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Psychological Thriller Books That Will Play With Your Head

a list of hair-raising psychological thriller books that are perfect for anyone who wants to mess with their mind.

By The Bookish ElfPublished 4 years ago 20 min read

The psychological thriller, a sub-genre of thriller books that explores the psychology of its characters, who are often unstable. What makes a thriller psychological is that the most important questions of the story are about the minds and behavior. Psychological thriller books often incorporate elements of mystery and include themes of crime, morality, mental disease, drug abuse, multiple realities or a dissolving sense of reality, and unreliable narrators.

Horror movies definitely give us chills and thrills but for real dose of terror you should read these psychological thriller books. They will spin your head and make you realise that real terrors come from the people around us. There is nothing more scary than being unable to trust your own mind. I think psychological thriller book that make you think ‘holy crap… this could happen to me' are the best kind of thrillers.

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

Publication Year: 2018

The Woman in the Window is intoxicating, dark, and simply unputdownable. A J Finn's debut novel is placed in current day, gentrified Harlem, New York City, where Dr. Anna Fox spends her day in her five-story townhouse drinking Merlot, spying on her neighbors, and mixing pills to numb her thoughts.

She has theories and pseudo-storylines for her neighbors, each one being unique and different in their own way. When she is not photographing and spying on her neighbors, Anna watches famous black and white movies to pass the time and regularly checks in with her daughter and husband, who she recently has separated from.

Anna suffers from agoraphobia, preventing her from leaving the confines of her house and limiting her ability to experience the real world effectively. Her hours, days, and weeks are consumed by fear and curiosity. When her new neighbors move in across the park from her house, Anna is intrigued at their anonymity. As she begins to investigate the story of her new neighbors, something horribly goes wrong. Anna witnesses something that shouldn't have happened—or did she?

The Woman in the Window breaks away from the mold of some of the more recent psychological thriller books that have been sprouting out more and more. This type of psychological thriller really gets you in the mindset of Anna's psyche without throwing everything at you at once.

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

Publication Year: 2016

Behind Closed Doors begins with an interesting way to introduce ourselves to the Angel, Jack and Grace, a couple with little time married, but perfect in every way. Perfect house well decorated, attentive and affectionate husband and wife, the perfect hosts, the food cooked to perfection by Grace, who is thin but not deprived even of dessert. So much perfection is suspicious.

The guests are two couples, one known to Jack, Diane and Adam, the other is new to the neighborhood, Esther and Rufus. From the beginning Esther doubted of so much perfection and it was wonderful that someone could do it, since everyone, Diane the first, adored all the perfection of the couple.

Perhaps what sets this one apart from many other psychological thriller books is that the author does not rely on gratuitous violence to either advance the plot or put the reader on edge. That is not to say that the fear is not real, because it is, very much so. Here though the source of this fear lay more in psychological manipulation and physiological deprivation.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Publication Year: 2015

The Girl on the Train has all the elements of a modern whodunit: a missing woman, adultery, an unreliable narrator and unlikable characters. There is also a train, which is a nice homage to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock. Three women, three men, connected through marriage or infidelity. Each is to blame for something. But only one is a killer in this nail-biting, stealthy psychological thriller about human frailty and obsession.

The story is told through the eyes of Rachel, Megan and Anna, but mostly through Rachel’s in alternating chapters. Rachel commutes on the train everyday and the story centers around homes and people she sees out the window. I mean, after all, Rachel used to live on that street and can see her old house as she passes by. She makes up stories about these people’s lives, enough to even give them names. Rachel is what one may refer to as a “hot mess” and her life is a mystery.

This book is full of flawed characters and it was really hard to know which ones to trust. If you like to read well written psychological thriller books, you won't regret picking this page turner and plot driven book.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Publication Year: 2014

Gone Girl is as much a character study as an out-and-out thriller. The married couple at the center of the story, Nick and Amy, are as vivid as any real-life Nick and Amy. The narrative unfolds half in Amy’s voice and half in Nick's. This technique not only allows for a full portrait of both characters but draws out suspense very nicely--and Gone Girl is a highly suspenseful story. Particularly impressive is how manipulative Gillian Flynn is, asking her reader to feel a variety of ways toward her characters. It’s not often that feelings toward characters change so utterly.

