The Best Thriller Books of 2021 So Far

2021 has been an amazing year for mystery and thriller fans so far.

From pulse-pounding paranormal thrillers to romantic suspense, crime, historical thrillers and more, fans of been treated to a virtual library filled with new treasures.

So who is on our mid-year list?

Debut novelist T.J. Newman is a standout.

Newman’s terrifying thriller about a seemingly inevitable plane crash was actually written while she was a flight attendant.

We also welcome Lucy Score, Stuart Turton and Laura Dave as first-time honorees.

We welcome back Stephen King, who continues his mastery of the genre. Even if you think you’ve read enough books about kids who see dead people, you really ought to give Later a chance. It may just be the best one yet.

Each of these mid-year picks is bound to keep you up late at night.

Some may keep you from sleeping.

Others will reframe the way you think about death.

One will make you glad you are living in the 21st century and don’t have to experience the horror of archaic passenger ships.

All will raise your blood pressure.

And all are more than worthy of your reading queue.

Stay tuned for our updates through the year, especially after our 2021 Best Thriller Book Award winners are announced this winter.


Later by Stephen King

King has written about kids who see dead people before, but never quite like this.

With The Shining and select other stories, Stephen King practically invented what is now a subgenre of the paranormal thriller category centered around children’s ability to see dead people. In Later, he delivers a fresh take on the concept with a novel that manages to be suspenseful, fun and touching all at once.

Jamie Conklin, the son of a single literary agent, can see deceased people and interact with them in the hours and days after they die. To the highly intelligent nine-year-old, this ability is mostly a burden. Even his mother doesn’t believe him until a deceased neighbor tells him where to find her wedding rings and the facts check out. As is the convention for stories like this, adults can’t see what Jamie does.

But his gift becomes suddenly useful when Jamie’s mother suffers a series of financial catastrophes. In the financial meltdown of the great recession, his mother loses her money to a Ponzi scheme. Her disabled brother requires ever-increasing levels of care, which she is on the hook for. Then the IRS comes after her for back taxes. Finally, the last author who is a reliable money maker dies at his desk without completing his magnum opus.

Jamie’s mother pulls him out of school to rush him to the dead author’s home, where she hopes he can question the deceased about the novel he intended to write. Along for the ride is his mother’s lover, a cop who is immediately skeptical of Jamie’s abilities. At this point, the novel becomes a bit of a crime caper, with Jamie and the two adults in his life conspiring to create the unfinished novel and cash in big.

That would be enough for most novels, but it’s not even the beating heart of the book. Jamie’s life as an only child with a single mother is beautifully written, filled with uncomfortable moments and unimaginable tenderness. Once again, King proves that he only gets better with age. Later is easily one of King’s best novels of the past 20 years.

The novel’s only misstep may be in its book cover. Despite what the covert art would have you believe, Later is not a pulpy novel set decades ago. It actually starts during the Great Recession and moved forward from there.




The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

Before Owen Michaels disappears, he smuggles a note to his beloved wife of one year: Protect her.

Despite her confusion and fear, Hannah Hall knows exactly to whom the note refers—Owen’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Bailey. Bailey, who lost her mother tragically as a child. Bailey, who wants absolutely nothing to do with her new stepmother.

As Hannah’s increasingly desperate calls to Owen go unanswered, as the FBI arrests Owen’s boss, as a US marshal and federal agents arrive at her Sausalito home unannounced,

Hannah quickly realizes her husband isn’t who he said he was. And that Bailey just may hold the key to figuring out Owen’s true identity—and why he really disappeared.

Hannah and Bailey set out to discover the truth. But as they start putting together the pieces of Owen’s past, they soon realize they’re also building a new future—one neither of them could have anticipated.

With its breakneck pacing, dizzying plot twists, and evocative family drama, The Last Thing He Told Me is a riveting mystery, certain to shock you with its final, heartbreaking turn.

Interweaving the complex family relationships of Little Fires Everywhere with the suspenseful twists of Big Little LiesThe Last Thing He Told Me will trigger goosebumps and tears as you flip pages like mad to see how Hannah will handle the bombshells lurking in Bailey’s past.




Riley Thorn and the Dead Guy Next Door by Lucy Score

Divorced. Broke. Living with a pack of elderly roommates. And those hallucinations she’s diligently ignoring? Her tarot card-dealing mom is convinced they’re clairvoyant visions.

Just when things can’t get worse, a so-hot-it-should-be-illegal private investigator shows up on her doorstep looking for a neighbor…who turns up murdered.

Nick Santiago doesn’t play well with others. Unless the “others” are of the female persuasion. Wink. He’s a rebel, a black sheep, a man who prefers a buffet of options to being stuck with the same entrée every night, if you catch his drift.

When the pretty, possibly psychic Riley lands at the top of the list of suspects, Nick volunteers to find out whodunit.

Only because he likes solving mysteries not because he wants to flex his heroic muscles for the damsel in distress.

All they have to do is figure out who pulled the trigger, keep the by-the-book detective with a grudge at bay, and deal with a stranger claiming he was sent to help Riley hone her psychic gifts.

All before the killer discovers she’s a loose end that requires snipping.

A quirky, funny mystery that fans of the Stephanie Plum series may love.






Falling by T.J. Newman

You just boarded a flight to New York.

There are one hundred and forty-three other passengers onboard.

What you don’t know is that thirty minutes before the flight your pilot’s family was kidnapped.

For his family to live, everyone on your plane must die.

The only way the family will survive is if the pilot follows his orders and crashes the plane.

The premise almost sounds too simple and clean, but trust us on this one. Newman has taken this simple setup and done wonders with it. Characterization, plot and believability: check, check, check.  The book’s urgency is palpable, making it almost impossible to put down.

Plus, there’s this: T.J. Newman, a former bookseller turned flight attendant, worked for Virgin America and Alaska Airlines from 2011 to 2021. She wrote much of Falling on cross-country red-eye flights while her passengers were asleep.

That’s right. Your flight attendant was thinking about how to make a plane crash, possibly while you were on board.

Dare you to read it on a long flight.




The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

A highly visceral and engaging whodunnit set in the 1600s, this book was published too late in 2020 to make into our Best of 2020 list. Hence, we’re including it here on a technicality.

Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported to Amsterdam to be executed. Traveling with him is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, who is determined to prove his friend innocent. En route to boarding the ship, Pipps is pelted with stones by a jeering crowd. The chaos is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a man who makes a foreboding announcement about the voyage. Then, the man bursts into flames.

Upon further inspection, the announcer is found to be a leper without a tongue. Pipps, a prisoner, is prevented from conducting a more thorough investigation, and the ship sails soon afterwards.

Once out to sea, a strange symbol appears on the sail. A dead leper stalks the decks. Livestock dies in the night.

And then the passengers hear a terrible voice, whispering to them in the darkness, promising three unholy miracles, followed by a slaughter. First an impossible pursuit. Second an impossible theft. And third an impossible murder.

Could a demon be responsible for their misfortunes?

With Pipps imprisoned, only Arent and Sara, a noblewoman, can solve a mystery that stretches back into their past and now threatens to sink the ship, killing everybody on board.

It’s easy to see why the book was longlisted for a New Blood Dagger and Gold Dagger at the Crime Writers’ Association Book Awards. The novel blends detective fiction and elements of the supernatural to create a wholly unforgettable story. What’s more, Turton’s 1634 is masterfully drawn. The sights, sounds and technologies of the middle ages are believably recreated in a world that is at once wondrous and frightening. In the audiobook version, James Cameron Stewart’s narration exudes authority and suspense in all the right places.

Bella Wright

Bella Wright blogs about books, film and media.

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