The Best Thriller Books of All Time
We've organized the best thrillers by category; get ready for your hair to stand on end.
By Dawn Raffel
The Spy Thriller
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré (1963) is the quintessential espionage thriller. Set during the Cold War, this rich tale still captivates with its spellbinding portrayal of the world of secret agents. And don’t miss: any of Daniel Silva’s novels featuring Gabriel Allon, art restorer and former Israeli assassin. The most recent, The English Girl, came out in 2012.
The Techno Thriller
Ian Fleming started it all with James Bond and his arsenal of clever gadgets, some not so far-fetched anymore. The best Bond book? From Russia with Love (1957). But 1950s James Bond could never have imagined the dizzyingly high-tech world we live in now, or the questions that would arise about online identity and surveillance. For a 2013 seat-of-your-chair thriller that’ll make you think about where we could be headed, read Dave Eggers’ The Circle.
The Classic Thriller
The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (1898) was one of the world’s pioneering thrillers, introducing this genre, unknown at the time, to worldwide acclaim. More recently, Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic The Stand is an undisputed classic. Originally published in 1978, the master of horror released a longer, “uncut” version in 1990, with a new paperback incarnation in the summer of 2012. Terrifying at any length.
The Psychological Suspense Thriller
If you get your adrenaline rush from mind games rather than chase scenes, psychological suspense is for you. For sheer creepiness and terror, nothing beats The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (1988). More recently, Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson (2011), marks the debut of a new master of the psychological sizzler. This one’s about a woman who wakes up with total amnesia, then pieces together what happened. Warning: Don’t read it alone at night!
The Legal Thriller
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow (1987) features terrific characters, a deftly executed plot, and fascinating legal insight, making it the definitive legal thriller. And for an exciting new author, don’t miss Defending Jacob by William Landay (2012), in which a District Attorney struggles to prove that his son is innocent of a murder.
The Medical Thriller
Want to take your mind off the health insurance wars? A great medical thriller is a lot more fun. Read Coma by Robin Cook (1977), the unforgettable saga of patients who check into the hospital for “minor” surgery and never wake up. Looking for a more recent book? Any of Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta novels, centering on the beloved forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta, should scare you (happily) sick; the most recent, The Bone Bed, came out in paper in 2013.
The Sci-Fi Thriller
Sure, he’s done dinosaurs and television emergency rooms, but Michael Crichton’s first novel, The Andromeda Strain (1969), still ranks as one of the top science fiction thrillers of all time. What could be scarier than microscopic killer germs run amok? Um, how about a gigantic Arctic monster (think polar bear on steroids)? You can find that in The Terror (2007) by Dan Simmons, which blends a fascinating account of 1840s Arctic exploration with the supernatural.
The Military Thriller
Even if you’ve seen the movie, you don’t want to miss don’t miss the book: The Great Escape Killing Floor (1997) by Lee Child. You’ll love his Jack Reacher novels too, the latest of which, Never Go Back, was released in September, 2013. We also need to tip our hat to Tom Clancy, who passed away in 2013. A final novel, Command Authority, written with Mark Greaney is out December 2013; it was part of Clancy’s blockbuster Jack Ryan series.
The True-Crime Thriller
Yes, real life can be stranger than fiction, and true-crime thrillers prove this. The most famous book in this nonfiction genre is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966); the author spent months in the Midwest painstakingly retracing the steps of two young rural killers. Another excellent and more recent true-crime book is The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal (2011), the jaw-dropping story of dangerous (possibly murderous) con artist Christian K. Gerhartsreiter, who faked an identity as “Clark Rockefeller.”
The Action/Adventure Thriller
Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read (1974) set the gold standard for heroic survival stories, with this true tale of a Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashes, resulting in an incredible 10-week physical and emotional ordeal. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (1997) is the riveting true story of 24 hours on Everest that claimed the lives of eight people. Tragic, insightful, brilliant—and haunting.