I recently started watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I would have liked to have started with the original show, but since it isn’t currently available to stream, I started with SVU. And often as I watch it, I am struck by the enormity of New York City and I am amazed that criminals are ever caught. How do you find one person in a city of 10 million people?!? But then I think about all the amazing crime novels that take place in small towns, and how hard it is to find the culprit in a small area. It’s almost more exciting when it’s a small town, tbh. That’s why I made this list of eight great small town thrillers!
Think about it: in a large city, you have soooooo many suspects. But small towns are known for giving the illusion of safety and community. Everyone knows everyone else in a small town — and they also know everyone’s business. And yet secrets persist and crimes go unsolved. And the pool of suspects is so much smaller in a small town, which means the chance of the innocent encountering the guilty on a regular basis is much, much greater. That’s very intense! That’s just one of the reasons I love small town thrillers, and I hope you find your next favorite read on this list.
Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby
“Bug” Montage is a hardworking family man who used to be known from coast to coast as the greatest getaway car driver. He’s left all that behind him and now commits his energies to his family and his automotive garage. But things are tough for Bug financially, and when a lucrative job offer falls in his lap, he sees no harm in one last job. (Spoiler: it’s never one last job.) I have read a LOT of thrillers in my life, and this one has the best car chase scenes I’ve ever read.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
And this is a book I’d place in one of my favorite thriller sub-genres: protagonist with secrets in their past returns home after fleeing years earlier. After escaping her tiny hometown and her insufferable mother, reporter Camille Preaker returns to cover the murder of a young girl. But what she finds instead is a toxic home environment for her much-younger sister and the truth about several small town secrets that hit a lot closer to home than Camille realized.
And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall
This was one of the best thrillers I read last year! Grayson Sykes is ready to work her first investigation on her own, and it turns out to be a doozy. Isabel Lincoln’s boyfriend has reported her missing. But is that the truth? As Grayson tries to trust her instincts and digs deeper into Isabel’s disappearance, she’s not sure if Isabel left on her own or not, but she does know that there is a lot more to learn about the case than she thought.
The Dry by Jane Harper
Harper’s incredible debut novel is another great entry for the “protagonist returns home” category! When Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns to the town he and his father were forced to leave years earlier, it’s under horrible circumstances: the death of his childhood friend and his family. The rumor is that it was a murder-suicide situation, but Falk not only realizes there something fishy about the circumstances of the crime, but also uncovers evidence of the old crime case that drove him from the town.
Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan
This is one of my favorite books of 2021! It’s not a whodunit thriller, but instead a novel about social niceties and misunderstandings between neighbors in a pristine, seemingly perfect neighborhood. And the suspense builds and builds as you read along until you get to the explosive ending! The people in this neighborhood are hiding some dark secrets and the ending is hella alarming, but it’s SO GOOD. I got to the end and I thought, “This book is so incredible, and I love it. What is wrong with me, LOL?!?”
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
And towns don’t get much smaller than this: Black Texas Ranger Darren Mathews is sent to investigate the deaths of a local white woman and a visiting Black lawyer in a town with a population of only several dozen people. Mathews must figure out if, and how, the deaths are connected before the town explodes from the longstanding racial tensions. This is soon to be a television series!
A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh
Golden Cove, on the west coast of New Zealand, is a beautiful, near-perfect place to live. Or it was, until the summer several women disappeared. Suddenly, neighbors are turning against neighbors and no one knows who to trust. And eight years later, just when the healing seems to have started, another young woman goes missing. Is her disappearance connected to the earlier ones? A woman who has returned home after the death of her husband decides to help a police officer navigate the town and all its secrets.
The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter
And this is one of the most intense, realistic thrillers I have ever read! Three decades ago, Charlotte Quinn and her sister survived a home invasion, but her mother did not. And the real culprits were never found. Charlotte moved on and followed in her lawyer father’s footsteps. But when a new horrific tragedy rocks their small town, it leaves cracks in the town’s facade that start to let the truth leak out about about her own tragedy. (This one is REALLY intense, so proceed carefully.)