The bestselling thriller writer picks 10 addictive reads - from crime to poetry, all guaranteed to be unputdownable
The notion of choosing is problematic, however.
I don't want to read the books I have chosen to read: I want to read the books that have allowed me no say in the matter – seized me from the first page and released me only after the last full stop. Reading is the only area of my life in which I prefer to be non-autonomous. Ruth Rendell, one of my crime fiction heroes, once said that a novel should grip from the first line, and when I write my psychological thrillers this is exactly what I aim for.
Over the years, I have been lucky enough to discover many books that have gripped me into total submission. Here, in equal first place, are 10 of them:
A flawless psychological thriller, and the book that made me fall in love with psychological crime fiction. A woman finds herself in a shop wearing nothing but a coat, the pockets of which are stuffed full of money. She has lost her memory and has no idea who she is, so when a man comes forward claiming to be her husband, and armed with plenty of proof, she has no choice but to let him take her home … This is the archetypal Everywoman-plunged-into-a-nightmare novel. The clues are expertly planted, and the revelation at the end brings on a perfect rush of: "Oh, I so should have worked it out – but I didn't."
House Rules by Rachel Sontag (published in the UK as Daddy's Rules)
This is a riveting memoir about a psychologically abusive childhood and a girl who saved her own life with very little help from anybody. It should not be dismissed as a misery memoir – it's beautifully written, truly chilling, maddening and uplifting. Sontag was an ordinary teenager who heroically mustered all her power and strength to escape from the clutches of her insane narcissist father and narcissist-enabler mother.
Kinsella is a spectacularly good writer, and this is probably my favourite of her books (though The Undomestic Goddess is also a contender). This novel is totally irresistible: tightly and boldly plotted, hilarious, romantic, witty and clever. It is so well-written that you fall in love with the hero as if he were a real person, and root for the heroine as if she were your dearest friend. I love the way Kinsella's heroines get carried away with enthusiasm and make disastrously stupid decisions, then recognise their silliness when it's too late. I've Got Your Number is about a woman who finds a stranger's phone in a bin, and uses it as the perfect excuse to interfere in the poor chap's personal and professional life.
The most gripping crime novel I have read for a long time. So richly imagined, so intriguing – I was bereft when I finished it and realised I would have to wait a year for the next Tana French book. A family is found dead in a house on a ghost estate in Ireland, and there are strange holes in the walls and ceilings of their house, and cameras set up as if to film the holes. What can possibly be going on? I was so desperate to learn the answer that I was glued to this novel from start to finish. French is an addictive storyteller and creates a vividly complete fictional universe that lives on in your mind long after you've finished reading. All four of her novels are brilliant, but this one is the best.
A woman finds an envelope addressed to her by her husband. On it he has written "Only open this if I am dead." She asks him about it and he rather shiftily says: "Oh, er, it's nothing – don't open it." That is the initial hook, and it's a powerful one. What's great about this novel is that it makes you care absolutely equally about the plot and the characters. It's a moving story about relationships, redemption, guilt, love and just about every other important thing. At the same time, it's a perfectly paced mystery with a beautiful solution and a breathtakingly twisty final chapter.
This should not be missed by any lover of fiction. It's a strangely old-fashioned story about a biographer who is working on the life story of a famous writer, and … anything else I say about it will not do it justice, because it cannot be summarised, and is so much more than the sum of its parts. It's an amazing mystery without being a crime novel, and is in every way an incredible book.
The reason this novel made the list is because of one particular incident in it. Even better, the incident is a non-incident; Kennedy manages to make gasp-inducing drama out of something that doesn't even happen. It is one of the best plot moments in contemporary fiction, I think. The novel tells of a woman who is unhappily married and falls in love with a man who isn't her husband, but it is so unusual and felt so much truer than other books I have read on the same subject. I still gasp and tut and shake my head when I think about this particular plot point.
Could there be a more inviting book title? This book is exactly what it sounds like: a guided tour of the Queen of Crime's journals and jottings, by her cleverest and most loyal fan, John Curran. It is fascinating to read about where the ideas for her novels came from, and to get a behind-the-scenes look at her working methods.
I discovered Millay's Sonnets in the library of the University of Manchester when I was an undergraduate there. I was supposed to be looking for TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, and I found Millay by accident and fell in love with her witty, sharp, romantic verse. Instead of writing about whatever Eliot and Pound wrote about (and can I come back to you later about what exactly that was?), Millay wrote about sexy ex-boyfriends, and annoying current boyfriends, and how she refused to be virtuous and respectable. I renewed that library book regularly for the whole three years that I was at university, and then finally bought my own copy.
A very weird noir-ish American crime novel that starts with a man visiting his psychiatrist and claiming that various dwarves of his acquaintance are paying him to wear flowers in his hair. The shrink assumes he's insane, until his new patient takes him to a bar and introduces him to one of these dwarves, who says: "Oh, yes, it's quite true." Things get even stranger after that, and the novel keeps showing the reader that what is assumed to be impossible has in fact happened. It is a compulsive, atmospheric, imagination-challenging book and totally unique.