Psychological thriller books are one of the most popular types of books and a sub-genre of thriller books. When written well, such books are absolute page-turners and leave the readers in horror and shock. Let’s get into the best psychological thrillers books for you to read!
1. What is a Psychological Thriller Book?
As the name suggests, the best psychological thriller books deal with psychological conflict. The biggest difference between a thriller and a psychological thriller book is that the main character faces a huge internal conflict in the psychological thriller. This internal conflict is balanced with the external conflict, making it just as important to the story as the events are played out.
While there are many elements to a psychological thriller book, the two most commonly found tropes in the best psychological thrillers books include –
1.1 An Unreliable Narrator:
The best psychological thrillers books are generally written in the first person to drive home the internal conflict faced by our protagonist. But, even more importantly, these books keep us hooked in their mystery mainly because as we read, it starts to feel like the events happening are being said to the readers only through the distorted perception of the protagonist. It’s always unclear whether what has been narrated to us has occurred.
Thus, psychological thrillers books have a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on how you look at it) dose of lies, secrets, and mystery. The unreliable narrator leaves us doubting the external events occurring amid all their internal conflict.
Of course, just because the protagonist is unreliable doesn’t mean they’re bad. Sometimes they do turn out to be a psychopath, but it’s just likely that their mental health issues, or maybe their naivety, or their lack of knowledge, makes them unreliable.
1.2 Unanswered Questions:
The unreliability of the narrator leads to this next point. It’s simple – if you can’t trust the protagonist, you can never really answer questions about what happened and why without some extra information.
This kind of writing gives rise to at least two explanations for every event, and it’s not until the end, or during a plot twist, that the real truth comes out. For example – Did the murder happen, or was it the protagonist’s hallucination? Is something supernatural, or is it an issue of mental health?
2. The Best Psychological Thrillers Books
Now that we understand what the best psychological thrillers books consist of and what elements makeup such a genre, let’s go through a list of the best psychological thrillers books.
This list will start with the classics and end with the latest thrillers and cover books, which are both lengthy and brief, so you’ll be able to pick the perfect book for you. This will also include a short, spoiler-free summary of the book and its rating on GoodReads.
2.1 Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)
Goodreads Rating: 4.24
This novel is considered an exceptional piece of literature in the psychological thriller and gothic horror genre. One of the things that makes this book so interesting is that we never find our narrator’s name. She is simply a young woman who falls in love with a widower, Maxim de Winter, and makes the reckless decision to marry him.
On reaching his home, she finds the place haunted by the ghost of his first wife, Rebecca. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, still nurses high regard for Rebbeca, leading our heroine to believe that she is inferior to the gorgeous and talented Rebbeca, whose dead body is also eventually discovered.
You should definitely read this if you enjoy topics surrounding death and ghosts, gradual character development, and a macabre atmosphere. The main mystery here is – Who exactly was Rebecca? And does her ghost haunt the house?
2.2 Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939)
Goodreads Rating: 4.28
This murder mystery horror book is one of the best-selling Agatha Christie’s best-selling novels to date and is a great read for someone looking for a short and fast-paced story.
In this, ten strangers are invited to an island by a wealthy man, Mr. Owens. When they arrive, their host is said to be running late, so they must make themselves comfortable. They’re unable to do so one by one; they start dying in ways that are eerily similar to a poem hung in every room – “Ten Little Soldier Boys.” It’s also revealed that this is happening to them because they are all hiding secrets that have caused hurt to others.
The reason this book is so highly acclaimed is that the entire plot is cleverly planned and executed. Besides, unlike other psychological thriller books, all the unanswered questions that begin to pile up from the beginning get neatly tied up in a surprise ending.
2.3 Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950)
Goodreads Rating: 3.74
Ever wondered what a perfect crime would be? Charles Anthony Bruno believes he has found the answer in Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel.
In this novel, two men, Charles Anthony Bruno and Guy Haines, meet each other for the first time on the same train (surprise, surprise). They start talking and discover that they each have someone in their lives who hinders them.
