The Best Thriller Books Of All Time

26 of The Best Thriller Books To Read In 2020

Love a tense, mysterious read? Whether as a weekend read or for an all-at-once reading binge, working your way through the right thriller can be a fun experience.

Below, we’ve put together a list of the best crime and thriller books of all time, written in 2020 for readers in search of a guide that is honest and up to date. Scroll down and you’ll find an incredible mix of reads, from ultra-accurate military techno-thrillers to the definitive crime novels of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Updated June 2020 With New Novels & Information 

Table of Contents:

1. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl

Nick Dunne’s wife is missing, and he’s the chief suspect. Tense, smart and engrossing, Gone Girl is a nail-biting thriller that generated a massive amount of critical acclaim when it was first released.

Released in 2012, Gone Girl was one of the most popular books of the year, rising to #1 on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller List shortly after its release and staying there for almost two months.

Gone Girl was also adapted into a film in 2014, winning just as much praise on the big screen as it did as a novel. All in all, a great read if you like engrossing, intelligent thrillers.

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2. Killing Floor: (Jack Reacher 1), by Lee Child

Killing Floor

The first Jack Reacher novel, Killing Floor was also the first book published by Lee Child. A late 90s classic, Killing Floor has a “wrong man” theme, with Jack Reacher arrested for a murder he didn’t commit.

Killing Floor was one of the most popular novels of the late 90s, winning the 1998 Anthony and Barry awards for Best First Novel and earning nominations for the Dilys Awards and Macavity Award. If you’re a fan, you’ll be happy to learn this book also has three fantastic prequels.

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3. The Reckoning, by John Grisham

The Reckoning

The Reckoning is a smart, gripping legal thriller by John Grisham. Like Grisham’s other work, this novel draws from his experience as a criminal attorney, with a focus on the 1946 murder trial of Pete Banning, a World War II hero.

A great choice for fans of legal thrillers, The Reckoning is presented part in a current narrative and part through flashbacks, providing extra depth and history for its main characters. If you’ve enjoyed Grisham’s other work, you’ll find a lot to like about this tense, intelligent legal thriller.

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4. The Woman in the Window, by A. J. Finn

the woman in the window

With over two million copies sold, The Woman in the Window was one of the top thrillers of 2018 and a major milestone for A. J. Finn. This tense, intriguing thriller focuses on Anna Fox, who has spent the last ten months haunting her New York home, afraid to leave.

After witnessing a terrifying event that was supposed to have remained private, Anna is drawn into a mystery that only she can solve.

As well as selling in huge numbers, The Woman in the Window earned major praise from horror legend Stephen King, who described it as “remarkable.” If you’re a fan of mystery thrillers, this one is definitely worth reading.

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5. The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley is a classic 1950s thriller that established Tom Ripley, the iconic con artist and anti-hero. The first of five novels, The Talented Mr. Ripley is a smart, exciting read that’s every bit as modern now as it was when it was first released in 1955.

Set in New York City and Italy, The Talented Mr. Ripley makes full use of its locations, with a variety of colourful scenes and a gripping story. Adapted into a movie in 1999, the book is the best way to experience this story, with a tight, engaging narrative and intriguing characters.

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6. The Outsider, by Stephen King

the outsider

Published in 2018, The Outsider is the latest novel from Stephen King. Equal parts a police procedural and a horror novel, the events of  The Outsider occur in the fictional town of Flint City, Oklahoma, in which baseball coach Terry Maitland is charged with a series of crimes.

As the town turn against Maitland, both the police and the public begin to learn that there’s significantly more to the situation than meets the eye. A great option for King fans, this is a particularly good read if you’re a fan of the Bill Hodges Trilogy.

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7. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train is a gripping thriller novel that’s told from the perspective of three women, each in first person. One of the fastest-selling adult hardcovers in history, the novel is a smart, engrossing psychological thriller with a tense, mysterious story told through its narrators.

Although The Girl on the Train wasn’t Paula Hawkins’ first novel, it was her first to achieve an incredible level of success. Published in 2015, the novel debuted at the top of the Fiction Best Sellers of 2015 list of the New York Times and stayed in its position for over three months.

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8. Crucible: A Thriller, by James Rollins


The thirteenth novel in the popular Sigma Force series, Crucible is a fast-paced, smart thriller with a gripping story. On Christmas Eve, Commander Gray Pierce discovers that his home has been broken into and his pregnant lover is missing.

With the only witness to the crime in a semi-comatose state, Commander Pierce embarks on a quest to discover what happened. As the book unravels, the mystery begins to encompass the Spanish Inquisition to reviled, ancient Medieval texts.

The latest from #1 New York Times bestselling author James Rollins, Crucible is a fast-paced, action-packed thriller that’s a hugely enjoyable read.

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9. The Annotated Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

The Annotated Big Sleep

The annotated version of Raymond Chandler’s iconic hardboiled crime novel The Big Sleep, this version of the novel includes an introduction by Jonathan Lethem and hundreds of photographs and notes that expand on the original’s gripping story.

With a smart, unique and complex story, The Big Sleep is packed with secrets, betrayals and a range of other events you’ll enjoy if you’re a fan of Chandler’s work.

