The best suspense novels that are actually about something bigger

Who am I?

I love crime fiction—mysteries, thrillers, espionage, you name it, plots and puzzles that excite and confound and ultimately gratify. I also love the non-genre called literary fiction, sharply observed and beautifully written books that move me, and leave me with a slightly better understanding of humanity. And I think the sweetest spot of all is the intersection of the two, with sparkling prose, fully realized characters, and interesting settings combined with an insistent, credible plot that makes it a matter of urgency to turn the page, presenting the exquisite dilemma of wanting to race through the excitement but also the opposite urge to slow down and enjoy it all.


I wrote...

Two Nights in Lisbon

By Chris Pavone,

Book cover of Two Nights in Lisbon

What is my book about?

Ariel Pryce wakes up in Lisbon alone. Her husband is gone—no warning, no note, not answering his phone. Something is wrong. She starts with hotel security, then the police, then the American embassy, at each confronting dubious men and questions she can’t fully answer: What exactly is John doing in Lisbon? Who would want to harm him? And why does Ariel know so little about her new—and much younger—husband? The clock is ticking. Ariel is increasingly frustrated and desperate, and the one person in the world who can help is the person she least wants to ask. According to Stephen King, “There’s no such thing as a book you can’t put down, but this one was close.”

The books I picked & why

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Mercy Street

By Jennifer Haigh,

Book cover of Mercy Street

Why this book?

This bighearted, heartbreaking story about the abortion wars is also paradoxically one of the funniest books I’ve ever read; there’s a page in the middle that I’ll reread again and again whenever I need a smile. The plot revolves around Claudia, a longtime employee of a Boston clinic that’s besieged by protesters who threaten the sort of political violence that’s become all too commonplace in polarized America, creating an insistent drumbeat of menace. But Mercy Street is not a polemic, and the antagonists are treated with deep empathy and humanity. Possibly my favorite novel of the past few years.


Lush Life

By Richard Price,

Book cover of Lush Life

Why this book?

Richard Price’s propulsive plots revolve around crime, but the novels are always about something much bigger, and Lush Life merges many of his favorite themes into one masterpiece: ambition and compromise, race and class, gentrification and crime, the push-and-pull of a city’s progressive leanings against reactionary forces for law and order and property values. Price’s city is constructed on a bedrock of conflict between those who’ve come to New York struggling to create art, those who were born here struggling to get by, and the cops struggling to hold the middle, in a spectacular kaleidoscope of a downtown scene at the turn of the millennium, of hipsters and gangsters, housing projects and trendy restaurants, all these subcultures clashing in one microcosm of urban life.


Long Bright River

By Liz Moore,

Book cover of Long Bright River

Why this book?

This tense, gripping novel about the opioid crisis’s devastation of a family—of parents and children, siblings and cousins, and the extended family that’s a police force, all in Philadelphia—lays bare the intimate, heartbreaking costs of a mass epidemic. As has become abundantly clear in the past couple of years, we can all too easily become numb to massive numbers of sick and dead. It’s on the human scale of individuals, one person at a time who’s suffering and dying, that we can fully absorb the true costs of epidemics, whether of opioids or covid or whatever’s next. That’s what this book is really about.


True Story

By Kate Reed Petty,

Book cover of True Story

Why this book?

A rumor about teenage sexual assault has long-term repercussions on a handful of characters in this superb novel that toggles among different genres—thriller, mystery, women’s fiction, coming-of-age literary, even screenplays—with voices in first, second, and third person, a fascinating way of looking at a single event from every angle. The characters are astoundingly well-drawn, in particular the spot-on portraits of teenaged boys, which are a master class on how to write credible, realistic, and true characters that are well beyond the novelist’s own experience. Even the title itself is a clever subversion.


Your House Will Pay

By Steph Cha,

Book cover of Your House Will Pay

Why this book?

Is there any subject more complex, fraught, and important as race in America? And perhaps nothing is more challenging to write about, riskier, presenting nearly unlimited opportunities for disagreement, which seems to get more and more passionate, more and more polarized, every day. This remarkable novel by Steph Cha unflinchingly tackles the subject head-on in Los Angeles—the city of the Rodney King beating as background, and the city of today as foreground—through the lens of a multigenerational entanglement of a Korean American family with an African American one, defying the simplistic and reductionist tendencies of so much writing about race.


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