Guy Haines is a successful architect going through a divorce from his unfaithful wife, Miriam. Bruno is an alcoholic and a smooth-talker with a mean streak who wishes his father was dead.
Bruno proposes that they kill the hindrance in each other’s lives, which would be perfect because they would have an alibi and no motive for the actual murder. The guy does not think much of this until Miriam is strangled to death one day, and he’s suddenly forced into a situation where he will have to murder Bruno’s father.
This straightforward plot was so appealing because it addressed one of the questions we have always asked: Are humans inherently capable of committing evil acts? And if so, at what point do we do so?
2.4 The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)
Goodreads Rating: 3.93
Another best-seller, this book centers around the iconic Tom Ripley. A con man and manipulator, Tom is dissatisfied with his life, so when he suddenly gets the opportunity to go on a paid trip to Italy, he jumps at the chance.
The trip is sponsored by Mr. Herbert Greenleaf, who believes that Tom is an old friend of his son, Dickie, and wants Tom to bring Dickie back home. Tom becomes obsessed with Dickie, but only because he wants to become Dickie himself.
So, he murders his new friend, moves to a new place, and takes his identity to begin a new life full of luxury. The book follows Tom as he attempts to keep this new identity and is full of our narrator’s manipulations, lies, and schemes.
2.5 The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
Goodreads Rating: 3.83
This chilling novel was the basis for the spectacular Netflix adaptation of the same name. In the original story, Four people stay at a supposedly haunted house – Dr. Montague, a scholar, attempting to investigate the supernatural, and three others – Theodora and Eleanor, who have had previous experience with the supernatural, and Luke, the heir to the house.
While at first glance it may seem like a mere horror novel, due to the sinister nature of Hill House itself, this book also dives deep into each character’s psychological state of mind as the story progresses. Initially, the characters all bond very well, but soon their relationship with each other, and their minds, start to crumble.
2.6 Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967)
Goodreads Rating: 4.02
Unlike other psychological thriller books, this book has more fantasy and supernatural elements. However, our main character, Rosemary Woodhouse, faces internal conflict as she tries to figure out what has happened.
She cannot remember what happened on a particular night, and her husband, Guy Woodhouse, admits to having sex with her while unconscious, with the defense that she was fertile at the time, which would help their dream of having a baby.
Soon, Rosemary realizes that everything is not as it seems and something is wrong. She starts to become paranoid. The book deals with themes of the occult, cult practices, and domestic abuse. It’s a raw and truly terrifying read.
2.7 Misery by Stephen King (1987)
Goodreads Rating: 4.2
We all know how scary any fandom can get. That fear is beautifully portrayed in this psychological horror thriller. The book is narrated from the point of view of Paul Sheldon, a historical romance author who uses a wheelchair and is completely at the mercy of his biggest fan, Annie Wilkins, who rescued him from a car accident.
She forces him to write a book bringing her favorite character from his books, Misery, back to life. Paul is no longer writing for his career but for his life.
Stephen King has long been hailed as the king of horror novels, and many of his books could be covered under this list. If you want to read more novels by him, check out this list.
2.8 The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (1988)
Goodreads Rating: 4.23
To find a serial killer, Buffalo Bill, an FBI agent, Clarice Starling, is forced to ask for help from Hannibal Lecter, a cunning psychopath and cannibal. Despite initially appearing to be an odd couple, the two work together to crack the case and prevent Buffalo Bill from killing again.
Clarice Starling, however, is sucked into Lecter’s sinister world of lies and manipulation. While assisting her in their search for justice, he is also pulling strings that will help him break out of his prison.
If you enjoy criminally insane masterminds and action, this book is for you. Surprisingly, the movie inspired by this book is a cult classic. It’s objectively one of the best psychological thrillers books of all time.
2.9 The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)
Goodreads Rating: 4.16
This may be a surprising book on the list, but it covers all the major elements of psychological thriller books. It’s perfect for those who enjoy a good murder mystery, psychological horror, and a dark academic aesthetic. The book is Donna Tartt’s debut novel.
The book’s narrator is Richard Papen, an unexceptional young man from a working-class background. He casually reveals that he and his friends have murdered another one of their friends, Bunny, and have not been caught. The real mystery is why, how the murder happened and how the group deals with it.
