If you find yourself having to kill extra hours during these test times, crime novels and thrillers can provide a wonderful escape from the bleak reality of self-isolation.
So, here are 20 of the greatest such books ever written for you to dive into.
I have almost everyone in my bookcase and it was a pleasure to go back to them. Here I have to start with the novel that first brought the world detective fiction …
The Day of the Jackal was a resounding success when it was published in 1971, despite being rejected by no fewer than 19 publishers. Part of the film is shown above
The murders in Rue Morgue
by Edgar Allan Poe
This book, first published in 1841, introduced the world to C. Auguste Dupin – the progenitor of all the great investigators who followed him, including Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.
When Poe wrote the story, there was no word for detective. Dupin was a man who “solved problems” and here he is asked to investigate the brutal murders of two innocent women. He does it by carefully investigating the crime scene.
Born in the United States but educated in England, Poe had a fascination for gothic horror. His creation of Dupin ushered in the detective story. Even today it is fascinating.
The dog of the Baskervilles
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
It was rightfully the best-known and best-loved Sherlock Holmes story, originally appearing in episodes in The Strand Magazine between 1901 and 1902.
It had been eight years since Edinburgh-born Conan Doyle, a former physician, had broadcast the great detective over the Reichenbach Falls, but the success of this fantastic story – based on a Devon legend about a hellish dog and a cursed land squire. – convinced him that the pressure from fans to bring back the character could not be ignored.
Wonderfully atmospheric, it has the power to cool the blood. This is vintage Holmes and it never loses its grip.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
by Agatha Christie
The Queen of Crime’s first outing in 1920 brought Hercule Poirot to life. Dame Agatha wrote it during the First World War, when she worked in the pharmacy of Torquay Hospital. The Belgian refugees she encountered were the inspiration for Poirot and his “small gray cells”.
As with many of her later stories, this one focuses on poisoning – from Emily Inglethorp. Captain Hastings, who stayed at her home, Styles, recruits his old friend Poirot to investigate after coming home through the trenches.
Perhaps not her most beautiful work – too many clues overlap – yet fascinating and clever.
by Graham Greene
This was the work Greene established as a novelist after two failures, and the book that earned his reputation. When it was published in 1932, he described it as an “entertainment” and that is certainly true.
It’s on a train traveling from Ostend to Constantinople – now Istanbul – and features a series of extremely memorable characters, especially the businessman Carleton Myatt, who suspects his agent in Turkey is cheating on him.
It is a novel of its time, when anti-Semitism grew in Europe, but it nevertheless has the power to shock and surprise.
by Daphne du Maurier
A ‘sinister story about a young woman marrying a wealthy widower’ is the author’s own description of one of the most beautiful Gothic thrillers of the past century. The first line is forever remembered – “Last night I dreamed I was going to Manderley again” – as did the housekeeper’s terrifying figure, Mrs. Danvers.
When it was first published in 1938, some critics dismissed it as a ‘novel’, but if you reread it, it is now reminded of the fascinating spell. Rebecca is the name of the first and late Mrs. de Winter, but she sneaks up every page – her successor terrifying.
Goodbye, My Lovely
by Raymond Chandler
This second novel with Philip Marlowe is my favorite – more accessible than his first, The Big Sleep, but with all the harshness of Marlowe’s cynical approach to his work as a private investigator in Los Angeles.
Born in Chicago but educated in London before heading to California, Chandler eagles-eyed the excesses of corruption there in the 1930s. In addition, the story reveals the soft heart of Marlowe under the jokes and the hard-boiled exterior.
Who could forget Moose Malloy’s tormented quest for his girlfriend Velma when Marlowe tried to do the right thing?
Farewell My Lover by Raymond Chandler and The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
The talented Mr. Ripley
by Patricia Highsmith
Published in 1955, not long after her success with the great Strangers On A Train, this introduced the gentle, pleasant and extremely amoral serial killer Tom Ripley, who murders a rich man and assumes his identity. It is the insensitivity of the murderer, hiding under the disguise of a charming man, that makes him such an unforgettable character.
Highsmith would write four more stories about this con and murderer, but the original is the best. There is something so mesmerizing about the cobra-like Ripley that you can never keep it off you – even if you know what it is capable of.
The day of the jackal
by Frederick Forsyth
First rejected by no fewer than 19 publishers, it became a worldwide sensation in 1971 and then a beautiful film. Now, almost half a century later, it still stands up as a great thriller, although everyone seems to know the ending.
It’s the elegance of storytelling that sets it apart, as well as the fact that creating a false identity by stealing a child’s gravestone has become part of crime folklore – both true and fictional.
The background may be a bit dated, but the Jackal itself is a fascinating creation that deserves to be revisited.
by Thomas Harris
This is the thriller introduced by the inimitable Hannibal Lecter in 1981 – that respectable forensic psychologist in Baltimore who was also a cannibalistic serial killer and a guilt-free man. But Lecter isn’t the central character in the story – that’s Will Graham, the former FBI agent who caught him and sent him to prison.
