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5 Mysteries and Thrillers About Returning to Your Hometown


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Secrets long buried, old flames rekindled, grudges resurfacing—there’s endless dramatic potential in a homecoming. Especially when murder is involved.

There’s something elemental in the way that place and memory become intertwined. Anyone who has returned to their family home and discovered themselves reverting to old habits and falling into old arguments can attest to the power our physical context has to shape our behavior. Returning to the coffee shop around the corner of your old apartment brings back the memory of old friendships, break-ups, the ache in your feet of a long shift at a terrible job. The ghosts of sensation and emotion stir—there’s a reason we call our old hangouts our “haunts.” You leave a bit of yourself behind, and stepping back through those doors invites it to haunt you in turn.

I’ve always loved stories of people returning to a place they thought they’d escaped or outgrown or left behind. Whatever draws them back, they’re forced to contend with the ways they’ve changed—and the ways that they haven’t, with how easily they can be swept back into old patterns and imperiled by past choices. There’s an eeriness to the way that familiar faces may have turned into strangers, safety into uncertainty. And of course, when we’re talking about mysteries and thrillers, that unease often comes with a body. Homecoming stories often involve a long-ago crime, old wounds reopening. Others focus on a present-day crime, a violent disruption to the home the protagonist thinks they knew so well. Either way, the “return to hometown” story immediately invites the reader into a long history and established web of relationships, all of them ready to be turned upside down. 

In my novel What Lies in the Woods, Naomi hails from a small town in the Pacific Northwest, where as a child, she survived a brutal attack. She and her two best friends testified against the man who attacked her, a suspected serial killer, and helped convict him. But the three of them were keeping a secret—something they found in the woods that summer and never told anyone about. When Naomi comes come twenty-two years later, the secrets she left buried start to emerge, and Naomi realizes that she—and her friends—may still be in danger.

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THE SHADOWS – Alex North

Paul Adams hasn’t been back to his hometown in many years—after all, it was there that two of his friends murdered another in a bizarre, ritualistic killing they claimed was in service of an entity called Red Hands that dwells in dreams. One of the boys responsible was arrested, but the other, Charlie Crabtree, vanished without a trace. Now, with his mother in hospice, Paul returns only to discover that another pair of boys have committed a nearly identical murder. Faced with the prospect that Charlie somehow escaped to inspire a new generation, Paul begins to dig into the past to discover where Charlie went that after bloody day.

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COME WITH ME – Ronald Malfi

In the horror-thriller Come With Me, Aaron Decker travels not to his own hometown, but into his wife’s past after she is killed in a mass shooting. Aaron discovers that she has been investigating a series of seemingly disconnected murders of young women—and has been hiding it from him. He picks up her search, trying to find out what the woman he loved and thought he knew was concealing. His journey takes him to her hometown and into uncomfortable corners of her life, in a story that’s as much about discovering the stranger inside the people you know best as it is tracking down a killer.

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THE DRY – Jane Harper

In Jane Harper’s atmospheric and brutal The Dry, Aaron Falk returns to his drought-plagued hometown after a horrific crime leads to the death of his friend—the same friend who was once Falk’s alibi for another crime long ago. Falk is faced with the daunting task of unraveling the truth of what happened to his friend, as well as what happened all those years ago. It is a masterpiece of small-town secrets and the inescapable weight of the past.

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THE DEAD AND THE DARK – Courtney Gould

Another tale about visiting someone else’s hometown, this YA supernatural mystery follows Logan, the daughter of two well-known TV ghost-hunters. When her fathers decide to return to the town where they grew up, and where they first adopted Logan, they arrive at the worst possible time—a boy has gone missing, and the town’s suspicions are firmly fixed on one of Logan’s fathers. To stop the supernatural force preying on the town, Logan has to dig into her parents’ past, and in the process, uncover unsettling secrets about her own life, as well.

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THE GIRL FROM WIDOW HILLS – Megan Miranda

As a young child, Arden Maynor became famous for surviving a terrible accident, and her rescue made national headlines. Tormented by the unrelenting attention—and her mother’s eagerness to exploit her story—she changed her name and tried to put it behind her. But with the anniversary approaching, she finds herself wrenched back into that old life when she finds the body of someone she knows from all those years ago. Her search for the truth of what happened to him drags her back to her old hometown, and forces her to grapple with what exactly happened when she was a child.

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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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