(Editor’s Note: Author Jenny Milchman, shares her top ten thrillers which revolve around families, from Harlan Coben to Greg Iles. Note only is Milchman an accomplished author, but her blog pieces about everything from thrillers to the craft of writing have entertained and informed legions of readers)
You know how somebody will say something and it answers a question you’ve been wondering about for ages? Syndicated reviewer Oline Cogdill coined a term for a niche of novel that made me realize which kinds of books I most like to read.
A family thriller focuses on a circumstance we all can relate to—the kind of tale that could, given a slight turn of the knob, happen to us or someone we love. This novel takes ordinary people and places them in an extraordinary situation. What do they do then?
But the real question is, what would we do then? And thus may arise the growing popularity of this subgenre. Empathy is the filament of fiction; it’s what connects readers to a book. We empathize with the characters in a family thriller. In their triumph over unspeakable odds, we imagine our own.
Whether you are new to this genre or it’s one of your favorites, too, I hope the list below will spark some discoveries or encourage you to tell me ones I have missed.
- Linwood Barclay, Fear the Worst. Barclay, like another family thriller author we will encounter in this list, writes “daddy lit.” Tim Blake is an average guy with an ex-wife and a ho-hum job. Then one day his teenage daughter vanishes. Discovering where Sydney has gone will require Tim to pull back the curtain on his seemingly quiet suburban town.
- Carla Buckley, The Things That Keep Us Here. One morning after Buckley had recently moved, she woke up with this fear: what if a pandemic struck her new neighborhood and she had nobody to turn to for help? This claustrophobic scenario drives Buckley’s debut in which avian flu shuts down a suburban town, isolating Ann Brooks, her daughters, and her soon-to-be ex-husband in a house that suddenly becomes their prison.
- Harlan Coben, Tell No One. In his first standalone, Coben establishes his genius for taking the missing-person scenario and turning it inside out. David Beck has just married his childhood sweetheart when he’s knocked unconscious and his wife is taken. Eight years later, Elizabeth’s body has been found, the victim of a serial killer. That’s when David receives an email from her.
- Sophie Hannah, Little Face. Do family thrillers have particularly intriguing premises? Alice Fancourt is a new mother who leaves her infant for the first time to go on a brief excursion. When she returns home, Alice finds her baby has been swapped for another. That’s horrifying enough to a mom, but the bigger problem is that no one believes her.
- Gregg Hurwitz, Don’t Look Back. The family part of this thriller exists offstage, which makes it no less a compelling tug on the tale. Eve is a newly single mother who goes on a trip to the Mexican jungle to regroup. Out on a hike, Eve sees an act of violence so ugly, her vacay turns into a fight for survival—and a fight to make it back to her son.
- Greg Iles, Twenty-Four Hours. Iles’s fiction has migrated to epic sagas about the legacy and power of race relations in the South, but Twenty-Four Hours is a quintessential family thriller. Perfect families are mainstays of this genre, and physician Will Jennings has a beautiful wife and five-year-old daughter, the latter of whom is about to encounter two criminals with a foolproof plan for the world’s perfect kidnapping.
- Michael Koryta, Those Who Wish Me Dead. Even witness protection can’t keep fourteen-year-old Jace Wilson safe, so his mom comes up with a risky plan. Send Jace to survival camp deep in the Montana wilderness where he and the other boys will be pursued by the most deranged pair of criminals to hit fiction in years. As if that weren’t enough, Jace’s mother has reasons of her own to want her son gone.
- Chris Bohjalian, The Night Strangers. Family underlies the idyllic-new-house-that-isn’t mainstay of horror fiction. In Bohjalian’s version, accursed pilot Chip Linton—responsible for a devastating plane crash—and his wife and ten-year-old twins move into an old homestead where they learn their new neighbors are not your usual folks-next-door.
- Laura Lippman, I’d Know You Anywhere. Eliza Benedict is a married mother of two living in the suburbs when she receives a death row letter from the man who kidnapped her when she was fifteen. What does he want from her now, and what it will do the peaceful life she’s constructed?
- Andrew Pyper, The Demonologist. Horror, daddy lit, or both? About to be divorced, David Ullman is an authority on demonic literature. But it’s only after David takes his twelve-year-old daughter on a voyage of discovery and recovery in Italy that he really learns all he stands to lose.
Jenny Milchman’s novel, As Night Falls, is a summer 2015 release from Ballantine Books and an Indie Next Pick. You can find Jenny on tour at: http://jennymilchman.com/tour/bring-on-the-night-2015