20 Pulse-Pounding, Thought-Provoking Social Thrillers From the Past Five Years

Cover of 20 Pulse-Pounding, Thought-Provoking Social Thrillers From the Past Five Years

When someone asks what my debut, The Resemblance, is about, I often start with the novel’s themes: toxic masculinity, abundant privilege, and blatant abuse of power. I realize this is not as provocative and thrilling as beginning with the murder-mystery—the fatal hit and run on a university campus; and the driver, who looks identical to the victim. Maybe it’s the literature professor in me, but I always want a book to say something: about society, politics, power, or the beautifully-complicated state of being human. My most recent novel, The Professor, explores the rise of student alienation, depression, and substance abuse on college campuses. It’s also about a professor implicated in her student’s death, a Title IX investigation, and, as the book jacket teases, the social media trolls out for blood.

The following novels are about everything from an aspiring author stealing a friend’s manuscript to disappearing pregnant women and a serial killer’s execution, but what they share in common is their pulse-pounding investigation of urgent social themes: body autonomy, exploitation, political and corporate greed, the opioid crisis, racism, transphobia, domestic violence, and the mass extinction of species. They’re exhilarating, page-turning thrillers that will keep you thinking long after you’ve read the last page. 


Long Bright River (2020) by Liz Moore 

An intimate look at a family and city torn apart by the opioid crisis, Liz Moore’s Long Bright River is both a fast-paced thriller and a tale of addiction, betrayal, and the unsteady bonds between love and family.

 Two sisters grow up in Philadelphia on either side of the opioid crisis. Mickey is a cop in a family who distrusts the police, trying to raise a four-year-old on her own and to navigate a sergeant who dislikes her. Kacey is struggling with addiction, trading sex for money and a quick fix. 

Mickey keeps her distance from her sister, even though she polices the corner she works and brings her in from time to time. She tries not to worry, but when Kacey disappears the same time a woman is murdered on Mickey’s beat, Mickey becomes obsessed with finding her sister, risking her job and maybe even the safety of her son in her pursuit of identifying the killer.


Razorblade Tears (2021) by S. A. Cosby

Like all S.A. Cosby’s books, Razorblade Tearspushes you to examine the ugly sides of society—racism, homophobia, transphobia—and takes you on a pulse-pounding, soul-searching ride through the backcountry of Virginia.

An NPR Best Book and a Barack Obama Recommended Summer Read for 2022, Razorblade Tears follows two fathers: Ike Randolph, a Black ex-con who has turned his life around and now owns a landscaping company, and Buddy Lee William, a white alcoholic who’s also served time and maintained his criminal contacts. The men have little in common, except a shared prejudice against their sons’ sexuality. But when their boys are murdered, they band together in a search for answers and revenge. Forced to confront their own bigotries and failures as fathers but motivated by a continued love for their sons, these grieving, guilt-ridden parents dole out vengeance on the men who hurt them. Written with care and nuance, Cosby’s book and rapid-fire one-liners will have you crying, cringing, and laughing all at once. 


Panther Gap (2023) by James A. McLaughlin 

With the type of prose that makes you slow down and think about what you’re reading, James A. McLaughlin’s Panther Gap is a heart-wrenching reminder of the stakes of living in the Anthropocene with its poignant examination of climate change, species extinction, and human responsibility in the face of the crises we make. 

Bowman and his sister Summer grow up on an isolated ranch, raised by a father who prioritizes living close to the land. After their father’s death, Bowman abandons Panther Gap in search of a purer life, while Summer returns to protect the property. But just before Summer’s 35th birthday, she learns of her family’s dangerous inheritance. Facing drug cartels, a murderous prison gang, and the consequences of their grandfather’s shady business dealings, the siblings reunite to combat a threat that extends beyond the ranch and has implications into the wider world. 


The Last Housewife (2022) by Ashley Winstead 

Ashley Winstead’s dark, propulsive thriller The Last Housewife examines the aftermath of sexual assault on college campuses, cycles of abuse, and the role of privilege. Ultimately, this page-turning read asks what it means to have control: of ourselves, our desires, and other people.

