‘Tis the season to trade heartwarming holiday reads for something twistier. EW raced through dozens of January’s buzziest thrillers to give you our list of this winter’s must reads. Check out our complete guide below.
The Must-Read: Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Long Bright River begins with a litany of names. Boyfriends, teachers, nieces; a Robby, a Ricky, a Mikey; four Meghans. They appear again near the end, slightly altered and addendumed: These are the neighborhood dead of Officer Mickey Fitzpatrick’s Philadelphia, “people with promise, people dependent and depended on, people loving and beloved.” And all lost, one by one, to addiction.
River isn’t the first novel about the opioid epidemic, but it arrives with a certain weight behind it: glowing blurbs from Dennis Lehane and Paula Hawkins, a large print run and press campaign. Framed as a fairly standard police procedural — young women, mostly known addicts and prostitutes, keep turning up dead in still-ungentrified Kensington, and it looks like foul play — the plot has the flavor of a Lehane, too, almost every page rooted in some deeply tribal sense of place and class and family. Once just another motherless kid on the block, Mickey now works those same streets as a beat cop, but still feels alienated enough from her colleagues at the PPD to keep from them that one of the girls who’s gone missing is her baby sister, estranged by her own addictions years before.
What follows is a smart, unsentimental portrait of two very different siblings, one on either side of the law, and also of a city in terminal transition — airy condos rising up beside empty lots still strewn with discarded needles; pawnshops and dollar stores giving way to $7-a-cup coffee stands. Mickey can feel like a reluctant protagonist, and sometimes a frustratingly naive one (is it really a fair fight when the reader knows they’re holding a thriller, but the narrator always seems surprised?). What Liz Moore (The Unseen World) makes real, though, is the killer she can’t catch: a poison that lurks in the bloodstream, cheap and deadly and always ready to add another name to the list. —Leah Greenblatt
The Rest of the Best
SISTERLY SABOTAGE: The Better Liar by Tanen Jones
A woman conscripts a stranger to impersonate her dead sister; what could go wrong? Jones’ sensational debut has the bones of a thriller but reads like literary fiction: lean, shrewd, and gratifyingly real.
CAMPUS CRIME: The Truants by Kate Weinberg
A naive undergrad falls under the thrall of her sophisticated new classmates and a charismatic professor in Weinberg’s moody, well-wrought debut, heavy on shades of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
MASCULINE MANIA: A Good Man by Ani Katz
Thomas Martin seems to have everything: the elite big-city job, the perfect family, the oceanside home. But in a moment, he snaps — and, in Katz’s ingenious slow burn, is then forced to take hard look in the mirror.
FIERY FLASHBACK: The Blaze by Chad Dundas
Two deadly acts of arson, over a decade apart, bind this mystery of an army veteran’s return home. In Dundas’ assured hands, one man’s search for answers makes for a lyrical, riveting meditation on memory.
DEADLY DYNASTY: The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao
Tsao spins a Crazy Rich Asians-esque saga of family wealth and deception as a nasty-fun murder mystery, chronicling the events leading up to a woman’s poisoning of her extended clan.
TECH TERROR: The God Game by Danny Tobey
Tobey’s horror-tinged novel, about a group of teens lulled into a life-or-death VR video-game, verges on grim ridiculousness. But like a cheap VOD movie that twists and turns, it casts its own schlocky spell.
ICY INTRIGUE: How Quickly She Disappears by Raymond Fleischmann
In a menacing, wintery town of 55 people, an isolated housewife partners with a killer to solve her twin sister’s disappearance. A thinly realized historical backdrop doesn’t get in the way of a juicy plot.
ADOLESCENT AGONY: One of Us Is Next by Karen M. McManus
Few craft teen suspense like McManus, the brain behind the best-selling YA phenomenon One of Us Is Lying. Her sequel, once again centered on themes of friendship and revenge, builds toward a shocking finale.
The Writer to Watch: Catherine Steadman, author of Mr. Nobody
Fresh off her best-selling, Reese-approved debut, the British actress-author, 36, returns with the riveting Mr. Nobody.
Her journey to multihyphenate: “The life of an actor is a precarious one, and I had nothing to do while I waited to start my next job,” says Catherine Steadman, known for her TV roles on Downton Abbey and The Rook. “I thought, I’ll go insane if I don’t do something, so this is the perfect opportunity to get around to writing a book.” She ended up finishing her first novel, 2018’s Something in the Water, without telling anyone.
Her process: “I usually wait to start a book until I have a couple of weeks free, but once I’m in the flow of it, I write on the tube, going to auditions, or on set in my trailer,” she says. “I reach for my phone [where] I make all my notes. I’m sure if Ernest Hemingway was around now he’d use his iPhone notes.”
Her Mr. Nobody inspo: “I was fascinated by this story from 2005 about the Piano Man: He was a guy found on a beach in Kent who had no memory where he came from. When he turned up he was wearing an evening suit and he could play the piano to concert level. It was the perfect jumping-off point for a thriller.”
Her pinch-me moment: “My agent rang and said that Reese Witherspoon had read the manuscript for Something and was ringing studios to see if anyone would co-produce with her,” Steadman recalls. “I was like, okay, even if nothing comes of it, I’ve had that phone call.” –Seija Rankin
For more January reads, check out our list of the month’s 20 best books.