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Picking a list of the world’s greatest thrillers: Futile but fun!

June 9, 2010

Eric Ambler: What a thriller writer should look like.

The fine folks over at NPR have set themselves an impossible task — picking the 100 greatest thrillers. “Thriller” is such a capacious category, where crime, literature, spy novels, mysteries and even sci-fi converge — it’s almost meaningless. So let’s join the fun!

I mean, really, not only does the term “thriller” cover too many different genres –the top 100 spy thrillers would have little fat, nor would the top 100 psychologicl thrillers — but it also poses temporal problems. Do we concentrate on recent books?  Or scrupulously seek out the best of all time?

If we want the best of all time, then we’ll have to include such dusty half-forgotten half-classics as Wilkie Collins’ pioneering 19th century detective novel, The Moonstone; Georges du Maurier’s 1894 gothic suspenser Trilby; Joseph Conrad’s ur-spy novel, The Secret Agent (1907); Somerset Maughum’s 1928 espionage short-story collection, Ashenden; John Buchan’s The 39 Steps; Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939–surely the inspiration for the film The Usual Suspects); Rebecca, the 1939 novel by Daphne du Maurier (Georges’ granddaughter) that perfected the romantic suspsenser; Len Deighton’s World War II masterpiece, Bomber (1970).

On the other hand, we could get a darned good start focusing tightly on novels published in just the past year or so. Let’s say, back to the beginning of 2009. Excellent thrillers of one variety or other that leap readily to mind: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson; Dave Seltzerman’s Pariah; The Tourist, by Oleg Steinhauer; Joseph Finder’s Vanished; Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply; Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move–and that’s barely scratching the surface. Not even.

And what do we do with beloved masters, whether genre hacks or litterateurs (or some combination thereof)? I’m speaking of writers such as Shirley Jackson, Ian Fleming, Norah Roberts, Elmore Leonard, Dennis Wheatley, Georges Simenon, Wilbur Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins, Stephen King, John D. MacDonald, John Le Carre, Patricia Highsmith and on an on and on.

I haven’t even mentioned American noir, whether superstars (James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson) or obscurities (Cornell Woolrich, William Lindsay Gresham, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson).

So I think in the end all we can do is give in to the blandishments of utter subjectivity and simply name thrillers we personally love. One criteria: I say we leave out mysteries, which is a vast category of its own. Crime fiction, si; mysteries, no. Here’s 10 from me:

The Third Man, by Graham Green; The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson; A Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler; Lives of the Twins, by Joyce Carol Oates; The Gospel of Judas, by Simon Mawer (the religious thriller — another subgenre); The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith; The High Priest of California, by Charles Willeford; Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone; Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain; Kim, by Rudyard Kipling; Misery, by Stephen King; A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine; Detective Story, by Imre Kertesz; Lush Life, by Richard Price; The Havana Room, by Colin Harrison…

Okay, okay! That’s 15! I can count! Hard as it is to stop (From Russia With Love! The Andromeda Strain! Gorky Park! Mosquito Coast! Maigret on Holiday! The Godfath–erk! Evil hand! Evil hand! Don’t choke me!), I will force myself.

But please, share some of your favorite thrillers.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2010 4:25 pm

    Chauncey, thanks for naming Pariah, and one of these days you’ll get my last name spelled right! Hell, my even publishers misspell my name on their sites and blogs. It’s my fault. I should’ve used a pseudonym. If I had to do it over again I’d go with J(ack) K(even) Rowling.


    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 9, 2010 8:36 pm

      I checked it on the Internet! It must be misspelled all over the place. Next time, I’ll try to remember to check harder…

      • June 9, 2010 9:49 pm

        everyone misspells my name, even my publishers. in every possible combination. I need to start using a pseudonym. seriously.

  2. John Karwacki permalink
    June 9, 2010 8:27 pm

    Shibumi by Trevanian. Presumed Innocent by Turow. I’ll have to check out A Coffin For Dimitros as “Suspects” is one of the movies I recommend to everyone I meet. Thanks Kaiser, I mean Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 9, 2010 8:38 pm

      Trevanian, an excellent suggestion, Mr. K. A warning: Don’t expect Dimitrios to be too much like Suspects, but you’ll see the similarity of which I speak. Dimitrios is one of my all-time faves.

  3. John Karwacki permalink
    June 9, 2010 8:29 pm

    By the by, I was a huge John D. MacDonald fan when I took to the sea as a teen. Who is cooler than Travis Magee?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 9, 2010 8:39 pm

      Magee is almost too cool for me. He challenges my powers of suspension of disbelief.

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 10, 2010 9:11 am

    Perfume by Patrick Susking. And War of the Worlds.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 10, 2010 9:20 am

      Those are excellent suggestions.

  5. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 10, 2010 9:11 am

    P.S. Your turn Deeta. This is your genre.

  6. Elizabeth Traband permalink
    June 10, 2010 11:52 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed Stephen King’s “The Dark Side”.

  7. Gretchen Gogan permalink
    June 10, 2010 2:56 pm

    Hard Rain by Peter Abrahams

  8. Connie permalink
    June 10, 2010 5:08 pm

    God, this question stresses me out. I have so many favorites. But I’ve always loved Darkness Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane and The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 13, 2010 9:43 am

      Thanks for the suggestions from Gretchen and Elizabeth. Connie, I liked Silence of the Lambs when it came out (though I always thought Red Dragon better), but I can’t view it with the same affection after Harris’ diminishing performances in Hannibal and the awful Hannibal Rising.

  9. Kris Montee permalink
    June 14, 2010 10:31 am

    Hey Chauncy,

    Not to be too fine a spin on this topic but…

    Many of the books mentioned here really don’t stand up to the standard definition of a “thriller” (even as outlined by NPR’s vague notions). A police procedural or mystery or sci-fi novel might have a certain popular appeal, but they usually don’t maintain the visceral jolt or cat-and-mouse structure that is at the heart of a real thriller.

    International Thriller Writers ( is a new organization created partly to address the gray areas. They have a new anthology coming soon: “Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads,” edited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner. It features essays on 100 works–from Beowulf to The Bourne Identity, Dracula to Deliverance, Heart of Darkness to The Hunt for Red October — all deemed must-reads by ITW. It gives some great historical perspective as with some lively commentary from current thriller writers. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a contributor, trying to make the case for “Jaws” — a terrible piece of writing but a great serial killer thriller.)

    • Kris Montee permalink
      June 14, 2010 10:32 am

      Got a bad head cold today. Meant that first line to say: Not to put too fine a spin on it. AND I misspelled your name. Geez…

  10. JDP Ferguson permalink
    June 12, 2012 10:07 am

    Let’s not forget Alan Furst and two of his best pre-World War II novels, “The World at Night” and “Kingdom of Shadows.” Furst practically re-invented the espionage novel for
    this specific time period.

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