Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (1981)
The Silence of the Lambs remains a profoundly brilliant book, and yet Red Dragon, in many ways, is superior, scaling back Dr Lecter’s involvement in favour of a dual portrait of psychosis: FBI profiler Will Graham’s slow descent into the mind of a serial killer; and then the serial killer himself, the frightening, disturbing Tooth Fairy. Over thirty years later, it’s easy to forget just what a pioneer this novel was, single-handedly kickstarting an entire sub-genre, its mix of pace and suspense allied to razor-sharp writing. Few thrillers have built such a compelling picture of a diseased mind – and, of course, few books have introduced an anti-hero as timeless as Hannibal Lecter.
Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992)
While Archangel and The Ghost are both exceptional thrillers, Robert Harris’ fiction debut, Fatherland, is still the one. Set in 1964, this is a different world to the one we know: Germany won the Second World War, and the book opens in the week leading up to Hitler’s 75th birthday. At the heart of the story is Xavier March, a police investigator, who is called to the death of a high-ranking Nazi official – but, of course, nothing is as it seems. Exhaustively researched, Fatherland is plausible, thrilling, sometimes uncomfortable reading, as March uncovers an epic-scale secret that – chillingly, in this alternative history – never saw the light of day.
A Simple Plan by Scott Smith (1993)
The story of Hank Mitchell, his brother Jacob, and their discovery of $4.4 million in a downed plane in the Minnesotan wilderness, is a classic tale of greed, its effects, and ultimately its consequences. Scott Smith’s writing is gorgeous, a beautifully crafted vision of an everyman’s corruption, but – perhaps more impressively – it never comes at the cost of pace: A Simple Plan also doubles up as a lightning-fast page-turner. The denouement is pitch-black – and, for some, will be a step too far – but in a lots of ways it also encapsulates the awful journey Hank – willingly, lucidly – embarks upon.
The Poet by Michael Connelly (1996)
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series has been a big influence on me. Novels like The Black Ice and Trunk Music taught me how to handle a series, how to build a world, and – most importantly – how to grow and develop a character. But his 1996 standalone novel The Poet remains, perhaps, his most perfect thriller: pacy, lyrical, gruesome, frightening, it centres on journalist Jack McEvoy’s discovery that his brother’s suicide may not actually have been a suicide at all – but the work of a serial killer flying beneath the radar. It’s smart as a whip, unfolding via a series of red herrings, and ends with a truly unexpected reveal. For me, Connelly is the daddy of modern crime fiction.
The Green Mile by Stephen King (1997)
Blessed with the pace and tension of a thriller, this is on a whole different level to the film adaptation, and probably my favourite Stephen King novel. With no vampires, ghosts, or low men in yellow coats, there is little horrific (aside from one spectacularly nasty execution); instead its suspense comes from the (often simmering) relationships between the guards and prisoners at Cold Mountain State Penitentiary. The writing is wonderful, the story beautifully constructed, and the gentile, almost serene presence of misunderstood healer John Coffey gives the novel a keen sense of tragedy – but also, conversely, the kind of heart you rarely see in genre fiction.
Four Corners of Night by Craig Holden (1999)
Set in a wintry midwest American city, this mournful, absorbing book sees two cops realising the abduction case they’re working may be tied to another seven years before. Holden is an incredibly powerful writer, evoking a clear vision of a duplicitous city, and the population that abides by its lies. His books never offer defintive conclusions, and at the end of Four Corners, there are still big questions left hanging – but it’s somehow in keeping with the muddy, complex, unyielding world he creates.
The Bang Bang Club by Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva (2000)
A thriller in construction, this is actually a mesmeric real-life account of four South African photojournalists working the townships in the run-up to the elections in 1994. Two of the four, Marinovich and Silva, paint a vivid, often brutal picture of a country in the midsts of war, but their writing is also surprisingly heartfelt as their professional obsession eventually begins to take its toll. It also raises interesting questions about the nature of frontline journalism – in particular, at what point does documenting a conflict become a failure to intervene? A lean, important, powerful book.
Dark Hollow by John Connolly (2000)
Connolly’s early stories are fantastic. Scary, hugely atmospheric, and beautifully written, they introduce the character of Charlie Parker, a former Maine cop now turned private investigator, who – in Connolly’s debut outing, Every Dead Thing – loses his wife and daughter to a serial killer known as the Travelling Man. Dark Hollow, his second novel, sees Parker searching for the killer of a woman and her young son. It’s probably his purest piece of detective fiction – and, for my money, the best in the series.
Tokyo/The Devil of Nanking by Mo Hayder (2004)
Few writers create villains as skin-crawling as Mo Hayder, and The Devil of Nanking (neé Tokyo) has one of the scariest. Its subject matter is pretty uncomfortable, spanning two time periods, one of which is the 1937 Rape of Nanking, where the Japanese army took the Chinese city, masscring 250,000+ people. The other is anchored in modern day Tokyo as a young woman called Grey arrives from the UK to work as a host in a nightclub. Hayder expertly weaves both timelines together, tackling big themes, as well as delivering one of the scariest home invasions you’ll read in any thriller.