C.J. Tudor is an award-winning novelist who is fast-becoming one of the world’s most popular contemporary British writers. The Chalk Man won the International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel, the Barry Award, and the Strand Critics Award for Best Debut Novel. She’s also the author of The Burning Girls, The Other People and The Hiding Place.
As her Amazon author page states, her love of the dark and macabre began in her youth: “When her peers were reading Judy Blume, she was devouring Stephen King and James Herbert.” Now it seems things have come full circle, as Stephen King is reading Tudor. When The Chalk Man was released, King tweeted this: “Want to read something good? You won’t find it on the front bestseller table at your bookstore, but it’s new, and will be there. THE CHALK MAN, by C.J. Tudor. If you like my stuff, you’ll like this.” This endorsement helped catapult Tudor’s career.
Along her journey from a young reader to bestselling novelist, she worked as a copywriter, television presenter, voice-over artist and dog walker. Her youthful passion for unsettling subject matter has apparently stayed with her. Each novel contains ample helpings of spooky moments as Tudor describes atmospheric English towns and deliciously dark settings.
So if you’re new to her work, which should you read first?
Here’s my ranking of C.J. Tudor’s novels.
1) The Burning Girls
Even if you think you’ve figured it all out before the ending, I can almost guarantee there are more twists you won’t see coming. To the very end, this story grinds away at readers, channeling deeper and deeper into this rich plot until you realize that you’re more deeply buried than the bodies in the cemetery.
Right away, readers will get a sense that Reverend Jack Brooks isn’t the typical vicar. When she’s forced to take a position at an inopportune, small village called Chapel Croft, creepiness abounds almost immediately.
She and her daughter are confronted with a town grappling with the recent loss of their previous vicar. But that isn’t the only mystery haunting this seemingly quiet town.
The story does have moments where it lulls, only to lurch forward suddenly. In a lot of ways it feels like Tudor is balancing the relative quiet we know must be true of small towns, with the disturbing and deeply rooted plot she spins so well. Those small, quiet moments are where we find our characters, put a spotlight on them, only for them to shuffle sideways into the darkness.
Remember, solving one crime certainly doesn’t mean you’ll have any luck solving another. And with this book, the body count keeps rising. Between the book’s characterization, believability, and structure, everything comes together perfectly to make it her strongest all around novel.
2) The Chalk Man
The award-winning Chalk Man is told in a dual timeline.
In 1986, Eddie and his friends are a carefree group who pedal their bikes around a sleepy English town.
They use a secret code, the figure of a man drawn in chalk on sidewalks and streets, to communicate with one another.
However, their lives (and their town) are flipped upside-down when drawings of chalk men lead the friends to a dismembered body. Bounding back and forth from the past to 2016, the narrative shows us how Eddie ended up, still stuck in the town and grappling with his own adult life. When he pulls a chalk man drawing out of the mail one day, he thinks it’s some kind of joke.
His friends, who also received a chalk man drawing, might agree.
That is, until one of them is found dead. If Eddie wants to save himself, he’ll have to find out what happened all those years ago.
Filled with unsettling details and a less-than-reliable narrator, the story features an ending with a final, morbid twist.
In addition to Stephen King’s adulation, Lee Child calls The Chalk Man, “Wonderfully creepy—like a cold blade on the back of your neck.”
3) The Hiding Place (AKA The Taking of Annie Thorne)
The Hiding Place, which is far better than its 3.62/5.0 score on Goodreads indicates, brings eerie to a whole new level.
Joe never wanted to go back to his hometown, Arnhill.
But when he gets an email saying that what happened to his sister is happening again, he can’t seem to stay away.
He lies to get a job at his old high school back, then starts investigating the unsettling death that rocked the town just days earlier. He’ll have to avoid the enemies he’s made in the town while doing his best to confront his own past.
After all, it wasn’t the fact that his sister went missing all those years ago that ruined Joe’s life. It’s that she came back, changed.
Mysterious email? Check. A suspicious past rife with tension? Check. Creepy kids? Check.
There’s no shortage of hair-raising moments in this story. And that’s why I liked it so much. It’s also why I felt compelled to nudge it just slightly ahead of The Other People on this list.
This novel dips its toe into horror. So if you like stories where realism and speculative elements combine to make you question your own reality, then this is the story for you.
4) The Other People
When Gabe sees his daughter in the back of another car, just before the car disappears forever, his life is turned inside out.
Three years after that night, he still spends his days and nights trolling up and down quiet roads, hoping to see the car that took his daughter from him.
Even when people tell him his daughter is dead, he refuses to believe it. Instead, he holds on to hope that he’ll someday find her.
That is, until the car is found at the bottom of a lake.
Forced to confront the past (what happened to his daughter and his own life) he lands in a group called The Other People. It’s a group of survivors who’ve lost loved ones.
But they’re not your average support group.
They have a sinister side.
They want other people to feel what they have.
All this adds up to a fun nail-biter that deserves a spot in your reading queue.
5) The Drift
Publisher’s Weekly hails The Drift as “a masterpiece,” while author Chris Whitaker calls it “A truly terrifying, ice-cold chiller from the master of macabre.”
The Drift features a group of classmates fleeing a virus at a boarding school during a snowstorm only to have their vehicle slide off the road. Trapped inside, the remaining survivors will have to escape during a vicious snowstorm.
Hannah awakens to carnage, all mangled metal and shattered glass.
Evacuated from a secluded boarding school during a snowstorm, her coach careered off the road, trapping her with a handful of survivors. They’ll need to work together to escape—with their sanity and secrets intact.
Meg awakens to a gentle rocking. She’s in a cable car stranded high above snowy mountains, with five strangers and no memory of how they got on board. They are heading to a place known only as “The Retreat,” but as the temperature drops and tensions mount, Meg realizes they may not all make it there alive.
Carter is gazing out the window of an isolated ski chalet that he and his companions call home. As their generator begins to waver in the storm, something hiding in the chalet’s depths threatens to escape, and their fragile bonds will be tested when the power finally fails—for good.
The imminent dangers faced by Hannah, Meg, and Carter are each one part of the puzzle. Lurking in their shadows is an even greater danger—one with the power to consume all of humanity.
David Gwyn is the founder of WriterlyLifestyle.com, a website, podcast, and YouTube channel designed to help writers improve their craft. He’s currently seeking representation for his debut novel.
List of C.J. Tudor Books in Order
The Chalk Man
The Taking of Annie Thorne (The Hiding Place)
The Other People
The Burning Girls
A Sliver of Darkness: Stories
The Sixth (not published)