Agatha Christie is often dismissed as a rather cosy writer, whose stock in trade is satisfying puzzles that click into place on the last page. I hope that the recent BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None with Aidan Turner might make people view her in a different light, because she can be truly terrifying when she wants. This story of twelve people on an isolated island, being picked off one by one by an unseen killer, is a masterpiece of ratcheting tension that pulls the rug out from under the reader time and again, leaving you with (literally) no-one to trust.
I love novels that start at the end, and from the first page where we encounter the broken figure of Victorian solicitor Arthur Kipps we know two things – first, that he survives the book, but second, that the story is moving inexorably towards the horrible event that made him the figure he is today. Susan Hill uses the reader's uncertainty with masterful skill, threatening to pull back the curtain time and time again – but it's only right at the end that the true horror springs upon the reader.
The Little Stranger
Ask six different people about the ending to The Little Stranger and you will likely get six different explanations, and one of the things I love most about the book is the fact that at the end, nothing is tied up with a neat bow - Waters leaves the reader still stranded on the shifting sands of perception, uncertain about how much responsibility for the deaths and hauntings at Hundreds Hall lies with her supremely unreliable narrator Dr Faraday. Other writers have done unreliable narrators equally well, but few have so much fun toying with the terrified, nail-chewing reader.
Most novels of suspense rely on a slow build for their effect, making us care about the characters and jumpy about what is about to befall them, but Charlotte Perkins Gilman's great achievement is to go from 0-60 in just 6000 words, revving up to a pitch of terrified anxiety for her narrator in a story that is less than a tenth of the length of the average novel. Prescribed a compulsory "rest cure" by her doctor, and locked in a disused nursery by her concerned husband, we witness the disintegration of the narrator's mind with such vividness, it's almost unbearable to turn the page at times.
My Cousin Rachel
Daphne du Maurier
If you ask people to name a du Maurier novel, they will probably say Rebecca (or maybe even Trilby, by Daphne's father, George) and although both are great novels, and masterly studies in human nature and obsessive attraction, I think that My Cousin Rachel probably ranks above them for both those qualities. At the heart of the book is Rachel, distant cousin to the young and idealistic narrator Philip, and widow to his guardian Ambrose, but who is she, and does she deserve his disapprobation, or devotion? As Philip see-saws back and forth between obsessive hatred, and unreasoning adoration, Daphne du Maurier's great achievement is to play with the reader's perceptions so that sometimes we're aligned with Philip's suspicions, and sometimes wholeheartedly at odds with his feelings, but always desperate to know the truth about the enigmatic Rachel.