What Are the Best Political Thrillers?

by John J. Miller on December 14, 2009 · 73 comments

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I use the term “political thriller” loosely, and mean it to include books that touch upon American politics, espionage, international intrigue, and so on.

Here are my top five:

The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. I’ve probably read this book more times than any other. The pacing is perfect. The story brims with authenticity. Suspenseful to the final page.

Shelley’s Heart, by Charles McCarry. Many spy novelists revel in moral ambiguity. (I’m looking at you, John Le Carre.) McCarry is the exact opposite. This is his best book. It lays bare the corruption and hypocrisies of Washington, D.C.

The Shot, by Philip Kerr. The head-spinning plot twist midway through isn’t the best part of this novel, set in the JFK era. The best part is the ending. Wow.

Fatherland, by Robert Harris. An extraordinary crime novel set in alternate-history Berlin, after the Nazis won the Second World War.

Seven Days in May, by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. The politics are left-of-center–the plot features an attempted right-wing coup from within the military against a pacifist president–but the story is engrossing and well-told.

What are your favorite thrillers? Join the conversation in the comments section.

  • John Burley

    For me, “The Hunt for Red October” is among the best of the genre. The key is verisimilitude (it was, of course, published by the Naval Institute press). Set aside your image of Alec Baldwin in the film version and give the book a read.

  • Phillip Edens

    Tom Clancy’s “Debt of Honor”. It’s scary to realize he wrote the book Before 9/11 ever happened. The sequel”Executive Orders” picked up pretty good where the first book left off though halfway through it kind of left the political thriller genre.

  • http://therunningdog.blogspot.com/ Jim in Virginia

    An oldie but goodie: Failsafe. First book I ever read that made me tense and scared and that, toward the end, I literally could not put down until I finished.

  • John McCaffery

    You nailed it with Shelley’s Heart.

  • Mike Gebert

    Greenmantle by John Buchan, best known for The 39 Steps, is a riproaring adventure set in the middle east circa Lawrence of Arabia’s time, which is fascinating both for what it gets right (a sharp picture of the Arab world’s sociopolitical dysfunction) and wrong (the cure is, basically, a modern Saladin who went to Eton and works for the Foreign Office).

  • Doug Weatherston

    I give a hearty second to “Failsafe.” Another favorite is Stephen Hunter’s “Day Before Midnight” — it’s got everything: nuclear Armageddon, spies, military battles, computer codes, and (most importantly) Everyman heroes.

  • Dennis Collins

    Having read espionage novels for many years, I thought Sisters by Robert Littell as excellent.

  • JolietJake

    I nominate Ross Thomas (and am surprised he was overlooked here).

    Books such as “The Fools in Town are on our Side”,
    “Briarpatch”, “The Seersucker Whipsaw”, “Yellow Dog Contract”, “Chinaman’s Chance”, “Out on the Rim”, “Fourth Durango”, “Twilight at Mac’s Place”, “Voodoo Ltd.”, “Ah, Treachery!” are simply masterpieces of the noir/hard-boiled political thriller / sting genre.

  • Scott in NY

    The President’s Plane Is Missing by Robert J. Serling (Rod’s brother). Written in 1967, it’s about the crisis that breaks out when Air Force One disappears off the radar while transporting the president to Palm Springs for vacation.

  • Bob Harlib

    Having just started Shelley’s Heart, let me give you a McCarry trilogy that proves he is the best spy novelist of our time. 1.`Tears of Autumn 2. Christopher’s Ghosts 3. The Last Supper.

  • David

    You have to include David Morrell when you’re talking thrillers. And you could include just about any of his titles starting with Brotherhood of the Rose.

  • helltoupee

    Two words: Vince Flynn.

  • John Mack

    I know Robert Ludlum was a terrible wordsmith (although he has gotten better since he died). But the first seventy pages of “The Chancellor Manuscript” on the assassination of J. Edgar Hoover are among the most exciting — and fun — pieces of junk prose ever written.

