Many years ago as a teen, I heard a quote that really resonated with me: “The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy.” Sam Levenson, an American humorist, said it, and I instantly understood it. My grandmother was so fun, but my mom was a drag. But as I got older, I realized, my mother’s relationship with her own mother was the same as mine: they had a complicated relationship, too. Complicated family dynamics make up a large portion of stories told in books throughout history, both fiction and nonfiction. Because most people have experienced them, and they make for good reading! That’s why we have this list of 12 great mysteries and thrillers about mother-child relationships.
Okay, so maybe some of the mothers and/or children in these books are a little over the top. But that doesn’t keep us from identifying with the strong familial pull we have towards our mothers and children, or on the other hand, understanding the damage they can inflict.
Bonus rec since it’s Halloween season: If you like stories like these, and want to read one where the mother is a straight-up nightmare, I highly recommend Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth. It’s SO disturbing and SO good.
The Push by Ashley Audrain
Blythe has always dreamed of being a mother, so when her daughter Violet is born and is nothing like she imagined, she doesn’t know what to do. To Blythe, something about Violet feels…wrong. But her husband, Fox, doesn’t agree, so maybe she’s imagining it? When Blythe’s second child is born, he is the perfect baby Blythe had dreamed about having. And that’s when Violet will show Blythe and Fox just what kind of child she really is.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
This is a great “nothing good happens when you have to begrudgingly return to your hometown” story. Journalist Camille Parker has spent years trying to put her childhood — and her abusive mother — behind her. But when she gets a chance to further her career by covering a double homicide in her hometown, she can’t say no. Returning home, she discovers her mother is worse than ever, and Camille’s teenage half-sister is suffering under her roof. Can Camille help solve the suspiciously familiar crimes, save her sister, and save herself?
The Collective by Alison Gaylin
Losing a child is every parent’s nightmare. Unfortunately for Camille Gardner, it’s one that became a reality. When her only child dies, Camille is a seething mass of anger, full of fury towards the young man involved. Until one day, when a stranger offers her an outlet for her rage. It’s called The Collective, a chat group on the dark web where women can discuss their losses and what they would like to do to the people responsible. It’s a great way to let out steam, these violent imagined scenarios, until one day when Camille learns they are actually very real. Can she untangle herself from The Collective’s web? Does she want to?
Things We Do in the Dark by Jennifer Hillier
There is not a lot that can be said about this thriller without spoiling it. There’s a gruesome murder at the beginning. And it presents two storylines, one of which is set in the past and involves an abusive mother and her daughter, actions that will follow the daughter in the future wherever she goes. You should really just skip any reviews or blurbs about this book, pick it up, and hang on for the ride!
The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong, translated by Chi-Young Kim
And this is a thriller from “Korea’s Stephen King” about a son’s complicated relationship with his mother — and his possible involvement in her death. Yu-jin has always had problems with his memory, due to the seizures he has had since he was a child. And when his mother is found dead, covered in blood in her home, he feels like he knows something about what happened but he can’t quite remember. And even worse, since it looks like he may have been involved, does he want to remember?
The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal
Private investigator Nora Watts is about to embark on her most personal case. A loner who lives in the basement of her boss’s agency, she receives a startling call one day: the baby girl she gave up for adoption 15 years ago is now missing. Her family wants Nora’s help in finding her. But this complicated case is about to get dangerous, too, as it takes Nora to the dark streets and forests of Canada in search of answers. Not just about the missing girl, but her own past, too.
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
This excellent debut is part courtroom drama, part complicated familial relationships. When an experimental treatment center catches fire, killing two people, the town wants answers. Who is responsible for this? Is it the immigrant family the town has always treated as outcasts, who own the equipment? Is it the mother of the child who died? Or is it someone else? The answer is complicated and devastating, and so, so good.
Never Far Away by Michael Koryta
In this thriller set in the wilds of Maine (which is basically all of Maine), a mother must make an unthinkable decision. After witnessing a crime, Nina Morgan must change her name and leave her husband and children, for her safety as much as theirs. But now tragic circumstance have brought Nina, now Leah, back into their lives. And with it comes the old dangers that maybe only the help of a shady figure from the past can help fix.
The Verifiers by Jane Pek
And this one is a mystery of the classic gumshoe kind, like Kinsey Milhone. Claudia Lin has a job at a dating agency, running background checks on clients to verify they are telling the truth in their profiles. But then one of the company’s clients dies, and Claudia is drawn into the mystery surrounding her death. But this isn’t just a mystery, it’s also a wonderful look at family dynamics. Claudia has complicated relationships with her siblings and especially her judgmental mother. That’s why she hasn’t told them she left her corporate job to be an investigator yet, or that she’s queer. Both mystery and family combine nicely for a satisfying story.
Quiet in Her Bones by Nalini Singh
On the night Nina Rai disappeared from her home in New Zealand, her young son Aarav thought he heard a scream. His father tells him the next day his mother left them, and took a quarter of a million dollars with her. But 10 years later, while recuperating from a car accident, Aarav gets the news that his mother’s remains have been found not far from the house, and by all accounts, have been there for a decade. Aarav, who is still trying to piece together his own accident, is determined to find out what really happened to the mother he loved fiercely who he believed to have abandoned him all those years before.
Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter
Here’s another great thriller about how children can never really fully know their parents. Andrea Oliver thinks she knows everything about her mother, Laura. But when an act of violence in their town exposes who Laura really is, it puts them both in danger. Less than a day later, someone who has been looking for Laura for three decades attacks her in their home, sending her to the hospital. Can Andrea discover who Laura really is and will the answers save them?
Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
And last, but not least, here’s another thriller about an evil child. By all appearances, Hanna is a sweet, charming 7-year-old. But her mother Suzette knows it is an act — she just can’t prove it. As Hanna’s secret actions towards Suzette become increasingly bizarre and violent, Suzette will have to make a decision if she can break the bond of motherhood to save her life. (As wild as this one is, get ready for another wild mother-daughter story from Stage when Mothered hits shelves in March of 2023.)
If you love stories about mothers and their children, or mysteries and thrillers, or both, check out 9 Spine-Tingling Psychological Thrillers About Motherhood, 9 Great Books About Motherhood To Add To Your TBR Pile, and sign up for Unusual Suspects, our weekly mystery newsletter!