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Jenny Quintana on her Favourite Thrillers with Female Leads

Posted on 9th February 2020 by Mark Skinner

Jenny Quintana, author of the former Waterstones Thriller of the Month The Missing Girl, returns with Our Dark Secret, another deliciously dark psychological thriller. Here, she selects her favourite tales of sinister motives and disturbing characters, all blessed with brilliant female leads.  

Even as an early reader I loved books that explored the psychological state of characters living in gothic and claustrophobic settings. Classics such as Wuthering Heights, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Woman in White - beautiful, clever writing masking terrible themes.

Now I love the sharp, often brooding psychological suspense you can get from dark, modern thrillers when the writer enables the reader to get right inside a character’s head. None are more interesting to me than those books with strong female leads who are not necessarily perfect or even that appealing. Instead they are fascinatingly flawed, wicked at times or else troubled and fighting their way through a world that has somehow let them down. The best of these books has the ability not only to keep you turning the pages, but to stir up such intense feeling that you end up questioning what it is to experience human emotions such as loss and grief, envy, isolation or revenge.

With these thoughts in mind, here are five of my favourite dark and intelligent thrillers with strong female leads.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

This clever novel is a vivid portrait of a damaged, insecure and self-destructive woman trapped in a seedy house caring for her alcoholic father while working at a prison for young, male offenders. Eileen dreams of somehow escaping from this suffocating nightmare, but when she befriends the beautiful and beguiling Rebecca, a new colleague at work, she is unexpectedly pulled into a grisly crime which turns her world upside down. Darkly comic and stylish, original and rather shocking, Eileen is a little gem of a thriller which builds and builds through intelligent prose before delivering a punch close to the end that completely shocks the reader.

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With echoes of Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson, Moshfegh crafts a deliciously unorthodox psychological thriller about a damaged loner consumed by dark fantasies and the dangerous, toxic relationship that compels her to cross a crucial line. Deploying gallows humour and gleefully twisted set-pieces, Eileen mesmerizes and enthralls.
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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

A classic, creepy tale, We Have Always Lived in the Castle fairly crackles with atmosphere and tension. Claustrophobic like all good thrillers are, the story is about a reclusive family including two sisters, Constance and Merricat, and their ailing uncle. Living in a grand house, they are shunned by the rest of the community after the shocking poisoning of their family years before. When their cousin Charles turns up and threatens their hidden world, Merricat, the otherworldly rather odd younger sister resolves to make him go away. Shirley Jackson entwines dark comedy and suspense producing an unsettling yet fascinating read.

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A masterpiece of black comedy and sepulchral atmosphere, Jackson’s signature work introduces a gallery of unhinged characters and sinister machinations in a twisted tale of venality and willful greed. Boasting one of the great lead protagonists of gothic fiction in the disturbing Merricat, We Have Always Lived in the Castle skirts the edge of sheer perfection.
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The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

A beautifully written novel that follows the story of 14-year old Susie Salmon. Quirky and clever, on the edge of falling in love and with all her life ahead, Susie is brutally murdered at the very start of the novel. From a version of heaven, she watches her devastated family coping with their grief, living their lives, interacting even with the killer. The prose is heart-breaking, yet touched with poignancy and humour while the story is so taut with suspense and emotion it’s almost impossible to put down. I don’t often read a book more than once, but I have returned to The Lovely Bones several times and each time my heart aches at the plight of Susie Salmon which I feel is an absolute testimony to Alice Sebold’s brilliant writing.

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Approaching loss and grief with sensitivity and emotional intelligence, Sebold’s bestselling novel also presents one of the most fully realised evocations of heaven in contemporary literature. The heartbreaking tale of a girl in the afterlife unable to let go of the temporal realm, The Lovely Bones is a thoroughly engaging and rewarding read.
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My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

I love a short, sharp thriller and this novel set in Nigeria is exactly that. Korede has a problem, her younger sister Ayoola, has a habit of killing her own boyfriends and Korede must clean up the mess. When Ayoola meets the man that Korede is in love with, Korede’s loyalties become divided. Told in punchy, uncomplicated prose, My Sister, The Serial Killer is deceptively simple and is about so much more than murder. In the novel, Oyinkan Braithwaite explores the complex relationship, the loyalty and the love, that exists between two sisters growing up with a violent father and she turns the tables on modern tropes by depicting men as victims and women as learning to survive. At the same time the story is darkly funny, peppered with brilliantly drawn characters and is a thoroughly addictive read.

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Sharp, menacing and darkly funny, this first novel from Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite is a breath of fresh air. Not just an inventive take on the serial-murder thriller, the novel is also a tender examination of sibling relationships in an oppressively patriarchal society; a story that turns the tables on the woman-as-victim trope. An addictive - and hugely satisfying - read.
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Restless by William Boyd

What I love about Restless is William Boyd’s creation of the main, female characters. The beautiful and mysterious Eva Delectorskaya, once a Russian spy recruited by the British Secret Service, reinvents herself after the second world war as an ordinary English woman. Her curious and independent daughter has no idea of her mother’s past until she is drawn into helping her complete one more task. The plot is gripping, the setting is vivid, the characters are bold and the details about the war are compelling. Along with the touches of humour, all of this makes for an excellent and intelligent spy thriller which is difficult to put down.

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A dazzling literary thriller and insightful character study from the author of Any Human Heart, Restless explores both the wartime adventures and peacetime intrigues of Russian émigré Eva Delectorskaya. Written with typical subtlety and nuance by Boyd, this is a spellbinding meditation on buried secrets and identities, and a top notch spy story to boot.
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