My 21 favorite mystery and thriller writers

Over the course of the past three and a half years, I’ve reviewed well over 100 mysteries and thrillers. A great many of these novels were written by well-established authors with long lists of widely read books to their names. In every case of the 21 writers listed below, I’ve read several of their books (some of them before I launched this blog in January 2010). 

If 21 seems a large number of “favorite” writers, consider all the names you won’t find on this list. Those include several — Ross McDonald, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler, for example — whom I last read years ago. Also excluded are the potboilers and slapdash works by the likes of James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, Robert Crais, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, Val McDermid, and Robert B. Parker. I read most of these when younger and am happy to leave them behind. 

What follows here is a list of links to my reviews of individual mysteries or thrillers by the 21 prolific authors I most enjoy. The list is in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson

Berenson is a former New York Times reporter who writes beautifully researched stories about soldier-spy John Wells, featuring plots centered on contemporary military and foreign policy issues.

The Drop, by Michael Connelly

Most of Connelly’s 30 novels to date center on the life and work of Los Angeles Police Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller. 

Now May You Weep, by Deborah Crombie

Crombie, a Texan who spends extended periods in Great Britain, has written 15 English detective novels that read as though she was born and bred in England.

The Trinty Six, by Charles Cumming

A Briton who has written superior six spy novels, Cumming is often mentioned as a spiritual heir to John Le Carre.

Buried Secrets, by Joseph Finder

Finder is the American author of 11 beautifully crafted thrillers. So far, just two of his novels feature Nick Heller in what appears to be the beginning of a series.

Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst

Since 1976, Furst has written 16 historical spy novels, most of them set in Europe between 1933 and 1944. Furst’s work recreates the mood and atmosphere of the Continent in that era like few others.

Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George

An American, George has written 18 complex and well-written novels featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley (plus four other novels).

Long Time Coming, by Robert Goddard

Goddard is an English novelist whose two dozen excellent novels are typically set in rural towns, with the origins of their plots found decades in the past.

The Racketeer, by John Grisham

Most of Grisham’s 26 crime novels are set in the American South and involve lawyers and legal shenanigans. He has also written 7 other books since he began writing full-time in 1989.

John Le Carre

Though I wasn’t impressed with Le Carre’s recent novel, Our Kind of Traitor, I can’t help but include him in this list. I’m now immersed in his latest work, A Delicate Truth, which strikes me as on a par with his earlier, much praised novels. (To be reviewed soon.)

The Man From Beijing, by Henning Mankell

A Swede, Mankell’s 11 Kurt Wallander crime stories are dark, complex, and often politically tinged novels that reflect his experience as a long-time progressive activist. He has also written 25 other books.

The Leopard: A Harry Hole Novel, by Jo Nesbo

Nesbo, a Norwegian, has written 10 complexly plotted mystery novels about the troubled Detective Harry Hole as well as 8 other novels.

Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky

All but two of Paretsky’s 17 novels feature private detective V. I. (Victoria) Warshawski, who tackles Chicago’s corrupt establishment without compunction.

The Cut, by George Pelecanos

Pelecanos, best known for his writing on the HBO series “The Wire,” is the author of 21 novels, most of them gritty detective stories set on the streets of Washington, D.C.

Silken Prey, by John Sandford

Sandford has written 23 crime novels with the word “Prey” in their titles, all featuring Lucas Davenport, an independently wealthy senior investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Sandford has written 13 additional novels, 7 of them featuring Virgil Flowers, a colorful member of Davenport’s team.

Criminal, by Karin Slaughter

Of Slaughter’s 17 books, 14 are haunting crime stories set in Georgia about the lives of a set of interrelated characters in Atlanta and fictional Grant County.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith

Smith’s 14 adult novels (so far) about the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, comprise just one of many series in a list of works that’s almost too numerous to count. The man must turn them all out through automatic writing in his sleep!

Three Stations: An Arkady Renko Novel by Martin Cruz Smith

The 8 fascinating novels in Smith’s Arkady Renko series about the Soviet, later Russian crime investigator are among a total of 27 he’s written under several pseudonyms.

Victory Square, by Olen Steinhauer

Steinhauer, an American who has spent extensive periods in Eastern Europe, is the author of a brilliant five-book series about the members of the murder squad in the capital of a fictional country in that region. More recently, the young author has written three thrillers about an American spy and his fictional agency.