Raymond Chandler is undoubtedly one of the most influential crime/mystery fiction writers of the 20th century, and this annotated version of The Big Sleep is the perfect place to five into his full collection of tense, smart and intriguing novels.  

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10. Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane

shutter island

Best known for its outstanding 2010 Martin Scorsese film adaptation, Shutter Island is one of the best novels of the early 2000s. Set in 1954, the story involves “Teddy” Daniels, a widowed US Marshal who investigates the disappearance of a patient from a remote mental institution.

After Teddy arrives on the island, he begins to uncover a fascinating mystery that draws him deeper into the institution.  

Although it starts as a standard-issue thriller, Shutter Island quickly evolves into a unique and engrossing mystery. A must-read for fans of psychological thrillers, Shutter Islands is packed with twists and turns that make it a thrilling read.

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11. Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan

Enduring Love

One of the top thrillers of the late 1990s, Enduring Love involves two would-be rescuers who witness a deadly accident together, dragging them into a series of dangerous events that put their personal safety at risk.

Over the course of this short thriller, the risks escalate, leaving Joe Rose, the main character, with few people to trust.

Adapted into a film in 2004, Enduring Love is an intense, short read, coming in at slightly less than 250 pages. One of several acclaimed works by Ian McEwan, this is a great read for flights, holidays and long weekends.

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12. Those Bones Are Not My Child, by Toni Cade Bambara

Those Bones Are Not My Child

Toni Cade Bambara wrote These Bones Are Not My Child over the course of 12 years, making it one of the author’s most significant achievements. Set in Atlanta, Bambara’s final novel looks at the brutal murders of more than 40 black children in the city.

As separated mother Zala Spencer discovers her teenage son is missing, she embarks on her own search to find her son and discover what’s going on.

Bambara’s last novel, These Bones Are Not My Child isn’t an easy book to read. However, it’s an incredible story that dives into a serious nightmare. Edited by Toni Morrison, many regard These Bones as Bambara’s magnum opus.

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13. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John le Carré

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Set in West and East Germany at the height of the Cold War, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a classic 1960s espionage thriller that’s arguably one of the best spy fiction works of all time.

The plot concerns an intelligence-gathering scheme conducted by the UK, who, in search of information, entice an agent to stage a defection to gain access to the East. The plot quickly grows more complicated deeper as the agency works deeper into East Germany.

One of the most popular spy novels of the 20th century, The Spy Who Came in From The Cold is a great read for fans of espionage fiction and history buffs interested in exploring a fictional version of the Cold War.

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14. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, by John le Carré

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Another John le Carré novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was released in the 1970s at the peak of public paranoia regarding Soviet agents in the UK.

The story follows career intelligence officer George Smiley as he investigates a potential mole in the Secret Intelligence Service, known as “the Circus.” As you’d expect from a 1970s spy thriller, the plot goes from twist to twist as it unfolds over the course of 400-plus pages.

Like le Carré’s other work, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a critical and commercial success on its release. It’s since been adapted into a popular BBC series, as well as an acclaimed film in 2011.

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15. The Night Of The Hunter, by Davis Grubb

the night of the hunter

After being released from prison, ex-convict Harry Powell impersonates a prison chaplain and cons a former cellmate’s widow into becoming his wife. Unsurprisingly, the marriage isn’t quite as honest as it appears, as Powell is secretly searching for something very different.

Based on the true story of Dutch-American killer Harry F. Powers, The Night of the Hunter is a tense, exciting read. First released in 1953, it was a finalist for the 1955 National Book Award and was quickly adapted into an acclaimed 1955 film.

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16. The Alienist: Number 1, by Caleb Carr

The Alienist Number 1

The Alienist: Number 1 follows New York City police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, years before his first term as President of the United States, as he investigates a series of murders in the city using police methods that were new and innovative for the late 19th century.

The first instalment in the Kreizler series, The Alienist: Number 1 was published in the mid 90s and became a significant hit, earning places on the New York Times bestseller list and winning praise from critics and readers alike.

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17. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

Although it’s best known thanks to the fantastic 1975 film by Milos Forman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was first published as a novel by Ken Kesey in 1962.

One of the top novels of the 20th century, this thriller is narrated from the perspective of Oregon psychiatric patient “Chief” Bromden. The plot follows the events at the hospital, with a focus on the behavior of non-insane criminal patient Randle Patrick “Mac” McMurphy.

A must-read for fans of psychological thrillers, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a fantastic look at the changing culture of the early 1960s, a pivotal period in the development of modern psychiatric treatment.

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18. You, by Caroline Kepnes


You starts inconspicuously before descending into a paranoid, creepy thriller propelled by the behavior of Joe Goldberg, a New York City bookstore worker who becomes a stalker after an intriguing, beautiful aspiring writer named Guinevere Beck wanders into his store.

Digging into Beck’s social media presence, Goldberg becomes an obsessive stalker, aiming to take control of every aspect of Berk’s life and become the love of her life.

