Mystery thrillers have been capturing the imagination and curiosity of readers for centuries. Combining suspenseful plots, complex characters, and unexpected twists, these novels keep readers on the edge of their seats until the very last page. Read on as we delve into the origins of the mystery thriller genre and present our top 10 picks of the best mystery thriller books of all time, as well as some honorable mentions.
The Origins of Mystery Thriller Genre
The mystery thriller genre has its roots in the early 19th century, when authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins started weaving intricate tales that combined elements of suspense, crime, and detection (Kate Ellis’ “Wesley Peterson” series is a great example of this). These stories often featured amateur or professional detectives working against a backdrop of murky motives, cryptic clues, and red herrings that kept readers guessing until the end.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is often cited as the first detective story, featuring the brilliant and eccentric detective C. Auguste Dupin. The story’s intricate plot and clever twist ending set the standard for the genre, inspiring countless imitators and adaptations.
Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone” is another early example of the genre, featuring a stolen diamond and a cast of colorful characters with their own motives and secrets. The novel is notable for its use of multiple narrators and perspectives, adding complexity and depth to the story.
As the popularity of these tales grew, other authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie helped shape the genre into what we know today. They introduced some of the most iconic detectives in literary history, such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, who solved crimes through a mix of rational thinking, keen observation, and intuitive leaps.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are known for their intricate plots, attention to detail, and memorable characters. The stories often involve seemingly impossible crimes, such as “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” in which a woman dies in a locked room with no apparent cause.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories are characterized by their intricate puzzles and surprising twists. Christie was a master of misdirection, often leading readers down false paths before revealing the true culprit.
The Evolution of Mystery Thriller Novels
Over time, the mystery thriller genre continued to evolve as authors sought to push the envelope and differentiate their work. Psychological thrillers, for example, began to incorporate elements of horror, madness, and unreliable narrators, while police procedurals focused on the gritty world of law enforcement and the details of criminal investigation.
One notable example of a psychological thriller is Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” which features a complex and unreliable narrator and a twist ending that upends readers’ expectations. The book was a critical and commercial success, spawning a hit movie adaptation.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series is a prime example of a police procedural, featuring a hard-boiled detective navigating the complex and often corrupt world of the LAPD. The series is known for its attention to detail and realistic portrayal of police work.
Additionally, the rise of technology and globalization fueled the growth of techno-thrillers and conspiracy novels, which incorporated cutting-edge discoveries and shadowy organizations to create fast-paced, high-stakes plots. Throughout this evolution, however, the core elements of a great mystery thriller remained largely the same.
Key Elements of a Great Mystery Thriller
A successful mystery thriller keeps readers engaged through a combination of gripping suspense, believable and empathetic characters, and a tightly woven plot with twists that keep readers guessing. Strong pacing sets the stage, while well-drawn settings and subtle clues drive intrigue and speculation.
One example of a successful mystery thriller is Tana French’s “In the Woods,” which features a complex and flawed protagonist investigating a murder in his hometown. The book is notable for its vivid descriptions of the Irish countryside and its nuanced portrayal of grief and trauma.
Most importantly, a great mystery thriller should be unpredictable, surprising readers with its cleverly concealed revelations, and leaving them satisfied with a resolution that ties up loose ends and provides a sense of closure. Some examples of books that do this well include Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train” and Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River.”
The Top 10 Mystery Thriller Books
Now that we’ve taken a look at the background of this fascinating genre, let’s explore our top 10 picks for the best mystery thriller books of all time.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
First in the Millennium series, this suspenseful thriller introduces readers to investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and brilliant hacker Lisbeth Salander as they unravel the complex mystery of a missing woman, full of secrets, corruption, and sinister twists.
The novel is set in Sweden, and Larsson vividly describes the country’s unique culture and landscape, from its snowy winters to its bustling cities.
With its rich, multi-layered plot and complex characters, Larsson’s razor-sharp prose captivates from the first page to the last. The novel was adapted into a successful film in 2009, and has since become a cultural phenomenon.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
When Nick Dunne’s wife, Amy, goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary, the subsequent search and media frenzy reveal dark secrets, lies, and betrayals within their seemingly perfect marriage.
Flynn’s novel is set in Missouri, and she expertly captures the state’s unique atmosphere, from its small towns to its sprawling suburbs.
With its dual narrative and unreliable narrators, Flynn’s psychological thriller keeps readers guessing until the very end, making it one of the most memorable novels in recent years. The novel was adapted into a successful film in 2014, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
In this chilling thriller, rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling is tasked with enlisting the help of incarcerated psychologist and cannibalistic serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, to catch another brutal murderer.
