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6 Chilling Domestic Thrillers Recommended by Author Sarah Vaughan

by  | September 2
Little Disasters book with flowers

As we begin September, we’re getting amped for everything fall and stocking up on CHILLING thrillers. With that said, we are delighted to welcome author Sarah Vaughan to Get Literary to recommend her top choices for thrillers featuring dysfunctional families—because aren’t the best thrillers those that hit a little too close to home? Sarah’s newest novel, Little Disasters, is a haunting page-turner about early motherhood, obsession, secrets, and friendship, with a terrifying sequence of events that leads to a meticulously mounted conclusion. And for fans of Sarah’s previous book Anatomy of a Scandal, there’s a TV adaptation in the works at Netflix. Thanks for joining us, Sarah!


I recently listened to a TV producer talk about the subjects that most appeal to viewers. The extraordinary in the everyday, he said. A compelling, propulsive plot; committed writing; characters you believe in—but, most crucially, a universal setup or theme.

There’s no theme more universal than the family. If we haven’t got kids ourselves, then we’ll usually know someone who has, and, of course, we’ve all had some sort of parent. It’s this relatability that explains why family-centric thrillers remain so popular, despite so many of us being holed up with our immediate families since the onslaught of Covid-19.

In fact, perhaps the claustrophobia of lockdown explains why readers are opting for these books. We can identify with a scenario, vicariously experience the horror of the characters, and then feel intense relief that this isn’t happening in real life.

I certainly drew on my own experience of feeling panicked and uncertain when at home with my three-year-old and a newborn baby to write Little Disasters.

If all this sounds relatable, here are six family-centric thrillers to add to your TBR.

The Family Upstairs

The Family Upstairs

by Lisa Jewell

It has family in the title, but the family that arrives to live upstairs in the Lambs’ Cheyne Walk mansion isn’t your standard nuclear family, though they will have a cataclysmic effect. Charismatic physiotherapist David Thomsen, his wife, children, and followers infiltrate Henry and Martina Lamb’s eight-bedroom home, siphon off the family’s fortune, and generally wreak destruction in this increasingly sinister, labyrinthine thriller. The ease with which David, a charming sociopath, beguiles Martina, and her ill, ineffective husband, is all too clear to the Lambs’ son when he questions how long the cultish leader is due to stay. “All of this,” she [Martina] gestured around her grand bedroom…“doesn’t make me happy, it really doesn’t. And then David came and he’s shown me another way.” Chilling.

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The End of Her

The End of Her

by Shari Lapena

Stephanie Filgour’s parents are both dead, but she has a new family in the form of her husband, Patrick, and newborn colicky twins. Everything should feel perfect, right? Except the twins don’t sleep and now a woman is claiming that Stephanie’s husband murdered his first wife when she was eight months pregnant. Patrick has told Stephanie it was a tragic accident but hasn’t mentioned a baby: Are there other secrets about him she has yet to discover? Lapena’s new slice of suburban noir conjures up the intense exhaustion, self-doubt, floundering judgment, and paranoia of a first-time, sleep-deprived mother. This family might be small—the baby daughters don’t contribute much beyond their incessant crying—but the atmosphere’s intense.

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Little Cruelties

Little Cruelties

by Liz Nugent

Liz Nugent excels at creating monstrous mothers—and that’s on display in her newest book as well. In Little Cruelties, coming this November, she explores the tensions between a trio of brothers, William, Brian, and Luke, all born within 26 months of each other, and Melissa, their toxic and ultimately destructive mom. The thriller starts with this killer line, from an unknown narrator, “All three of the Drumm brothers were at the funeral, although one of us was in a coffin,” and then spools through their three separate takes on how this fratricide occurred. Nugent, one of nine herself, says she is “fascinated by family life,” and this often painful psychological exploration of the damage we do to those we’re supposed to love is perhaps her best thriller yet.

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Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere

by Celeste Ng

While Ng’s exquisitely written Little Fires Everywhere, like Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, is more of a psychological drama than a thriller, the recent Hulu series felt sufficiently compelling to bump it into this category. And it is certainly family-centric, pitching two families, and their ideologies, against one another. Elena Richardson’s life is ordered and controlled, and her husband, Bill, and four teenage kids—Lexi, Trip, Moody, Izzy—are expected to fall in with her rules. But then artist Mia Warren and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Pearl, rent a flat the Richardsons own in the delightful Ohio suburb of Shaker Heights—and start to shake things up. While a legal battle over the adoption of a Chinese baby consumes the later action, the plot is driven by the unearthing of various secrets, until the family combusts under the strain of following the rules no matter the cost. Making Mia and Pearl African American—a choice not made explicit in the novel—adds a compelling racial dimension, but it’s in exploring the Richardson family’s dysfunction that the power of this thriller lies.

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The Push

The Push

by Ashley Audrain

This dark, compulsive thriller, which sold for seven figures in the UK and a higher seven figures in the US, isn’t to be published until early 2021, but it’s worth the wait. Blythe Connor is determined to be the warm, intuitive mother she never had, but her daughter, Violet, unsettles her. She’s convinced Violet lacks empathy and compassion; fears she may even be evil—but is this, as her husband, Fox, suggests, all in her head? Provocative, unsettling, and visceral, The Push exposes deep dysfunction and reveals the impact of abusive parenting through the generations.

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Magpie Lane

Magpie Lane

by Lucy Atkins

Lucy Atkins’s literary suspense novel looks at a small, dysfunctional family through the eyes of outsider Dee, a slightly eccentric Scottish nanny. Dee is employed by Nick Law, the ambitious new master of an Oxford college, and his second wife, Mariah, a beautiful Scandinavian, to look after his eight-year-old, Felicity, who has been mute since the death of her own mom. The thriller starts with Dee questioned by police, since Felicity is missing. What follows is an examination of narcissistic parenting, a mystery, and an odd-ball love story all wrapped up in Oxford Gothic.

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Little Disasters

Little Disasters

by Sarah Vaughan

From the bestselling author of Anatomy of a Scandal—a new thought-provoking novel exploring the complexity of motherhood and all that connects and disconnects us.

You think you know her…but look a little closer.

She is a stay-at-home mother-of-three with boundless reserves of patience, energy, and love. After being friends for a decade, this is how Liz sees Jess.

Then one moment changes everything.

Dark thoughts and carefully guarded secrets surface—and Liz is left questioning everything she thought she knew about her friend, and about herself. The truth can’t come soon enough.

With Sarah Vaughan’s signature “clever and compelling” (Claire Douglas, author of Last Seen Alive) prose, Little Disasters is a tightly-wound and evocative page-turner that will haunt you long after you finish the last page.

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Sarah Vaughan studied English at Oxford and went on to become a journalist. She spent eleven years at The Guardian as a news reporter, health correspondent, and political correspondent. Sarah lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children.