Best Thrillers - My Picks
We could argue for ever about this, but if you are looking for the best thrillers – and
I’m talking books here, not films – then this is my pick, across a range of sub-genres. Not all are selected
for unremitting action – some are recommended for other reasons, such as new concepts or ‘novel’ style.
Who is the master of this genre? For me, it has to be John Le Carré. He worked
for the UK’s MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) and knows the score, inside out. Things have changed since his
day, and in my view his earlier works are best. My nomination in this category is ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier,
Alternatives would be ‘Restless’ by William Boyd, and ‘Spies of the Balkans’ by Alan
‘The Flesh House’ by Stuart MacBride. Realistic and suitably gruesome, with some great
Other obvious candidates include books by Stephen King, but for me his best are more akin
to Occult than to Horror.
‘Neuromancer’ by William Gibson.
A debut novel, it won all three major SF prizes. Gibson was the author who coined the term ‘Cyberspace’. Ok, you
say, why include it in your best thriller novels if it is SF? Well, the fact is that when it was written in 1984
(eerie coincidence with George Orwell?) it was mainstream SF, but since then there has been so much technical/
computer/ communications progress that it is, now, close to realisation.
‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson. My review of this 'best thrillers' choice is elsewhere on this
site, so I shan’t repeat it here.
Hard to choose here, but I’m plumping for ‘Day of the Jackal’ by Frederick Forsyth. I
could opt for one of the Bourne books by Robert Ludlum, but I think that Forsyth’s book was seminal in the genre,
even though the action is relatively low key.
I can’t let this category go though, without a mention of the Jack Reacher novels by Lee
Child. As is often the case with long-running novel franchises, the earlier ones are the best.
I’m not a great reader of this sub-genre, but one of the classics is ‘Where Eagles Dare’
by Alistair Maclean, though I do love ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ by Ernest Hemingway, set in the Spanish Civil
Stephen King’s works should feature near the top of the list, but to provide a bit of
variety I’m suggesting a novel which I read many years ago. Occult novels are, arguably, timeless. So, ‘The Devil
Rides Out’ by Dennis Wheatley comes in here. Don’t read it alone late at night.
Some of Dean Koontz’s work is scary-modern, and he figures high on my list, preferably the
Some would say that Tom Clancy established this genre - his ‘The Hunt for Red October’ is
deeply ingrained on my memory. Others would say it was Craig Thomas (remember the Clint Eastwood film ‘Firefox’).
This is a big arena now, with ex-Air Force jocks writing extensively in the genre. Thomas was a Welshman, so I’m
opting for Firefox.
This is a tough one. What is a political thriller exactly? Is it about superpower
conflict, or a presidential election? The Watergate story would itself have made a great political thriller, but
that’s a true story. I think Tom Clancy with one of his later ‘Jack Ryan’ books gets the nod here, and it’s going
to be ‘Patriot Games’ for me. This could qualify as an action thriller too, and also verges on techno-thriller in
I cut my teeth on Mickey Spillane, even before I became a teenager. Elmore Leonard too,
and other cop classics.
Now I like to read James Lee Burke. His
settings are superbly described, without being over-detailed. Try either of his writing streams – Dave
Robicheaux (great evocation of New Orleans pre-Katrina, and later, post-Katrina in ‘Tin Roof Blowdown’), or
Billy Bob Holland (‘Cimarron Rose’) in Texas, then moved to Missoula, Montana (‘Bitterroot’). I almost have a
mental map of Missoula now, and pictures of the cottonwood trees along the river, and the fishing. Billy Bob has
problems with a personal ‘haunting’, and that adds a fascinating dimension in a way that doesn’t require any
disbelief suspension – it’s just there, and real.
I’ve listed nine sub-genres of thriller novels, and more than fifteen books when I set out
to list ten. It’s tough – there are so many great novels out there. However, this is not a consolidation of others’
lists – it a list based on what I’ve read myself. Similarly, checking best seller lists only tells you what has
sold well, which is hugely impacted by marketing effectiveness.
Looking back at these sub-genres of the best thrillers, I can see that spy novels (or at
least, espionage, in some degree) cross several boundaries, into the political, war story and even action novel
categories. Did my subconscious influence the choices? What are spy novels anyway? What makes a good one? I’m
looking forward to exploring that in my next article.