I had so much fun drawing up this list of my favourite crime thriller books.
These are the crime thrillers that stayed in my mind long after turning the final page, satisfied that everything was right with the world again.
I might have been tagging along with an international spy ring after a whirlwind frantic adventure to stop an international terrorist. Or holding my breath as a lone hero takes on an evil narcissistic antagonist who will stop at nothing to protect his interests.
I often read these books every few years, just to remind myself of the quality of the storytelling, and each time I discover something that I’d missed that makes me realise just how good these authors are.
Get ready to add these to your “to be read” list if you haven’t yet discovered these edge of your seat crime thriller books.
John Grisham, The Firm
(pub date: 1991)
From the publisher:
When Mitch McDeere qualified third in his class at Harvard, offers poured in from every law firm in America. Bendini, Lambert and Locke were a small, well-respected firm, but their offer exceeded Mitch's wildest expectations: a fantastic salary, a new home, and the keys to a brand new BMW.
Except for the mysterious deaths of previous lawyers with the firm. And the FBI investigations. And the secret files.
Mitch soon realises that he is working for the Mafia's law firm, and there is no way out - because you do not want this company's severance package...
To survive, he will have to play both sides against each other, and navigate a vast criminal conspiracy that goes higher than he ever imagined.
There's no such thing as the perfect job, but when Mitch McTeer accepts a role with a small law firm after college, he is suddenly presented with a lifestyle that he and his young wife at first find irresistible. Taken in by the security of good money, a good home and a brand-new car, Mitch is at first able to shake off the creeping paranoia that all is not as it seems.
Bit by bit though, the veneer starts to wear thin and as Mitch discovers more about the people he works for, the more scared he gets.
The firm took the legal thriller concept, tipped it upside down, and shook out its pockets before throwing it to the floor. It hits the ground running – the setup is sublime. At first you are as excited as Mitch at the prospect of him getting his teeth into some of the cases his new employers give to him. Then, your heart's in your mouth as you wonder how the hell he is going to survive, especially given the body count of the lawyers who have tried to leave before him.
This is a high octane page turner, a modern classic and a crime thriller that will have you biting your nails before you reach the last chapter.
Terry Hayes, I Am Pilgrim
(pub date: 2013)
From the publisher:
A father publicly beheaded. Killed in the blistering heat of a saudi arabian public square.
A young woman discovered. All of her identifying characteristics dissolved by acid.
A Syrian biotech expert found eyeless. Dumped in a damascus junkyard.
Smouldering human remains. Abandoned on a remote mountainside in afghanistan.
PILGRIM. The codename for a man who doesn't exist. A man who must return from obscurity. The only man who can uncover a flawless plot to commit an appalling crime against humanity.
I'd like to think that I was lucky enough to read I Am Pilgrim before it became a massive success. I remember finding a copy of it on the shelf of the bookstore I used to visit on my way home via Brisbane Central train station and being intrigued by the simple cover. Then I read the synopsis on the back, started reading the first chapter and almost had a tug-of-war with the bookstore manager while simultaneously trying to pay for it and continue reading.
This book is a masterclass in how to write a crime thriller. I remember thinking at the time – and still do – that it is a timeless classic, and worthy of more than one read. Hayes doesn't hold back, either – some of the scenes in this book are brutal, shocking. However, every single one of those scenes counts for something, and none of it is gratuitous as can sometimes be the case with this sort of thriller.
If you haven't yet discovered I Am Pilgrim, add it to your TBR pile today.
Just don’t ask about the elusive sequel…
Clive Cussler, Sahara
(pub date: 1992)
From the publisher:
Deep in the African desert, Dirk Pitt discovers that a top secret scientific installation is leaking a lethal chemical into the rivers, threatening to kill thousands of people - and to destroy all life in the world's seas.
To warn the world of the catastrophe, Pitt must escape capture and death at the hands of a ruthless West African dictator and French industrialist, and undertake a long, perilous journey across the merciless Sahara...
The 11th book in the Dirk Pitt series was actually the first one I read, and it’s still my favourite from Cussler’s canon.
