a nurse, Margo’s unrelenting love and attention left several patients dead and forced her to go on the run. When Chicago transplant Patricia begins her tenure as reference librarian, she finds her discarded creative writing dreams reignited, with Margo as an unaware muse. But after Margo comes across Patricia’s novel-in-progress, the two women face a reckoning like no other.

An award-winning poet and novelist, Sims also works as a reference librarian, and she adds vivid color to this thriller by detailing the ins and outs of the profession, from tedious calls from patrons wanting to know when their favorite show is on TV to the librarians’ breathless appreciation of classically spooky authors like Shirley Jackson. Sims skillfully alternates between the perspectives of Margo, whose rose-hued memories of nursing slowly but surely grow dark, and Patricia, whose self-flagellation for “failing” as a novelist gives way to relentless, and risky, ambition. How Can I Help You perfectly blends suspense and satire and will inspire any library patron to look over their shoulder the next time they check out.

A disgraced nurse and an aspiring novelist go head-to-head in the small-town library where they both work in Laura Sims’ scary and satirical thriller.

Everyone knows the term “serial killer” in today’s true crime-obsessed landscape. But Jessica Knoll’s Bright Young Women takes the reader back to a time before constant content about murders and those who pathologically commit them, though to say life was better then would be a vast oversimplification. Moving between past and present, Bright Young Women is a searing, feminist take on the mythology of serial killers that prioritizes the voices of survivors and victims.

It’s 1978 and The House, Florida State University’s smartest sorority, is prepared to take on the world. The sorority values friendship and achievement above all else, especially with senior Pamela “Pam Perfect” Schumacher as its president. But one late night, the pre-law student is startled awake and witnesses a strange man exiting the sorority house. Two of Pamela’s sisters are found gravely injured, and two are dead—including Denise, Pamela’s best friend and a protege of iconic artist Salvador Dali. Decades later, Pamela is a successful lawyer. The perpetrator—who left a trail of female bodies in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest before terrorizing Florida—has long since been prosecuted, but a still-haunted Pamela needs one final answer before she can finally put her ghosts to rest.

Knoll made a name for herself with her smash-hit debut thriller, Luckiest Girl Alive (2015), and Bright Young Women solidifies her status as one of the most thoughtful suspense writers working today. As well as brutal violence against women, the story investigates the ramifications of sexual assault, the complexities of grief and antiquated, destructive attitudes toward queerness. The killer himself is not glorified; Knoll describes him in bits and pieces and never names him outright, referring to him only as The Defendant. She keeps a tight, controlled focus on the novel’s women: sharp in their intelligence, fierce in their convictions and slowly accepting their own justified anger. In the hands of a less capable author, Bright Young Women may have been too much, but Knoll has crafted a primal scream for women past and present, navigating a world still designed to violently fail us.

Jessica Knoll’s Bright Young Women is a primal scream for women past and present.

The stock character of the crazy ex-girlfriend has undergone a significant reevaluation in recent years, resulting in nuanced stories that unpack the misogynist nature of the trope. (Look no further than Rachel Bloom’s musical TV series of the same name if you have any doubt.) Sri Lankan author Amanda Jayatissa follows up her award-winning debut, My Sweet Girl, with a brilliant new take on the figure. A psychological thrill ride that takes place during the fanciest of fancy nuptials, You’re Invited explores class divides, social media scandals and family drama, all through the eyes of a “crazy” ex-girlfriend who might be the sanest character in the book.

Amaya Bloom lives alone in Los Angeles, far from Sri Lanka where she came of age amid lavish surroundings as part of the country’s 1%. The 20-something keeps her past firmly to herself, except during vulnerable phone calls with her friend Beth and gratifying encounters with Alexander, Amaya’s once-a-month, no-strings-attached lover. When Amaya receives a wedding invitation from Kaavi Fonseka—her former best friend who’s now an accomplished philanthropist, wildly successful influencer and rich girl about town back in Sri Lanka—she’s not sure what to think. After all, the two haven’t spoken in five years. Then Amaya learns that Kaavi is marrying Amaya’s ex-boyfriend. Her mission? Stop the wedding, even if someone has to die.

Fans of Crazy Rich Asians and Gone Girl should look no further: Jayatissa spins a twisted tale of glittery parties, meddling aunties and a friendship between two young women that went horribly awry once a man got involved. The novel’s opening sentence—“I woke up with bruised knuckles and blood under my fingernails, more rested than I have been in years”—is but a taste of the horror to come, all bedecked in yards of the finest fabric and studded with gems from the Fonseka family’s jewelry empire. Both Amaya and Kaavi are fascinating characters, foils with a shared history and much more to each than meets the eye. You’re Invited is a thoroughly satisfying and beautifully plotted thriller, featuring characters you won’t soon forget and a head-spinning twist to top it all off.

You’re Invited is a thoroughly satisfying and beautifully plotted thriller that deconstructs the trope of the crazy ex-girlfriend.

