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14 best detective thriller books of all time

Grit, intellect, and an almost inhuman dedication to making sure justice is served: there’s a reason we’re addicted to detective thrillers. In their protagonist’s wilfulness, we see a fairer, better world, in which goodness trumps politeness and the grisly, violent chaos of humanity is put back in order.

Here, we’ve done our best to assemble some of the best examples of the genre, mixing classics and new classics, trope establishers and subverters, to show the breadth and inventiveness of detective thriller novels. Keep your mind sharp and your weapon at the ready – things are about get complicated…

Don't Let Go by Harlan Coben

Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben

This book features one of Harlan Coben’s best protagonists to date: police detective Napoleon “Nap” Dumas, whose twin brother was found dead on the railway tracks near his home 15 years ago. It was ruled a suicide, but Nap knew better – and now he has information that could finally lead to justice. Don’t Let Go demonstrates why, with good reason, Coben has been called the “master of the double-twist”.

No Less the Devil by Stuart MacBride

No Less the Devil by Stuart MacBride

It’s almost two years into the case, and Operation Maypole is no closer to catching The Bloodsmith, the serial killer at the middle of a media circus. Now, Detective Lucy McVeigh is being pulled into another case: that of Benedict Strachan, who at 11 years old killed a homeless man then disappeared. He’s back on the street and terrified someone’s out to get him – and he’s begging Lucy for help. The question is: besides The Bloodsmith, who else is out there?

The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen

The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen

Tess Gerritsen was already an established writer when she published The Surgeon in 2001, but few could have predicted what that book would spawn. The now-classic novel introduced readers to a homicide detective on the trail of a serial killer whose torture-murders are so intricate he’s nicknamed “the surgeon”. That detective? Jane Rizzoli, future partner of Maura Isles, and the basis of a genre-defining crime duo.

Death at la Fenice by Donna Leon

Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon

Set against the gorgeous, labyrinthine canals of beautiful Venice, this first in Leon’s beloved Commissario Brunetti series establishes the tone perfectly. World-famous conductor Maestro Helmut Wellauer has been poisoned – in the middle of a performance of La Traviata, no less. But how many enemies could he possibly have? And how many had the motive for murder? Brunetti shines in this sinister, sparkling debut that launched a series.

The Blackbird by Tim Weaver

The Blackbird by Tim Weaver

What happened to Cate and Aiden Gascoigne? CCTV footage showed them just seconds before their car careened into a ravine, but the vehicle is empty by the time the police arrive. Missing persons investigator David Rakoff has been around long enough to know that there’s an explanation – but he’s unprepared for the darkness of this one, and for how personal the case is about to get…

Cross Justice by James Patterson

Cross Justice by James Patterson

It’s hard to choose the best James Patterson book, let alone the best Alex Cross title, but Cross Justice is a strong contender. When Cross returns home to North Carolina for the first time in decades to help find justice for his cousin, he’s pulled into a case that reveals family secrets that will change his life forever – and, if he’s not careful, might just end it, too.

The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell

The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell somehow one-ups her incredible The Family Upstairs in this chilling, white-knuckle follow-up, in which a bag of human bones washes up on the shore of the Thames. What follows is a beautifully labyrinthine trail of clues that leads to a brother and sister in Chicago, and a Chelsea mansion where three dead people and a crying baby were found 30 years ago.

Birdman by Mo Hayder

Birdman by Mo Hayder

This modern classic was the late Mo Hayder’s debut novel, in which we’re introduced to beloved Detective Inspector Jack Caffery. Faced with one of the grisliest crime scenes he’s ever laid eyes on, Caffery – young, disliked by his fellow officers, and still aching with grief over a personal loss – knows he’s on the trail of a serial killer. He might be up against it, but he knows it’s only a matter of time before the killer strikes again…

Eeny Meeny by M J Arlidge

Eeny Meeny by MJ Arlidge

One by one, survivors of a unique – and terrifying – situation are emerging, and the pattern is more disturbing than anything detective inspector Helen Grace has seen before. Someone is pitting abductees against each other in ‘kill or be killed’ scenarios, and the answer might just come from the survivors. That is, if Grace can solve the case before more innocents die…

SS-GB by Len Deighton

SS-GB by Len Deighton

In this imaginative, captivating classic, it’s 1941 and Britain has lost the war. Churchill has been executed, the King is imprisoned in the Tower of London, and the country is now occupied territory. But Detective Inspector Archer is still on the job, and his latest case – a murder in a Mayfair flat – is finding him stuck between his new German bosses and a British resistance force. Something has to give, and it might just change the fate of the world.

The Thirst by Jo Nesbo

The Thirst by Jo Nesbø

Jo Nesbø’s brilliant, tough-as-nails detective Harry Hole is a household name for detective fiction fans, and this is one of his best stories, about a notoriously vicious killer with a trademark murder style. But the crime scene is also the site of Hole’s one failed case – and whether he can find the connection between his failure and this killer depends on whether he can bring himself to face both.

The Cook by Ajay Chowdhury

The Cook by Ajay Chowdhury

Detective Kamil Rahman is now a cook in East London – he left his detective days behind him in Kolkata. But when local law enforcement is indifferent to the murder of a woman close to him, not to mention the sudden increase in deaths around Brick Lane, Rahman is forced back into action. But he certainly didn’t expect to find a connection leading all the way back to Lahore…

Better Off Dead by Lee Child and Andrew Child

Better Off Dead by Lee Child and Andrew Child

The question that kicks off the action in Better Off Dead – how did a Jeep in the middle of a deserted Arizona road smash into the only tree for miles? – is just the beginning for this highlight in the Jack Reacher series. Within minutes, our hero has found himself neck-deep in trouble, and getting out is going to take a miracle. But then, this is Jack Reacher; who’s in more trouble, him or the people who cross his path?

LA Confidential by James Ellroy

L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy

A stone-cold noir epic written in artful, staccato, hard-boiled style, L.A. Confidential brings to life cruel, sun-baked Los Angeles in 1951, where six prisoners are found beaten to within an inch of their lives by power-drunk (and alcohol-drunk) cops. The novel follows three of those L.A.P.D. detectives, unravelling their violent, corrupt careers to expose the ugly side of Hollywood and law enforcement.

Have we missed any of the best detective novels off our list? Let us know in the comments below…

2 Comments

    Best book ever- ” am Pilgrim” by Terry Hayes. Now has a new one “hour of the locust”

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