The plot is very tightly organized--strikingly so--and punctuated with dozens of crucial not-so-little details. All the while, Gillian Flynn kept manipulating as often as possible. Most notably, in one pivotal moment, the story transforms from a mystery-thriller unfolding in a straightforward manner to an inverted mystery that turns everything on its head. Gone Girl is one of the best psychological thriller books you can get your hands on.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Publication Year: 2009

Dark Places tells the story of Libby Day, the only survivor of the massacre that killed her mother and two sisters 25 years ago. Her testimony threw the blame on her then 15 year old brother Ben, who got sentenced to life in prison. However, the involvement of a freelance group of people interested in the murders starts throwing doubt on Ben’s guilty verdict and they drag Libby in, to try and uncover the truth.

The story alternates between the present day, when Libby is in her 30s and has been living a shiftless life, and the day before the murders in 1985. In the present, Libby meets a group of true crime enthusiasts who think Ben is innocent, and she agrees to track down some people from her hometown and ask them about what really happened that night. The flashback chapters tell the story from both Ben's and the mother's point of view.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

Publication Year: 2003

Shutter Island is a creepy psychological mystery thriller by Denis Lehane, and book will have your skin crawling long after you finish it. This book is full of twists and turns and really packs a punch.

The year is 1954. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new -partner, Chuck Aule, have come to Shutter Island, home of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, to investigate the disappearance of a patient. Multiple-murderess Rachel Solando is loose somewhere on this barren island, despite having been kept in a locked cell under constant surveillance.

As a killer hurricane bears relentlessly down on them, a strange case takes on even darker, more sinister shades--with hints of radical experimentation, horrifying surgeries, and lethal countermoves made in the cause of a covert shadow war. No one is going to escape Shutter Island unscathed, because nothing at Ashecliffe Hospital is remotely what it seems.

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

Publication Year: 1981

This has long been a mainstay and must-read for fans of psychological thriller books. And it is, of course, the first book of the Hannibal Lecter series. We do get introduced to the infamous Dr. Lecter during this book but with only one scene of any length. That scene was, for me, the best scene in the book and undoubtedly goes a long way towards elevating that character to the heights of most lists of memorable characters in literature.

But this book is not about Hannibal; rather it's about a different serial killer, dubbed the Tooth Fairy at first and then the more properly named Red Dragon. It is most definitely a psychological thriller as we spend about half the novel seeing events through the eyes of the killer himself and the other half through Will Graham's eyes, the man who is pursuing him. I found the killer to be a much better fleshed out character than Graham, and it's easy to imagine the author found him the more intriguing character.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Publication Year: 2006

The characters are raw, flawed, and complex and Flynn portrays her characters with precision as she slowly peels away the surface — scratching, digging, and unfurling the deepest, darkest secrets these characters are trying to suppress. The horror lies in the enigmatic minds of these characters, particularly Camille's dysfunctional family, thoroughly repressed in their own tormented psyche.

Out of the three Gillian Flynn books, Sharp Objects is by far the creepiest and one of the best psychological thriller books! Reporter Camille returns to the hometown she hasn't visited in years for an article about a possible serial killer of young girls. Camille's mother is cold and manipulative, her 13-year-old half sister that she's never met before is a budding Lolita, and Camille's own demons are swiftly coming back to haunt her. Camille never comes home, and she wouldn't have come now, except her editor insisted--he thinks her being a local girl will give her an edge.

As the novel progresses, we learn more about Camille's own psychological issues, and feel a growing horror for her childhood and her family—all the while clues are coming in about the murdered young girls. You feel the need to find out what happened, but you gradually feel that that knowledge will come with a price.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Publication Year: 2019

The Silent Patient is a clever, original and complex fast-paced character-based psychological thriller with one of the best twists I have read. Paying attention to this character study might pay off with picking up some of those well-layered clues that lead to a very pleasing gasp-worthy twist.

Alicia Berenson, a famous painter, shoots her fashion photographer husband in the face 5 times, killing him and then never utters another word again. Theo Faber, a criminal psychotherapist, has been obsessed with Alicia and her silence for years and he finally works his way onto the staff of at the Grove, a secure forensic unit and then manages to secure the position of Alicia's psychotherapist. Very little is really the way it seems in this addictive psychological thriller and it had me on the edge of my seat from the first chapter.

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Publication Year: 2011

This thriller, with it's suspense, twists and turns, as it moves towards the finish, is brilliant, and will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last page.

