My love of crime thriller books started at the age of 11, when my grandad loaned me his well-thumbed copy of The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins.
Whether you’re looking for espionage thrillers, heist stories, or a lone hero against a local bad guy, the crime thriller genre has it all.
Choosing some classic crime thriller books to share with you here wasn’t an easy task – there are so many, and all of the ones I’ve listed here have inspired me so much over the years that I often re-read them.
I hope you enjoy reading these as much as I do.
Alistair MacLean, Where Eagles Dare
(pub date: 1967)
From the publisher:
Winter 1943, and US General Carnaby has been captured by the Nazis. He is being held in a fortress high in the Bavarian Alps. headquarters of the German Secret Service, and in his head are plans for the invasion of Normandy.
A special team of British commandos, a US Army ranger and a female secret agent is hurriedly assembled. Their mission: parachute into the area, break in to the alpine Castle, and rescue General Carnaby before the Germans can interrogate him.
But unknown to all, there is another mission, and someone in the group is a traitor…
McLean wrote several crime thrillers that could belong on this list, but it would be remiss of me not to pick Where Eagles Dare given the impact this novel has had since its publication in the late sixties. The inspiration behind the blockbuster film starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, this book has it all – intrigue, suspense, and thrills aplenty.
Major Smith is an iconic character, leading his motley crew of commandos into treacherous Nazi-occupied territory alongside an army ranger and a female secret agent.
The pacing is exquisite, and every time you think the good guys have thwarted the attempts by an unidentified saboteur, another near disaster befalls them.
This is Maclean at his best, and if you’ve seen the film but never read the book, I highly recommend you rectify that.
Jack Higgins, The Eagle Has Landed
(pub date: 1975)
From the publisher:
In the early morning hours of 6 November 1943, SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler receives the coded message he has been waiting for:
‘The Eagle has landed’.
Operation Eagle: Himmler’s audacious plan to kidnap Winston Churchill on British soil is underway in a remote corner of Norfolk. There, an elite unit is gathered. Ready to do battle for a nation against the most ruthless task force ever assembled …
No classic crime thriller list of mine would be complete without the inclusion of The Eagle Has Landed.
This book was the one that kickstarted a serious interest in the genre for me, all because of a rainy afternoon at my nan and grandad’s when I was eleven years old with nothing to read. There was a bookshelf in the small bedroom at the back of their house lined with my nan’s romance novels and grandad’s thrillers. Granddad reached up to the top shelf, pulled out his well thumbed copy of The Eagle Has Landed, and handed it to me.
‘Try this. I think you’ll like it,’ he said.
They didn’t hear a peep out of me for the rest of the weekend, and it’s a book I reread every few years.
I think I enjoy it so much because it’s one of those books that been so well researched that it is hard to imagine that what takes place between the pages didn’t happen in real life. Higgins draws you into the story from the start. His characters – both the good guys and the bad – compel you to keep turning the pages, and the sheer audacity of the Nazi plot so well described that even though you know they are doomed to fail, you have to keep reading to find out how the good guys are going to stop them.
Again, this is a classic crime thriller that was successfully turned into a film but if you haven’t yet read the book, I urge you to make some time for this one. It’s quite possibly the best book Jack Higgins has ever written.
John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps
(pub date: 1915)
From the publisher:
Recently returned from South Africa, adventurer Richard Hannay is bored with life, but after a chance encounter with an American who informs him of an assassination plot and is then promptly murdered in Hannay’s London flat, he becomes the obvious suspect and is forced to go on the run.
He heads north to his native Scotland, fleeing the police and his enemies.
Hannay must keep his wits about him if he is to warn the government before all is too late.
Unfortunately, some of the language used in this book dates it horribly, however the general premise of an innocent man on the run has been successfully replicated by writers since this was first published in the early years of the twentieth century.
I read this for the first time in 2017 before attending Bouchercon in Toronto, Canada. The crime fiction festival is named for John Buchan and authors who are invited to participate in panel discussions are encouraged to read one of his books beforehand.
