Books to keep you hooked—some of the best Irish thrillers, old and new

From modern classics, to recently published, a list of thrilling novels, from crime, to psychological thrillers to chilling suspense.

by Katy Thorton

People who have never read crime or thrillers before are getting hooked, helped no doubt by this last year of staying at home.

Since the release of novels like The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, and The Guest List by Lucy Foley, the genre has become ever more popular. Closer to home we have the likes of Liz Nugent, Liza Costello, and Graham Norton who use Irish landscape and mysticism to add atmosphere and suspense to their narratives. Sometimes it’s more harrowing to read a story set somewhere you’ve been before: it brings the setting to life, and with it the threat that lies in the pages. While by no means an exhaustive list, here are my picks of some of the best Irish thrillers around, from books that are contemporary classics, to recently published.

After The Silence, Louise O’Neill (Quercus Publishing) September, 2020

Louise O’Neill made a name for herself in 2014 with her hit debut novel Only Ever Yours, a YA dystopian tale. Since then she has written a range of Irish themed novels, with the most recent being After The Silence— O’Neill’s debut into the thriller genre. 

The novel begins ten years after the death of Nessa Crowley, just as a documentary crew has arrived on Inisrun to investigate what happened to her. Since Nessa’s death, mystery and suspicion has surrounded Henry and Keelin Kinsella, who hosted the party where Nessa died. The community believes they’re guilty, but have never been able to prove it. 

O’Neill has long established herself as one of Ireland’s best contemporary writers, but never has her skill and measured storytelling been as effective as in After The Silence. This novel is a tale of deception, coercion, and O’Neill has truly proven herself as a writer to watch in the thriller genre. 

Skin Deep, Liz Nugent (Penguin Ireland) April, 2018

Nugent is exceptional in this genre, having published four novels since her debut in 2013 with Unravelling Oliver. For me, Nugent is at her best with her 2018 novel Skin Deep

Cordelia Russell has been passing herself off as an English socialite for most of her adult life. Living now on the French Riviera, a terrible intrusion from the distant past will have Cordelia on the run again, and unable to forget her roots, deep in the Irish countryside. 

This novel is deliciously atmospheric and Cordelia is one of the most intriguing characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. A must-read for fans of this genre.

The Estate, Liza Costello (Hachette) June, 2021

The Estate is Liza Costello’s debut novel, adapted from an earlier version that appeared on Audible, which won their crime and thriller pick of the month. 

Beth has had enough of her wild days. She longs for stability, and when her boyfriend Jason is offered an unusual opportunity to house sit rent free after the 2008 bust, there doesn’t seem to be a downside – other than the fact Beth will have to live there alone for three months. A little solitude seems like a worthy sacrifice to eventually be able to purchase a home, but there’s something about the estate that’s not quite right. 

John Connolly rightly praised this novel as something “to be read in a single sitting, with the lights on”. There’s an undeniable level of social commentary within this novel on homelessness and displacement in Ireland, which I thought was a great addition to the story. Costello employs atmosphere and an unreliable narrator to deepen the mystery of The Estate, and as a result produces a fantastic tale of deception. 

A Keeper, Graham Norton (Hodder & Stoughton) October, 2018

An incredibly atmospheric novel which uses the Irish landscape, specifically the countryside, to evoke tension at every turn.

Elizabeth’s mother has just died and when she returns to her family home to go through her things, she stumbles upon letters that open up a family secret that is forty years old. This novel is split between the present with Elizabeth, and the past with her mother, when she found herself answering an ad in a paper, only to have her whole life turned upside down. 

This novel is a slow burn, but gripping. A Keeper has an almost Shakespearian style pathetic fallacy; weather and landscape play a huge role in the building of suspense within this story, and Norton proves, as he did with his first novel Holding, that he has a natural knack for storytelling. 

The Chain, Adrian McKinty (Orion) July, 2019

Northern Irish author Adrian McKinty is a well known contender in this genre, and his standalone novel The Chain is perhaps the most innovative of the lot. 