  • DJC

    John,

    Couldn’t agree with you more about “Fatherland” and, even more so, “The Day of the Jackal”. The latter is, for my money, the best thriller ever written and the movie (the original and not the quasi-remake starring Bruce Willis) is one of the best movies in its genre as well.

    I also agree that “The Hunt for Red October” had me enthralled when I read it for the first time as a teenager and that it has lost virtually none of its pace 25 years later.

    Early John Le Carre is also magnificent. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is not necessarily fast-paced or a technothriller but it’s such a wonderfully dark spy novel – when the moral ambiguity that he characterized was very much reflective of a British security service that remained completely secretive and yet was also still reeling from the Cambridge Five scandal. It’s the complete antidote to the more flashy parts of the genre.

  • J

    Brad Thor

  • Eric Rasmusen

    Advise and Consent has to be there—it’s the classic.

    Day of the Jackal is about France, so you’ve actually expanded the category beyond American politics.

  • John

    John,

    You forgot The Manchurian Candidate. That is one of the best movies of all time and for my money the best political thriller of all time. And I mean the original not the awful remake.

    Three Days of the Condor is a good one to.

  • Dan in DC

    American Tabloid by James Ellroy — three rogue cops, Hoffa, Hoover and Hughes, the “Outfit,” and the Kennedy family — bad things happen.

  • elray

    Maybe not necessarily “political thriller” but more “spy thriller”, my 10 best list has to include Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca.

  • Randy

    “The Day of the Jackal” is the greatest political thriller I’ve ever read but I’d add LeCarre’s “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” to the discussion.

  • http://www.buggingin.com/blog RobFromGa

    1) Matt Bracken– Enemies Foreign and Domestic (first of trilogy)

    2) all Vince Flynn novels (Mitch Rapp is a lot like Jack Bauer)

    3) Black Cross by Greg Iles (and SPandau Phoenix as well)

    4) all Brad Thor novels

    5) Patriots by Rawles

  • Markham Shaw Pyle

    If you mean thrillers-full-stop, espionage and all, the best ever written are by Anthony Price.

    If you wish to see politics in your political thrillers, no one tops Michael Dobbs.

  • http://www.jimeo.blogspot.com Jim O’Sullivan

    “The Secret Agent” by Joseph Conrad. The original and still the greatest.
    Forsythe’s “the Odessa File” is underrated, maybe because the movie was not as good as the boook.

  • Roberta Hazlett

    Brian Freemantle’s Charlie Muffin series for just plain good old-fashioned spy stories.

  • John Burley

    I omitted Tinker Tailor from the list as this was to be about American thrillers. As espionage novels go, there is none better.

  • Carl Edman

    Ditto on Shelley’s Heart. The recommendation from somebody at NRO (you?) made me read it. Reading it made me read all the other McCarry novels and keep a stack of gift-wrapped hardcovers of Shelley’s Heart to give as present when the opportunity arises.

  • Norm Hapke

    I second the comment about Ross Thomas. I think he’s the most interesting thriller writer to have written in a long time, and he is certainly the most cynical. He’s the first writer to make me doubt my own government. The three Artie Wu novels beginning with “Chinaman’s Chance” and featuring such characters as Otherguy Overby and Boy Howdy are priceless. “The Fools in Town are On Our Side” and others are just great. He also wrote under the name Oliver Bleek.

    Richard Condon is another one with “The Manchurian Candidate” and others.
    All the novels of Alan Furst are brilliant. He’s on a par with Le Carre without the moral blindness toward our enemies. Start with “Night Soldiers”.
    Gerald Seymour from GB is a consistently fine writer of these kinds of books. His books have topical plots but are character-driven and the characters are finely crafted all too human folks.”Field of Blood” about the Irish ‘troubles’ is a good place to start. I can’t reccomend him enough.