Graham is ordered to visit Lecter to enlist his help in finding another serial killer. It’s fantastic and, as Stephen King said, the best popular novel published in America since The Godfather.
Pictured above is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre and Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
by John le Carre
This Cold War spy drama is one of le Carre’s favorites from his extraordinary canon of work, and with good reason. It is about a spy, Alec Leamas, who is sent to East Germany to sow disinformation – a portrait of a man who has told so many lies that he has forgotten how to tell the truth. Haunting, melancholic and written with an acid-dipped pen, it is the work of a writer who deserves to be called a genius.
The black dahlia
by James Ellroy
Based on the true story of the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short in LA – whose body was mutilated and dumped on an abandoned plot – this is the novel that sealed Ellroy’s reputation as one of the great crime writers.
His evocation of the period is masterful. The novel is at the heart of police corruption through the eyes of two friends of the armed forces, “Bucky” Bleichert, a former boxer, and Lee Blanchard, who compete with each other until Lee disappears.
Bleak, beautifully written and bright, it must be read.
by James Lee Burke
The second novel features retired police officer from New Orleans and former army officer Dave Robicheaux, who witnesses a plane crash over the bayou in New Iberia, from which he rescues a young Salvadoran girl he and his wife adopt.
The plane appears to have belonged to a local drug lord, who knew Robicheaux as a boy, and the ex-detective finds that he must protect his wife and new daughter from powerful forces.
Beautifully written and with a fantastic, emotionally beating heart, the story underscores how fantastic a writer Burke is.
Buttons and crosses
by Ian Rankin
This is the debut of Edinburgh-based detective John Rebus, one of the great creations of modern British crime fiction, which has appeared in as many as 21 other novels by the hugely talented Rankin.
Morus and forever self-critical, Rebus is one of those famously troubled detectives who inhabit so much of the genre. But anything but a stereotype, he constantly surprises his enemies and his readers by revealing the strangely moving part of his personality – though not when it comes to Scottish gangsters.
Funny, true, moving – this should make you feel like it in the series.
by Scott Turow
One of the best court case dramas ever written, Turow’s 1987 debut was a worldwide hit.
Rusty Sabich, the long-serving chief prosecutor of Kindle County, is asked to investigate the rape and murder of one of his colleagues, the sensual and manipulative Carolyn Polhemus.
What the prosecutor doesn’t know is that the two had only been lovers a few months earlier and Sabich never fully recovered from the dump. But then he himself becomes a suspect in the case. . .
Stunningly told, it hasn’t dated a jot.
A time to kill
by John Grisham
Grisham’s first legal thriller, published in 1989, remains his best, although it was the sequel, The Firm, that made his name.
Set in the small town of Clanton, Mississippi, it focuses on the life of a black ten-year-old girl who is crushed by two drunk white men. The girl’s father takes justice into his own hands and acquires an assault rifle as revenge. A young lawyer, Jake Brigance, tries to save his client’s life and ultimately his own, as racist violence flares up in the divided community.
Deeply felt and really moving.
The Lincoln lawyer
by Michael Connelly
This 2005 novel introduced us to criminal attorney Mickey Haller, who works from the back of a Lincoln Town Car.
He is the half-brother of Connelly’s most famous creation, detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch. Haller, willing to take any case to survive, appears to be no more than a disheveled charlatan, but gradually emerges as a man of honor and a surprising principle.
The People vs Alex Cross
by James Patterson
It’s easy to scoff at Patterson, one of the world’s best-selling thriller writers who has produced over 150 novels since 1976, but overlook those numbers for his immense skill and dedication.
This was his 25th story with detective, criminal profiler and psychotherapist Alex Cross, weaving Cross’s trial of killing three followers of a serial killer with the kidnapping and imprisonment of a string of young, blonde girls.
Cross is Patterson’s favorite character and it shows in the strength and emotion he shows on every page. If you’ve never tried it, start here.
by Robert Harris
This was the hugely talented Harris’s 12th thriller. In it, he returns to the rich history that inspired his first hit, Fatherland, in which he envisioned a screenplay in which Hitler won World War II.
Here he talks about the visit of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to Munich in September 1938. It shows him in a much more favorable light than he is usually depicted by opponents of reconciliation, making him a formidable, almost heroic figure. It is a tour de force.
by Jane Harper
The most compelling crime debut of the past three years is right as a vice from the first page, attractively evoking the small town of Kiewarra, outside Melbourne, which has been rocked by a murder / suicide amid a terrifying drought.
A mother and her six-year-old son were murdered by their husband and father, who then pointed the gun at themselves. Police officer Aaron Falk returns for the funeral and is involved in the investigation.
The story lingers in memory long after the last page.
The Dry by Jane Harper, left, and Big Sky, written by Kate Atkinson
by Kate Atkinson
This fifth outing for laconic former Met Police detective Jackson Brodie was one of the best crime novels published last year, and a richly justified hit for award-winning Atkinson.
Brodie is now a private investigator on the North Yorkshire coast, mainly looking for cheating husbands, but then rescues a man trying to throw himself off a cliff and ends up in a much darker area. It never, never drops the tension.