Before I Go to Sleep tells the story of Christine Lucas, who is trying to piece back her life after suffering an accident that has caused her to have amnesia. Chrissy can remember everything that happens to her during the day but as soon as she goes into a deep sleep, her brain erases all her adult memory; resulting in Christine waking up next to a stranger-her husband Ben?

She can't retain new memories, so her entire adult life is blank, but her early childhood memories are unaffected. The man she wakes up next to tells her he is her husband, Ben, they have been married for 22 years, they are very happy, and very in love. She wakes thinking she is young, and gets a terrible shock when she looks in the mirror, and sees her wrinkles.

Christine receives a phone call from a Dr. Nash, a neuropsychologist, who has been following her case, and thinks he can help her...but she doesn't know him! Dr. Nash gives Christine her journal, where she had recorded her daily activities for the last few weeks...and so the story evolves and she both reads and writes in the journal on a daily basis, in order to stir up some memories. But Ben doesn't know that his wife is seeing Dr. Nash and keeping a journal. So many lies and secrets are soon revealed...Who can she trust?

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

Publication Year: 2017

All psychological thriller books mess with your head, that's what we expect, but Alice Feeney has taken it a step further with this clever, compelling story. A story related to us by Amber Reynolds as she lies in a hospital bed whilst in a coma.

From the title alone, one knows they will more than likely be dealing with an unreliable narrator. Not to believe everything you are reading, and not to even try to figure out where this is going. Despite knowing this going in, this novel still made my head spin.

The chapters alternate with Amber, now in a coma, but able to think but not move or reach out, with chapters from before, detailing what happened, and journal entries of a young girl.

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Publication Year: 2018

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen is dark, mysterious and heavy with atmosphere. It is riveting, it is gut-wrenching psychological thriller and it will show both the worst of mankind and the best. The book will leave you in awe of the complexity of this tale, the complexity of relationships and power and control, witnessing human frailties, human cruelties and manipulations.

The Wife Between Us is very much a character driven story and the characters are where this book shines. I’d say the main character in the story is Vanessa who is the woman whose husband left her. Through Vanessa we meet all of the other characters and her story is the one that very much drives everything forward. There was only one character, Richard’s sister Maureen, who I wish we got to know more about. All of the other characters are very well fleshed out with great backstories and motivations.

Each page will hold another revelation, another piece to the puzzle and yet, until you have that last piece, nothing will fit. But after that final page, after that final piece is in place, you will have the truth, warts and all. This is one of the best psychological thriller books I've read recently.

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

Publication Year: 1988

Silence of the Lambs is the sequel to Red Dragon in the Hannibal series. A satisfying psychological thriller held up by the dangerous wit of Hannibal Lecter, the fiercely determined heroine Clarice and the iconic horror villain Buffalo Bill. The book reads like a movie script, placing heavy emphasis on character and dialogue which is delivered at a breakneck pace at the expense of descriptive prose.

While James Gumb (Buffalo Bill) is an interesting and disturbing villain, he doesn't have the emotional complexity or the dark redemption arc of Francis Dolarhyde. We aren't given much of a reason to connect with him or sympathize with James, only a brief description of his troublesome childhood which isn't fully explained.

You by Caroline Kepnes

Publication Year: 2014

YOU by Caroline Kepnes a dark psychological thriller, that this is not a book for everyone. This book is offensive and the characters are all evil and I expect opinions all over the map. This is not the book for you if you are easily offended by coarse language or scenes of a sexual nature.

This is a stalker story from the perspective of the stalker, which is second person. That is why the title is called “YOU”.

YOU is the story of obsession told from the point of view of Joe Goldberg. Joe a young twenty something lives in NYC and works in a bookstore. He is a loner and doesn't like most people. Then while giving grief to a customer, in walks “YOU”. You is Beck, a 24 year old want-to-be writer. That is all it takes for Joe to decide he wants Beck. He must get to know her.

YOU by Caroline kepnes is just full on creepy and more creepy than some of the other psychological thriller books I've read.

An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Publication Year: 2019

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen are on their way to becoming co-author psychological thriller legends. They had a break-out sensation hit with “The Wife Between Us”.

Well, An Anonymous Girl certainly fits the definition of a psychological thriller. The role psychology played in this book with the ethical and moral dilemmas the main character faced just really elevated the novel into the top tier in the genre. To say this held my interest is putting it mildly.