  • richard reed

    I was going to suggest anything by Eric Ambler or Daphne Du Maurier, but just realized that in all probability, neither was an American. Oh, well. “Don’t Look Back” would scare anybody, and her books are all as dark as Cornwall on a gloomy, stormy night. Ambler, on the other hand, can make sheer poetry out of rain, dingy trains and very imperfect people.

  • Ted Smith

    Double ditto on Shelley’s Heart. In fact everything McCarry has written should be mandatory reading (though I, of course, believe in freedom and you may, if you wish, deprive yourself). McCarry’s Old Boys is absolutely wonderful. Several of McCarry’s earlier characters–now old men on retired from the world of espionage–make a comeback to take it upon themselves to thwart and Islamist plot. it’s wonderful.

    Also, Drury’s Advise and Consent ranks up there. And, even though this is supposed to an American list, I can’t help but point to Le Carre’s early work–his last four have been anti-business, anti-American rants (but, boy, can he write a great sentence). And George Smiley is one of literature’s great characters (after the British series, he has become Sir Alec Guinness).

    As to Follett, the Eye of the Needle was excellent, but my favorite is the Key to Rebecca, which is a great example a good writer’s ability to sustain tension throughout a book (sorry, he’s another Brit).

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Dang, someone beat me to “Greenmantle.” I would add “Night of Camp David,” which is a little less lefty than “Seven Days in May.” A bit cheesy, but a page-turner.

    And “Double Star” by Heinlein.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Also wanted to note that the James Grady book “Six Days of the Condor” is significantly different than the movie, along with the title “Three Days . . .”

  • Chris

    Just logging in to echo the raves for McCarry. They’re all wonderful, but Tears of Autumn is my favorite of his books.

  • Blake Hurst

    Can’t leave out Allen Drury, really. I tried to reread Advise and Consent a year ago or so, and found the prose a bit tough, but I well remember reading the book in high school, and how it helped form the way I think. Agree with Charles McCarry, and would also add Ross Thomas. The best thing about this is the new authors I’ll now be able to order from Amazon.

  • Deb

    Lately my favorite junk food for the brain has been written by Vince Flynn.

  • http://davidforsmark.com David Forsmark

    Will get to my list later, Day of the Jackal and Shelley’s Heart are the unarguable positions on this list.

    Fail Safe is left-wing agitprop. The number one position on any “false dichotomy” thriller list.

  • Patrick

    Two by James W. Huston: The Price of Power, and Balance of Power.

    Good call on Double Star, Jeff #30.

  • Robert

    Already mentioned, but I second the classic early-60s trio:
    1) Seven Days In May
    2) FailSafe
    3) Manchurian Candidate

    To make it a quartet, I also agree with Advise and Consent.

    Maybe not primarily political, but the political overtones in 1959′s Alas, Babylon made for some tense reading, especially at the age of sixteen when living in the actual setting of that novel. (it just turned fifty years old last week, btw.)

    Seven Days… remains my favorite. Beyond the story and the execution of the plot (book and movie), it showed how rampant the prevailing left-ish attitudes were in the early sixties such that it was obvious that any coup would only be from right-wingers. It also showed what enemy territory it must have been for the likes of Buckley or Goldwater or Reagan.

    Plus, Ava Gardner.

  • http://davidforsmark.com David Forsmark

    Since calling Bonfire of the Vanities a political or legal “thriller” is a stretch, let me suggest “Man with Gun,” by Robert Daley. Daley, a former NYC Deputy Police Commissioner is sometimes nearly Wambaugh-class. His “Target Blue” and “Prince of the City” are two of the all time great nonfiction cop books.

    “Man with a Gun” explores the racial political circus of New York City, but with a police procedural angle. John Lescroart’s “A Certain Justice” also fits this bill, but in San Francisco, and is nearly as good.

    “Fatherland” is a good choice, but I think the nod goes to “Gorky Park,’ the “Father” of all novels of this type– all 4937 of them and counting.