With its scary, paranoid feel, You is a fantastic modern thriller that exposes the risks involved in modern social media. Described as “hypnotic and scary” by thriller legend Stephen King, this is a great read for fans of modern, engaging thrillers.

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19. The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown

the da vinci code

The Da Vinci Code starts with a murder in Paris that sets the scene for one of the most detailed and intriguing mysteries in fiction. Symbologist Robert Langdon, first introduced in Angels and Demons, delves into an exciting alternative history of modern Christianity.

One of the most popular thrillers of all time, The Da Vinci Code sold more than 80 million copies during its original print run. The novel combines elements of detective fiction with conspiracies, creating a fun, tense narrative that keeps readers drawn in from beginning to end.

Although it’s not a must-read by any stretch, The Da Vinci Code is a fun thriller that’s great for a long weekend.

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20. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Another mega-popular thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo takes place in several Swedish towns. Mikael Blomkvist, a Swedish magazine publisher, meets a wealthy retired executive who needs his help solving a family mystery.

As Blomkvist digs into the mystery, he gets drawn into a larger conspiracy, creating an exciting thriller that reveals more with every page.

Released posthumously in 2005, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo went on to become Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s most popular novel. Although it’s been adapted into a well-reviewed film, the original novel is still the best way to experience this engrossing thriller.

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21. A Merciful Death, by Kendra Elliot

A Merciful Death

Published in early 2017, A Merciful Death is the first release in the Mercy Kilpatrick series by Kendra Elliot. The story follows FBI special agent Mercy Kilpatrick as she looks into the “cave man,” a dangerous murderer hunting down survivalists in her Oregon hometown.

As she looks deeper into the case, it brings back haunting memories of an unsolved mystery from her past.

A Merciful Death is a great read for fans of crime thrillers. Set in remote Oregon, the novel is equal parts chase and mystery, creating a tense, exciting read.  

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22. Blood for Blood, by Victoria Selman

Blood for Blood

After a full commuter train crashes during rush hour in London, Ziba MacKenzie, an ex-special forces profiler is drawn into the hunt for a dangerous serial killer. Perpetually one step behind the killer, MacKenzie is forced to think quickly in order to prevent other harm from occurring.

The first novel in the Ziba MacKenzie series, Blood for Blood is a fast-paced read with a tense, exciting story. Shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger Award, this thriller is a stylish read that’s packed with twists and perfect for fans of cat-and-mouse chase stories.

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23. The Hound of the Baskervilles & The Valley of Fear, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles & The Valley of Fear,

This double release features two of the best thrillers of all time — The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear, both by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

First serialised in The Strand Magazine in the early 20th century, The Hound is the third story in the Sherlock Holmes tetralogy. The story follows Holmes as he investigates the unusual death of Sir Charles Baskerville, a friend of Dr. James Mortimer.

The Valley of Fear is the fourth novel in the Sherlock Holmes series. Another tense, engrossing thriller, it’s a fantastic read for fans of classic crime thrillers.

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24. The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy

The Hunt for Red October

Soviet submarine captain Marko Ramius has been trusted with the country’s latest ship — the silent nuclear missile submarine Red October. There’s only one problem: rather than carry out the intended mission, he intends to defect to the United States, taking the ship with him.

Although these days it’s more famous as a film than as a novel, The Hunt for Red October was a major hit when it was first released, kickstarting the career of one of the military thriller field’s most acclaimed and prolific authors.

The Hunt for Red October is arguably Clancy’s most successful thriller — a tense, exciting look into the world of submarine warfare. First published in the mid 1980s, this technothriller is one of the best fictional works on the Cold War.

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25. 206 Bones, by Kathy Reichs

206 Bones

The original inspiration for the long-running Bones TV series, 206 Bones follows Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist, as she investigates a case involving a possible serial killer around the Montreal area.

Fast-paced and exciting, 206 Bones is a fascinating read. As the twelfth novel by Kathy Reichs and coming in at just over 300 pages, this is an action-packed, exciting thriller that’s perfect for fans of crime fiction.  

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Runner Up

26. Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith

child 44

Gruesome child murders. Soviet-era Russia. Hardly a relaxing read, but certainly one that grips you and keeps you on the edge of your seat from the first page.

The novel follows Leo Demidov, a former agent of the MGB investigating crimes inspired by the real ‘Rostov Ripper’, Andrei Chikatilo. Child 44 focuses on the zeitgeist of the age, notably exploring primary themes of paranoia, fear of the state and an overall vibe of terror.

This one is recommended for lovers of history and the more terrifying side of life. Read with caution.

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What’s the difference between a mystery and a thriller? 

Whilst they’re both broad genres, mystery and thriller novels have two core differences. Mystery novels focus on the crime being solved, whereas thriller novels focus on the crime being prevented.

Are thriller books based on fiction? 

Like any genre, thrillers blend the line between fiction and non-fiction regularly. The majority of books within this guide are fiction, however several are based on or inspired by true events.


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Word Power exists as an online resource of book reviews, buyers guides, publishing news and much more. All of our writers are lifelong fans of books and the written word, and we couldn’t be happier to be providing our readers with what we consider to be the best thriller books on the market in 2020.