The best thrillers set in small towns with big secrets

Why am I passionate about this?

My first books were set in and around San Francisco, an area I knew well and with plenty of opportunities for crime stories. When we moved to Montana twenty years ago, people asked when I’d write one there. I resisted setting dark stories in my own city, where my kids were growing up. Reading about the Bakken Oil Formation in North Dakota, a boom of wealth and expansion and a subsequent bust, offered a perfect storm—the kind that drives desperation, where locals conflict with newcomers, where money—new and old—drives people to make bad decisions. After a visit to the area, the fictional town of Hagen, North Dakota, and the Badlands Thriller Series was born. 


I wrote...

Up Close

By Danielle Girard,

Book cover of Up Close

What is my book about?

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. In only a few months, the small town of Hagen has lost two high school seniors under suspicious circumstances. When a third senior drives through the plate glass window of the town’s diner, the incidents no longer seem unrelated. The town is paralyzed with fear and students deny any knowledge of what’s happening, but Detective Kylie Milliard is certain at least some are lying.

Whoever is behind the dangerous stunts is determined not to be revealed. With time running out before the next casualty, Kylie is in a race to find out who is running this twisted game. Until she does, no one—not the students, nor the town, nor even Kylie herself—is safe.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Death in the Family

Danielle Girard Why did I love this book?

Death in the Family (book one of the Shana Merchant series) hooked me from the start.

Living and working in New York, Detective Shana Merchant barely survived being abducted by a serial killer. Hoping to leave grisly murder cases behind, she's taken a job in her fiancé's sleepy hometown in the Thousand Islands region of Upstate New York.

Faced with a murder on an isolated island owned by a wealthy family, Shana knows nothing about life on the water and the wealthy locals are not about to let her in on their secrets. As a brutal nor’easter storms into the bay, Shana is caught in a game of act and mouse that will have you flipping pages well after bedtime.

By Tessa Wegert,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Death in the Family as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A storm-struck island. A blood-soaked bed. A missing man. In this captivating mystery that's perfect for fans of Knives Out, Senior Investigator Shana Merchant discovers that murder is a family affair.

Thirteen months ago, former NYPD detective Shana Merchant barely survived being abducted by a serial killer. Now hoping to leave grisly murder cases behind, she's taken a job in her fiancé's sleepy hometown in the Thousand Islands region of Upstate New York.

But as a nor'easter bears down on her new territory, Shana and fellow investigator Tim Wellington receive a call about a man missing on a private island.…


Book cover of Hello, Transcriber

Danielle Girard Why did I love this book?

In Black Harbor, Wisconsin’s most crime-ridden city, Morrissey has created a town that is a villain all on its own. A place no one wants to live. Hazel Greenlee has no choice.

An aspiring writer, Hazel is trapped in a less-than-perfect marriage and takes the only job she can find—as a police transcriber. But when her neighbor confesses to hiding the body of an overdose victim in a dumpster, Hazel sees the potential for a story that might help her break out of the frozen hell of Black Harbor.

Morrissey builds Hazel’s desperation, and the desperation of the town itself, with mounting tension so well drawn you can actually feel it in your bones and an ending so intense it leaves you breathless. 

By Hannah Morrissey,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Hello, Transcriber as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Every night, while the street lamps shed the only light on Wisconsin's most crime-ridden city, police transcriber Hazel Greenlee listens as detectives divulge Black Harbor's gruesome secrets. As an aspiring writer, Hazel believes that writing a novel could be her only ticket out of this frozen hellscape. And then her neighbor confesses to hiding the body of an overdose victim in a dumpster.

The suspicious death is linked to Candy Man, a notorious drug dealer. Now Hazel has a first row seat to the investigation and becomes captivated by the lead detective, Nikolai Kole. Intrigued by the prospects of gathering…


Book cover of The Family Plot

Danielle Girard Why did I love this book?

Collins’ The Family Plot is set Blackburn Island, off the coast of Rhode Island where the Lighthouse Family lived in a secluded mansion deep in the woods and isolated by their true-crime-obsessed parents.

After her twin brother disappears when they are sixteen, Dahlia leaves home at the earliest opportunity, returning years later after her father’s death. When the family goes to bury him, there is already a body in his grave—her brother’s.

The layered family drama, secrets, and one hell of a twist make this the kind of story I love—layered with tension and impossible to put down. 