    “Oliver Wiswell” by Kenneth Roberts, author of “Northwest Passage” is a slam bang historical novel about a Loyalist family during the Revolutionary War. A unique, exciting and relevant yarn. Historian Thomas Fleming credits this book with making him want to be a historian.

  • http://davidforsmark.com David Forsmark

    Hit sumbit too soon. Manchurian Candidate is the grand-daddy.

  • http://davidforsmark.com David Forsmark

    Seven Days in May is insufferable crap. Nothing but left-wing paranoia that the military is just lurking ready to mount a coup at any moment. Baby boomer commentators raise the scenario endlessly like it actually happened.

  • Jeff R.

    Neal Stephenson and his uncle (under the name ‘Stephen Bury’)'s “Interface” is another one I’d recommend.

    Also in the sci-fi Political Thriller subgenre, further into the sci-fi territory, is Bruce Stirling’s “Distraction”.

  • twwren

    Nelson DeMille

  • http://gullyborg.typepad.com gullyborg

    Am I the first to mention Stephen Hunter and his Bob the Nailer books? Point of Impact is a classic.

  • DeepWheat

    All above are worthy additions to the list… my personal favorites of late have got to be Vince Flynn’s “Mitch Rapp” series and *especially* Brad Thor’s “Scot Horvath” series, the latest of which has a chapter about 2/3 through that reads almost like Conservative porn (think: “roasting Liberal chestnuts over an open Congressional-Inquiry fire” — yum!). I’ve put Ann Coulter *and* Michelle Malkin “on the stack” to wait (sorry, ladies) if a new Flynn or Thor novel is just out, you know? :-) )

  • Kevin

    read Brad Thor’s Lions of Lucerne and have resisted reading anything else. Did not like the way he writes dialog. It just didn’t seem natural. Among other things his characters curse too freely and over the top. Vince Flynn writes dialog much more naturally.

  • DeepWheat

    @ Kevin 4:04pm — Yes, Thor’s characters curse with some fluency… and while not strictly necessary to advance the plot, I’ve found it *does* add to the military-industrial verisimilitude… ;-) I also feel that Thor’s writing has improved notably as the series went forward (8 titles now?)…

  • Miguel

    1.Atlas Shrugged – while not really a thriller, it is definetely political, offering what has to be the strongest criticism of socialism in America (it looks a lot like today’s America). A classic.

    2.State of Fear. Crichton does a great job piercing the Global Warming myth and the politics of fear which are exploiting it. It is an even better read now that the climatgate thing is going on.

    3.Vincent Flynn novels – I am currently reading Extreme Measures, and haven’t read his latest one, so I won’t decide yet which is the best one.

    4.Fatherland was terrific, I agree.

    5.1984 – Another classic of what life would be like in a communist “utopia.”

    And, coming soon, in spring of next year, 2076: Reagan’s Last Word. The premise: Reagan wrote a letter in 1976 (he talked about it at the RNC convention), which was placed in a time capsule to be opened in 2076. But, will Reagan’s message of freedom be welcome in an America that has been fundamentally changed? Will our kids and grandkids be allowed to hear the message of the letter?

  • Phil Melton

    Good to see Ross Thomas getting props here. All of his books are worth reading, but Chinaman’s Chance and The Fools In Town Are On Our Side are particularly good. More recent writers I enjoy are:

    1) Daniel Silva-surprised no one has mentioned him here. When it comes to the contemporary spy novel, his Gabriel Allon novels are unsurpassed.

    2) Vince Flynn-though his more recent books seem to me to be a bit rushed, his Mitch Rapp series are for the most part well written and very enjoyable. (Stylistically he is far better than Brad Thor, whose first two books I found almost unreadable, though not as bad as Dan Brown.)

    3) Andrew Britton-a writer who died far too young at age 27, but who left a trio of novels that rank among the best in the contemporary espionage genre: The American, The Assassin, and The Invisible (a posthumous work is scheduled for next year)

    4) Robert Littell-The Company: this book provides a highly enjoyable trip through the years of Cold War espionage.