2.10 Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996)
Goodreads Rating: 4.04
This Margaret Atwood book is based on a true story – the 1843 killings of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. James McDermott and Grace Marks, who worked in the house, were found guilty of the crime.
Grace was imprisoned while McDermott was executed. Nobody can definitively say whether or how much Grace Marks was engaged in the killings. A group that supports Grace and believes her to be not guilty hires Dr. Simon Jordan, who acts like a psychiatrist and tries to figure out whether Grace is guilty, making it an extremely progressive novel for its time.
If you’re a fan of Margaret Atwood or enjoy open-ended murder mysteries and psychology, this is the book for you!
2.11 Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (2003)
Goodreads Rating: 4.1
Shutter Island is famous for being a dark psychological thriller that leaves an open-ended story, allowing readers to conclude. The book recounts a tragic story narrated by Dr. Lester Sheehan, a psychiatrist who used to work at Shutter Island’s Ashecliffe Hospital.
The protagonist is Edward Daniels, a U.S. Marshal, investigating the disappearance of a woman from the hospital and the supposed illegal experiments being carried out.
The head doctor later reveals that Edward is a different and mentally ill person. The question is – who is right? Is Edward a U.S. Marshall who was trapped by a sinister doctor, or a delusional murderer, as the doctor claims? Whatever your conclusion, the book is a must-read.
2.12 We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003)
Goodreads Rating: 4.07
This book deals with topics surrounding the evil nature of man, nihilism, and motherhood. As a trigger warning, this book depicts heavy violence, rape, school shootings, and child abuse.
The novel consists entirely of letters written by Eva Khatchadourian to her husband, Franklin. When her son, Kevin, was born, no love was lost between her and her son. The book details Kevin’s cruel and violent tendencies and deals with the events and aftermath of a serious crime he committed, inspiring later books on the same concept, such as The Push or Baby Teeth.
2.13 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005)
Goodreads Rating: 4.16
This psychological crime thriller was originally published in Sweden and is the first book in the Millennium trilogy. The protagonist is an unconventional woman, Lisbeth Salander, a hacker.
She joins hands with a disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, to solve an old case of the mysterious disappearance of Harriet Vanger. You should be warned that this book deals with rape, sexual assault, violence against women, and torture.
2.14 Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (2006)
Goodreads Rating: 4.01
The novel’s protagonist is Camille, a crime reporter who is asked to go back to her hometown to cover the story of a missing young girl. Camille is reluctant to do so as dark secrets are involved, including her little sister’s mysterious death.
The novel shows great depth and character development for the narrator, and the events in the story finally allow her to uncover the truth behind the deaths and disappearances.
Gillian Flynn is an amazing author, and this book is a clear must-read, but be careful as it deals with self-harm issues.
2.15 Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)
Goodreads Rating: 4.11
With its examination of a marriage gone disastrously wrong, Gone Girl swept the literary world by storm. Amy Dunne inexplicably vanishes on the fifth anniversary of her wedding. There are several surprises in this popular thriller since both the husband and wife aren’t who they seem to be. Nick, her seemingly ideal spouse, is the main suspect.
This can be considered one of the best psychological thrillers books of its time. You might already be familiar with this one, due to the movie it inspired, starring Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne. The characters are not made to be likable, but you can expect plenty of twists and turns in this great book.
2.16 Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (2014)
Goodreads Rating: 4.3
A story of secrets and deceit that includes flawless parents, strong Maddie, stunning Celeste, and reserved Jane. The lives of the three women intertwine, resulting in death that may or may not be accidental.
This psychological thriller discusses serious subjects like domestic violence while expertly balancing humor and intrigue and will keep you hooked until the end.
2.17 The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015)
Goodreads Rating: 3.95
Every day as she rides the same train to work, Rachel becomes attracted by a woman who lives nearby. Rachel sees into this woman’s “perfect” life every day. Up until the day, Rachel observes a startling event.