Harris masterfully combines police procedural with psychological exploration, creating an atmosphere of tension and menace that has earned The Silence of the Lambs its place among the classics.
The novel is set in various locations across the United States, from Virginia to Tennessee, and Harris expertly captures the nuances of each setting.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Dan Brown’s international bestseller follows symbologist Robert Langdon and cryptologist Sophie Neveu as they unravel a centuries-old conspiracy that takes them through the depths of Paris, London, and the Vatican.
With its combination of intrigue, history, complex codes, and religious controversy, The Da Vinci Code keeps readers thoroughly engaged until the end.
Brown’s novel is set in some of the most iconic locations in Europe, and he vividly describes the architecture, art, and history of each location.
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
Written under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, J.K. Rowling’s detective novel introduces war veteran-turned-private detective Cormoran Strike as he investigates the supposed suicide of a supermodel.
The novel is set in London, and Rowling brings the city to life with her vivid descriptions of its streets, neighborhoods, and landmarks.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Moriarty’s novel weaves together the stories of three mothers whose seemingly perfect lives unravel into a tale of murder, deception, and suspense. Delving into themes of domestic violence, bullying, and the myth of perfect parenting, Big Little Lies balances dark humor with a gripping mystery.
Its characters are well-developed, and the intertwined narratives ensure an engaging and satisfying read.
The novel is set in a small town in Australia, and Moriarty expertly captures the nuances of Australian culture and society.
The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
Agoraphobic Dr. Anna Fox spends her days watching her neighbors from the confines of her New York City apartment. When she witnesses a shocking event, she becomes embroiled in a web of secrets, lies, and uncertainty.
A.J. Finn deftly builds tension throughout the novel, making The Woman in the Window a must-read for fans of Hitchcockian suspense.
The novel is set in New York City, and Finn captures the city’s unique atmosphere, from its bustling streets to its quiet neighborhoods.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
Set in Botswana, this charming and unique mystery series follows Precious Ramotswe, the endearing and insightful founder of the titular detective agency. Through her investigations, readers are introduced to the rich culture and landscape of Botswana and the lives of its inhabitants.
With warmth, humor, and humanity, McCall Smith delivers a refreshing take on the mystery genre that keeps readers coming back for more.
The novel is set in Botswana, and McCall Smith captures the country’s unique culture, from its cuisine to its music.
The Reversal by Michael Connelly
Connelly brings together his iconic detective, Harry Bosch, and defense attorney Mickey Haller in this gripping legal thriller. Tasked with a high-profile case, they must navigate a complex web of evidence, motives, and unreliable witnesses to uncover the truth.
With sharp dialogue, expert pacing, and a thrilling plot, The Reversal is another excellent entry in Connelly’s oeuvre.
The novel is set in Los Angeles, and Connelly captures the city’s unique atmosphere, from its glamorous Hollywood hills to its gritty downtown streets.
The Night Manager by John le Carré
In this intelligent thriller, le Carré delves into the shadowy world of espionage and arms dealing, following former British soldier Jonathan Pine as he seeks to bring down a notorious arms dealer. The Night Manager is an intricate, character-driven novel that showcases the moral ambiguities of international intelligence.
Its elegantly crafted prose and complex, morally ambivalent characters make it a standout in the genre.
The novel is set in various locations across Europe and the Middle East, and le Carré captures the nuances of each setting with his vivid descriptions.
Though our top 10 list includes novels that span various subgenres and literary styles, there are many more outstanding mystery thrillers that deserve mention.
Classic Mystery Thrillers
For readers who prefer classic whodunits and intricate puzzles, authors like Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Raymond Chandler offer a wealth of captivating stories featuring iconic sleuths such as Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Philip Marlowe.
Other gems include Daphne du Maurier’s haunting Rebecca, Ira Levin’s chilling Rosemary’s Baby, and Patricia Highsmith’s twisted The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Contemporary Mystery Thrillers
Modern mystery thrillers continue to push boundaries and engage readers with innovative approaches to storytelling. Some popular and critically acclaimed titles include Tana French’s atmospheric Dublin Murder Squad series, Ruth Ware’s gripping psychological thrillers, and Louise Penny’s character-rich Chief Inspector Gamache series.
From chilling crime dramas to heart-pounding conspiracies, the endless variety of mystery thrillers ensures that there is something for everyone to enjoy. So pick up one of these top 10 novels or explore the honorable mentions, and get ready to immerse yourself in a gripping tale full of intrigue, suspense, and twists you won’t see coming.
What is the highest-selling mystery thriller of all time?
Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None has sold the most copies.
What are great examples of mystery thrillers?
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, In the Woods by Tana French, Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, and The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides are all brilliant choices.
What’s a good mystery series to start?
Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series is a very gripping novel series to start.