    5) Don Winslow – The Power of the Dog: vividly illustrates the futility of the so-called war on drugs. A violent, sweeping, engrossing read. All of Winslow’s books are worth seeking out.

  • http://abriefhistory.org Michael Kennedy

    It looks like the genre is broadening so I will add a couple that may be older than the present commenters. One is Ice Station Zebra which has a plot device that adds to the suspense. Alistair MacLean is worth working your way through his list although most of them are military except Ice Station. Another, which is in English if not American, is Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini, which is the best description of the French Revolution in fiction. Maybe Tale of Two Cities is better but harder to read. It is not exactly a thriller in the pattern of Day of the Jackal, but is an adventure about a political event.

  • whistling dixie

    Z was the best adaptation of a true story to movie I have ever seen. Based on the novel by Vacilis Vasulikos was so inflammatory it was banned in Greece for years. The beginning is today still etched in my mind.

  • Phil Melton

    I was remiss in not mentioning the works of Alex Berenson, whose books The Faithful Spy, The Ghost War, and The Silent Man rank with Daniel Silva’s as among the best fictional depictions of the war with radical Islam. His protagonist, CIA agent John Wells is depicted realistically and, refreshingly, not like a superhero.

  • Matt V

    In addition to much of what has already been listed, I really liked “The Charm School” by Nelson DeMille.

  • Scott in NY

    If you’re inclined to get more fantastic, I would reccomend the Ghost trilogy by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (Of Tangible Ghosts, The Ghost of the Revelator, and Ghost of the White Nights). The basic premise of each book, a former spy who gets unwillingly pulled back into the game, is a well-worn one, but made new here by setting it on an Earth where paranormal phenomena are an established reality and the game revolves around the efforts of various nations to develop technologies to exploit these phenomena and the behind the scenes struggle in Columbia (the alternate U.S.) between the president and the Speaker of the House (who has a sort of prime ministerial position). There’s also a good deal of intrigue revolving around energy politics (the second book involves the protagonist being sent to the Mormon theocracy of Deseret to obtain their synthetic fuels technology).

  • Ron

    re: Alistair MacLean. Absolutely read The Secret Ways, the story of an american spy sent into 1950s Hungary to link up with the resistance and bring out a scientist. The goods guys are impossibly heroic, the bad guys evil, the plot gripping, and the final confrontation between the strong men from each side is literally titanic. Then read his early stuff (HMS Ulysses, Guns of Navarone) and skip his later stuff. He started recycling plots, characters, and even action.

  • Steven L. Chaffin

    Alan Furst, especially Night Soldiers, but all his books are quite readable. I think the corner voted the first line of this book the best-ever start to a novel.

  • Lugo

    Interesting to me that in so many of these books “The Right” (broadly speaking) is the bad guy:

    The Day of the Jackal
    Fatherland
    Seven Days in May
    Manchurian Candidate
    Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (and pretty much anything Le Carre)

    Thank God for Clancy!

    @Doug,

    “Seven Days in May is insufferable crap. Nothing but left-wing paranoia that the military is just lurking ready to mount a coup at any moment. Baby boomer commentators raise the scenario endlessly like it actually happened.”

    Agree, and the Left seems to think it *actually could happen* at any time, right now!

  • ColoComment

    I’m surprised that it took until #49 to get to Alistair MacLean. I agree with #54 that his early books are his best: Guns of Navarone is outstanding for suspense (the movie was done pretty well, too, unusually enough), as are HMS Ulysses, and South By Java Head. Also in the WWII era is Helen MacInnes, although the titles of any of her books escape me at this moment. Second on Silva, and I have just this year discovered Berenson, who is really good. As is Ferrigno, with his assassin series.

  • Ted Smith

    I’m weighing in again, this time with two older books.

    I’m surprised that Eric Ambler hasn’t entered the conversation, especially A Coffin for Dimitrios.