I’ve been aware of the story for a number of years, as my mum was a fan of the 1978 film adaptation starring Robert Powell. However, it wasn’t until I read the book that I realised how much of an influence it was on Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (Hitchcock directed his own version of The Thirty-Nine Steps 24 years before that) – when Richard Hannay is pursued by a pilot flying a biplane, its uncanny resemblance to the classic film scene of later years cannot be ignored.
It’s a quick read, and as I said a lot of the language is dated, but it is still considered a classic crime thriller and for that, I’m including it here.
Cornell Woolrich, Rear Window
(pub date: 1942)
Firstly, I have to admit it took me years to read this short story, even though the Hitchcock film adaptation remains one of my favourites by that director.
It wasn’t until another writer at a conference in Las Vegas raved about it during a “favourite books” discussion over a beer one night that I realised it was a book I needed to read. I’m glad I did.
Again, due to the age of the story, the language leaves a lot to be desired and you can see why Hitchcock introduced Grace Kelly’s character when making this into a film. However, at its heart remains a chilling crime thriller, one where a man believes he has witnessed a murder but nobody – including the detective who he turns to for help – believes him, until he is able to glean enough evidence to the contrary, putting his own life at risk to do so.
The tension in the final few pages is palpable, and for a short story Rear Window has everything a crime thriller fan could need.
W.R. Burnett, The Asphalt Jungle
(pub date: 1949)
From the publisher:
When Riemenschneider is released from prison, he heads right to Cobby the bookie. Riemenschneider has the plans for the perfect jewel heist, a place ripe for the picking. Cobby has got the connections.
But first of all, they need cash. And that’s where Emmerich comes in. Emmerich, a smooth criminal lawyer, has always got plenty of both. So they pull in Gus as the driver, Bellini as the safe man, and Dix as strongarm.
This could be the perfect crime. Except that Emmerich is broke and desperate—and that’s where everything starts to go wrong.
When I used to play guitar in bands, I would often read interviews with my guitar heroes to find out who their influences were so I could go back and listen to who inspired them to start playing.
This book is the same – once you start reading and researching heist thrillers, it’s only a matter of time before The Asphalt Jungle is mentioned, and rightly so.
It may be over 70 years old now, but the story is as fresh as ever, the characters drawing you in and the daring planned heist of a jewellery store keeping you on the edge of your seat with your heart in your mouth.
Will they get away with it, or won’t they?
You’ll have to read this to find out 🙂
Len Deighton, The Ipcress File
(pub date: 1962)
Incredibly, this was Deighton’s first novel and it set the tone for what was to come from this gifted crime thriller author.
Deighton’s books were also stalwarts on my Grandad’s bookshelves and this, alongside Funeral in Berlin, were ones I read for the first time in my teens.
I’ve chosen The Ipcress File for my Classic Crime Thrillers list though because it’s a perfect example of a Cold War-era tale, one with double- and triple-crosses in a plot that manages to depict 1960s London in all its grittiness as well as the strangeness of a nuclear testing site in the South Pacific. And throughout, there are Deighton’s sly asides and whip-smart repartee. Honestly, his metaphors alone make this one worth reading.
If you’re a fan of espionage crime thrillers and haven’t discovered this gem yet, add it to your TBR pile today
Frederick Forsyth, The Odessa File
(pub date: 1972)
From the publisher:
It’s 1963 and a young German reporter has been assigned the suicide of a holocaust survivor. The news story seems straighforward, this is a tragic insight into one man’s suffering. But a long hidden secret is discovered in the pages of the dead man’s diary.
What follows is life-and-death hunt for a notorious former concentration camp-commander, a man responsible for the deaths of thousands, a man as yet unpunished.
Another master of the espionage crime thriller genre, with first hand experience of the job, Forsyth delivers one of his best stories in this, the tale of a young cadet reporter assigned what is thought to be the suicide of a holocaust survivor.
However, in true crime thriller fashion, nothing is what it first seems and before long, Peter Miller is thrust into a deadly cat-and-mouse game whereby unmasking the truth may cost him his life.
The suspense is palpable in this crime thriller, and it stands the test of time well so it’s well worth adding to your list of books to delve into sooner rather than later.