Riot Headline Book Riot’s 2024 Read Harder Challenge

10 Must-Read Suspense Stories

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Jamie Canaves

Contributing Editor

Jamie Canavés is the Tailored Book Recommendations coordinator and Unusual Suspects mystery newsletter writer–in case you’re wondering what you do with a Liberal Arts degree. She’s never met a beach she didn’t like, always says yes to dessert, loves ‘80s nostalgia, all forms of entertainment, and can hold a conversation using only gifs. You can definitely talk books with her on Litsy and Goodreads. Depending on social media’s stability maybe also Twitter and Bluesky.

Sponsored by The Birthday Girl by Sue Fortin.

Four friends. A party to die for. One killer surprise.

As birthday girl Joanne turns forty, no one wants to celebrate her special day, or play along with her idea of a fun party—a weekend away in a cozy cottage in the woods. But as her friends reluctantly gather round her it quickly becomes clear that there is more to Joanne’s birthday weekend, because Joanne is planning to reveal a secret that one of her friends is hiding…A beautiful cottage in the middle of the countryside sounds idyllic—until no one can hear your cries for help. And when Joanne’s party turns into a murder scene, one of the party guests must be the killer. As secrets unravel, the rest of Jo’s friends face a race against time to discover the murderer, before they are next on the killer’s guest list…

If you have a hard time defining the suspense genre you’re not alone. While mystery, thriller, and suspense do have distinctions and tropes specific to their genre, many also use elements from the other genre(s) making it more difficult for readers to easily distinguish the genres. And since many readers also recognize suspense more by the “feel” of it, it can be hard to put into words. For me the easiest way to separate the genres is that mysteries rely on a puzzle or whodunnit that its character(s) are trying to solve; thrillers are fast-paced and oftentimes contain action movie type scenes; suspense puts you on the edge of your seat by building tension on the idea of what might happen. While many must-read suspense lists have many of the same well known titles, I thought I’d go with suspenseful titles that definitely had me turning the page but maybe haven’t hit your radar. Hope you enjoy having to stay up late playing the just-one-more-chapter game.

Suspense with a Bite!

White Bodiescover image: black and white image of a woman soaking in the tub mirrored on top and bottom of page by Jane Robins: Callie is worried that her sister Tilda is in an abusive relationship. There have been moments that Callie has witnessed between Tilda and Felix that feel off and now Tilda is covered in bruises. But Tilda is in love, Felix is her everything, and she’s pushing her sister away. Callie seeks help in an online support group and ends up being offered a trade: Felix will be murdered if Callie will murder another abusive spouse. What will Callie do?…

Always Stay Away from Cottages in Remote Areas!

cover image: spooky cottage in woods with a teal foggy skyIn a Cottage in a Wood by Cass Green: If you’re looking for the suspense built up in horror movies without the actual horror this is for you. Lou is living with her sister’s family in London as she tries to sort out her life. Then on a strange hungover morning, Lou witnesses a suicide that changes her life even more than the traumatic event: She is left a cottage in a remote area. When her life really gets to be too much for her, she escapes to the cottage thinking it’ll give her time to sort everything out. Except either she’s now losing her mind, or the stranger who left her the cottage wasn’t really imagining that someone was after her…

Slow-burn Suspense with a touch of Horror!

cover image: sphere of sky with a tree growing out of top and roots out of bottom on beige backgroundThe Hole by Hye-Young Pyun, Sora Kim-Russell (Translator): Ogi not only wakes up to the horrific fact that his wife has died but he has been badly hurt in the same car accident and now needs assistance for everything. This is how he finds himself being cared for by his mother-in-law. A woman who is grieving her daughter and doesn’t seem to be filled with much care for her “patient.” Isolated from everyone and left with only his thoughts Ogi is only just beginning to realize how bad his situation is…

A Suspenseful “Who did I marry?!”

cover image: woman's hair floating under aqua blue waterUndertow by Elizabeth Heathcote: Carmen’s state of lovey-dovey honeymoon starts to unravel after a stranger’s comment about her husband Mark. See, Mark was already previously married with kids until he’d left his wife for his mistress Zena. The thing is, Zena drowned in the ocean, and while Carmen had always believed it to be a tragic accident, it seems those in the town have always thought Mark had something to do with it. So Carmen begins to snoop through Mark’s things and ask questions, she just can’t help herself…Is Mark’s past going to sink them (heh), or does Carmen need to reign in her imagination?