A Riley Sager novel is a guaranteed wild ride, and the New York Times bestseller’s hotly anticipated sixth book, The House Across the Lake, is no different. Sager is the literary equivalent of a master chef, using a deft hand to configure tasty ingredients—a complex, grieving woman with alcoholism; a missing supermodel with dangerous secrets behind her dazzling smile; and the picturesque lake that brings them together—then adding a generous pinch of pulp and a delicious surprise at the end. The result is an addictive beach read that fans will devour in one sitting and leave feeling thoroughly sated.

Rear Window meets Lake Placid in the story of Casey Fletcher, a character actress with a complicated legacy. Her mother, legendary musical theater performer Lolly Fletcher, who prefers hoofing it on stage to providing emotional support, has shipped her off to the family cottage and ordered Casey to relax and reflect. Casey is also supposed to stay sober, which is all but impossible given her grief over the recent accidental death of her husband, Len, in the lake right next to the cottage. Enter Tom and Katherine Royce, a tech mogul and retired model, respectively, who are staying in the glass house across the lake. A tentative friendship between the women ensues, but soon after, Katherine disappears without a trace. Is Tom responsible? How about hunky handyman Boone? Or do the answers lie in the body of water that claimed the love of Casey’s life?

Sager (Survive the Night, Home Before Dark) balances the novel’s short timeline and limited setting with rich characterization for all, especially Katherine, whom the reader meets as she nearly drowns in the dark, freezing lake, and Casey, whose never-ending supply of snarky one-liners and wisecracks never quite camouflages the deep emotional turmoil that ended her once-successful acting career. The House Across the Lake is a psychological thriller that’s thoroughly personality-driven, following women whose motives, means and opportunities are as murkily fascinating as the titular loch.

Riley Sager’s latest thriller is an addictive beach read that fans will devour in one sitting—and leave feeling thoroughly sated.

Nothing ever happens in Ebbing—until one horrific weekend. Local Gone Missing follows a variety of residents in the tiny English seaside town, from an inquisitive cleaning lady with a dark past to vacationers with a secret agenda. It all comes to a head during a chaotic musical festival, one that ends with dual overdoses, a possible murder and a host of spilled secrets. Hopping back and forth before and after the incidents, New York Times bestselling author Fiona Barton spins a tangled web of dirty money, bloodshed and deceit.

For Dee Eastwood, a cleaning woman and wife of a recovering addict, it’s business as usual until one of her clients, the demanding Pauline, asks if Dee has seen Pauline’s husband, Charlie. The retired, formerly wealthy couple are living in a trailer until they have the money to fix up their crumbling estate, and Charlie has been struggling to pay the residential facility fees for his adult daughter, Birdie, who incurred a brain injury after a home invasion decades ago. Meanwhile, Detective Elise King, newly in remission from breast cancer, recalls seeing Charlie pre-disappearance at Ebbing’s first music festival—right before two young people overdosed on drugs of unknown origin. Are the two events related? When Elise finds Charlie’s decomposing body, even more questions arise.

Though Local Gone Missing‘s plot is wonderfully twisty with a surprising and satisfying conclusion, it’s the characters who stand out. Ebbing’s weekenders have their own complex motivations—especially a mild-mannered gay caterer and a middle-age father who are mysteriously connected to each other, and maybe to Charlie as well—but it’s the locals who will really draw readers in. Foremost among them is the compelling and well-drawn Elise, who’s struggling to adjust to life back on the force after returning from medical leave. Her retired librarian neighbor Ronnie, who’s eager to play amateur sleuth and surprisingly adept at sussing out clues, provides much-needed comic relief in this intense story of greed gone terribly wrong. Thanks to Barton’s airtight plotting and impeccable characterization, a minibreak by the sea will never seem relaxing again.

Using airtight plotting and impeccable characterization, Fiona Barton spins a tangled web of dirty money, bloodshed and deceit in Local Gone Missing.

“Those were the good old days” is a phrase people love to say as they wax poetic about bygone eras. It’s understandable to feel nostalgic given our current chaotic landscape, but as The Lunar Housewife points out, it’s not necessarily merited. Caroline Woods’ historical thriller, set in the final days of the Korean War and the onset of the Cold War, spins a tale of big-city intrigue as it follows a promising young waitress-turned-writer and the increasingly disturbing secrets she uncovers. The result is an addictive binge of a read that’s equal parts intelligent introspection and nail-biting suspense.

It’s 1953, and Louise Leithauser has come a long way from Ossining, New York. The 25-year-old daughter of a housecleaner is now rubbing elbows with the likes of Truman Capote and Arthur Miller in New York City as a writer for the hip literary magazine Downtown. Louise is writing political pieces for Downtown (under a male pen name, but why look a gift horse in the mouth?), dating the magazine’s handsome co-founder, Joe Martin, and penning a sci-fi romance novel, The Lunar Housewife, in her spare time. She’s also certain her twin brother, Paul, who is missing in action in Korea, will come home any day now. But when Louise overhears a conversation between Joe and his colleague Harry regarding mysterious surveillance and their magazine’s dangerous connections, she begins to wonder if anything in her carefully constructed existence is really what it seems.