The traumatic first meeting of Shay Deroy, Laurel Hargrove, and Clementine Jones the morning after a house party on their New York college campus forms the basis of what should be a lifelong friendship. But by senior year, only Laurel and Shay remain, and eight years later, Shay learns of Laurel’s death while listening to a true crime podcast. The similarities between Clementine’s and Laurel’s deaths shake Shay from her curated suburban world and have her joining forces with the podcast host to revisit the life she left behind—one where wealth and male privilege hinder justice as much as they empower violence. The novel provides an uncanny reflection of our social order that is just as repulsive and disturbing as it is familiar. 


Once There Were Wolves (2021) by Charlotte McConaghy 

A stunning depiction of sisters, wolves, and the re-wildling of the Scottish Highlands, Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy examines the role of humans in the face of mass extinction and the climate crisis, in addition to sexual abuse, sister relationships, and cycles of violence.

Inti Flynn and her twin sister Aggie grow up split between two worlds: that of their mother, a domestic violence detective in Melbourne, and their father, a conservationist who lives a subsistence lifestyle in a British Columbia forest. But when a devastating incident forces them to flee Canada, Inti dedicates herself to reintroducing fourteen gray wolves into the Scottish Highlands. Her team meets resistance from the locals, who are fearful the wolves threaten their lives and livelihood. When a local man goes missing, the wolves are the first to be blamed. And Inti must make a quick decision to save them. 


The Hush (2021) by Sarah Foster 

A pulse-pounding, thought-provoking novel set in a near future that seems frighteningly familiar and horribly plausible, Sara Foster’s The Hush examines body autonomy, relationships between mothers and daughters, and the power of friendship. 

 After a global pandemic, there’s a new epidemic in which healthy babies are born without breath. Rumors circulate that only one out of every two babies survive. The government implements new measures under the guise of social protection, but soon young pregnant women begin disappearing, arrests are made at peaceful protests, and routine pregnancy tests become mandatory.

Journalists wait outside the hospital doors, and midwife Emma sees the horror of the stillbirths in the pregnancy ward every day. The deaths take a toll on both mothers and medical staff. Politicians make photo-op visits but offer little assistance. But when Emma’s seventeen-year-old daughter becomes pregnant, keeping her safe will set off a chain of events that challenge everything they hold dear.


The Last Flight (2020) by Julie Clark

The Last Flightby Julie Clark explores the multifaceted nature of drug abuse and domestic violence while emphasizing the power of female friendships, trust, and self-knowledge.

Two women—each fleeing desperate circumstances—have a chance encounter that changes everything. Claire is the wife of a career politician with a family almost as well-known as the Kennedys. Her husband upholds his charming and charismatic persona in public, while terrorizing Claire in private. He tracks her every move and uses any argument or misstep as an excuse to turn violent. Eva grew up in a group home, made it to Berkeley, but then got caught making drugs in a chemistry lab, lost her scholarship, and returned to drug dealing to make ends meet. It’s the fact that these women lead completely different lives that makes their chance meeting at JFK and decision to switch tickets so perfect. But nothing about disappearing is easy and their exchange sets off a chain of events neither could anticipate.


Night Flowers (2023) by Sara Herchenroether 

In her haunting debut thriller, Night Flowers, Sara Herchenroether investigates domestic abuse and the search for missing and unidentified persons alongside a cancer diagnosis, an impersonal medical establishment, and a society that doesn’t know how to talk about sickness and mortality.

Thirty years after the bodies of a young woman and two girls are found in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, librarian Laura MacDonald is undergoing a bilateral mastectomy for HER2-positive breast cancer on her thirtieth birthday. A volunteer genealogist, Laura becomes enraptured in the case: both because she feels a certain kinship with the discovered woman and because she needs a distraction from her cancer treatment, the impassive doctors, and lack of control she has over her own body. At the same time, cold case detective Jean Martinez has reopened the Jane Doe file, while navigating a failing marriage and the impending birth of a grandchild. The investigation leads Laura to Detective Martinez’s doorstep, and together they attempt to identify the unknown woman and bring her killer to justice. Alternating between Laura and Jean’s accounts is the voice of the discovered woman, a literary device that allows her to tell her own story and unmask the cycles of abuse surrounding domestic violence.


