Readers who believe that hell is other people will find validation in these sublimely suspenseful thrillers.
Within these books, the psychological tension mounts, the lies pile up, the gaslighting gets ever more complex and our protagonists try to figure out how to win battles of wits and wills while, y’know, staying alive.
How Quickly She Disappears
It’s 1941, and Elisabeth Pfautz is trying to adjust to life in the isolated town of Tanacross, Alaska, in Raymond Fleischmann’s How Quickly She Disappears. Elisabeth’s husband, John, is hired to teach children of the Athabaskan tribe, and so they move with their daughter, Margaret, to Alaska for the government gig. They live in a large building that houses the school and is also the de facto accommodation for visitors to the tiny town. When a German pilot named Alfred arrives, Elisabeth offers him a room—even though John’s out of town and her instincts are pinging. Sure enough, Alfred commits murder, terrifying everyone and threatening the already strained relationship between the Pfautzes and the locals. It’s a sudden and dramatic shift, a finely tuned reminder of how quickly life can change.
The now-imprisoned Alfred claims to know about Elisabeth’s twin sister, who disappeared when she was 11. He promises information in exchange for favors, and she complies, while keeping everything secret from her family. She’s desperate for answers, and Fleischmann handily ratchets up the suspense as Elisabeth’s longing becomes obsession and Alfred becomes the center of her life. Elisabeth’s past crashes into her present in a compelling exploration of the power of unresolved grief and unanswered questions.
Good Girls Lie
Bestselling author J.T. Ellison’s newest thriller, Good Girls Lie, is set in an elite girls’ prep school in Virginia. It’s a beautiful place, rife with greenery and mountains and . . . murder?
Ellison kicks things off with a gruesome scene: A girl’s lifeless body dangles from the school’s entrance gates as classmates look on in shock and horror. This is just the latest in a series of events plaguing the Goode School and its headmistress, Ford Westhaven, who took over when her mother resigned after a different student’s death.
The story unfolds via Ash, a sophomore from Oxford, England, who comes to Goode after her parents’ violent deaths. Confident and smart with a knack for coding, Ash attempts to keep to herself but draws the attention of queen bee senior Becca. Ash is excited when Becca taps her to join a secret society—sparking jealousy and suspicion that feels both inevitable and dangerous.
Ellison does an excellent job toggling between students and staff, past and present, U.K. and U.S., and readers will be engrossed even as they wonder how Ford will explain away each distressing new development. Good Girls Lie is an entertainingly twisted coming-of-age tale, pitting the desire for privacy against the corrosiveness of secrecy and taking an often harrowing look at how wealth and power can lull recipients into believing they’re untouchable. Schadenfreude, ho!
The Poison Garden
Cults have long captured the popular imagination. We’re repelled yet fascinated, disturbed yet wildly curious. Alex Marwood’s fourth thriller, The Poison Garden, will slake readers’ thirst for stories about what goes on in such communities and what happens when everything falls apart—which it very much does for 100 members of the Ark, a doomsday prepper cult in North Wales.
After members of the Ark are found poisoned to death, the few survivors are set loose in a world they’ve been taught will end at any minute. Romy, in her early 20s and pregnant, is set up in her own apartment and getting therapy, but she only wants to track down her half-siblings so they can rejoin any other remaining Arkians. Teens Eden and Ilo are placed with Romy’s aunt Sarah, an exhausted school administrator whose late sister joined the cult 20 years prior.
Marwood does a wonderful job building exquisite tension among the players. Romy strives to seem normal and nonthreatening in a society she finds abnormal and frightening, and Sarah wants the kids to feel safe and heard even as she struggles to understand their beliefs. Flashbacks to the Ark’s pre-poison days boost the dread factor and gradually reveal the group’s complex dynamics, prompting readers to reflect on the nature of community, faith and survival.
The Better Liar
Debut author Tanen Jones takes sisterhood to a whole new level in The Better Liar. It begins in Las Vegas, where Leslie goes to find her estranged sister, Robin—not because she misses her but because their deceased father stipulated that his daughters would only receive their halves of his estate if they claimed them together. But Robin dies of an overdose just before Leslie’s arrival.
When Leslie encounters a woman named Mary who looks like Robin, she proposes that the vivacious waitress and aspiring actress temporarily leave her cares behind (including a stalker ex) and pose as Robin for a week so they can each claim $50,000. The two travel back to Albuquerque together, and Mary moves in to Leslie’s home, which she shares with her husband and baby. It’s unnerving to imagine letting a stranger just move in, which signals how desperately Leslie wants the cash. But why?
As the days pass, the women grow more suspicious of each other. Readers will enjoy trying to discern which one is the titular better liar—or perhaps, which liar is the better “sister.” Leslie struggles to control the proceedings while Mary courts disaster by revisiting people and places from Robin’s past. The chapters alternate between three points of view, and the characters’ motivations converge, diverge and threaten to explode as the story builds to an unexpected yet gratifying conclusion. Jones has crafted a dark, twisty tribute to unreliable narrators and tenacious women.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Tanen Jones about The Better Liar.
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