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Mystery/Thriller

8 Unsettling Mysteries Where Mothers Go Missing

Emily Martin

Contributing Editor

Emily has a PhD in English from the University of Southern Mississippi, MS, and she has an MFA in Creative Writing from GCSU in Milledgeville, GA, home of Flannery O’Connor. She spends her free time reading, watching horror movies and musicals, cuddling cats, Instagramming pictures of cats, and blogging/podcasting about books with the ladies over at #BookSquadGoals (www.booksquadgoals.com). She can be reached at emily.ecm@gmail.com.

Flatiron Books, publisher of Exiles

From New York Times bestselling author Jane Harper comes Exiles, a captivating mystery. One year ago, at a busy town festival on a warm spring night, a woman vanished into the crowd and no one has seen her since. Now, as investigator Aaron Falk looks into the case, long-held secrets and resentments begin to surface—and secrets that show that the community is not as close as it appears.

If you’re looking for mysteries and thrillers to really keep you on the edge of your seat with plenty of unsettling twists, go for a missing persons mystery featuring a missing mother.

I’ve always found thrillers about moms particularly unsettling. Regardless of your personal relationship with your mother (which is a whole other can of worms), mothers are symbolically the rocks of the family. Traditionally, mothers are the ones who keep things together, who offer support and care, and who we go to when everything else in our lives seems to be going wrong. So when something is not right with the mothers in books, it just creates a deeper sense of unease and dread. If a mother goes missing? Everything is thrown off balance.

What I love about the books on this list is how they turn the concept of motherhood on its head. While “mothers” as a concept symbolize home and security, the reality of mothers is so much more complicated. After all, mothers are just like the rest of us, each with their own specific issues and histories. But with the added pressure of being responsible for other human beings, being a mother feels a whole lot more treacherous than being any other kind of person. That means stories about mothers are complex. All of the books on this list take the premise of a missing mother and go in entirely different directions. But they’re all excellent reads.

Apples Never Fall book cover

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

Stan and Joy Delaney have been married for 50 years and are the envy of all their friends. Their marriage seems perfect, and they have four wonderful children, now all grown up. And yet, behind closed doors, Stan and Joy are miserable. One night, a stranger named Savannah knocks on the couple’s door. She’s bleeding after a fight with her boyfriend, and Stan and Joy are more than happy to offer her help. But then Savannah goes missing, and Joy is nowhere to be found. Now the police turn to question the only person that remains: Stan. Two of Stan’s children believe their father is innocent. The other two are not so sure. But what is the truth, and what secrets is Stan hiding?

the forgotten girl book cover

The Forgotten Girl by David Bell

Jason’s sister Hayden is a former addict who cut ties with her family when she was at her lowest point. Now, she’s clean and sober and desperate for her brother’s help. She needs Jason and his wife to take care of her teenage daughter while she handles some business in town. But Hayden never returns, and the mystery of her disappearance brings up a lot of unsettling memories from Jason’s past.

the watcher book cover

The Watcher by Jennifer Pashley

In The Watcher, detective Kateri Fisher investigates a curious case. Pearl Jenkins is a hermit in the woods who is basically a nobody. But all of that changes when she vanishes, leaving behind a pool of blood and a child nobody knew existed. As somewhat of an outsider herself, Kateri finds it fitting that she’s taken on this case that no one else wants. But the closer she gets to the truth, the more she realizes she and Pearl might not have been as invisible as she once thought.

cover of Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng; image of a bird's feather slowly disintegrating into several little birds

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

Twelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives alone with his father. His mother Margaret, a Chinese American poet, disappeared when Bird was only 9 years old. Bird doesn’t know what happened to her, but he does know her books have been banned and that she always seemed to care about her writing more than she cared about him. After Bird receives a mysterious letter, he’s pulled into a quest to uncover the whereabouts of him missing mother.

Book cover of Torn to Pieces

Torn to Pieces by Margot McDonnell

When 17-year-old Anne’s mother goes missing, Anne isn’t too worried at first. Her mom has always been quirky, and she often took mysterious business trips. But when Anne’s mother isn’t home several days later, Anne starts to become concerned. When she tries to hotel number her mom left her, it’s disconnected, and a strange man keeps calling their home, looking for a woman who doesn’t even live there. Who is Anne’s mother, really? And where is she? The answers to these questions will change everything Anne thought she knew.

please look after mom book cover

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin

So-nyo goes missing in a Seoul subway station, separated from her husband among the crowds of people. As her husband and children try to search for her, they realize that none of them have a recent picture of So-nyo. This realization leads to bigger questions about how well the children know the woman they call Mom. Please Look After Mom is told through alternating perspectives, weaving together a version of So-nyo as she is seen by others, and eventually how she sees herself.

five days gone book cover

Five Days Gone by Laura Cumming

Five Days Gone is a true crime memoir about a real mother who went missing. But it was before she was a mom. When Laura Cumming’s mother was only 3 years old, she was kidnapped from a beach on the Lincolnshire coast of England. But despite how shocking this incident was, no one in her family ever talked about it. In fact Laura’s mom’s family intentionally hid it from her. And this was far from the only secret they kept from her. Now, years later, Laura and her mother search for answers.

Book cover of The Women Could Fly

The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings

The Women Could Fly is more dystopian than it is mystery, but this story is just so good it had to be on this list, especially because it includes a mysterious missing mom.  27-year-old Josephine Thomas has never known why her mother disappeared. But in a world where women have to be married off at 30, the older Jo gets the more she feels like she understands why her mother might have left. When Jo is offered the opportunity to honor one last request from her mother, Jo will leave behind the life she’s always known to feel a connection to her mom one last time.


After you’ve read enough books about missing moms, take a look at this list of mysteries about missing siblings. If you’re looking for even more missing persons mysteries to keep you on the edge of your seat, make sure you add these missing people thrillers to your TBR list.