Pretty Things (2020) by Janelle Brown 

A critical commentary on the income divide, social media culture, and the assumptions we make about other people, Pretty Things by Janelle Brown also addresses mental health, domestic abuse, and suicide. 

Growing up, Nina was always on the move. Propelled by a mother looking for the next con or running from a previous one, Nina had very little stability in her young life. But this changed when a teacher looked past her resolute shyness and forbidding goth clothes to recognize the bright girl underneath. Then she and her mother were off to Lake Tahoe, where Nina received a scholarship to attend a private school for gifted students. Here, she meets Benny, a descendant of the wealthy, well-known Liebling family, who’s been shipped off to the family’s Tahoe mansion along with his manic-depressive mother after getting expelled from his previous school. As different as they could be, Nina and Benny are united by their newness and unwillingness to fit in with their Patagonia-wearing, ski-loving classmates. Soon they become friends and then lovers, and Nina is exposed to the luxuries of his family’s Stonehaven estate. But the life and future she imagined—college at an ivy league university, opportunities her mother never had—is ripped away when Benny’s father discovers them together in the caretakers’ cottage. As the years pass, Nina comes to blame the Liebling family for everything. Deprived of an ivy league future, she takes on a lesser liberal arts degree and a lot of debt. When her mother is diagnosed with cancer, she returns to the life she hoped her degree would help her avoid—that of the con. And as her mother’s medical bills increase, she sets her sights on Stonehaven, its priceless antiques, rumored safe, and Benny’s seemingly self-absorbed, influencer sister, Vanessa, who narrates the alternating sections. 


Notes on an Execution (2022) by Danya Kukafka 

Danya Kukafka’s Notes on an Execution investigates our perceptions of right and wrong, the criminal justice system, and the aftermath of trauma. 

 The novel begins eleven hours and twenty-three minutes before Ansel Packer’s scheduled execution. He doesn’t want to die, has written a manifest outlining his theory on good and evil, and even seduced a prison guard into planning an escape attempt. But this is not Ansel’s story, or at least not solely his own. It is the story of the women in his life: Lavender, the mother who abandoned him; Saffy, the homicide detective, who met Ansel at thirteen years old, when they lived in the same foster home; and Hazel, the twin sister of Ansel’s wife, Jenny, who watched as her sister fell for the handsome boy whose face turned dark and unreadable when he thought no one was looking. Side by side with Ansel’s recollection of events as the clock ticks down are the stories of these women, people who are far more interesting than the murderer, but eclipsed by a media intrigued by his violence.


Don’t Look for Me by Wendy Walker (2020) 

At times unsettling and gut-wrenching, Wendy Walker’s Don’t Look for Me is a story of grief, guilt, love, and redemption. 

Molly Clarke was slowing around the curve, doing everything right, coming home early because she was a good mother, when her youngest daughter ran out in front of her car. It was an accident, but she’s lived with the guilt every day and her daughter’s death has ripped her family apart. Her oldest, Nicole, has turned to sex and alcohol, her son seethes with anger, and her husband can’t look at her anymore. So no one is surprised when one night, she walks away from her life—her car abandoned outside the small town of Hastings on the way home from her son’s football game, a note found at a nearby hotel. But for Nicole, nothing makes sense about her mother’s disappearance, and she is determined to find out what really happened the night she went missing. Her search leads her back to Hastings, to the local police, the bartender, and the innkeeper. She learns of the disappearance of another woman ten years earlier. And the more questions she asks, the more she suspects no one is telling the truth. 


Yellowface (2023) by R.F. Kuang

Yellowface by R.F. Kuang explores privilege, exploitation, and appropriation, alongside the isolation and loneliness of a writer’s life and the ethics of the commodification of personal trauma.

