I love the rush of adrenaline that I get from reading a good thriller. A heightened feeling of anxiety I get from reading the situations that the characters are in. The suspension of knowing what may come next. Exhilaration from being right and more so when I’m wrong.
This feeling is something that occasionally overlaps with mysteries. Personally, I almost never try to solve these anymore because I’m never all the way right. Either I have the motive right or suspect wrong, or vice versa. Not sure how that works out, but it happens. Most times I’m off the mark completely.
There goes my dream of being a detective. Oh well.
Thrillers and mysteries aren’t one and the same, although they can sometimes overlap. And by that I mean most thrillers have a mystery threaded through them, but not all mysteries are thrillers. Just look at the cozy genre. By the definition alone those tend to be exceedingly mild in violence and, by extension, so does the thriller aspect of it.
These genres are one area where Black and other PoC authors still have to fight to be heard. There have been amazing books that have come out in both genres over the years. But they do not get the same publicity that books written by white authors have. Even worse is that they have to fight to get classified as that genre. And it’s terrible.
Books written by authors of color resonate more with me. I can actually see myself in most of situations, or I have been in them. So they push all the anxiety buttons.
Readers shouldn’t have a narrow way of thinking. But sometimes, they do. It’s divisive and harmful for a books by an author of color to not be categorized as the genre that they clearly are. A particular scenario being mild for one part of the community doesn’t negate the fact that for others it is terrifying.
Clowns do not scare or bother me on the level that they affect others. However, I would never say a book about scary clowns wasn’t horror just because that’s not my phobia. And to say otherwise comes across as belittling. Especially when it comes from people who call or like to think of themselves as allies.
Below is a handful of books that fit either one or both of these genres. While I’m focusing specifically on Black authors here, we have numerous articles that highlight other authors of color. I recommend checking some of those out. This will help to cast a wider net than what you may have been reading in the genre.
When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
When the neighborhood in which Sydney Green was born and raised begins to change at a rapid fire pace, she does all she can think to do to try to hold onto her past and keep the gentrification from spreading. She decides to set up a walking tour to tell her neighborhood’s history from a personal experience, but finds herself unwillingly saddled with new neighbor Theo for the research. During their time together, Sydney and Theo uncover an insidious plot that has roots far beyond and above what they initially thought. Can they full uncover the truth behind her neighbors allegedly moving away or disappearing before they found themselves in the same boat?
This book has had a lot back and forth on whether or not this story is actually a thriller and let me say it very loudly for the people in the back of the room. IT IS. Every situation that Sydney found herself in during this book was something that I could resonate with on some level. Nothing in this book was unintentional. And by nothing I mean absolutely nothing. There were no throwaway lines, characters, or situations. This book had me anxious the entire time I read it up until the last page. And I felt unsettled even when reading the very last page.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Korede’s big sister responsibilities extend a bit further than the norm as she is regularly enlisted to dispose of Ayoola’s boyfriends after she murders them. She knows that this is wrong and that they will eventually get caught. And, while she is not comfortable with this, she takes her role as big sister seriously and will always be there to help her sister out. That is, until Ayoola starts dating a doctor at the hospital where Korede works. The same doctor that Korede has long been in love with. When this happens, Korede knows what the inevitable conclusion will be, and is left to wonder who will be the one she will sacrifice.
I can’t remember if I heard this advertised as a horror or a thriller when it first came out. In my personal genre catalog I would place it as a satirical thriller. It is a good read, but the comedy here is very dark; so, it helps to have a somewhat twisted sense of humor to be able to fully enjoy it.
Lakewood by Megan Giddings
After her beloved grandmother passes away, Lena Johnson drops out of school and returns home to help take care of her family. She finds a golden opportunity signing up for a secret program at Lakewood with benefits that seem too good to be true; provided she doesn’t discuss any of the experiments that go on there. As the horrible truth of the experiments becomes more apparent, Lena is faced with how far she is willing to go, and what she is willing to undertake to ensure her family is taken care of.
This book comes with a lot of trigger warnings, primarily dealing with body horror. What seems more terrifying about it is that there is some truth to the horror here about medical experiments being done on Black people without their full knowledge or consent, as evidenced in the stories about the Tuskegee Airmen or the story of Henrietta Lacks.
Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith
Martin Grey is a promising young Black attorney in Queens. While working out of a storefront, he becomes friendly with a group of some of the most esteemed Black men in America. Seeing potential in him, they invite him to a just boys weekend away from it all and off the grid. There they reveal that they are all part of a secret society that is dedicated to bringing back the institution of slavery—but with the racial roles reversed. Caught between untold success if he joins and death if he doesn’t, Martin struggles to find a way to escape the prospect of this terrifying new world order.
Although this was written in 2014, the themes here will ring uncomfortably loud in the 2020 landscape. Fair warning that this is a series, so there is likely to be some kind of cliffhanger here.
They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall
Miriam Macy is delighted by the surprise invitation she receives to go to a luxurious and private island. Joined by six strangers, she prepares herself for a relaxing vacation. Once there, they quickly discover that all of them harbor a dark secret and that they have been brought there under false pretenses. Stuck in a paradise-turned-prison, they have no way to reach the outside world. When strange accidents begin to pile up, they all become suspicious of each other and what or who brought them there.
A delightful twisty and dark addition to the locked door mystery genre, this one is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat and guessing until the very last page.
Fearless Jones by Walter Dean Mosley
When secondhand bookstore owner Paris Minton is beaten up and his store burned to the ground, he enlists the aid of his friend, Fearless Jones. The only clue for Jones is a mysterious woman who seemingly has vanished. As Jones begins to investigate the woman and her past, an even darker mystery unfolds in this first book of a new series from this author.
Most people will probably think of Easy Rawlins and Devil in a Blue Dress when they hear this author’s name, but this book shouldn’t be overlooked, and Fearless is just as endearing as Easy.
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
This author has gotten a lot of acclaim for her series, but I’m going to ease off those for a moment to help out your TBR piles and recommend this standalone. When the body of a dead girl is discovered on the grounds of the Belle Vie plantation and a staff member goes missing, Caren is unwillingly drawn in the story of the victim. Along the way she is faced with the glaringly harsh reality of the plantations past and future, uncovering secrets that she comes to wish had stayed buried.
This book forces both Caren and the reader to come face to face with modern day America, and with unshaking commentary on race, family, politics, and the law, this gripping thriller will have you on the edge of your seat until the very last page.
We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
The nameless narrator of this racially taut novel faces an impossible decision. Driven by the parental urge to protect his biracial child at all costs, he decides to enroll him in a medical procedure that will turn him white. However, the price for this is steep. He has to become a partner at the law firm where he is one of a handful of Black associates, as well as as other seemingly surreal hoops and expectations from joining up with equality activist groups and diversity committees.
This satirical book, reminiscent of the writings of Ralph Ellison, examines the history of racism in our country. It is also a deep, moving story about family and the desperate lengths we will go to for the ones that we love.