Slow-burn Literary Suspense:

cover image: a closeup of a woman from neck to chest wearing a blue blouse with white peter pan collarThe Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani: A brutal opening that begins with the crime. It back tracks then allowing the readers to watch the moments that unfolded to this point. How a mother had slowly changed from loving being an at-home mom to needing to go back to work as a lawyer. The struggle of finding the right nanny, after so many failed interviews. And the moments, daily and past, that led the perfect nanny to become a parent’s worst nightmare.

A Lie Can Unravel Everything You Think You Know:

cover image: yellow background with thin tree branches Every Last Lie by Mary Kubica: Clara Solberg’s life completely unravels, as one would image, after her husband dies in a car accident. Widowed with a newborn and young daughter, she is trying her best to just keep it together. And then her daughter Maisie, who’d been in the car during the accident, begins to have meltdowns that leave Clara questioning if another car was involved in her husband’s accident. Could it not have been an accident? The brilliance of this novel is how Kubica builds suspense by taking us into Clara’s daily life, starting with Nick’s death, and alternates the chapters with Nick’s daily life starting in the final months of Clara’s recent pregnancy as he struggled to keep the life they’d built from unraveling and Clara from finding out.

A Suspenseful Read with a Thriller Ending for fans of Get Out:

cover image: cotton field with barbed wire and blue skyForty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith: While this has a thriller ending—one you can imagine in a blockbuster action movie—the entire book was built on threads of suspense that slowly unravel making the reader more and more unsettled. It begins with a black lawyer, Martin Grey, who has a small practice and just won a huge, hopefully career-making case. It leads to an opportunity of being invited on a trip with prominent wealthy black men. A secret society, if you will…Yep, that’s all I’m giving you. This novel works best with you knowing nothing, as the tension builds and you get hit by every layer that is revealed.

Suspenseful Noir:

cover image: blue sky with half a white woman's face and shoulder. she has red hair and lipstick and is wearing sunglasses.Sunburn by Laura Lippman: A perfect pick for readers who like the exploration of an “unlikable woman” and fans of Megan Abbott. Polly walks out on her marriage and child without a word, just leaves them on vacation. Next up in her life? It seems a temporary holding place as a waitress in a small town. But she isn’t alone for long as she ends up building a relationship with Adam, a man passing through town. But when you’re on the run is it really wise to get close to anyone? The suspense builds as you only know so much at any given time creating so many possibilities of danger…This one especially works if you know as little as possible before reading.

Everyone is Behaving Like They’re Hiding Something!

Behind Her Eyesbehind her eyes cover image: zoomed in black and white photograph of a woman's eye by Sarah Pinborough: Louise is a single mum who has a bit of fun one night with a stranger in a bar only to soon discover that hook-up is her new boss. Oh, I haven’t even gotten to the worst of it yet—he’s also married! And his wife randomly befriends Louise…This was psychological suspense for me as I couldn’t stop turning the page asking WTF while feeling uneasy the entire time about what was to come.

A New Family Member Tests a Marriage:

Girl Unknown by Karen Perry: David and Caroline have a seemingly stable marriage as they’re raising two kids. But when one of David’s college students reveals she’s his daughter, the family’s strength is tested. Told in alternating chapters from David and Caroline’s perspective, we watch as the family reacts to Zoey: While David welcomes her open-armed (she is his daughter after all) Caroline is hesitant—she has questions. The kids are also divided: one begins to bond with his new sister while the other wants her gone. This is a page-turner that slowly builds suspense one brick at a time, but will the wall be the strength of a new family or is it all going to come crashing down?