'Gone Girl' and Other Thrillers with Shocking Plot Twists
Gillian Flynn's thriller Gone Girl was the book that everyone was reading this year (when they weren't reading Fifty Shades of Grey). What made it such a sensation? Was it the portrait of a happy marriage gone very, very bad? Or how it showed us that the ones we love can turn out to be so alluringly evil? All of the above. But perhaps more importantly, Flynn is a master of the plot twist, with more stomach-flipping reversals than a ride on a sadist's rollercoaster. If you can't get enough of having the rug pulled out from under you, these are the books for you.
Good Marriages Gone Bad
In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn takes a classic idea—that we can never really know the ones we love—and ups the creep factor by about a billion. After a rocky year, Nick and Amy are poised to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. But was it really so bad, Nick wonders, that Amy would just disappear? Oh, Nick, it's much worse that that. Clues point to Amy's bloody murder, and though the cops seem to be on his side at first, the bottle of blame keeps ending its spin on Nick, who's been acting a little funny....
A decade before Gone Girl, there was Harlan Coben's breakout, Tell No One (a thriller so sophisticated it was made into a French film). Coben's novel also centers on a wife gone missing—then murdered—on an anniversary. Once childhood sweethearts, Dr. David Beck and his wife Elizabeth are celebrating their first kiss 12 years prior, when Elizabeth is abducted, her body dumped in a ditch. The mystery eats at David until, eight years later, new evidence in the case is unearthed—and David becomes the suspect and has to dodge extremely sadistic thugs. More unsettling, he starts receiving emails from an anonymous person who seems to know exactly what David and Elizabeth meant by "Kiss Time."
Before she became a tabloid sensation in 1947, the real-life "Black Dahlia" was 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, who was found in a vacant lot in Los Angeles cut in half at the waist, her organs removed and her body drained of blood, her mouth sliced ear to ear. The killer was never caught, though he did mail clues to local newspapers when he felt their coverage of the murder was slackening. Born a year after the most famous murder in California history, LA Confidential author James Ellroy grew up in a city still obsessed with Short's death. Forty years later, he came up with his own fictional solution to the crime in The Black Dahlia, involving a beleaguered boxer-turned-police officer, conspiracies, lesbians, and a whole bunch of blood.
Hollywood Pitch: The Manchurian Candidate Meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Boston thriller writer Dennis Lehane has set several novels in Beantown, including Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone, and, recently, Live By Night, but he went offshore to write a pulpy, Gothic noir, Shutter Island (made into a movie directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio's Boston accent). In 1956, U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule, arrive at maximum-security Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane, where they're sent to investigate the improbable disappearance of inmate Rachel Solando. They discover clues to a mysterious undocumented patient and secret medical experiments with psychotropic drugs. Deep in a prison full of murderous psychopaths, Daniels and Aule are stuck when a hurricane arrives and cuts off all communication with the outside. Let's just say that things are not going to be okay. To give an idea of the madness that ensues, a few of film-buff Lehane's inspirations for the novel were the 1973 cult classic, The Wicker Man, The Manchurian Candidate, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The First Rule of Fight Club Is...
At the outset of Chuck Palahniuk's ballsy first novel, Fight Club, our (unnamed) protagonist is atop a 191-floor building about to leveled by bombs that he and his men have planted at the base. Tyler Durden holds a gun in his mouth, telling him they'll both achieve immortality. But all our protagonist can think about is the taste of the gun and the impossibility of their threesome (memorably embodied by Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, and Ed Norton in the eponymous film): "I want Tyler. Tyler wants Marla. Marla wants me." What follows is a nervy, violence-obsessed romp through underground fight clubs, domestic terrorism and vast delusions—of grandeur and otherwise.
Secret Agents Have Their Secrets
Ian McEwan's latest novel is about spying, fiction, and the surprising ways they overlap. Serena Frome is a beautiful young woman recruited into the MI5 by her lover, an older professor at Cambridge with a mysterious history in British Intelligence. Her first assignment is part of a program with a lofty goal: funding the careers of promising writers who might lead people away from Communism through their novels and ideas. Easy enough, right? Also, her target must not know who's actually funding his work, nor can she tell him what to write. All goes smoothly until Serena learns that it's not so easy to out-covert a writer, whose whole job (of course) involves spying on other people and making mental notes.
Imagine a female Oliver Twist—with a whole lot more "twist." Sue Trinder grows up in a den of petty thieves—"fingersmiths'—overseen by a feminine Fagin, Mrs. Sucksby. Trained as a con artist from birth, Sue's new gambit will be a doozy: pose as a maid in the home of a wealthy heiress and subtly encourage her to fall in love with Sue's accomplice, Richard "Gentleman" Rivers. Once the heiress and Gentleman are married, he and Sue will commit her to a madhouse and claim her fortune for themselves. But who, in fact, are the deceivers, and who are the deceived? It's hard to say who's more shocked at the path Sarah Waters' novel takes: Sue, or the reader.
There's something creepy going on with 18-year-old Mary Katherine's family. She lives in a big house on a hill above the village with her older sister, Constance, who won't leave the grounds under any circumstances, and her uncle, Julian, who's wheelchair-bound and obsessed with writing his memoirs. On the first page of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Mary Katherine tells us, "Everyone else in my family is dead." Those deaths, you begin to realize, were uniquely horrible ones, possibly induced by poisoning, and Constance has a flair for mixtures and potions. As in her famous short story, The Lottery, the villagers in this Shirley Jackson novel are not so friendly. And our heroine, "Merricat," is an extremely unreliable narrator—and yet entirely truthful.
A Locked-Room Mystery
Emma Donoghue's hero, Jack, is also a tricky narrator, not because everything he tells you may be suspect, but because he's a five-year-old boy who's never been outside the room in which he resides with his mother. For a kid, it's paradise: 24-hour access to mom. But as you start to gather from Jack's innocent observations about his mother, she teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown: It's not just Jack who's never left this room in five years. Now, it's up to Ma to tell Jack what the true nature of Room is—and to plan their escape.
Are You My Mother?
What may be the original great plot twist comes from this most famous of Greek tragedies, Oedipus Rex. Before Dr. Freud put a name to "Oedipus Complex" there was Oedipus the man, King of Thebes, who rules more or less contentedly with his wife Jocasta until a horrible drought strikes the kingdom. Oedipus consults an oracle (not always the safest move), who tells him that the drought will abate when the murderer of Oedipus's predecessor, Laius, is brought to justice. Oedipus digs deeper, consults a prophet, and learns that the murderer of Laius will turn out to be both father and brother to his own children, and the son of his own wife. ("Oedipus Rex" also lends itself to the mother—and father—of all tabloid headlines.) The victim of his own need to know the truth, Oedipus finally realizes—is there a 2,000-year statute of limitations on spoilers?—that he had indeed murdered Laius, his own father, and that his beautiful wife Jocasta is his own mother. Thanks for the nightmares, Sophocles.