What I love about Cussler's books as his attention to detail, especially the historical aspects that often kick off one of his stories. That said, despite the amount of depth to his work, you're swept away by the story simply because his characterisation is so good.
From the lead character of Dirk Pitt and his cohorts through to the people they meet along the way, every single person is vividly drawn, as are the international settings.
Sahara is an eco-thriller at heart, too – but not the chest-beating type. You can feel the heat coming off the desert between the pages, the desperation as Dirk and co try to stop the bad guys and although you know the good guys always win in the end, it's still an adrenaline rush to turn the pages and find out what happens next.
With Bond-esque thrills and panache aplenty, it’s an action-packed thrill ride that doesn’t let up until the final action-packed finale.
Robert Harris, Archangel
(pub date: 1998)
From the publisher:
Historian Fluke Kelso is in Moscow, attending a conference on recently unclassified Soviet papers, when an old veteran of the Soviet secret police visits his hotel room in the dead of night. He tells Kelso about a secret notebook belonging to Josef Stalin, stolen on the night of his death.
Though Kelso expects little, he agrees to investigate. But in the new Russia, swirling with dark money and falling into the grip of anonymous oligarchs, a man seeking the truth is a dangerous quantity. Eyes are turning his way.
Kelso must survive the violent political intrigue and decadence of Moscow before he can venture to the icy north. There, in the vast forests surrounding the White Sea port of Archangel, Kelso's quest soon becomes a terrifying encounter with Russia's unburied past - and Stalin's last secret.
What could have been a standard political thriller becomes something much much more thanks to the skill of Harris’s storytelling chops. Like Cussler, his research is impeccable which makes his stories so compelling.
I loved reading Archangel the first time because of the "what if?" element. There are so many true facts wound throughout the story that when you reach the shocking ending there's a part of you that can't help thinking that maybe, just maybe this could be possible.
Despite the heavy subject matter, Harris pulls along the reader with a mixture of intrigue and edge of your seat suspense.
This is a master storyteller at his best, and Archangel remains one of my top favourite crime thrillers.
Lee Child, Killing Floor
(pub date: 1997)
From the publisher:
Jack Reacher jumps off a bus and walks fourteen miles down a country road into Margrave, Georgia. An arbitrary decision he's about to regret.
Reacher is the only stranger in town on the day they have had their first homicide in thirty years.The cops arrest Reacher and the police chief turns eyewitness to place him at the scene. As nasty secrets leak out, and the body count mounts, one thing is for sure.
They picked the wrong guy to take the fall.
This, the book that kickstarted the legendary Jack Reacher series, is as fresh to read now as it was when it was originally published.
My first copy was a battered second-hand paperback that I read a couple of years after it was released, and by the time I'd finished the second chapter I knew this was a character I would stick with for life.
Reacher’s brutal, no-nonsense approach to trouble sees him doggedly pursuing the truth – and delivering his own trademark sense of justice.
With precision narrative and a wonderful sense of place, as well as moments of humour that underline Reacher’s responses, it’s no wonder this series has endured.
Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Identity
(pub date: 1980)
From the publisher:
He was dragged from the sea, his body riddled with bullets. There are a few clues: a frame of microfilm surgically implanted beneath the skin of his hip; evidence that plastic surgery has altered his face; strange things he says in his delirium, which could be code words. And a number on the film negative that leads to a bank account in Zurich, four million dollars and a name for the amnesiac: Jason Bourne.
Now he is running for his life. A man with an unknown past and an uncertain future, the target of assassins and at the heart of a deadly puzzle. He's fighting for survival and no one can help him - except the one woman who once wanted to escape him ...
Admittedly, I watched the film first but reading the book for the first time filled in all the gaps and solidified Jason Bourne as one of spies who brought the genre up to date for the late twentieth century.
The thrilling opening – a stranger with amnesia pulled from a churning sea, his origins unknown to himself or his rescuers – sets the scene for an iconic action-packed crime thriller, with Bourne on the run from the people who once controlled every aspect of his life as a government-sponsored assassin.
I love this book both as a reader and writer – Ludlum’s standalone crime thrillers are also recommended, but it’s his series character Jason Bourne who has endured and inspired for the past three decades.