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Millennial Thrillers and the Power of Obsession


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When I first began working on what is now my debut novel, Shutter, I set out to write the obsessive novel that I was always searching for in a bookstore. I wanted to read about a young woman who was going through a similar turmoil to my own—which, at twenty-four, was navigating life outside of my usual definitions of daughter, student, employee. I wanted to read about someone who was distinctly untethered, as I was. For three years, my safe harbor, the only thing that felt truly mine, was this novel, this protagonist, Betty Roux, whom I believed needed my help.

Recently I heard Betty described as a classic millennial. At first, I was taken aback. This definition felt simplistic, not to mention dismissive. How many times have we heard the infantilizing jokes about millennials and their avocado toast problems? But you know what? Betty is a millennial. She is of that age, of that generation—as am I. There is something that I am discovering in my search for recent obsessive-women-centric thrillers: they are generally about young millennials who have turned to their specific object of obsession as a way of tethering themselves to something, anything. It’s a way of assuming some kind of control over their lives, of defining themselves when everyone around them is quick to define (and confine) them to a certain role. Perhaps this desire to cling to something, anything, is a more universal experience for millennials, for those who feel untethered in an increasingly dangerous world.

This tether is a story these women tell themselves, a narrative that they place between themselves and the outside world as a form of armor. A compulsion for cleanliness, as in My Sister, the Serial Killer. A true crime podcast that teaches women how not to become a victim, as in If I Disappear. Bunnies, is all I’ll say for Bunny. For me, it was quite literal: the story of Betty Roux. This armor is wholly theirs—at least, at first. The horror, then, is what comes next.

As Laura van den Berg articulates perfectly in her novel The Third Hotel (an honorable mention on this list), “…the foundation of horror is a dislocation of reality, a dislocation designed to reveal the reality that has been there all along, and such dislocations happen all the time.”

Here is a list of some of the novels that dislocate my obsessive reality:

The Innocent Wife

The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd

Samantha’s convinced that Dennis Danson, a man imprisoned for the brutal murder of a young girl (and potentially others), is innocent. She is so convinced that she writes this to him—and her whole life changes. Samantha soon finds herself married to Dennis, a free man, and wondering just how much she knows about him.

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If I Disappear by Eliza Jane Brazier

Sera has every episode of her favorite true crime podcast memorized. The stories of serial killers, of unsolved murders, of women who trusted the wrong person, infuse her daily life. So when the host of this podcast disappears, Sera feels she is the only one who can find her.

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My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Korede, a dedicated sister and nurse, has a routine now for cleaning up after her sister: mop up the blood, bleach the apartment, and toss the body off the third mainland bridge in Lagos. Her sister insists it was self-defense, but Korede wonders.

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The Lost Night by Andrea Bartz

Ten years ago, Lindsay was twenty-three and in love with her alcohol-soaked, party-filled life and Edie, her closest friend. Her life changes irrevocably after, in the middle of one of these drunken nights, Edie is found dead, next to a gun and a terse suicide note. Ten years later, Lindsay comes across new evidence that suggests that Edie was, in fact, murdered, and she might have been involved.

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Bunny by Mona Awad

You won’t find this in the mystery/thriller section of a bookstore, but I personally would place it there, based on the experience of reading this (I think my mouth was open the entire way through). Samantha feels completely out of place at her MFA program. She watches her classmates—a clique of physically perfect, lush, odd women—as though they were the subject of a particularly strange Animal Planet episode, and feels that they do the same with her. When she receives an invitation to one of their parties, everything changes. That’s all I’ll say.

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang

As with Bunny, you won’t find this in the mystery/thriller section, but this is another reading experience that belongs in the mystery/thriller section. Yeong-hye shocks her husband and her family by deciding to become a vegetarian. The power struggle that ensues is something I find myself thinking about constantly. Come talk to me about this—I don’t think I will ever recover from Part Two.

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Killer Content by Olivia Blacke

Odessa’s fellow waitress, Bethany, an up-and-coming YouTuber, asks if she can cover her for a few minutes. Only a handful of minutes later, Odessa discovers a new viral video of a public marriage proposal gone wrong. She watches in horror as, behind a man kneeling in front of a blushing woman, Bethany falls to her death. Odessa becomes convinced that her death wasn’t an accident, or a suicide. There is a killer out there.

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Beware Beware by Steph Cha

Juniper Song is an apprentice P.I. working her first solo case: tailing a screenwriter across Los Angeles as he alternates long hours spent working with screen legend Joe Tilley and a suspiciously full social life, on the orders of his long-distance girlfriend. Song finds herself becoming closer and closer with both her mark and her client. When Joe Tilley’s body is discovered dead in a hotel room, she has a new mission: proving their innocence.

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The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

This is another book you won’t find in the mystery/thriller section, but spiritually it belongs there. Clare’s husband, a horror film scholar, has been dead for five weeks. Clare finds herself in Havana, Cuba, attending a film festival in his place, feeling lost and uncertain. That is, until she spots her husband, alive and well, wearing an outfit she’s never seen before.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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