June Hayward watches her fellow, but much more successful writer friend Athena Liu die in a tragic accident. Shortly before her death, Athena drafted her next novel on an old-fashioned typewriter, and no one knows of its existence—no one except June, who slips the pages into her bag before the police arrive. In the weeks that follow, June finetunes the manuscript and sends the book to her own agent. It goes to auction, there’s a bidding war, and she receives more money than she ever thought possible. Is her behavior as “lying” and as “psychopathic” as June fears the reader will think? Is she a plagiarist, and, worst, a racist? Or is it just “stretching reality a bit” and “putting the right spin on the picture” as she argues in her defense? 


Girl, Forgotten (2022) by Karin Slaughter 

A dark and twisty thriller that examines sexism, homophobia, anorexia, sexual and domestic violence, drug use, and cult psychology, Karin Slaughter’s Girl, Forgotten is an emotional and timely mystery.

 Girl, Forgotten picks up two years after Pieces of Her left off but is very much a standalone novel. In this page-turning sequel, Andrea (Andy) Oliver is now a U.S. Marshal working her first assignment protecting a judge who’s been receiving death threats. Forty years earlier, the judge’s pregnant eighteen-year-old daughter Emily was murdered, a crime that remains unsolved and holds a personal connection for Andy: her father, the notorious anarchist Clayton Morrow (also known as Nick Harp), was a part of Emily’s “clique,” and Emily’s violent murder may have been one of his first crimes. Determined to discover the truth, Andy investigates the remaining members of Emily’s group, including the current police chief, the local diner owner, and two leaders of a strange cult on the outskirts of town. 


When No One is Watching (2020) by Alyssa Cole 

When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole investigates gentrification, institutionalized racism, gaslighting, and greed in a rapidly-changing Brooklyn neighborhood.

Sydney knows Gilford Place is changing. Vibrant jazz clubs are being replaced by subdued hipster bars, beauty parlors are going out of business, and a new owner is watching her as she shops at the corner store. There seem to be jackhammers everywhere, the whine of construction a constant backdrop as people new to the neighborhood take on YouTube-inspired DIY projects. But it’s not just the places that look different, it’s the residents, too. And when one of her old neighbors doesn’t show up for a planning meeting, another doesn’t answer her texts, and new neighbors arrive claiming to have bought Brownstones from occupants Sydney knows would never leave, she begins to worry there’s something nefarious at play—that, or she’s going crazy. Add to that the uber driver with automatic locks who talks about “civilizing” the community, the strange banging coming from the apartment upstairs, the man in a white van casing her house, and her mother’s hospital bills, and Sydney fears her world is falling apart. So when Theo, her white neighbor whose girlfriend already threatened to call the cops on Sydney, offers his help for her historical tour of the neighborhood, Sydney’s not sure if she can trust him. But together, they discover a pattern of violent disenfranchisement that harkens back to the 1830s. Is it possible the past is repeating itself? And who do you call if you suspect the police are in on the conspiracy?


The Fields (2022) by Erin Young 

Erin Young’s crime thriller The Fields tackles big agriculture, addiction, political and corporate corruption, and the cycles of violence.

The novel begins with a woman’s body discovered in a cornfield. Her brutal murder points to one of the book’s central themes—the human cost of greed and corruption. Newly appointed Sergeant Riley Fisher recognizes the victim as a childhood friend, and her wounds are a startling reminder of a past she thought she’d buried. As more bodies are discovered, a disturbing pattern emerges, and the Black Hawk County sheriff’s office thinks they may have a serial killer hiding in their midst. Combining a murder investigation with a tight governor’s race and corrupt corporate interests, The Fields pulls you into a pulse-pounding journey through the fields and politics of Midwest America.


Cherish Farrah (2022) by Bethany C. Morrow 

Bethany C. Morrow’s Cherish Farrah explores racism, class, and female friendships in a picture-perfect-seeming family. 