Jessica Farris signs up for a psychology study on morality and ethics because she needs the money and she will be compensated for her time. But the questions asked of Jess, aka Subject 52, become more and more invasive and soon she is placed in situations in which she is told how to act and behave. Is this a true research study or is Dr. Shields playing some weird, manipulative game with Jess?

The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney

Publication Year: 2017

The Girl Before was a great psychological thriller told through multiple points of view. One view focused on past events while the other told the present story.

Two women are each searching for a place to begin again. Emma, wants security after being violently burgled. Jane has just suffered the stillbirth of a perfect child due to hospital neglect, and needs to move on after quitting her high-paying job, and more importantly, leave the constant reminders that fill her present home of poor little Isabelle. The major problem both face are the terrible price of London flats, and the horrible state of those they can afford.

Enter Edward Monkford, a gorgeous, controlling perfectionist with plans for his architecture to change the lives of those who inhabit his pristine, mausoleum like, architecture.

This dark and brooding tale was alive with emotion and drew the reader into the tension of the tale. The story wasn't set out in chronological order and this provided room for the tale to slowly unfurl, and share its secrets with the reader at its own pace. The telling of the tale, as well as the setting of it, were as alive as the characters, and all three worked together to provide something suspenseful, shocking and totally unique!

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Publication Year: 2016

The Woman In Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware was a real thriller set on a small luxurious boat from London to Norway. Once again Ruth Ware has a knack of putting unlikable characters into the plot & made it work, Lo Black lock was a journalist trying to get her life together after an intruder broke into her house, she decides to take a cruise of a life time but ends up in a nightmare on board.

One night she hears screams coming from cabin 10 but when she investigates there is none there she then goes to Nillson who works on the ship but he dismisses her claims & tells her that she is imagining it, although she has her own demons taking pills for Anxiety she must have been seeing things.

Suspenseful, unpredictable, and hard to put down, this psychological thriller novel will hold your interest until the end!

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

Publication Year: 2014

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh is one of the best psychological thriller books, with a couple of massive twists that actually made the second part of the book turn the story upside down completely.

A car accident where a young child is badly hit. She let go of his hand for just 2 seconds to push her hair out of her eyes and that is all it took.

The driver of the car turns and speeds away, leaving her alone with her dying son. It all happens so fast she didn't even get a good look at the car let alone a license plate number.

Jenna Gray will never forget this night for as long as she lives. She runs, desperate to put the past behind her, but never forgetting or forgiving herself.

Back at the scene, Investigator Ray Stevens vows he will find the driver and bring justice for little Jacob. But it won't be easy, and his personal life will suffer.

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

Publication Year: 2014

Mia is the 25 year old daughter of a Chicago judge. She is kidnapped, but the kidnapper changes his mind and doesn’t turn her over to the person that ordered the crime. Eventually, she is returned home but is in a total fog as to what has happened. The story is told by multiple narrators, and moves back and forth from before and after her return. The one person you never hear directly from is Mia herself, until the very end.

It’s a character driven book, not big on action. It raises some interesting questions at the end, concerning things like Stockholm Syndrome.

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

Publication Year: 2018

Ellie Mack went missing 10 years ago. Her mother, Laurel has never given up hope of finding her. Ellie was fifteen years old, full of life. The world was, in fact, her oyster. No one knew what happened to Ellie. The police have never found a trace of her.

Now, Laurel Mack’s life is very different: her marriage fell apart years ago and her relationship with her remaining children is tenuous. Somehow, she meets Floyd - a devastatingly handsome man and she is immediately swept off her feet. Then Laurel is introduced to his little girl: Poppy, and she is dumbfounded to discover that Poppy bears a striking resemblance to Ellie, her Ellie. Laurel begins questioning everything and those questions take her on a dangerous path, one she never envisioned.

What unfolds thereafter is brilliant, stunning and packs one heck of an emotional punch. Lisa Jewell’s Then She Was Gone is a phenomenal psychological thriller that will keep you enthralled throughout.

Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

Publication Year: 2007

Into The Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes is a great psychological thriller about an abusive relationship that occurred in the past. Four years ago Cathy fell for Lee who is equal parts good looking, intense, and charming. From that point on her life slowly turns into hell.