Harbor Nocturne, by Joseph Wambaugh

A former Los Angeles police officer, Wambaugh has written 16 novels and 5 nonfiction accounts about crime and crimefighters since 1971. Nearly all his novels are police procedurals set in L.A., bringing the authentic experience on the streets to life.

Get Real, by Donald E. Westlake

Writing under his own name as well as 16 pseudonyms, Westlake produced a total of 111 novels from 1959 until his death in 2008, nearly all of them set in New York City, two of them published posthumously. My favorites are the many humorous caper tales about the sardonic master criminal, John Dortmunder.

In addition to these 21 writers, I’ve read excellent mysteries and thrillers by 12 other authors whose output is more limited either because they’re young and just beginning their careers, they write primarily in other genres, or, in at least the case of Stieg Larsson, they’re dead. 

Among the younger writers here that show special promise are Gillian Flynn, Tana French, and Tom Rob Smith.  

Following are links to my reviews of individual novels by these 12 authors. 

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson

Disciple of the Dog, by R. Scott Bakker

A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Faithful Place, by Tana French

So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman

The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones

Shaman Pass: A Nathan Active Mystery, by Stan Jones

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville

Primitive by Mark Nykanen

Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith


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5 responses to “My 21 favorite mystery and thriller writers

  1. Sandra Smith

    Real life in the criminal justice system is better portrayed by Scott Turow. Presumed Innocent through Innocent. Interesting police procederal 1920’s England is World War I vet suffering with PTSD by Charles Todd. Tara French is too obscure for me. What did happen to the other kids in “In the Woods”?

    • Sandy — I love Scott Turow’s books, too. But there are so few of them, and they come so infrequently, that I couldn’t include him on a list of prolific authors in this genre. I have Charles Todd (yes, both of them, mother and son) on my virtual shelf to be read. And I’ll stick by my opinion of Tana French.

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  3. Happily there are lots of Aussie crime writers who don’t have a thing to do with serial killers.Some of my favourite Aussie crime writers: Lindy Cameron has written thrillers, private detective tales and a cosy mystery with an amateur sleuth – all good Kathryn Fox writes more traditional stories featuring a forensic psychologist but she tackles some really interesting subjects – her latest book takes a look at rape being carried out by members of a sports team Sulari Gentill published her first historical crime fiction book last year – really clever and looked at interesting time in our political history Leah Giarratano has a series of police procedurals set in Sydney which are pretty dark but well written Kerry Greenwood who has a historical series set in the 1920’s and a modern day series set in Melbourine – they’re light/cosy and feature strong, feisty female characters Phillip Gwynne has only written one crime fiction book called The Build Up but it’s awesome – set in/around Darwin Jarad Henry has only written a couple of books but they’re both great – set in Melbourne and really topical Katherine Howell who writes books in which a paramedic is the main character Adrian Hyland whose two books are set in outback Northern Territory and are beautifully written – they’re almost not crime fiction at all Brian Kavanagh writes cosy mysteries with a historical theme that are set in England Gabrielle Lord writes all sorts of crime fiction – both for adults and YA – she has several series as well as lots of standalone novels and they’re rarely about serial killers Malla Nunn lives in Australia so we count her as Aussie though both of her books are set in 1950’s South Africa (where Nunn was born) and tackle the beginnings of apartheid – brilliantly done.

  4. Deborah S.

    Thanks for the recommendations and I appreciate the brief descriptions you’ve given for each one! I have been looking for a new thriller to read! A really great murder mystery/psychological thriller that I could not put down this summer is “The Gemini Factor” by first time author Philip Fleishman ( Serial murders committed in two different countries, at exactly the same time and manner are unheard of until this book (such a unique concept!). To give you a bit of the book flavor here is a brief rundown of one of the murders, “location is Toronto. inspector McTavish is staring down at the body of a young lady positioned in a bed of iris, her throat is slashed to the extent her head is almost off and her hands are placed to cover her empty eye sockets. This is not a random murder, but it is the first of more to come. What McTavish doesn’t know is that across the US in Tucson, Sgt. Ronstadt is viewing an identical crime scene. This novel will shake you and up leave you speechless! Definitely give it a read if you enjoy crime fiction(I bet you can’t guess who the killer is!)

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