How well do we ever really know someone? This question lies at the heart of many psychological thrillers, including Cate Holahan’s most recent novel, Lies She Told. Here, Holahan lists her favorite books about neighbors who aren’t quite what they seem. Dive in, and we bet you’ll think twice before venturing next door to borrow a cup of sugar.
When I first met my neighbors, they thought I was a nice-enough woman. Friendly. Outgoing. A mom with two young daughters who would probably volunteer for the public school and bake cupcakes.
Then I revealed that I wrote thrillers for a living.
“But you don’t seem dark,” one said as she sipped a glass of wine on my back patio.
“Oh I get it all out on the page,” I laughed. “Well, most of it.”
She looked at me dubiously and set her drink on the outdoor table.
My neighbors’ first impressions of me weren’t wrong. I do volunteer at the school and I am a nice-enough woman, if I do say so myself. I simply also spend eight hours a day plotting suspense thrillers in which nice-enough people have deep dark secrets and sometimes die—or commit murder. But, according to my neighbors and now friends, you’d never suspect my somewhat alarming occupation watching me bubbling along, running my elementary school-aged children to various activities wearing the gym clothes uniform of parents without an office job.
How well we can know the people who live closest to us—how much we can glean about them from the casual conversations conducted while collecting the kids from school or hosting occasional play dates—is a source of very real tension for anyone new to a neighborhood. And, as a result, it’s great fodder for suspense books.
Here are five of my recommendations for novels that will make you fear the folks next door.
This New York Times bestseller tells the story of two young parents whose baby is kidnapped while they are having dinner with the couple in the neighboring townhouse. Because their daughter is sleeping under the watchful eye of the baby monitor—the handheld counterpart works next door—they believe they can get away with a little break sans babysitter, providing they keep checking the screen. Big mistake. As the minutes without their baby turn into hours and ransom notes appear, the poor mom is forced to face that she knows very little about the people closest to her, including those right next door.
I read this book in one harrowing day and utterly sleepless night. It’s unputdownable, especially for any parent who has been tempted to take the monitor and leave the sleeping kiddos for a quick social call in the apartment or house mere feet away. I’ll admit to doing it when I lived in a condominium. After all, my husband and I were only going directly across the hall. After reading this book, however, I’ll never, ever do that again. It scared me straight.
Ever meet two people so seemingly perfect for one another that you wonder whether it’s all an act, but then quickly dismiss your doubts as jealousy? This book will have you fearing that you abandoned your suspicions too quickly. The villain is Ted Bundy with less of a taste for variety coupled with a horrifying twist, and he kept the goosebumps on my skin well through my next BBQ with the neighbors.
This story captures how wonderful a neighborhood community can be while also making me doubt the intentions of nearly all the characters and ultimately warning me that affable people can be capable of horrors. Marybeth Mayhew Whalen creates fictional folks who feel all too real and are instantly relatable. The older couple with grown kids that helps out the overwhelmed single-parent next door reminded me of my own folks who see such extensions of themselves as sheer neighborliness. The woman who returns home reminded me of friends who sought out their roots, and their family, after years away. I suspect that most readers will see people in their own lives who parallel Mayhew Whalen’s characters—and that’s what will make the mystery so enthralling.
The setting of a failed planned community supplies plenty of eeriness. Add to that a murdered husband and kids, a mom in intensive care, and some pissed off, jealous, spying neighbors and you have an edge-of-your-seat thriller that will make you run and pull the blinds.
So, you’ve just asked your friend for a life-changing favor. And she suggests that you all go to the neighbors’ place for a BBQ. Liane Moriarty’s skill with a cliffhanger turns an awkward situation into the stuff of nightmares. The whole time I read this book, I kept wondering what had happened to change the lives of the characters so irrevocably that months later it was still all anyone could think about. The surprising answer didn’t disappoint.
Cate Holahan is the acclaimed author of The Widower’s Wife, named to Kirkus’ Best Books of 2016, and the upcoming psychological suspense thriller Lies She Told (Sept. 12, 2017). She lives in suburban New Jersey where she can be found hanging with her neighbors and their families when not writing or reading a good book.