Married couples are a staple of the crime-fiction world, where husbands and wives are forever realizing that the person they thought they knew best is effectively a stranger they didn’t know at all. In many an opening chapter, cracks are starting to show in a hitherto happy union. Dark secrets simmer beneath a delicate surface tension, threatening to boil over and break through. At least one half of the couple knows something is terribly wrong, but doesn’t know quite what it is yet. The fun for the reader is in finding out not only what the thing is, but how it could have been hidden from the one person with whom you’re supposed to share the most. I’m thinking of everything from Rebecca to Gone Girl, but also more recent twists on the tale, like PJ Vernon’s wildly entertaining Bath Haus and Alice Feeney’s upcoming Rock Paper Scissors, where an anniversary trip to the Scottish Highlands kicks off one of the most satisfying and inventive thrillers I’ve read in ages.
But I’m not married and I’m old enough to have to clarify that with a …and I never have been. As for children, I suppose they’re okay when they’re clean, quiet and entirely the responsibility of someone else, but otherwise, nah you’re grand. (That’s Irish for hard pass.) We all like to see something of our own lives reflected in the books we love to read, so is it too much to ask for a few more where the lead characters aren’t already, as fellow crime writer Sarah Moorhead put it to me on Twitter, “matched and hatched”?
I love to see contemporary thrillers begin with whatever the crime-fiction equivalent of a Hollywood “meet-cute” is. (A “meet-crime”?) Stories centered on two single people just getting to know each other whose connection, by virtue of their being characters in this genre, the reader knows from the get-go is doomed to fail. Books that have us wondering not if this relationship will survive, but will they? Ideally, these don’t contain any ring-shopping or OB-GYNs, and no part of the couple is currently or was previously married to anyone else.
As a writer, I find these kinds of novels especially fascinating because the characters on the page are learning about each other at the exact same pace as the reader is learning about them. I’ve always wanted to write one. For years, in the swirling mist of My Potential Future Book Ideas, a vague outline: a couple meet and fall in love, but all is not what it seems. I knew who they were and what the truth was, but I never had any real plot to go with it. Then in March 2020 what became known as Lockdown 1.0 came to Ireland and suddenly, I had all the plot I needed and more besides.
In my new thriller 56 Days, Ciara and Oliver meet in a grocery-store line just days before COVID-19 reaches Irish shores. When lockdown hits, they decide to move in together in order to get around its ‘no mixing between households’ rule, which prohibited you from meeting anyone socially that you didn’t already live with. She sees it as a way for this new relationship to thrive without the scrutiny of family and friends, but he sees it as a way to hide who and what he really is. When Ireland moves to start reopening society 56 days later, a dead body is discovered in the apartment the couple shared. Can detectives determine what’s happened, or has lockdown provided someone with the opportunity to commit the perfect crime?
I’ll admit there is one thing marriage thrillers have over the-dangers-of-dating thrillers, which is that the former probably make the marrieds feel much better about their lives while the latter make the likes of me think that, actually, deciding to spend Saturday night at home alone with a bottle of rosé and a book might be a life-or-death decision. Here are five of my favorites if you haven’t decided on which book yet.
Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes
Twenty-something Catherine exists rather than lives in London, isolated, mistrustful and struggling with crippling OCD. But when we flashback to just four years earlier, we meet a confident and outgoing party-girl who relishes a drunken night on the town with her friends – until, on one of those nights, she meets Lee. What happened in between that wreaked such havoc on Catherine’s life? And what will happen now that Lee is being released from prison? Where this thriller is in a league of its own is in its depiction of the slow, insidious nature of domestic abuse and coercive control. If you’ve ever wondered ‘Why didn’t she just leave?’, this novel has a definitive answer for you: because by the time there was any reason to, it was already too late. Truly terrifying and forever my recommendation for an exceptional psychological thriller that you may have missed first time around.
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
“Ayoola summons me with these words—I killed him. I had hoped I would never hear these words again.” Thus begins this wickedly entertaining, “morbidly funny slash-fest” (The Guardian). Korede’s bombshell of a sister has celebrated her one-month anniversary with boyfriend Femi by stabbing him to death, and now she needs help with the cleanup. Ayoola claims it was self-defense, but her subsequent behavior sows the seeds of suspicion in both her sibling-turned-accomplice and the reader, especially when Ayoola’s chief concern seems to be how long she has to pretend to be sad on social media. And doesn’t three times officially make you a serial killer? Korede is happy to keep her sister’s secrets, whispering them only to a coma patient at the hospital where she works as a nurse—until Ayoola sets her sights on Tade, the object of Korede’s intense and secret affection…
A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin
Levin published A Kiss Before Dying when he was just twenty-three, winning the 1954 Edgar for Best First Novel and going on to write Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. (As a crime writer, reading that sentence back is thoroughly despair-inducing.) On its opening pages we meet a charming man, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, whose girlfriend Dorothy is head-over-heels in love with him. Unfortunately, this man is also a status-seeking psychopath and Dorothy’s revelation that she’s pregnant is not part of his master plan. The reader may guess what fate awaits her, but the genius of this dazzling novel is what happens next. To quote Chelsea Cain in the introduction to my 2011 Corsair edition, this novel’s hook is elegantly simple: “Worst. Boyfriend. Ever.”
You by Caroline Kepnes
I love to smugly tell people that I knew Joe Goldberg before Netflix, before he even got any sequels—so here I am doing that again, now, to you. I first met Joe on an express train from Madrid to Valencia in early 2015, a journey I spent devouring this delicious thriller as well as repeatedly nudging my equally pop-cultured travel companion to tell her that she simply had to read it too. Guinevere Beck walks into the NYC bookstore where Joe works and immediately wins herself a potentially murderous stalker. The thing is—and, look, we know this is problematic—we kinda, like, like him? Thanks to Joe’s dark efforts, Beck soon does too. If you ever thought it would be incredibly romantic to stumble upon the love of your life during a random bookstore browse, think again.
The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé
Technically this shouldn’t be on my list because when we first meet this couple they’ve already met, but one of the benefits of being single is that you’re free to do whatever you want. So. Rex and Saskia are driving through France on vacation, taking it in turns to spark and diffuse minor squabbles, when Saskia disappears inside a gas station and with that, off the face of the earth. Years later, Rex has moved on from loving her but developed a corrosive obsession with learning her fate. The man responsible for her disappearance is about to offer Rex the answers he so desperately seeks – but in exchange, Rex must pay the ultimate price. If this sounds familiar, it might be because it was twice adapted for screen. The 1993 Hollywood version, starring Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges, cowardly tacked a happy ending onto a novel whose final pages are anything but. Read it instead.