From a young age Farrah Turner understands that she has unusual gifts of perception and manipulation. So when, at nine years old, she befriends the beloved adopted Black daughter of white parents, Cherish Whitman, she studies her behavior to learn what children should be like, what they should know, and how to stay in the Whitman’s favor. Cherish and Farrah are the only two Black girls in their country club community, but unlike Cherish, Farrah has Black parents and she understands this makes a difference. When Farrah’s parents decide she should stay with Cherish while they handle their home foreclosure, Farrah knows she should be delighted. But she realizes she’s lost the one thing she desires more than anything else: control. And the longer she stays in the Whitman’s house, the more she feels her control is breaking. An unexplained illness, fever dreams, and an unsettling encounter with Cherish’s boyfriend, all lead her to question who really has the power in her relationships and if the Whitmans are who she thought them to be.


People Like Her (2021) by Ellery Lloyd 

A heart-pounding, page-turning read, People Like Her by husband-and-wife duo Ellery Lloyd examines the dark side of social media. 
Former high fashion magazine editor, Emmy Jackson has made a new career for herself as an “instamum” with her mamabare brand. Her husband Dan struggles with the online representation of their lives—the birthdays that are for show rather than fun and the endless posing and positioning to get the perfect photo—but as a struggling novelist, he depends on his wife and her career to pay the bills. But where do you draw the line? What do you do when someone breaks into your house? When someone begins posting photos of your child, pretending that child is their own? How do you protect your family from someone not just following your account but following you?


Invisible Girl (2020) by Lisa Jewell 

Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell takes a hard look at the dark web, incel culture, and the assumptions we make about other people. 

Seventeen-year-old Saffyre Maddox has gone missing. She was last seen outside the rented family home of her former therapist, Roan, who swears he’s had no contact with her in the three years since their last appointment. So what was she doing standing in the dark outside his house on Valentine’s day? Does this have anything to do with the affair Roan’s wife suspected him of having a year earlier? Or the bad thing that happened to Saffyre when she was ten that had her in therapy to begin with? Or the string of sexual assaults in the neighborhood? Or does it have something to do with the strange 33-year-old man who lives with his aunt in the opposite building? So many threads to unravel in this careful study of social behavior. It’s a story of revenge and redemption that deals with the ugly side of human nature, but also has beautiful moments like a silver-eyed fox that eats out of children’s hands, a girl sleeping in the moonlight, and a man coming to terms with his past and changing his future. 


The Lost Man (2018) by Jane Harper 

A powerful and haunting story set in the harsh and isolated Australian outback, Jane Harper’s The Lost Manis a suspenseful tale of domestic abuse and survival.

Just before Christmas, Cameron (Cam) Bright is found dead at the foot of the stockman’s grave, a stone marker in a no-man’s land separating Cam’s cattle ranch from his brother Nathan’s. The headstone casts a small shadow, and it’s clear by the circle of dust at its base that in his dying hours, Cam moved with it to stay in the shade—not an easy death by any account. His car is discovered nine kilometers away, full of water and supplies, with no sign of engine problems or a flat tire. The door is unlocked and slightly ajar as if Cam simply walked into the desert knowing his fate. Cam leaves behind a wife, Ilse, and two daughters, as well as his brothers Nathan and Bub, and mother Liz. Grieving together in the family home, the Brights try to process what happened, and Nathan must examine his own past for answers to his brother’s death.


Gun Island (2019) by Amitav Ghosh  

Spanning multiple continents and blending legend with modern catastrophes, Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island is a contemplation on the Anthropocene, climate refugees, and the power of stories.

When New York based rare book dealer Deen Datta returns to his hometown of Kolkata and learns of the legend of Bonduki Sadagar, the Gun Merchant, he is intrigued. Although Deen researched Bengali folklore while pursuing his PhD, he never came across this particular merchant tale. Despite himself, Deen cannot stop thinking of the story and when offered the opportunity to visit a shrine dedicated to the merchant, he finds himself in the middle of the Sundarbans, a snake-infested frontier land. Deen’s search for the origin of the legend highlights a world scarred by climate change—wildfires billow over L.A., dolphins intentionally beach themselves on the Sundarbans’s shores, the foundations of Venice are eaten away by ship worms, and entire villages are swept into the sea. 




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