The book is a great page-turner because Rachel is an unreliable narrator, making it impossible to determine what is real and what is not. The Girl on the Train is widely considered one of the past decade’s most talked-about psychological thriller books.
2.18 Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough (2017)
Goodreads Rating: 3.8
Louise, our protagonist, is a single mother who finds herself in a convoluted love triangle when she begins an affair with David, her boss, who has a wife named Adele. As the plot develops and things turn sinister, many secrets come to light, including David and Adele’s dark past.
The book is full of many unexpected plot twists and tries to answer the age-old question – How well do we know the people closest to us? The themes of the novel include betrayal, obsession, and manipulation.
2.19 The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine (2017)
Goodreads Rating: 3.97
A debut novel by Liv Constantine, this book is a fresh take on the concept of The Talented Mr. Ripley. It follows a cool, cunning, manipulative woman who infiltrates the lives of an affluent Connecticut “golden couple” to live the lavish lifestyle she desires.
The novel is full of shocking twists and disturbing secrets, and you definitely won’t be able to put it down once you start reading.
2.20 The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (2018)
Goodreads Rating: 3.96
A good example of one of the best psychological thrillers books with an unreliable protagonist, The Woman in the Window, will keep you guessing until the very last page. This psychological suspense novel offers a glimpse into the life of Anna Fox, a woman affected by agoraphobia. Anna witnesses a horrific event one evening as she engages in her favorite pastime – spying on others, but no one believes her.
Full of suspense and an ever-increasing tense atmosphere, this book will keep you on your toes.
2.21 My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)
Goodreads Rating: 3.7
This brilliant novel stars a young nurse, Korede, whose younger sister has the very unpleasant habit of killing her partners. The novel is a fun read as it is short and darkly humorous.
Korede, despite being bitter and jealous of her sister, is fiercely protective of her and helps hide the bodies of her victims, quite literally. But when a man Korede secretly likes gets involved with her sister, she is forced to choose between her morality and loyalty.
2.22 The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides (2019)
Goodreads Rating: 4.17
This book follows criminal psychotherapist Theo Faber who attempts to determine the truth from his new patient, Alicia Berenson, even as his life disintegrates. His new patient is mute, thus the name “the silent patient,” after having shot her husband five times in the face one evening.
The twist in this book will catch you completely unaware and leave you shocked.
2.23 One by One by Ruth Ware, 2020
Goodreads Rating: 3.73
This modern take on the classic locked room mystery trope is the latest novel by Ruth Ware.
The characters in this book are start-up firm employees traveling to a lavish corporate retreat at a ski chalet in the Alps. Almost immediately, things start to go wrong, and the party encounters one setback after another.
Some group members might have their agenda on this trip, and the employees are blocked off from the outside world when an avalanche descends. The members start to go missing and turn up dead, leading to the horrible truth – one of them is a murderer, and no one is safe.
2.24 Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2020)
Goodreads Rating: 3.68
Noemi Taboada visits High Place, a remote mansion in the Mexican countryside, after receiving a letter from her recently wed cousin pleading for someone to help her. Being a glamorous debutante, she is an unlikely savior and has no idea what she will find. But she is also bold, intelligent, fierce, and has an unbreakable will.
The elderly patriarch is a little too interested in Noemi, her cousin’s husband is cold but fascinating, and the house disturbs Noemi’s dreams with visions of death and destruction. The family’s youngest son wants to assist her but might be concealing sinister secrets about his family’s past. Noemi discovers tales of violence and insanity.
2.25 A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham (2022)
Goodreads Rating: 4.02
A masterfully created book by a new author, this novel, one of the best recent psychological thrillers, deals with the disappearance of missing teenage girls. The protagonist is Chloe Davis, a psychologist whose father was the prime suspect and convicted of the crimes.
Today, Chloe is preparing to be married when teenage girls start going missing again. Are there parallels between these incidents and the previous crimes, or is there a new serial killer in town? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Hopefully, this list of the best psychological thrillers books will help you choose the right one. According to the GoodReads rating, the best psychological thrillers book on the list is Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, so if you’re still confused, why not start with that? If you want true crime recommendations after this, you can also check out this list.
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