Coming off her critically acclaimed debut Fräulein M., Woods takes the reader into the tangled web of American-Soviet relations and the dark secrets underneath the New York literary scene’s sparkling surface. Even Katherine, the protagonist of Louise’s novel-in-progress, isn’t immune. A former World War II pilot who voluntarily defected from the States to go on a groundbreaking mission to the moon, Katherine starts to suspect all is not well on Earth or in space. Both Louise and Katherine live in a world that is run by men, but these smart, capable women are not going down without a fight.

The Lunar Housewife will have readers thinking long and hard about how good the “good old days” really were.

The Lunar Housewife is an addictive read that's equal parts intelligent introspection and nail-biting suspense.

Some people deserve to die. At least, that’s Ruby Simon’s mindset. The protagonist of Sascha Rothchild’s Blood Sugar isn’t your typical suspected murderer. She’s a Yale graduate and a successful psychologist in her home city of Miami, and she was happily married until her diabetic husband, Jason, passed away. Now Ruby is accused of Jason’s murder, with plenty of time to think back on her checkered history as she waits in a police station. What follows is a Promising Young Woman meets “Dexter” thriller that’s both highly suspenseful and strangely empowering.

Ruby’s always been a Type A personality, pulling top grades and volunteering with animal rescues even during her wild teen years of club-hopping, snorting cocaine and hooking up with older men. Every now and then, she’s brought it upon herself to correct the injustices she saw around her. When Ruby was 5, she made sure her older sister’s bully drowned beneath powerful ocean waves. In high school, she fought back against her friend’s father, whose hands would never wander again after that. But Ruby genuinely loved Jason, a gentle Georgia native she met at an antique shop—so why is she under suspicion for his untimely demise? Could it have something to do with Jason’s aptly named mother, Gertrude, who has never hidden her disapproval of their marriage?

Rothchild is both a memoirist and an Emmy-nominated screenwriter for shows such as “The Bold Type,” “The Baby-Sitters Club” and “GLOW.” Her debut thriller successfully executes all the elements of a crackling mystery: page-turning plot beats, snappy dialogue (especially between Ruby and Roman, her narcissistic college bestie-turned-defense attorney) and vividly drawn characters. Readers will root for Ruby’s acts of vigilante justice toward toxic male figures while also questioning her reliability as a narrator. For those who love a fascinating, complicated female lead with more than one ax to grind, Blood Sugar is an absolute must.

Promising Young Woman meets “Dexter” in this highly suspenseful and strangely empowering thriller from an Emmy-nominated screenwriter.

What does it mean to be known? For a group of women in the South American art world, that seemingly simple question leads to more questions. In María Gainza’s Portrait of an Unknown Lady, unknown ladies abound—the nameless narrator, her enigmatic late boss and a long-gone painter—but only one ties them together: a master forger who may or may not still be alive, whom the narrator has vowed to track down. As Gainza follows her on her quest, she also offers a spare but vivid peek inside a female-dominated environment that’s both fascinatingly specific and deeply universal.

Thanks to family connections, the 25-year-old narrator lands a job in a prestigious Buenos Aires auction house and is immediately fascinated by her employer, Enriqueta Macedo. A nationally renowned expert in art authentication, Enriqueta runs the narrator ragged at work but also takes her to the spa on weekends. Enriqueta soon confides a major secret of her success: She sells certifications of authentication for artworks that she knows are forgeries. “Can a forgery not give as much pleasure as the original? . . . Isn’t the real scandal the market itself?” she asks the narrator in justification.

After finding Enriqueta dead of natural causes, the narrator’s grief-fueled breakdown inspires a covert mission. Donning Enriqueta’s black fur coat, the narrator checks into a hotel in hopes of locating Renée, a forger best known for her replications of the works of Mariette Lydis, a portraitist from the 1920s with her own colorful past. Enriqueta hadn’t seen Renée in over a decade, and as the narrator follows leads from Enriqueta’s and Renée’s ex-classmates and colleagues, she asks herself what she is really hoping to find, and why.

For these women, art is less occupation and more religion. Mariette, Renée, Enriqueta and the narrator have their own reasons for creating and selling art, as well as their own obstacles to fulfillment, but it’s the art itself that unites them. Through catalog descriptions, court transcripts and the narrator’s own introspective voice, acclaimed Argentine author Gainza, an art critic herself, deftly explores the quest for truth, both in brushstrokes and within oneself. Portrait of an Unknown Lady offers no easy answers but provides immense pleasure in the journey to find them.

This spare but vivid peek inside the South American art world is both fascinatingly specific and deeply universal.

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