Five Suspense Novels That Inspire Me

I ran across an interesting little feature the other day on “The Daily Beast.”  The “Queen of Suspense,” Mary Higgins Clark, was asked what she thought were the five best suspense books of all time.  It got me thinking about what suspense books have inspired me in my writing.  Besides that, they’re just damn good books.

So, here are Five Suspense Novels That Inspire Me:

*The Bride Wore Black by Cornell Woolrich
No one knew who she was, where she came from, or why she had entered their lives. All they really knew about her was that she possessed a terrifying beauty-and that each time she appeared, a man died horribly. . .

What’s interesting about this story is that it is essentially about a female serial killer.  She’s more or less driven to kill by love – albeit in a twisted way, which is somewhat unusual for a serial killer.  Julie, the main character, is left a widow on her wedding day when her husband is gunned down on the church steps and in her grief, she methodically tracks down the men responsible, and murders them one by one.  You find yourself gasping more than once as the murders become more creative (and gruesome).  Julie is also a bit of a gray character – you know she’s doing terrible things, yet you kind of don’t want her to get caught.  To me, this book also shows the importance of understanding your character’s motivations beyond good or bad, black or white.       

Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
For Joanna, her husband, Walter, and their children, the move to beautiful Stepford seems almost too good to be true. It is. For behind the town's idyllic facade lies a terrible secret – a secret so shattering that no one who encounters it will ever be the same.

I was in junior high when I read this and I remember being terrified and fascinated all at once.  I’m sure at 14, I didn’t get the feminist subtext or the skewering of a male chauvinist society.  I do know I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.  The “Stepford Wives” is a deft blend of psychological suspense, horror – even a little bit of science fiction – and I was left more than a little shaken when I finished.  It also resonated with me that it’s not a happy ending.  Doesn’t that always make things a little scarier?

The Collector by John Fowles
Hailed as the first modern psychological thriller, The Collector is the internationally bestselling novel that catapulted John Fowles into the front rank of contemporary novelists. This tale of obsessive love – the story of a lonely clerk who collects butterflies and of the beautiful young art student who is his ultimate quarry – remains unparalleled in its power to startle and mesmerize.

I mean, what can you say about “The Collector?”  It’s just brilliant.  The beautiful but doomed Miranda is captured like one of the butterflies the creepy, reserved Frederick, is so fond of collecting.  This book is not only a study in psychological terror, it is an examination of the class system in Britain.  I was truly shocked by the ending and much like the “Stepford Wives,” it taught me that not every mystery book has to have a nice, neat little finale.

The Cradle Will Fall by Mary Higgins Clark
A minor road accident landed county prosecutor Katie DeMaio in Westlake Hospital. That night, from her window, she thought she saw a man load a woman's body into the trunk of a car...or was it just a sleeping pill induced nightmare?

This book really did wig me out when I first read it.  It’s creepy, it’s relentless and worst of all (best of all?) you could really see something like this happening, which is perhaps, the best form of terror.  I loved how Clark took the reader inside the killer’s head, showing scenes from his and the protagonist’s viewpoint in alternating chapters.  I think it stands out as one of Clark’s best (though “Where Are the Children?” is a close runner-up.) 

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
One of the great crime novels of the 20th century, Patricia Highsmith's “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is a blend of the narrative subtlety of Henry James and the self-reflexive irony of Vladimir Nabokov. Like the best modernist fiction, Ripley works on two levels. First, it is the story of a young man, Tom Ripley, whose nihilistic tendencies lead him on a deadly passage across Europe. On another level, the novel is a commentary on fiction-making and techniques of narrative persuasion. Like Humbert Humbert, Tom Ripley seduces readers into empathizing with him even as his actions defy all moral standards.

A master (mistress?) of suspense, Patricia Highsmith elevates murder to an art form in this character study of the charming sociopath who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.  This book is violent, absorbing and cunning and the dark twists and turns continually leave you shocked.  It is a sterling example of how character drives plot, and a departure from the “typical” suspense books in that Ripley is never caught, though he comes perilously close several times.  Stunning.     

*Book descriptions are from Amazon, cover images from Wikipedia


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