7 Best Suspense Novels of All Time

7 Best Suspense Novels of All Time

A guest post by

One man’s meat is another man’s poison. One person loves a novel so much they buy it for all their friends, another consigns it to the rubbish bin (the trash can, for US readers!) in a fit of disgust before getting half way down the first page.

Here are my seven best thriller books of all time. If you think I’m talking out of my backside, feel free to shoot me down in flames via the comments box. Or suggest alternatives.

These are my personal shining stars, picked from the crowded thriller firmament. A tricky choice since there are so many contestants to choose from, a host of top class writers with a passion for the dark side and the talent to pull it off.

  1. Nicci FrenchSecret Smile
  2. Francis King – The Needle
  3. Clare FrancisBetrayal
  4. Barbara Vine (AKA Ruth Rendell) – King Solomon’s carpet
  5. Bari Wood and Jack Geasland – Twins (re-released in 1988 as Dead Ringers)
  6. Mark BillinghamSleepyhead
  7. Mark MillsThe Information Officer

Secret Smile by Nicci French

Nicci French is probably my top crime writer. Or writers, since she’s actually a husband and wife writing team. ‘She’ creates cracking plots, with enough twisty-turny bits to keep the most dedicated fan of the planet’s best detective novels in a state of happy confusion. And Secret Smile, although on a par with Killing Me Softly, sits at the top of my Nicci French re-reading list.
Secret Smile by Nicci French
Once a year I can’t resist getting it out of the bookshelf, taking a deep breath and diving into a story so powerful I find myself shouting at the characters in an effort to stop them doing what I know fine well they’re going to do anyway. Totally brilliant, complete with an utterly foul, beyond-redemption protagonist. Oh, I love to hate him!

Here is what Publisher’s Weekly said about the book.

“Miranda Cotton has an ideal life in London, doing work she loves (building and contracting; she always seems to have a spot of paint in her hair), with no current love interest but lots of dating opportunities. Then a short, nasty liaison with a man who calls himself Brendan Block rips her comfortable world apart.

A charming and dangerous psychopath, Block worms his way into the Cotton family claiming that he dumped Miranda (when in fact it was she who tossed him out when she caught him reading her diaries); he immediately wins the trust of her flustered parents and does serious damage to her older sister, Kerry, and her mentally fragile younger brother, Troy.

The trouble is that nobody believes the rather rough-edged Miranda when she tries desperately to stop Block’s rampage.

Studded with sharp insights into the strange compromises involved in modern relationships, this novel could be the horror version of Bridget Jones’s Diary. And the authors are so subtle at bringing Brendan and Miranda to life that readers might even begin to doubt that what she’s telling us is the whole truth until a stunning climax in which all sorts of secrets and lies are revealed.”

The Needle by Francis King

Crime novels and thrillers don’t have to be a constant stream of mayhem and murder. Some are subtler, and Francis King’s The Needle delivers plenty of thrills without overt violence. It’s a nasty, nasty story, told with deadpan matter of fact-ness and British stiff upper lip. But the tension mounts as the highly unpleasant Bob’s secretive shadow-life is revealed as much more shocking than you could possibly imagine, and his mild, reserved, innocent sister Lorna finds the courage to put a stop to it.
The Needle by Francis King
The Times newspaper called it:

“A masterpiece”

The Financial Times said it was a:

“fine and frightening book… the characters are built up so un-dramatically , so convincingly, so relentlessly until the somber climax is both unthinkable and inevitable”

And the Times Literary Supplement commented:

“Mr King shows us the depths of squalor, grief, loneliness, perversity and viciousness precisely in order to show us the love and loyalty and courage to be found down there.”

Sadly the author died in 2011. Here’s a link to his obituary in The Guardian newspaper.

Betrayal by Clare Francis

Betrayal by Clare FrancisIn my view the very best suspense novels take people’s feelings into account as well as weaving a mighty fine tale. Clare Francis, one of the UK’s top thriller writers and an ex-yachtswoman, does exactly that while revealing a knottily complex plot. When a woman’s body is recovered from the river, her ex Hugh Wellesley can’t decide whether or not to tell the police he knew her. Sylvie was an extraordinary person, and her unconventionality in life delivers Hugh an unexpected betrayal at the end. It’s as creepy as a creepy thing… and then some.

According to Pan Macmillian, Clare’s publisher, it’s:

“A brilliant psychological suspense with a savage, surprising twist”

I couldn’t put it better myself.

King Solomon’s Carpet by Barbara Vine

Barbara Vine is a pseudonym of the best-selling author Ruth Rendell, under which she writes some of her best suspense books. And this one’s a knockout, published in 1991 and a winner of the coveted CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel the same year.
King Solomon’s Carpet by Barbara Vine

Here’s what Wikipedia says about the plot:

“Jarvis Stringer is a student of the London Tube and its history and of underground trains worldwide. In order to finance his hobby and be able to travel to distant lands to inspect the underground systems in other parts of the world, he lets rooms in an old disused school building he has inherited which is close to the tube tracks in West Hampstead (see Jubilee Line). There, a group of misfits and weirdos, including a squatter, gather whose dreams of the good life have time and again been shattered as they are constantly victimized by society.

