As I’m writing this, Michigan is on a “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, like much of the country. We are all creating new routines, supporting our families and friends, adjusting our jobs and our social lives.
It’s kind of a lot.
It also means that finding ways to escape the pressure of current events is more important than ever. I crave something with intensity, something that’s going to involve mind and emotion—preferably a mystery or a thriller. Here’s a list of some favorites of mine. They’re not all new books, but they all contain that most emotional and involving of themes: a parent with a secret.
Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely
Blanche White is an African American woman, in trouble, and on the run. She’s trying to stay out of jail and get back to her children, but she needs time to work out a plan. To stay hidden, she takes on the role of a domestic worker. Blanche quickly finds herself entangled in the problems of a wealthy white family who have enough secrets for a whole city block. Brilliant, groundbreaking, and just the start of a unique and engaging series.
Where Are the Children? by Mary Higgins Clark
Mary Higgins Clark’s classic debut about a mother struggling to escape a horrific past, only to find her nightmare is repeating itself in broad daylight. This is a fast, gripping read about what happens after everything collapses.
An Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré
John le Carré’s latest features an ex-spy and current father who is pulled into a Russian espionage conflict that has been more successful and more complex than any in modern history. Told with all le Carré’s brilliant attention to detail and character, this is a vivid, suspenseful, human and, for le Carré, unusually hopeful story.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
I’m not sure what I can add to the words that have been written in praise of Toni Morrison’s masterpiece. This is a multilayered and compelling story of what happens to a fragile and precious family when the ultimate secret walks back into the mother’s house.
Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier
For me, it’s can’t be a list of favorite books without including something by Daphne DuMaurier. If you’ve only read Rebecca, or Jamaica Inn, this one is a real change of pace, but it has all DuMaurier’s remarkable storytelling. A rich, historical tale, this is about a young mother who has taken her children and left her unhappy marriage, only to embark on a secret love affair with a dashing privateer in an isolated country manor.
The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
The 1930s-1950s was a golden era of women writing crime fiction. So many of the greats came from this era —Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Sayers, and of course, the grand dame, Agatha Christie. But there are a host of names that got lost in the mix and deserve to be brought back to our attention. One of my favorites is Elisabeth Saxany Haydon. Her writing is quietly intense. She has a particular knack for making protagonists out of people who are usually dismissed or ignored. In The Blank Wall, a young mother is forced to leave the structure of her comfortable domestic world when she discovers the murdered corpse of her daughter’s fiancé.
The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne
A straight-up, fast-paced, gripping thriller set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When a psychopathic father returns to reclaim the daughter he believes to be his rightful property, the young woman must not only confront the nightmare of her past, she must use all her skill to make sure it can never harm her, or her family again. The problem is, those skills were all taught to her by the same man she must now hunt down.
The Unseen World by Liz Moore
Like the sins of the father, the secrets of the father are frequently visited on the children. This is the story of a motherless daughter, “lab schooled” by her brilliant, seemingly loving but eccentric father. But her father has another creation that no one knows anything about or even truly understands. A bit of Frankenstein, a bit of The Imitation Game, this is a heartfelt story of a young woman coming to grips with the paradox of being irrevocably separate from her parents, and yet inescapably connected.
The Other Mother by Carol Goodman
Mothers keep secrets. Mothers have to. If a mother is not perfect, caring, strong and constantly emotionally available for her child, she’s a failure, right? And to be a failure as a mother is to be a failure at, well, everything. It’s the unforgivable sin. So every mother must keep her true feelings secret, especially if those feelings involve the urge to harm their own child. That’s the secret no one must ever learn. The only thing to be done is to hide those feelings and soldier on. Because that’s what mothers do, right? Except as we are shown in Carol Goodman’s rich, intense gothic (complete with a country house with a tower!) that cure can sometimes become very much worse than the disease.
A Serial Killer’s Daughter by Kerri Rawson
This is the one true-crime book on the list. It’s a compelling memoir of a young woman grappling with the utterly unthinkable: the father she revered during her entire childhood has been revealed to be one of the most horrific serial killers in US history. I don’t like serial killer stories, but that’s not what this is. This is a story of secrets, collapse, faith and the struggle not just to heal, but to simply understand.