My 23 Top Novels That Thrill

LINWOOD BARCLAY is the New York Times and #1 international bestselling author of...

As the conclusion to my Promise Falls trilogy, The Twenty-Three, hits bookstores, I thought I’d share my twenty-three favourite novels that, in one way or another, thrilled me. 

I know I’ve left some out, or forgotten one or two I will remember moments after I finish writing this, but these are all great books, for a variety of reasons. I can’t say for sure they’re all still in print – I’m sure many are not – because I am going back with some of these novels all the way to my teens. Or even earlier.

So here goes:

23. The First Deadly Sin, by Lawrence SandersAn epic serial killer novel from the 1970s, starring detective Edward X. Delaney. This was the first BIG crime novel I ever read.

22. Pet Sematary, by Stephen King: Okay, you’re going to see this author’s name again on this list before I’m done, but this was one of the first of his I ever read, and is perhaps still the most frightening because it gets you where you live: what would you do to bring back a dead child?

21. The Ax, by Donald Westlake: Thrilling, darkly comic, and great social commentary. If you were downsized, and looking for a new job, to what lengths would you go to make sure the other leading candidates didn’t beat you for the position?

20. The Doorbell Rang, by Rex Stout: A Nero Wolfe mystery from the 1960s, where Wolfe and his legman Archie Goodwin take on their most formidable adversary: J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI. Delicious.

19. Eye of the Needle, by Ken Follett: This is early Follett, when he was turning out shorter, leaner thrillers. This one is a pure page-turner.

18. A Judgment in Stone, by Ruth Rendell: One of the greatest crime novels ever written, and yet, in the first paragraph, Rendell tells you who the victims will be, who did it, and why. And you can’t not read on. I can think of no one else who has ever pulled this off.

17. The Cartel, by Don Winslow: This is the follow-up to his earlier novel about the Mexican drug cartels, The Power of the Dog. If Tolkien had decided to write a novel about the drug wars, it would have been this.

16. Nine Dragons, by Michael Connelly: All of Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels are great police procedurals, but this novel ups the ante in a flat-out non-stop thriller where the stakes for Bosch are intensely personal.

15. A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, by Lawrence Block: It’s tough to pick the best Block novel. He’s a master. But this thriller starring his main character, Matthew Scudder, is searing, beyond dark. A friend who read it said he thought he needed to take a shower afterwards. But in a good way.

14. The Missing Chums, by Franklin W. Dixon: Well, it really wasn’t Dixon. I have no idea who actually wrote this instalment of the Hardy Boys. But it was one of the first in the series I ever read as a kid, and it helped hook me on mysteries.

13. Misery, by Stephen King: Unlike Pet Sematary, which has supernatural overtones, this is a real-world thriller about an author’s psychotic “number one” fan. Beyond terrifying.

12. The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris: The most famous, and most disturbing, of the Hannibal Lecter novels. An important, influential novel that’s also an adrenaline-spiking read.

11. And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie: Perhaps her most famous novel. Christie didn’t just use plenty of the twists we’ve come to know in crime fiction; she invented them.


10. Defending Jacob, by William Landay: Magnificent. You don’t expect a legal thriller to take your breath away. This book did that for me, twice. It left me shaken.

9. Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard: With some of the remaining books in the list, it gets much harder to choose an author’s best, since they’ve written so many classics. That’s especially true of Leonard. But Get Shorty works, as the cliché goes, on so many levels. It’s a great crime novel, but it’s also frequently hilarious, as well as a wonderful commentary on Hollywood. (A great movie, too.)

8. Lightning, by Ed McBain: He wrote hundreds of novels, and many of them were, like Lightning, tales of the 87th Precinct in his mythical Isola (New York city, really). This one crackles just like its title.

7. The Children of Men, by P.D. James: She wrote so many great mysteries, but this one is different. It imagines a future where human reproduction is over. The people of the world are waiting for life to wind down. Stunning. (And once again, this was turned into an epic film.)

6. Marathon Man, by William Goldman: A screenwriter and novelist, Goldman was hard to pin down. He didn’t only write thrillers (for example, he wrote the movie The Princess Bride, and the book it was based on). I’d never read anything like this book when I discovered it in my late teens. The first half dozen chapters appear to have nothing to do with each other. And then things start to stitch together.

5. I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes: This recent novel about an agent’s trail of a terrorist is without doubt the best thriller I have read in the last five years. Epic, detailed, believable. Can’t wait for his next novel.

4.  Early Autumn, by Robert B. Parker: My favourite Parker novel, in which his detective Spenser comes to the aid of a young man caught between warring parents. This one has so much heart.


3. Drama City, by George Pelecanos: While not this author’s most well known novels, it’s the one I most like. Maybe because of its unlikely hero, an animal control officer.

2. 11/22/63, by Stephen King: A man goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination. What amazes me, in part, about this recent book, that at a time in an author’s career when we might expect him to coast, this book’s scope and ambition are vast.

1. The Chill, by Ross Macdonald: I’ll concede that this is neither the scariest nor most thrilling novel I’ve ever read, but it is the best of the Lew Archer thrillers, written by someone whose work has influenced me more than any other. Macdonald was an equal to Hammett and Chandler.