[Note from Frolic: Today, we welcome author Ashley Winstead to the site. She’s sharing some of her favorite romantic thrillers with us. Take it away, Ashley!]
What’s better than a killer thriller? A sexy killer thriller, maybe even one with a romance you can root for. When it comes to books, I love romance and murder in equal measure, and I know I’m not alone. Sigmund Freud argued sex and death are entwined in the human imagination—he, and many theorists who came after him, believed they’re the two primal drives that compel human behavior, often explaining, at a deep-rooted level, what we’re attracted to and why. Death is even built into a French expression for orgasm, la petite mort, or the “little death” (which literary theorist Roland Barthes said is also the experience readers should have after finishing a good book).
Unsurprisingly, crime fiction has a lot to say about love and sex: noir is famous for the trope of the alluring femme fatale, domestic suspense often takes the complications of marriage as its central plot point, and of course there’s romantic suspense, an entire subgenre devoted to mixing romance and high-octane plots. Whatever the angle, romance in thrillers is all about high stakes. By design, it often wrestles with darkness and comes with plenty of angst and longing, so if you’re into that sort of thing (I am!), I humbly suggest adding these thrillers to your TBR. Some I chose because they have romantic subplots I couldn’t get enough of, others because even though the romance is ultimately toxic, the sexiness is off the charts. I can’t guarantee a happy ending, but I can guarantee you’ll love the ride.
The Lady Upstairs by Halley Sutton
If loving the Lady is wrong, I don’t want to be right. (Okay, fine, I know it’s very wrong.) Sutton’s modern noir offers a delicious twist on the femme fatale trope, as it’s written from the perspective of a femme fatale, who may or may not have feelings for an even more dangerous woman. Protagonist Jo, alongside her friend Lou, make a living extorting bad men for money at the behest of the mysterious Lady Upstairs, but when a body turns up and the cops come sniffing, all hell breaks loose. Prepare to pine.
When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
The biggest reason to read When No One is Watching is the book’s brilliant and chilling examination of white supremacy. Cole’s debut thriller also has a gripping romantic subplot that adds even more intrigue to the twisty plot—perhaps unsurprising, given she’s a celebrated romance writer. The story follows Sydney and Theo, who are neighbors in a historically Black Brooklyn neighborhood that’s being swiftly gentrified—but is that all that’s happening? The book takes some pretty wild twists and turns, so I loved having a steamy romance to hold onto.
Bath Haus by PJ Vernon
Bath Haus is more about relationships falling apart than coming together, but the entire book is suffused with a tense, sexy atmosphere—starting with that cover, which should win an award. The story follows Oliver Park and his partner Dr. Nathan Klein. Oliver is twenty-six and a recovering addict; Nathan is ten years older and a surgeon who comes from family wealth (power imbalance red flags are up!). The action takes off when Nathan goes out of town for a conference and Oliver goes to a bathhouse seeking anonymous sex with a stranger. He finds an Alexander Skarsgård lookalike, Kristian, and everything is great until they’re alone and Kristian tries to strangle him. The tension and thrills only escalate from there.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Yes, I’m counting Ninth House, because as much as it’s a dark contemporary fantasy, it’s also a murder mystery. Now onto the important things: Alex and Darlington #forever. I love Galaxy Stern and Daniel Arlington so much as individual characters, and am rooting for them as a couple—and I’m definitely not alone, judging by AO3 and Tumblr. This is a book that I read as much for the relationship subplot as I did to solve the mysteries, and I actually loved the super slow-burn of Alex and Darlington’s friendship as it evolved. They both have a lot of healing to do, especially Alex, and so the slow pace feels right. I can’t wait to see what the sequel brings.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
I just want good things for Nigerian nurse Korede, and that includes a happily ever after with Tade, the kind, handsome doctor she’s been in love with for a long time. Unfortunately, Tade starts dating Korede’s sister Ayoola, who’s beautiful, charming, and has a habit of stabbing the men she dates (oops?). This darkly comic book follows the two sisters as Ayoola rolls through life, drawing people—especially men—to her like magnets, and Korede trails after, protecting her and quite literally cleaning up her mess. When Tade and Ayoola get involved, Korede has to make a gut-wrenching decision: who to save, and who to sacrifice?
They Never Learn by Layne Fargo
Even if you’re not someone who thinks the premise of this book—an English professor who murders men who’ve assaulted women—is inherently sexy, there’s a lot of heat to keep you turning pages. Dr. Scarlett Clark is a Victorianist who works on recovering overlooked female writers (as a former English scholar, I love this), and on the side coldly kills men who’ve gotten away with hurting women—until one of her kills goes awry, and the cops start connecting the dots. Scarlett may be able to find solace in Mina, a gorgeous and whip-smart fellow academic, except Mina’s also on her trail…This is a go-to sexy thriller.
Sunburn by Laura Lippman
I dare you not to get sucked in to this story about Adam and “Polly,” two extremely untrustworthy people who coincidentally or not-so-coincidentally meet in a restaurant in Delaware. The attraction between them is instant, though they orbit each other for a while, but eventually the two can’t resist and fall into a passionate affair. The problem is, they both have private agendas—and then a body turns up. Will their relationship survive the weight of their secrets, or is their love bound to end in tragedy? A slow but intense burn.
About the Author:
Ashley Winstead is the author of In My Dreams I Hold a Knife (August 3, 2021; Sourcebooks). A resident of Houston, she earned a Ph.D. in contemporary American literature from Southern Methodist University and a B.A. in English and Art History from Vanderbilt University. You can visit her online at ashleywinstead.com
In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead, out now!
One college reunion.
One unsolved murder.
Ten years after graduation, Jessica Miller has planned her triumphant return to her southern, elite Duquette University, down to the envious whispers that are sure to follow in her wake. Everyone is going to see the girl she wants them to see—confident, beautiful, indifferent. Not the girl she was when she left campus, back when Heather Shelby’s murder fractured everything, including the tight bond linking the six friends she’d been closest to since freshman year.
But not everyone is ready to move on. Not everyone left Duquette ten years ago, and not everyone can let Heather’s murder go unsolved. Someone is determined to trap the real killer, to make the guilty pay. When the six friends are reunited, they will be forced to confront what happened that night—and the years’ worth of secrets each of them would do anything to keep hidden.
Told in racing dual timelines, with a dark campus setting and a darker look at friendship, love, obsession, and ambition, In My Dreams I Hold A Knife is an addictive, propulsive read you won’t be able to put down.