    And perhaps the unlikeliest of all if Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, a series of linked stories set in the world of espionage in WWI. Great stories written by an excellent writer.

  • Steve

    “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” by John LeCarre – also by far the best film adaptation.

  • Fran Smith

    I’ll second (or third) the Charles McCarry series and Alan Furst’s books. One earlier writer is a favorite in this genre — Graham Greene, especially Our Man in Havana.

  • karch

    the underworld trilogy from james ellroy

  • Junnah

    The Spike by Arnaud de Borchegrave

    Marine One by John Huston

    The Last Jihad by Joel Rosenberg

    And while not quite political thrillers I enjoyed Gore’s Lincoln and Burr

  • http://michael-greenspan.blogspot.com/ Michael Greenspan

    Let me second (third, actually) the praise for Stephen Hunter. I nominate Hunter’s novels The Master Sniper, Tapestry of Spies and The Second Saladin; from the unjustly neglected British suspense novelist Michael Gilbert, The Queen Against Karl Mullen; and from Stuart Woods, most of whose books don’t interest me, his excellent debut, Chiefs.

  • Phil Howerton

    Ditto on Alan Furst. “The Polish Officer” and, really, almost anything else he wrote.

  • http://www.ironmankyle.com Kyle

    Nelson DeMille needs more mention on this list.

    The Rivers of Babylon, The Talbot Odyssey, Word of Honor, The Lion’s Game, Night Fall, and Wild Fire.

    All great political thrillers.

  • tom diamond

    I’m shocked no one mentioned Robert Ferigno’s Assassin Trilogy. The first one was especially tense and unpredictable.

    I have to add to the chorus re: Day of the Jackal and Shelley’s Heart. I am greatful to Mr. Miller for introducing me to McCarrey. Based on that I am planning to read the last three books on his list over the holidays.

    I also agree with the sentiment on Clancy’s Hunt for Red October. To me it was the first book of a new genre – the techno-thriller.

  • SMJ

    Vince Flynn is my favorite, followed by Brad Thor. The reality is that men that writers like Brad Thor describes do use salty language.

  • neofyght

    Anyone here obviouly likes this genre and if you haven’t read Vince Flynn you should give him a go–best way is to start with his 1st “Term Limits” and read them in order–previously anything Tom Clancy or Leon Uris were my authors for this genre–both influnced Vince Flynn and I think he has by-passed his influcences–happy reading.

  • Deborah

    A bunny trail: Fans of Frederick Forsyth need to read “The Shepherd,” which is my all-time favorite Forsyth. Every Christmas season, I hope to see it turned into a movie—alas, it never is—so I cast it myself and play it in my head. This year I’m using Ioan Gruffudd for my lost pilot.

  • http://thekeymonk.blogspot.com The Monk

    McCarry’s The Last Supper is probably the best of the genre — one of the better novels you’ll read.

    I think Furst’s earliest works — Dark Star and Night Soldiers — are better than his more recent stuff (Dark Voyage was weak, The World at Night doesn’t even register) because they have additional character development and plotting.

    Ken Follett’s Triple is a very good thriller that hasn’t been mentioned here — Middle Eastern arms race and an Israeli spy trying to prevent Nasser’s Egypt from getting the bomb.

  • http://msn Braveheart

    As Conspiracy movies go two that should not be missed :

    The Parallax View

    Capricorn One

    Superb cinema & full of great twists.

  • http://www.thorduffin.com Nevada County Girl

    Hands down, the BEST political thriller I’ve read this year is by THOR DUFFIN.

    It’s called the Jefferson Project and I loved it so much because it really tapped into the now. He seems to have his pulse on the dissident climate of many patriotic Americans and he weaves in some very plausible ideas and solutions for our countries woes, through a story I had trouble putting down. I was even reading it at red stop lights and got honked at more than once.

    I listed the author’s page as the website because I heard he’s a new author and I’m sure he could use the link.

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