There is 24 year-old Alice, an aspiring musician who leaves her husband and new-born baby only to end up busking in various stations in central London. There is Tom, who, after an accident, drops out of music school and is reduced to busking as well but who dreams of one day starting his own business. There is unemployed Tina, whose promiscuity landed her with two children whom she does not take care of in the way her mother thinks she ought to. There is Jed, who volunteers as a vigilante and who, disappointed by humans, lavishes all his love on the hawk he has acquired and which he keeps in the house. And there is Axel, an enigmatic man who regularly travels on the tube in the company of a man disguised as a bear and who is planning something illegal.

Cecilia and Daphne, two old ladies living in the neighbourhood, serve as a foil to this ill-assorted group. It is Cecilia in particular who does not understand how young people such as her daughter Tina can be utterly devoid of morals. She is shocked to learn that her 10 year-old grandson enjoys riding on the roof of cars as they go through deep-level tunnels. While travelling on the tube herself, her handbag containing her credit cards is stolen, and she suffers a stroke in one of the packed cars.”

If that sounds harmless enough, it isn’t. Like all her books there are satisfyingly disturbing undercurrents of evil, darkness and horror, and the awful fate of one of the book’s heroes has to be read to be believed.  As the author Andrea Newman said in the Sunday Express newspaper:

“I longed to know what would happen next. Towards the end the tension fairly gets you by the throat.”

Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland

Bari Wood and Jack Geasland qualify as my next best suspense authors with flying colors. Twins is a superbly disturbing and uncomfortably intimate story of powerful David and gentle Michael, identical twins who share everything including the same girls. But the unnaturally strong bond between them breeds destructive passion and unbridled terror.
Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland
The New York Times simply called it “Bizarre”, which fits the bill. If you’re in the market for a thriller novel with a real difference, give it a go. First published in 1977, it was adapted into a 1988 TV drama called Dead Ringers, directed by David Cronenberg, which won a Genie Award for Best Canadian Film the same year.  Here’s a link to the movie on IMDb.

As the book’s publishers, Barnes & Noble, say:

“Twins is a spellbinding novel of the bizarre lives and shocking deaths of twin doctors—bound together by more than brotherly love, damned together to a private hell of unspeakable obsessions.”

Fantastic stuff, about as dark as it gets.

Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham

I read this novel years before the episode of CSI that told an uncannily similar story. It’s one of my very best thriller books, from the pen of the hugely talented Mark Billingham.
Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
Here’s what Mark says about the book on his website:

“Alison Willetts is unlucky to be alive. She has survived a stroke, deliberately induced by a skilful manipulation of pressure points on the head and neck. She can see, hear and feel; she is aware of everything going on around her, but she is completely unable to move or communicate. It’s called Locked-In Syndrome. In leaving Alison Willetts alive, the police believe the killer’s made his first mistake.

Then D.I. Tom Thorne discovers the horrifying truth; it isn’t Alison who is the mistake, it’s the three women already dead. ‘An appropriate margin of error’ is how their killer dismisses them, and Thorne knows they are unlikely to be the last. For the killer is smart, and he’s getting his kicks out of toying with Thorne as much as he is pursuing his sick fantasy . . .”

You can also catch a video of the author himself talking about the book on the Meet the Author website, here.

The Information Officer by Mark Mills

Last but not least in my top 7 thriller books and crime novels, it’s Mark Mills’ book, The Information Officer, a splendid adventure set against the violent backdrop of World War 2 Malta, under siege from the air by marauding Nazis.
The Information Officer by Mark Mills
It’s the summer of 1942 and the hero, Max Chadwick, is the Information Officer. It’s his job to maintain island morale through controlling the news, and when he discovers a British officer might be murdering young women on the island, his first instinct is to hush it up. Instead he embarks on a private investigation, ultimately finding himself torn between patriotic duty and personal honor. An intricate plot, heavy on suspense with particularly compelling characters that make it a must.

Mark’s site includes a short video as well as personal commentary about the book, which has generated some excellent reviews including:

“Stunning fiction…The sense of immediacy Mark Mills brings to The Information Officer is so intense that this breathtaking novel reads more like a memoir than a wartime thriller.” – New York Times Book Review.

“Magnificent… reads like the story of Casablanca revisited, like a vanished Graham Greene.” – Los Angeles Times.

“Skillfully combines grim historical reality with murder in this tautly gripping mystery.” – Washington Times.

“Mark Mills’ third novel is a rapist’s progress set against the atmosphere, wonderfully evoked, of the besieged island of Malta in the summer of 1942… A compelling, vividly rendered slow burn of a book which culminates in an electrifying climax.” – The Guardian.

What’s next on my top crime novel list?

Top Suspense by Joel Goldman and friends
There’s so much to choose from. But next I’m venturing into Top Suspense territory, a collection of 13 thriller classics by 12 masters of the craft and a great way to dip into a collection of unfamiliar authors to see who fires my imagination most. Fresh pastures, here I come.

What about you? What’s your favorite suspense novel?

5 Responses to “7 Best Suspense Novels of All Time”

  1. Alison

    Thanks for letting us know about these great authors Kate. I’ve already read some of Nicci French’s books but I will hunt down the other authors and take a read of some of theirs too.

  2. Dee Wilkins

    I love Betrayal by Clare Francis. The plot is beautifully complex and the writing is excellent. I love the twist at the end.
    Thanks for the recommendations.

  3. Samantha Gluck

    Wow Kate! Great picks…although I haven’t read any of them yet. I guess I need to add them to my reading list. The one called “Twins” intrigues me as does “The Information Officer”. All of them look fab, though.