Relative Criminals: 5 Crime Novels About Family

L. Alison Heller is the author of The Neighbor's Secret, a new propulsive psychological suspense novel available now from Flatiron Books. Join Alison as she share her list of recommended novels in which family is at the crux of the crime.

The parents at the center of my novel The Neighbor’s Secret—otherwise law-abiding citizens—justify some very bad behavior in the name of protecting their children.

Over-bearing, neglectful, competitive: there are endless ways family members, even well-intentioned ones, can burden each other with toxic cultures and inherited traumas.

This is excellent news for crime readers, if not for humanity. What more plausible motive for criminal behavior than that rooted in the family tree?

Here are five recommended novels that involve criminals propelled to malfeasance by, to paraphrase Tolstoy, the unique unhappiness of their upbringing. Within their pages, you will find score-settling siblings, characters who “parent” as a verb, acts of chilly premeditation, explosive violence, and selfless loyalty.

Luckily for us, what these novels all have in common are masterful twists and great insight into some seriously messed-up family dynamics.


My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

A riveting exploration of the loyalty and resentment inherent in sibling bonds, this short and saber-sharp story introduces us to Korede, a nurse who literally and figuratively cleans up after her murdering sister Ayoola. Their relationship is complicated when Ayoola crooks her finger at the man Korede secretly loves. Powerful, explosive and original, Braithwaite’s rendering of the complicated relationship between the siblings elevates this stunner to another level.


Happy & You Know It by Laura Hankin

These Manhattan women, members of a group for new mothers, are, to varying degrees, as in thrall to their new babies/toddlers as they are to projecting effortless perfection. Without giving away too much, it is this pressure—of maternal love, of appearing to be in control—that lures the well-drawn characters to lawlessness. As hilarious and fun to read as it is a deeper and searing statement about society, Hankin’s book is thoroughly engaging.


The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

Amber is lured back to her college reunion by an email: “You need to come. We need to talk about what we did that night,” and this thriller is off at a gallop, following two timelines, present day’s ten-year reunion weekend and Amber’s freshman year of college. It is impossible to discuss the familial motivations without disclosing this book’s shocker of an ending, but just know: it’s a completely absorbing, deliciously black-hearted read.


Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier

Fourteen years after her best friend Angela Wong was murdered by a serial killer, Georgina “Geo” Shaw is sent to prison for keeping the killer’s—Geo’s then-boyfriend—secrets about what he did that night. When copycat killings occur around Seattle after her release, Geo is dragged into examining whether there’s a connection between the more recent murders and what really happened that violent night years before. This is a novel that sinks deeps into your skin, with family relations as twisted (and gasp-inducing) as a basket of snakes.


The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell

Kim aches to find her missing daughter Tallulah, a young mother who never returned from a rare night out with friends. The search is unsuccessful, however, until one year after Tallulah’s disappearance, when a writer finds a note that directs her to “dig here,” in a forest near where Tallulah was last seen, offering the hope of potential new leads. Not only is this story emotionally anchored in two mothers’ palpable devotion to their children, but Jewell brilliantly renders the parenting styles of all the characters, from main to supporting—distracted, in denial,  loving, peace-keeping, out-to-lunch. The plot twists, which are as dark as in any Lisa Jewell book, are all-the-more satisfying because of how they’ve been layered in such recognizable family behavior.


*Author Photo Credit Anne Joyce.

About The Neighbor’s Secret by L. Alison Heller:

With its sprawling yards and excellent schools, Cottonwood Estates is the perfect place to raise children. The Cottonwood Book Club serves as the subdivision’s eyes and ears, meeting once a month for discussion, gossip, and cocktails. If their selections trend toward twisty thrillers and salacious murder mysteries, it’s only because the members feel secure that such evil has no place in their own cul-de-sacs.

Or does it?

What happened to Lena’s family fifteen years ago was a tragic accident, and she will never admit otherwise. Devoted wife and mother Annie refuses to acknowledge—even to herself—the weight of a past shame. And new resident Jen wants friends, but as always, worry about her troubled son gets in the way.

When late-night acts of vandalism target the women of the book club in increasingly violent and personal ways, they will be forced to decide how far to go to keep their secrets. At least they all agree on what’s most important: protecting their children at any cost—even if it means someone has to die.

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