By Megan Collins,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Family Plot as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Exceedingly entertaining." -The New York Times
"Umbrella Academy meets Tana French. Dark, claustrophobic, and beautifully written." -Andrea Bartz, author of We Were Never Here

From the author of The Winter Sister and Behind the Red Door, a family obsessed with true crime gathers to bury their patriarch-only to find another body already in his grave.

At twenty-six, Dahlia Lighthouse is haunted by her upbringing. Raised in a secluded island mansion deep in the woods and kept isolated by her true crime-obsessed parents, she is unable to move beyond the disappearance of her twin brother, Andy, when they were sixteen.

After…


Book cover of Unspeakable Things

Danielle Girard Why did I love this book?

Unspeakable Things is based on a true crime from Jess Lourey’s own small, Minnesota hometown.

Set in the 1980s, Cassie McDowell’s life on a farm with her sister and parents looks like a perfect childhood. She loves school, has a crush on the nicest boy… But when local boys start to go missing and the haunting crimes become a pall over this idyllic childhood and the more Cassie learns about what is happening, the more she realizes that the monster she feared under the bed may be real.

The point of view of 13-year-old Cassie draws you back to the age when we make that subtle but permanent shift from childhood into the brutal reality of the adult world. Fraught and tense, this is the kind of story that stayed with me long after I read the final page. 

By Jess Lourey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Unspeakable Things as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Inspired by a terrifying true story from the author's hometown, a heart-pounding novel of suspense about a small Minnesota community where nothing is as quiet-or as safe-as it seems.

Cassie McDowell's life in 1980s Minnesota seems perfectly wholesome. She lives on a farm, loves school, and has a crush on the nicest boy in class. Yes, there are her parents' strange parties and their parade of deviant guests, but she's grown accustomed to them.

All that changes when someone comes hunting in Lilydale.

One by one, local boys go missing. One by one, they return changed-violent, moody, and withdrawn. What…


Book cover of Pines

Danielle Girard Why did I love this book?

Pines, book 1 of the Wayward Pines trilogy is a tense thriller with an irresistible dystopian twist.

When Secret Service agent Ethan Burke is sent to Wayward Pines, Idaho, he’s charged with finding two agents who went missing from this peaceful-seeming town a month prior. Upon arrival, Burke is involved in an accident and when he wakes in this hospital, his possessions—ID, phone, suitcase, are all missing.

Worse, no one believes him when he tells them who he is and he can’t reach the outside world. Then there is the matter of the scary electric fences that surround Wayward Pines. Are they keeping something out? Or in? This one was a propulsive read, wrought with twists and rising stakes. Such a fun read.

By Blake Crouch,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Pines as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The one-million copy bestseller that inspired the Fox TV show.

Secret service agent Ethan Burke arrives in Wayward Pines, Idaho, with a clear mission: locate and recover two federal agents who went missing in the bucolic town one month earlier. But within minutes of his arrival, Ethan is involved in a violent accident. He comes to in a hospital, with no ID, no cell phone, and no briefcase. The medical staff seems friendly enough, but something feels...off. As the days pass, Ethan's investigation into the disappearance of his colleagues turns up more questions than answers. Why can't he get any…


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In the Crosshairs: The Body on Leffis Key

By M. S. Spencer,

Book cover of In the Crosshairs: The Body on Leffis Key

M. S. Spencer Author Of The Wishing Tree: Love, Lies, and Spies on Chincoteague Island

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author World traveler Erstwhile beauty Recovering academic News junkie

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What is my book about?

Palmer Lind, recovering from the sudden death of her husband, embarks on a bird-watching trek to the Gulf Coast of Florida. One hot day on Leffis Key, she comes upon—not the life bird she was hoping for—but a floating corpse. The handsome beach bum who appears on the scene at the same time seems to have even more secrets than the dead man.

His story begins to unravel as the pair search for answers to a growing pile of dead bodies. Spies, radical environmentalists, and wealthy businessmen circle around each other in a complex dance. Which one is lying? What…

In the Crosshairs: The Body on Leffis Key

By M. S. Spencer,

What is this book about?

Palmer Lind, recovering from the sudden death of her husband, embarks on a bird-watching trek to the Gulf Coast of Florida. One hot day on Leffis Key she comes upon-not the life bird she was hoping for-but a floating corpse. The handsome beach bum who appears on the scene seems to have even more secrets than the dead man. His story begins to unravel as the pair search for answers to a growing pile of dead bodies. Spies, radical environmentalists, and wealthy businessmen circle around each other in a complex dance. Which one is lying? What do a seemingly random…


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