Tag Archives: John Grisham

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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My most-visited reviews

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than week or two, you’ve seen the pattern — that I typically post twice a week, including one nonfiction book and one novel. All told, in the three years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve produced a total of more than 250 book reviews out of 308 posts. Below, I’m listing the 10 most popular reviews in descending order of the number of visits. Six are nonfiction books and four are novels (including, uncharacteristically, one collection of short stories, which I tend to shun). 


1. A review of 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins. A lucid analysis of how the 1% got to be that way, and how the 99% can fight back. Written by the founder and former executive Director of United for a Fair Economy, who made a study of this topic for many years before the Occupy Wall Street movement came to the fore.

2. A review of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson. In telling the story of the U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany in the 1930s and of the anti-semitic officials who headed the State Department, makes clear why the U.S. failed to speak out against the rise of Hitler.

3. A review of The Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, by Henning Mankell. A collection of five stories that span the time from Swedish detective Kurt Wallender’s rookie year on the police force to his retirement decades later. The Pyramid lays bare the roots of his many, complex psychological problems. For any Kurt Wallender fan, it’s well worth reading.

4. A review of The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley. Explores the racism rampant in America, and in Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, that dominated U.S. imperial policy in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Focuses on the cruise of a U.S. battleship in 1905 carrying Secretary of War and Roosevelt’s “assistant president” William Howard Taft and a passel of Congressmen and Senators to extend the U.S. empire beyond the Philippines and onto the Asian mainland. 

5. A review of The Litigators, by John Grisham. If you’re a John Griisham fan, as I am, you’ll probably be surprised at how many chuckles and guffaws his latest novel forces out of you. The Litigators, on one level a legal procedural like so many other Grisham works, is also a comedy. Even the title is a joke, as you’ll learn once you’ve made your way into the meat of this book.

6. A review of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. One of the most important books in English published so far in the 21st Century. Lays bare the ugly reality of the “War on Drugs” and the mass incarceration it brought about, exploring both how they came about and how deeply they wound communities of color in the United States.

7. A review of The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham. A timely and brilliant contribution to the public debate about politics and the economy. Dissects the mythology that lies at the heart of Right-Wing economic ideology in America today, making it unmistakably clear that the so-called “job creators” lionized by Republicans achieved their success not through rugged individualism but within a society in which government lent them support in dozens of crucial ways.

8. A review of Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith. A superb suspense novel set in the USSR, the U.S., and Afghanistan. The compelling conclusion of a trilogy that tells the story of Leo Demidov, a member of Stalin’s secret police as a young man. Involves a central character who closely resembles the legendary African-American Communist singer and activist Paul Robeson.

9. A review of Creative Community Organizing: A Guide for Rabble-Rousers, Activists, & Quiet Lovers of Justice, by Si Kahn. In this delightful and illuminating memoir, the celebrated singer-organizer provides the reader with a front-row seat on history from the vantage-point of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most militant elements in the civil rights struggle) to the UMWA (the Mineworkers Union) to the recent nationwide campaign to end immigrant family detention.

10. A review of Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George. The latest installment in the running saga of hereditary earl and Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, picking up the tale after a long hiatus following the murder of his wife.

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John Grisham’s “The Racketeer” — a walk on the dark side, for a change

A review of The Racketeer, by John Grisham

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

When you’re reading somebody’s 25th novel — the 31st of all the books he’s written — you’d be right to expect that he’d gotten the hang of writing. Especially if the guy had already sold more than a quarter of a billion copies of his work. And so it is with John Grisham’s fiendishly clever new novel, The Racketeer. It’s another winner from a man who’s been turning them out for more than two decades.

One aspect of Grisham’s fiendishness is his capacity to surprise, not just with twists and turns of plot — he’s great at that — but also by switching gears emotionally. For example, his most recent crime story before The Racketeer was The Litigators. That was a very funny book. The Racketeer isn’t (unless you have a tendency to cackle whenever a crook outsmarts the FBI). Grisham’s spare, no-nonsense style varies little, but he has a rare gift to make the most improbable characters both credible and likable. But no matter how sly and underhanded, his   leading characters are almost always guys (or gals) in white hats.

Malcolm Bannister is Grisham’s protagonist here. Bannister is a hapless small-town attorney in Virginia who seems to have lost his white hat. He’s about halfway through an unjustified ten-year sentence in the Federal pen for violating the RICO act — yet another brilliant example of the FBI’s manipulation of that misbegotten law. He is 43, a former Marine, African-American, and wicked smart. Oh, and has he got a yen to get even with the FBI!

Suffice it to say that, at the outset, this book’s title is ironic. By the end it’s anything but ironic. And all the fun lies in how Bannister gets there. If you can guess how he does it before the plot fully unfolds, you’re a better person than me.

