The best suspense page-turners with important themes for book clubs to discuss

Helen Matthews Author Of The Girl in the Van
By Helen Matthews

Who am I?

As a reader, I love a gripping page-turner but as a writer, thinker, and book club member I need more. My latest novel The Girl in the Van touches on the exploitation of young people by criminal drug gangs, a form of modern slavery. I’ve been passionate about raising awareness of human trafficking and modern slavery since researching my first novel, which led to me being appointed an ambassador for anti-slavery charity, Unseen. Modern slavery isn’t the only societal issue affecting the dispossessed in our world. Where better to explore these themes than in the pages of a book and through book club discussions? 

I wrote...

The Girl in the Van

By Helen Matthews,

Book cover of The Girl in the Van

What is my book about?

A tormented mother. An abandoned girl. A deadly game of survival. What happened to Ellie? Traumatised by events, Ellie’s mother, Laura, can’t bear to stay in the Welsh seaside town where she lives with her partner, Gareth. She escapes to London, breaking all ties with him, and refusing to tell anyone her new address.

After two years of living alone and working in a mundane job, Laura buys an old campervan and joins a singles holiday. Here, she meets Miriana, a teenage girl who bears a chilling resemblance to Ellie. As Laura uncovers Miriana’s story, she’s shocked by the parallels to her own life. But stories can be dangerous, and someone out there will stop at nothing to prevent the truth about Ellie from coming out…

The books I picked & why

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Anatomy of a Scandal

By Sarah Vaughan,

Book cover of Anatomy of a Scandal

Why this book?

This book is now a huge Netflix series but I’ve noticed the film version has attracted some negative press reviews. In my opinion, they’re missing the point – these characters are posh and entitled. They do outrageous things and get away with them. They are meant to be unpleasant. The sheer awfulness of what happens, as well as page-turner ingredients, provides themes for book clubs to discuss. When the book came out, the #metoo movement was at its height. The novel vividly shows the lasting impact on a woman's self-esteem when she’s preyed on by a powerful man. The characters are obnoxious but convincing. Readers get a fascinating, fictional glimpse inside the heads of men whose sense of entitlement is so embedded it skews their whole perspective on the world. Like the characters or loathe them, a book club could spend hours discussing how privilege bends a life and erases self-awareness.  

Platform Seven

By Louise Doughty,

Book cover of Platform Seven

Why this book?

Author Louise Doughty's books demonstrate that psychological suspense and crime novels can be literary fiction. Platform Seven is well-written but opens in a location that’s anything but inspiring – Peterborough railway station. What could possibly happen here? But we’re soon drawn into the isolation and menacing sense that it’s something very bad indeed. This novel could be called a ‘genre splice’ – part domestic noir and part ghost story. Doughty’s genius is laying the breadcrumb trail of clues to keep the reader turning the pages and staying ahead of Lisa, the main character. She seems to be unaware of what’s really going on, or perhaps chooses to ignore the signs. An emotional story with a theme of coercive behaviour for book clubs to discuss. 

Three Hours

By Rosamund Lupton,

Book cover of Three Hours

Why this book?

A school siege is a theme that will strike terror into the hearts of teachers and parents everywhere. It’s that planned-for scenario that will ‘never happen here’ (rural Somerset). And then it does. Lupton slows down the narrative so it feels as if events are unfolding at a pace close to real time. Alongside the stress and anxiety, Lupton draws on her characters’ stories to examine the world we live in and aspects of humanity. There are stories of first love and parental despair, we glimpse the mind of a psychopath and the stoic heroism of two Syrian refugee brothers, who’ve already been through hell at the hands of people smugglers. Dormant racism rears its ugly head. It’s a poignant read with plenty for book clubs to discuss. 

The Silence

By Katharine Johnson,

Book cover of The Silence

Why this book?

The Silence is a psychological thriller with several layers. There are two timelines: present day, where the main character, Abby is a doctor, married with two daughters, and a ‘Then’ storyline set in the early 1990s when young Abby has been sent to Italy to stay with relatives in an old village house, following her mother’s suicide. Book clubs will be talking until midnight about multiple themes in this novel which include suicide and murder, what unsupervised children get up to, marital tension, blackmail, and the pressures of being a politician in a world of social media. Johnson is a talented author who deserves to be better known.

Invisible Girl

By Lisa Jewell,

Book cover of Invisible Girl

Why this book?

I was late discovering Lisa Jewell’s psychological thrillers but I’m in awe of how her novels are a masterclass in psychological fiction. I’ve chosen Invisible Girl because it’s rooted firmly in the domestic noir genre with ordinary family life contrasting with what lies beneath. Characters are not what they seem to be. For book club discussion there’s a fascinating theme around how lonely misfit men can be radicalised online into the dark and sinister world of women-hating ‘incels.’ Incel stands for ‘involuntary celibates’: angry men who can’t find a woman to love them and blame all women. At the extreme, these men become unhinged and violent towards women they don’t even know. Others are sad losers, who become victims in other ways. Book clubs will find plenty to discuss in this novel.

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