We meet Cathy in the present, four years after her time with Lee. She’s basically a mess with severe obsessive compulsive disorder stemming from a trauma we have yet to discover. Cathy adheres to a strict routine of going to work and coming home with much of her free time spent checking and re-checking her apartment for breaches in security. Alternating chapters take us back to the past, four years ago and we slowly witness the events that brought Cathy to this point in her life. The tension mounts both in the present and in the past as the chapters tick on by.

Lee exacts psychological terrors on Cathy as well as physical, making her a wreck little by little.

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Publication Year: 2017

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough is everything I look for and more in a psychological thriller books. It is menacing, chilling and gripping in equal measure. The characterisation is absolutely spot on, and the plot is just stellar.

We meet Louise, a single mum who on a night out meets the charismatic David. They steal a kiss and leave it there until she next goes into work. David turns out to be her new boss. Next we meet Adele, David's enigmatic and startlingly beautiful wife. A woman who on the surface appears to have everything yet underneath gives the impression that much is wrong.

Louise for one reason or another finds herself entangled between the couple and much of the book revolves around this. The tension is palpable and Pinborough does well eking out the psychological thriller aspect.

The Breakdown by B.A. Paris

Publication Year: 2017

One quick shortcut home through the woods after a night out with friends turns Cass’ life upside down. When she passes a car parked on the side of the road she hesitates, maybe the woman needs help? But what if it’s a trap? Taking no chances, she motors on home without giving it another thought.

That is until the next morning, when she wakes to hear that a woman was killed in her car last night on the same road. Her mind is spinning. Could it be the same woman who she came across? Should she have stopped? Was the killing personal? Or is there a maniacal killer on the loose!

Soon Cass’ life begins to spiral, fighting back the choking fear that her life is in jeopardy. Though oddly, no one seems to believe she may be in danger. Not even her husband or the police.

This one has everything you look for in a great psychological thriller!

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

Publication Year: 2013

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison was her debut novel and unfortunately her last as she died in 2013 in which she has left an incredible psychological thriller. This is no ordinary thriller either where we see the perpetrator and the detectives for them. This is far darker, far deeper inside the mind and is so engrossing it is tempting to rush through the book. Harrison has reached inside the mind to those dark deep well hidden depths we all have and brings it all out for the reader.

Jodi Brett who has lived with Todd Gilbert for over twenty years, she is a psychologist and her common law husband is a property developer, knows all about his faults and has accepted them. She understands that he is a as long as he does not bring it to her doorstep over the years he has had numerous affairs and always come home. She lives the denial as if in a parallel universe but always settle the score with him.

We see Todd fall in lust with a younger lover, a student whom he gets pregnant and she becomes more demanding wanting changes in his life. He leaves Jodi and starts eviction proceedings against her from the place she calls home and cuts off her money. Really he is a lover not a fighter and Natasha his young love has to push him all the way.

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

Publication Year: 2016

The Couple Next Door is a fast paced crime thriller that will keep you guessing to the end. But you may need to throw out all reasonable thinking, because there are way too many questionable threads in this story.

Anne and Marco's babysitter cancels at the last minute when they have a dinner party next door. Marco talks Anne into leaving their six month Cora alone because they can bring along the baby monitor and check in on her at half hour intervals. When the two arrive home shortly after 1 am though Cora is no where to be found and the police are called in to investigate. As the investigation proceeds it becomes increasingly clear that the kidnapping was orchestrated by someone close to the couple or the couple themselves, leading Anne to doubt herself.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

Publication Year: 2015

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware is a psychological thriller about friends who get together to celebrate the "ho den" (bachelorette party) of Clare at an old cottage in the woods. A few still get together regularly: good friends Clare, her best friend Flo, Melanie and their friend Tom and the other invitees, who haven't seen Clare in years: Nina and Nora. And no one except for Clare and Nora know what happened 10 years ago, which effectively broke up their friendship.

This weekend however, Flo has plans to make Clare's ho den the best weekend of her life and won't let anyone or anything ruin it. Little does she know, nothing is within her control. Within a matter of hours, both Nina and Nora regret their decision to attend but can't escape, much to their chagrin. If only the shocking revelation that Clare is marrying Nora's childhood sweetheart, James (who Nora can't seem to get over), was the most important thing she should be worried about.

The setting (glass house in the woods, my worst nightmare) as well as the writing made it atmospheric and creepy, the characters made the story really come to life and the unreliable-narrator-aspect was handled very well.


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