By the way, another of Grisham’s tendencies is to show off his liberal, reformist side, and The Racketeer is no different in that respect. Here, he takes on the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Prepare to be horrified.

I’ve previously reviewed The Litigators and The Confession


Filed under Crime Novels, Mysteries & Thrillers

Get this: John Grisham’s latest novel is funny

A review of The Litigators, by John Grisham

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’re a John Griisham fan, as I am, you’ll probably be surprised at how many chuckles and guffaws his latest novel forces out of you. The Litigators, on one level a legal procedural like so many other Grisham works, is also a comedy. Even the title is a joke, as you’ll learn once you’ve made your way into the meat of this book.

Grisham’s protagonist is 31-year-old David Zinc, a Harvard Law graduate who has slaved away for five years as an associate in one of the country’s largest and most sought-after law firms. He makes $300K per year, but still: for 90 hours a week writing bonds to make rich people richer, that’s not a fortune. David finally snaps one day and, in a drunken stupor, makes his way to the misbegotten firm of Finley & Figg, a couple of ambulance-chasers (and worse) whose office is next door to a massage parlor. There, he demands that they hire him — which they proceed to do, on terms entirely favorable to themselves, of course.

Working as an associate with Wally Figg and Oscar Finley, David somehow finds himself embroiled in their personal lives as well as in the extraordinary complexity of a mass tort case that Wally has impulsively joined. The main plot that ensues engages this threesome — none of whom has ever before set foot in a Federal courtroom — in a massive lawsuit against the third largest pharmaceutical company in the world over a drug called Krayoxx.

Grisham’s pronounced social conscience comes through clearly in his treatment of the drug’s alleged victims, of the company that manufactures it, and of the expensive law firm it has hired: David’s ex-employer.

The Litigators is a joy to read from start to finish. It’s another example of Grisham’s fluid writing and solid characterization, and an introduction to the sense of humor that is hidden is most of his previous work.


Filed under Crime Novels, Mysteries & Thrillers

Why do so many people buy John Grisham’s books?


A review of The Confession: A Novel, by John Grisham

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you read books, then you almost certainly know the name John Grisham. He’s the author of 24 best-selling novels, ten of which have been adapted to film. His second book — The Firm, published in 1991 — sold seven million copies, and you can bet that after every one of his subsequent novels hit best-seller lists, the first one did, too, in a paperback reprint.


Take Grisham’s latest, for example. The Confession tells a familiar story: a young African-American man is railroaded into a guilty verdict by the so-called justice system of the State of Texas.  The real rapist and murderer surfaces, but not in time to stop the young man’s execution for a rape and murder he didn’t commit. Only later is justice served, after a fashion, when the young man is exonerated. End of story.

It’s a great story, really, and such a brief synopsis can’t possibly do justice to the plot, the characters, the setting, the details of the legal system, or, for that matter, the author. But the fact remains: it’s just a story.

Not only that: it’s also a story very simply told. You’d search in vain through the pages of The Confession for even a single writerly turn of phrase. There’s no stylistic flourish, no soaring prose. Just simple Anglo-Saxon dialogue and narrative. Grisham even lapses once into the hideous attorney’s phrase, “pursuant to.” (Yuck!)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I was a great fan of John Grisham’s previous legal thrillers, all of which I’ve read, and I enjoyed The Confession enormously. When Grisham has another one published — he’s only 55 now — I’ll almost certainly read that one, too.

So, again, why?

The answer to this nagging question isn’t all that simple. It’s partly a matter of craft, of course. Grisham’s plotting is masterful. He weaves together the threads of each story into a compelling and often heart-pounding tale. Every incident, every flashback, every character, every word appears just exactly where it needs to appear to move the story along. There’s nothing superfluous in John Grisham’s writing — not a thought, not a word (except maybe “pursuant to”). But other writers have mastered the craft of writing suspense novels. Lots of them.

What John Grisham brings to his work as a writer — other than his deep knowledge of the law and its application in the South — is more than just craft. For one thing, he clearly has a deep-seated passion for justice. The Confession, like other memorable stories he’s told in writing, is a loud cry for the ideals of our legal system to be put into practice. When Grisham tells the story of a young man — and, for that matter, his family and his community — victimized by a corrupt system, he’s relating to us a true story of America today. He strikes a deep chord of recognition in us all, because we’ve heard that story before, again and again, on our television screens and in our newspapers. And the details of the story don’t matter, because we know in our hearts that the unprincipled police officers and prosecutors and judges, the self-seeking politicians, the heartless insurance executives, and the greedy lawyers that populate Grisham’s books are the people we believe are running our lives.

John Grisham has emerged as one of the premier chroniclers of our time because he’s telling our story.

ISBN-10: 0385528043

ISBN-13: 978-0385528047

ASIN: B0042XA37Q

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