Single mother Rachel is called one day to be told her daughter Kylie has been kidnapped, except there’s no ransom. The kidnappers have no interest in money, however, they do want Rachel to kidnap another child. And so unfolds the chain, a string of victims who become criminals in order to get their own child back. Breaking the chain has dire consequences for all previous participants, but can Rachel put another family through her worst nightmare?

I found this novel hugely compelling from the moment I heard the concept. The story is very original, and the climax is as satisfying as you would expect. 

Divorcing Jack, Colin Bateman (Simon & Schuster) January, 1995

The wildly successful Dan Starkey series begins with Divorcing Jack, a tale that starts with drunken journalist Dan cheating on his wife Patricia with a younger woman, Margaret.

When Dan goes to visit Margaret one evening he finds her dying after being shot multiple times. What ensues is a tale of unfortunate events as Dan finds himself in the middle of something political and violent, that in a way lights up his otherwise dull life. 

This novel is known for its clever wit and satirical commentary on The Troubles in Belfast. Dan Starkey is something of an anti-hero, someone who is often despicable but also hilarious. This is not your typical crime thriller, but it brings something fresh to the table, and has been critically acclaimed. 

The Burning, Jane Casey (Ebury Press) November, 2010

Jane Casey’s novel The Burning served to be the catalyst that would allow for the gripping Maeve Kerrigan series, of which there are currently nine and several accompanying short stories. 

Casey first captured our imagination with a young Maeve Kerrigan looking to make a name for herself amongst her male counterparts. When a case hits London where someone is murdering women and then setting their bodies ablaze, Kerrigan works fiercely to uncover any clue that might lead to the murderer. Kerrigan’s search is only made the more desperate as she gets to know one of the victim’s families, but with any evidence disappearing in a puff of smoke, Kerrigan is lost at where to begin her search. 

Any fan of the crime thriller genre has to take a look at Casey’s fiction. 

The Perfect Sister, Zoe Miller (Hachette) October, 2020

Zoe Miller is no stranger to the crime thriller genre, and her most recent novel The Perfect Sister lives up to the reputation of her previous novels.

Alice and Holly may be sisters, but they haven’t been close for years since Holly moved away from Dublin. Alice has always known that Holly has secrets, and becomes increasingly suspicious when the police begin asking questions about her with regards to an accidental death case. Alice doesn’t want to believe her sister could be capable of such evil, but she also cannot help but look into the case, and with the uncovering of each secret, her confidence in Holly wanes. 

The Perfect Sister does a wonderful job at building up the characters of Alice and Holly and feeding you crumbs of the mystery until the final climax. 

In The Woods, Tana French (Viking) January, 2007

Tana French, an American-Irish writer, debuted Dublin Murder Squads thriller series with In The Woods in 2007. 

When a young girl turns up dead in the woods, Detective Rob Ryan is shaken due to a personal connection to these woods. He teams up with Detective Cassie Maddox, only to discover there are too many similarities between what happened to him and what’s happened to this girl. But memory is a tricky thing to follow when you’ve spent years trying to forget about it. French writes a psychological crime novel, but as described in a 2016 New Yorker article, what makes her stand out is that she rejects certain formulas that most stories of the genre are bound by. 

This serves to frustrate the reader by keeping the mystery going, which adds an element of reality to the plot: there are some secrets we can never uncover and as such, the thrill never ends. 

The Wrong Kind Of Blood, Declan Hughes (Hachette) January, 2006

Declan Hughes is a master in this genre, debuting with The Wrong Kind Of Blood in 2007. 

As in Divorcing Jack and A Keeper, alongside the crime and thrills, there is acute social commentary that adds grit and a raw edge to this novel. 

Ed Loy left Dublin for Los Angeles twenty years ago. Now he must return to grieve his dead mother, and finds the place we once knew entirely different. He finds that he cannot help but get mixed up with his former school mates and their troubles.

 Hughes has gone on to publish four more books in the series and must be noted as one of the masters of his craft, with his incredible focus and command over his characters.  

Katy Thornton graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from UCD in 2018. Since then she has been writing and publishing short fiction, as well as freelance writing for various online websites including Books Like This One, Book Maverick, Garland Realm, and Books Ireland. Katy is currently working on her debut novel. 

Twitter: @katy_thornton Insta:@katysnovelstonote