You love a good thriller. Me too. But sometimes you want a little more from your thrillers than edge-of-your-seat storylines and shocking plot twists. Sometimes you want a story that’s going to make you think and reconsider the world beyond the pages of the thriller novel. If that sounds like you, then maybe 2022 is the year you make room for more of the best social thrillers on your TBR list.
But what are social thrillers? Social thriller novels use elements of suspense, horror, and mystery genres to explore and point out issues of oppression and societal inequities. Notice how a lot of novels are compared to Get Out lately? Yeah, that’s sort of become shorthand for “this is a social thriller.” But Get Out isn’t the first instance of social thriller in film or novels, and it won’t be the last. The social thriller is a genre that allows authors to express their anxieties about the world in which we live in a way that a wide range of readers from different backgrounds can understand. And this is not at all to say that social thrillers are dumbed down. Quite the opposite actually! A good social thriller will make you think and have you reexamining the world from a fresh perspective.
Sound good? Well, then here are 14 social thrillers you’re going to want to read!
White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson
White Smoke is a YA novel that is part thriller part horror, and I can’t stop recommending this one to people, because it’s just excellent. This is the story of Marigold, whose family is going through major changes. Her mother has just remarried. Now the whole new family is moving from California to the midwestern city of Cedarville. As soon as Marigold and her family move in, things seem off. The neighborhood is practically deserted, and they keep hearing weird sounds (and smelling weird smells) throughout the house. Is it just Marigold’s mind playing tricks on her, or does the house really want them out?
When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole
I feel like everyone read this book when it first came out in 2020. Now it’s somehow 2022, and that means if you haven’t read this yet, where have you been? This book is set in a Brooklyn neighborhood where our protagonist Sydney Green was born and raised. But she’s unsettled by the recent changes she’s seeing in her neighborhood. People she’s known all her life are disappearing, and all of these richer white people are moving in. Is Sydney Green being paranoid? Or maybe there really is a conspiracy to push people out of the neighborhood.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
American Spy is (you guessed it) a spy thriller that has a lot to say about the experiences of Black women in America. The year is 1986, and we’re in the heart of the Cold War. Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI who’s incredibly good at her job. But as a Black woman working in a field that’s predominantly white and male, she often gets passed up for opportunities. So when she finally gets a chance to join a task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary president of Burkina Faso, she says yes, even though she suspects she’s being offered the job because of her appearance rather than her talents.
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Here’s another young adult social thriller that’s a must-read! Students at Niveus Private Academy seem perfect from an outsider’s pesective. But now everything is changing, because now an anonymous texter called Aces has decided to reveal the dark secrets of two students — Devon, a talented musician, and head girl Chiamaka. Why are these two students being targeted? And who would have it out for them enough to expose their secrets?
White Tears by Hari Kunzru
White Tears is a supernatural horror/mystery/thriller novel that critiques white appropriation of Black art. Seth and Carter are two twentysomethings living in New York who both share an obsession with music. One day in the park, Seth accidentally records an unknown singer, and Carter shares the recording online, claiming it’s a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. But when an old collector contacts Carter and Seth to tell them their fake recording is actually real, things get strange.
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
This one is a little more fantasy/horror than it is straight up thriller, but it still has elements of the thriller genre that make it worth mentioning on this list. Set in U.S.-occupied Baghdad, this is the story of Hadi, a scavenger who collects human body parts and stitches them together as a statement to the government about recognizing body parts as people and giving them a proper burial. But when his stitched-up body goes missing, troubling news begins circulating around the city. A horrifying criminal who seemingly cannot be killed is indiscriminately murdering people.
My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones
My Heart is a Chainsaw is a slasher thriller thats about more than just the blood and gore. It’s also an exploration of the Native American experience and the negative effects of gentrification. The story follows Jade, a half-Native American girl who’s obsessed with slasher movies and is convinced a killer has come to her town of Proofrock to exact his revenge on the people there. When the rich and beautiful Letha moves to town, Jade is convinced she’s the final girl who will save the town and stop the killer. But will Jade be able to reach Letha and teach her everything she needs to know about slashers before it’s too late?
Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby
Razorblade Tears follows Ike and Buddy Lee, two ex-cons who have little in common aside from the fact that they both have a criminal past. They’ve also both lost their sons, Isaiah and Derek, two men who were married to each other and were both murdered. Both men are set on getting revenge for the tragic deaths of their songs, and so they band together to find out what happened to them and to find justice. This novel is a brutal and beautifully written thriller than confronts toxic masculinity, homophobia, and racism.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Right before I read The Other Black Girl, I watched the movie Bad Hair on Hulu, and I felt like the two totally paired extremely well together. I don’t want to give anything away, but if you’ve seen/read these, you’ll know what I mean! And they’re both social thrillers. The Other Black Girl is a a thriller set against the starkly white backdrop of the New York City publishing industry. Nella is an editorial assistant who is initially thrilled when Hazel is hired at Wagner books because it means she’s no longer the only Black woman in the office. But soon Nella begins to wonder if Hazel truly an ally or if she’s trying to pull Nella down. When threatening notes start appearing, Nella can’t help but wonder if Hazel is behind them.
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
This book looks at racial tensions by focusing on the stories of two families — one Korean American and one African American. Set in L.A., Your House Will Pay starts in the 1990s in the wake of the police shooting of a Black teenager. The fallout will affect these two families for years to come. And when another shocking crime hits the city in 2019, both families will collide in unexpected ways. What makes this story even more gripping is the fact that it’s based on a true story, the murder of Latasha Harlins in and the subsequent riots in 1992.
The Hush by Sarah Foster
A government that is clamping down on people’s freedoms and creating new laws to control women’s bodies? Maybe this is too real to be considered a dystopia, but it’s certainly a social thriller. Set in the near-future, The Hush imagines a world where the British government has the authority to monitor all citizens. And young pregnant women are going missing. Midwife Emma is trying to be there for those who need her in a world that is becoming more and more frightening. But then her teen daughter Lainey becomes pregnant, and now the danger is at Emma’s doorstep.
Lakewood by Megan Giddings
Lakewood is a social thriller, sci-fi, and body horror all rolled into one, and it’s a terrifyingly real take-down of the way race and class divides our country, especially when it comes to science and healthcare. After Lena Johnson’s grandmother dies, she’s left to take care of her mother and pay back the family’s debts. Overwhelmed and unsure of what else to do, she drops out of college and take a job in the mysterious town of Lakewood, Michigan, where she will participate in mysterious scientific research. The pay seems good, and this job could solve all of her problems. But at what cost?
Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka
Notes on an Execution is a social thriller novel that was just released this month. This literary thriller deconstructs the story of a serial killer. Ansel Packer is on death row, and he’s scheduled to die in 12 hours. This is his story, told from the perspective of the women who are closest to him: his mother Lavender, his sister Hazel, and Saffy, the homicide detective who caught him. This is a fascinating story that interrogates the American justice system and our cultural obsession with true crime.
Cherish Farrah by Bethany C. Morrow
This final social thriller is another brand new one, and it’s one that breaks down issues of race, class, family, and more. Farrah Turner is the only Black girl at her country club that also has Black parents. The other Black girl is her best friend Cherish Whitman, but Cherish was adopted by white parents. Farrah calls her WGS (that stands for White Girl Spoiled). When Farrah’s family is hit with money problems, she sees this as her opportunity to get an inside look at how Cherish’s family lives. And so she goes to stay with the Whitmans. The longer she stays there, the more she becomes obsessed with their way of life. And despite her parents’ warnings that something is off about the Whitmans, Farrah feels compelled to stay with them as long as possible.
Looking for more thriller/horror type books that also have something thought-provoking to say about society and the world we live in? Try these social horror books perfect for fans of Get Out. And if you want more specific social thriller recommendations catered to your exact needs, then check out Tailored Book Recommendations. TBR is a service that recommends books specifically for you, based on your tastes. So if you’re looking for the perfect read-alike for another social thriller you’ve read recently and loved, TBR is your best bet!