The perfect thriller is a difficult beast – a complex mix of pacing, plotting, and tension all doing a high-wire act to keep readers on the edge of their seats and glued to the page. The thriller is also one of the literary world’s broader genres ranging from intricacies of espionage to the supernatural, tension-filled courtrooms to haunted houses, howcatchems and whodunits to grisly murders. The one thing all of these tales have in common? An unparalleled ability to draw readers in for that can’t-put-it-down reading experience. Looking back over the last 100 or so years, we’ve pulled together our list of sixteen of the most essential thrillers. Find a comfy spot and settle in; once you start one of these great reads, odds are you won’t be able to step away until you hit that final page.
(Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
Shirley Jackson; Introduction by Laura Miller
Shirley Jackson is perhaps best known for her short story The Lottery, which created a landmark moment in American short fiction. Her novel The Haunting of Hill House, however, may be the pinnacle of Gothic fiction – particularly of the haunted house variety – in the twentieth century. Relying on a creeping sense of dread and terror, Jackson’s tale of a group investigating a famously haunted mansion is a tour-de-force thriller.
Dashiell Hammett is the king of hardboiled detective fiction; he created four of the genre’s most enduring characters: Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, and the Continental Op. His works are complex, haunting, and unforgivingly bleak. The Maltese Falcon features Sam Spade – the world-weariest of world-weary private eyes – a host of shady characters, and of course a woman as treacherous as she is beautiful. It doesn’t get much more hard-boiled than this.
Arguably Agatha Christie’s finest work, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is, in many ways, the novel that made Christie a perennial bestseller and was one of the author’s personal favorites. Originally published in 1926, it follows a now retired Hercule Poirot investigating a bizarre murder in the village of King’s Abbot. It is a landmark in the mystery genre and the vanguard of the modern mystery novel.
If you’re looking for a powerful, gut-wrenching courtroom thriller, John Grisham is the place to start. Grisham is an incomparable storyteller who knows his way around a jury; he has a law degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law and was a practicing attorney for a decade. A Time to Kill is among his best novels and centers on the defense of a black man seeking vengeance for a vicious attack on his ten-year-old daughter.
Best known for the cinematic adaptation of the same name, Robert Bloch’s Psycho is every bit as compelling as the film it spawned. Inspired in part by the real-life murders committed by Ed Gein, Bloch’s novel centers on the Bates Motel and its unsettling proprietor, Norman Bates. Whether you’re a fan of the Hitchcock classic or top-notch thriller/mysteries in general, Psycho is an essential read.
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is a near-perfect thriller. From its ingenious, twisty plot to its unreliable narration and its examination of a marriage coming apart at the seams, everything about Gone Girl just simply works. Flynn’s story of Amy and Nick Dunne leaves readers with hugely disturbing what-if questions about trust, motivation, and relationships. The 2012 novel is a mercurial, complex, and, above all else, thrilling read that is nearly impossible to put down.
Thomas Harris created one of the most indelible villains of the twentieth century in Hannibal Lecter, although some argue that it was Anthony Hopkins’s brilliant performance in the Oscar-winning adaptation that really cemented the villain’s place in thriller history. Though the movie was indeed outstanding, we’re siding with the source material on this one, as Harris’s development of the sociopathic doctor is like nothing we’ve read before or since.
With her dense plotting and bleak, atmospheric style, Tana French has quickly established herself as one of the finest mystery writers working today. In the Woods centers on Rob Ryan, a detective for Dublin’s Murder Squad, who begins an investigation into a murder startlingly similar to a horrific event from Ryan’s own past. In the Woods is a tense, edge-of-your-seat thriller and a perfect introduction to French’s work.
It’s impossible to escape the reach and influence of Agatha Christie in the mystery genre. Her prodigious catalog of mysteries remains the gold standard in the genre. And Then There Were None is the queen of mystery’s masterstroke, following a group of individuals, each of whom is complicit in murder, gathered on an island and killed off one by one. There are many reasons Christie is the best-selling author of all-time; And Then There Were None is one of them.
Nordic Noir didn’t begin or end with the late Stieg Larsson, but there is arguably no other author whose books did more to popularize the subgenre. If you somehow missed the brutal, harrowing, and twisting tale of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, there is no better time to dig in to one of the finest and most complex thrillers of the last hundred years.
Tom Clancy is the brain behind a treasure trove of extraordinarily detailed and compulsively readable espionage thrillers. It was The Hunt for Red October that launched his extraordinary career. In terms of espionage thrillers, you’d be hard-pressed to find a novel more convincing in its details. It has long been rumored that the startling accuracy of his novels earned the attention of both the White House and the Pentagon. If you’re looking to dig in to Clancy’s world, The Hunt for Red October is the perfect jumping-off point.
Stephen King is one of the most celebrated authors of his generation. Beyond his stunning prolificacy, the author has long had his finger on what readers of horror thrillers want. See: His endless list of bestsellers as proof. King is definitely a master of horror, but if you’re looking for creeping dread and slowly mounting suspense, The Shining is the place to start. The chronicle of Jack Torrance’s descent into madness during one cold winter with his family at the infamous Overlook Hotel is one of King’s finest – and tightest – works.
Daphne Du Maurier
In terms of psychological thrillers, Rebecca is second to none. Though the novel served as the basis for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest films – the 1940 adaptation won Hitchcock his only Best Picture Oscar – it is an enthralling gothic mystery all its own. The story centers on the second young bride of Maxim de Winter, who finds herself feeling increasingly fearful and isolated in the stone mansion on the Cornish coast – a mansion that still holds the dark shadow of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca.
Nordic Noir has become known for its bleak themes, explorations of tragic and tortured protagonists, and its particularly brutal crimes. Jo Nesbo sits near the top of a crowded class of writers in the genre and his beleaguered inspector Harry Hole is one of the genre’s best characters. The Snowman is quite possibly Nesbo’s best Hole novel thus far – or at least marks the point where he really hits his stride, and also serves as a great entry point into the world of Harry Hole. It’s a twisting narrative full of red herrings, as unnerving as it is thrilling.
A George Smiley Novel
John le Carré
John le Carre is unquestionably the biggest and most influential name in Cold War-era spy thrillers. With an unmatched air of authenticity – le Carre worked for both the British Security Service (MI-5) and the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) – his novels eschew the traditional action of the espionage genre and focus on methodical, unassuming men fully aware of the moral ambiguities in which they operate. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold centers on Alec Leamas, a British agent tasked with infiltrating East German Intelligence. The book features the complexities that make le Carre’s works so powerful.
Dennis Lehane’s gritty, working-class thrillers are something of a redefinition of the hardboiled detective genre. His works are emotionally complex and often brutal in their depictions of a pitiless world of consequence and cruel outcomes. Mystic River follows three childhood friends forever marked by a terrible tragedy and inexorably drawn together as adults by horrifying circumstance. It is an exploration of the darkest corners of loyalty and friendship.