Ah, revenge. Despite famous idioms and phrases such as “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” and “turn the other cheek,” history and stories are filled with revenge. Which is why we also have the popular expression “revenge is a dish best served cold.” (Which is just a fancy way of saying “wait for it.”) So it was easy to come up with a list naming ten of the best revenge novels.
Revenge is everywhere in popular culture: Murder on the Orient Express. Hamlet. Nightmare on Elm Street. John Wick. That Aerosmith video with Alicia Silverstone and Stephen Dorff. Titanic. (True story: the captain of the Titanic killed the iceberg’s baby.) My point is that so many of the most popular movies and novels in history are revenge stories.
People love a revenge story, even though they often involve murder. And murder is wrong. (It is — I checked with my editors.) That’s why most people don’t act on their revenge fantasies: because it’s wrong. And also because they fear a poorly stocked prison library. (Which is a thing I totally just thought of and not something I have taken into consideration on many occasions, I swear.)
Seeking revenge is bad, of course. Ultimately, more people end up getting hurt. And revenge doesn’t always work out. (Like when Monica ended up seeing Joey’s dad naked on Friends.) But it’s still fun to live vicariously though fictional revenge or read excellent novels with characters out for their own brand of justice. So here are ten of the best revenge novels. They feature characters looking to right wrongs, real or imaginary, and who may or may not succeed with their plans.
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
This is not only one of the best books featuring a revenge storyline, it’s one of the best crime novels, period. This novel covers two tragedies involving two families — one Korean American, one African American — decades apart in Los Angeles. Shawn Matthews lost his sister, who was killed in the wake of protests over a police shooting in 1991. In present day, Grace Park has led a sheltered life, living with her Korean immigrant parents and working at their pharmacy. But when another shocking crime occurs, both Grace and Shawn will be forced to face realities they aren’t ready for.
Confessions by Kanae Minato, Translated by Stephen Snyder
And this is a straight-up dark and twisty tale of revenge! After Yuko Moriguchi’s daughter drowned in the pool at the middle school where she teaches, Yuko has designed to resign from her job. But not before she delivers one last lecture to her class, explaining how she knows her daughter’s death was not actually an accident but perpetrated by two of her students. And now they better get ready, because she’s coming for them.
The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
McGinnis has a few revenge books that would go well on this list, but I’m going to start with one of her earlier ones. When the murderer of Alex Craft’s older sister fails to be punished for her death, Alex takes matters into her own hands — and gets away with it. But now, as Alex looks around her school and her town, there are so many more people out there who need a comeuppance. Can she keep her newfound taste for vengeance in check? This is a fantastic and seriously dark look at rape culture and revenge.
For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing
It’s almost harder to find someone who isn’t out for revenge at the prestigious Belmont Academy! Teddy Crutcher is the school’s Teacher of the Year — and he’s also a secret psychopath. He makes sure that anyone who crosses him in the slightest, or that he perceives to have offended him in some way, pays a price. Students get bad grades and horrible recommendation letters, and his fellow teachers are also subject to terrible deeds. But when a student’s mom is poisoned at a school event, there are several people who could have done it, for several reasons. Suddenly Teddy finds out he isn’t the only one holding a grudge — and maybe someone is looking to get even with him for a change. This book is deliciously nasty fun!
The Obsession by Jesse Q. Sutanto
If you think you’ve heard the name Jesse Q. Sutanto recently, it’s because she’s also the author of the recent comedic murder mystery Dial A for Aunties. But before her characters were accidentally murdering their blind dates, she was writing dark stories of revenge! This is about two students at a private school: Logan, who will do anything to make Delilah his one and only for all time; and Delilah, who has had it with controlling men in her life. When Logan is stalking Delilah and witnesses her murdering her abusive stepfather, he thinks it’s the perfect way to ensure she becomes his forever. But obviously Logan didn’t comprehend the part where Delilah murdered someone, because she’s done letting men tell her what to do.
True Grit by Charles Portis
And this is one of the greatest novels ever written, a comedic western about a young girl looking for the man who shot her pa. Mattie Ross is just 14 when Tom Chaney robs and murders her father in Arkansas. She takes what is left of their savings to hire the best man she can find to help her ride after Chaney in the big, dangerous countryside, and bring him to justice. She winds up employing Rooster Cogburn, a legendary former U.S. Marshall who is now an a gun for hire with a severe drinking problem. But Maddie isn’t going to let anything stand in her way of doing right by her father’s memory, no matter the danger. (Related: Charles Portis is one of my favorite authors of all time, and I highly recommend reading this or one of his other books.)
Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa, Translated by Stephen Snyder
For the next pick, revenge is right there in the title! This is an older book from Yoko Ogawa, most famously known for the excellent recent novel The Memory Police. It’s 11 dark and disturbing tales about people with revenge on their minds, from a murderous landlady, a macabre museum owner, and a baker, to a cabaret singer, a surgeon, and a jealous lover.
Save Me from Dangerous Men by S.A. Lelchuk
Nikki Griffin is a bookstore owner and private investigator, who also spends time trying to look out for her brother and also meting out punishments to men who hurt women. When Nikki is hired by a CEO to spy on a company employee he thinks is selling secrets, Nikki instead finds herself breaking cover to intervene in a life or death situation. This puts Nikki in the position of crossing paths with dangerous men, but they’ve never come up against someone like Nikki before…
They Never Learn by Layne Fargo
And this is a psychological thriller about two women at Gorman University. Carly is a student who is finally experiencing life on her own terms after a strict upbringing. She’s also completely taken with her roommate, Allison, so when Allison is sexually assaulted at a party, Carly decides to take justice into her own hands. And there’s another vigilante in this book: English professor Scarlett Clark. Every year she finds the worst man on campus, according to her, and dispatches of him in a way that looks like an accident. But after several years and several bodies, the local police might finally have caught on to her hobby…
The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji, Translated by Hong-Li Wong
And last, but not least, this is a creepy nod to the greatest of all isolation mysteries, And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. Several members of a university mystery club decide to spend a week in a ten-sided house on an abandoned island that was the site of unsolved multiple homicides the year before. But instead of putting their heads together to solve the crimes, they have to worry about keeping their heads, as someone with a vendetta begins murdering them one after the other.