The best reads ever! Greatest crime and suspense novels

The best reads ever! From fiction’s most charming — and terrifying — serial killer to Hercule Poirot’s first case, this series of best books launches with 20 of the greatest crime and suspense novels ever written

If you find you have extra hours to kill in these testing times, crime novels and thrillers can provide a wonderful escape from the dreary reality of self-isolation. 

So, here are 20 of the greatest such books ever written to dip into. 

I have almost every one on my bookshelf, and it has been a delight to go back to them. Here I must start with the novel that first brought the world detective fiction…

The Day of the Jackal was a roaring success when it was published in 1971, despite being rejected by no fewer than 19 publishers. A section from the film is shown above

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

by Edgar Allan Poe

First published in 1841, this book introduced the world to C. Auguste Dupin — the progenitor of all the great detectives who followed him, including Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

There was no word for detective when Poe wrote the story. 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 examining the crime scenes.

Poe, who was born in the U.S. but educated in England, had a fascination with gothic horror. His creation of Dupin ushered the detective story into life. Even today it is mesmerising.

The Hound of the Baskervilles

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Deservedly the best known and best loved Sherlock Holmes story, it originally emerged in episodes in The Strand Magazine between 1901 and 1902.

It had been eight years since Edinburgh-born Conan Doyle, a former doctor, had despatched the great detective over the Reichenbach Falls, but the success of this superb story — based on a Devon legend about a hellish hound and a cursed country squire — convinced him that the pressure from fans to bring the character back could not be ignored.

Wonderfully atmospheric, it has the power to chill 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 World War I, when she worked in the pharmacy at Torquay hospital. The Belgian refugees she encountered were the inspiration for Poirot and his ‘little grey cells’.

As with many of her later stories, this one focuses on a poisoning — of Emily Inglethorp. Captain Hastings, staying at her house, Styles, after being invalided home from the trenches, recruits his old friend Poirot to investigate.

Not, perhaps, her finest work — too many clues overlap — but fascinating and clever nonetheless.

Stamboul Train

by Graham Greene

This was the work that established Greene as a novelist after two failures, and the book that made his reputation. When it was published in 1932, he described it as an ‘entertainment’ and that is certainly true.

Set on a train travelling from Ostend to Constantinople — now Istanbul — it features a string of utterly memorable characters, especially the businessman Carleton Myatt, who suspects his agent in Turkey is cheating him.

It is a novel of its time, when anti-Semitism was growing in Europe, but it nevertheless has the power to shock and surprise.


by Daphne du Maurier

A ‘sinister tale about a young woman who marries a wealthy widower’ is the author’s own description of one of the finest Gothic thrillers of the past century. The first line forever lingers in the memory — ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ — as does the terrifying figure of the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers.

When it was first published in 1938, some critics dismissed it as a ‘novelette’, but re-reading it now reminds you of its fascinating spell. Rebecca is the name of the first, and late, Mrs de Winter, but she stalks every page — terrifying her successor.

Farewell, My Lovely

by Raymond Chandler

This second novel featuring Philip Marlowe is my favourite — more accessible than his first, The Big Sleep, but with all the wryness of Marlowe’s cynical approach to his work as a private detective in Los Angeles.

Born in Chicago but educated in London before going to California, Chandler captures with an eagle eye the excesses of corruption there in the Thirties. Plus the story reveals Marlowe’s soft heart beneath the wisecracks and hard-boiled exterior.

Who could forget Moose Malloy’s anguished search for his girlfriend, Velma, with Marlowe trying 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 superb Strangers On A Train, this introduced the suave, agreeable and utterly amoral serial killer Tom Ripley, who murders a wealthy man and assumes his identity. It is the callousness of the killer, hiding beneath the disguise of a charming man, that makes him such an unforgettable character.

Highsmith was to write four more stories about this con-artist and killer, but the original is the best. There is something so hypnotic about the cobra-like Ripley that you can never take your eye off him — even when you know what he is capable of.

The Day of the Jackal

by Frederick Forsyth

Rejected by no fewer than 19 publishers at first, it went on to become a world-wide sensation in 1971, and then a magnificent film. Now, almost half a century later, it still stands up as a great thriller, even though everyone seems to know the ending.

It is the elegance of the story-telling that sets it apart, as well as the fact that the creation of a false identity by stealing it from the gravestone of a child has become part of crime folklore — both true and fictional.

The background may be a little dated, but the Jackal himself is a fascinating creation who deserves to be revisited.

Red Dragon 

by Thomas Harris

This is the thriller that introduced the inimitable Hannibal Lecter in 1981 — that respectable Baltimore forensic psychologist who was also a cannibalistic serial killer and a man with no sense of guilt. But Lecter is not the central character in the story — that is Will Graham, the former FBI agent who caught him and sent him to jail.

Graham is instructed to visit Lecter to enlist his help in finding another serial killer. It is superb and, as Stephen King said, the best popular novel to be 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 espionage drama is one of le Carre’s favourites 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 man who has told so many lies that he has forgotten how to tell the truth. Haunting, melancholy and written with a pen dipped in acid, 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 in LA of Elizabeth Short — whose body was mutilated and dumped on an abandoned lot — 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 burrows into the heart of police corruption through the eyes of two friends in the force, ‘Bucky’ Bleichert, a former boxer, and Lee Blanchard, who come to compete with one another until Lee disappears.

Bleak, beautifully written and fierce, it demands to be read.

Heaven’s Prisoners

by James Lee Burke

The second novel to feature retired New Orleans police detective and former Army officer Dave Robicheaux sees him witness a plane crash over the bayou in New Iberia, from which he manages to rescue a young Salvadorian girl, whom he and his wife adopt.

The plane turns out to have belonged to a local drug lord, whom Robicheaux knew as a boy, and the ex-detective finds himself having to defend his wife and new daughter from powerful forces.

Exquisitely written, and with a marvellous, emotional beating heart, the story underlines just how fabulous a writer Burke is.

Knots and Crosses

by Ian Rankin

This is the debut of Edinburgh-based Detective Sergeant John Rebus, one of the great creations of modern British crime fiction, who has gone on to feature in no fewer than 21 other novels by the hugely talented Rankin.

Morose and forever self-critical, Rebus is one of those famously troubled detectives which inhabit so much of the genre. But he is anything but a stereotype and continually surprises his foes, and his readers, by revealing the strangely touching part of his personality — though not when it comes to Scottish gangsters.

Funny, true, moving — this should whet your appetite for the series.

Presumed Innocent

by Scott Turow

Among the best courtroom dramas ever written, Turow’s debut in 1987 was a worldwide hit.

Rusty Sabich, Kindle County’s long-serving chief deputy prosecutor, is asked to investigate the rape and murder of one of his colleagues, the sensuous and manipulative Carolyn Polhemus.

What the DA does not know is that the two were lovers until only a few months earlier, and Sabich has never quite recovered from being dumped. But then he becomes a suspect in the case himself . . .

Stunningly told, it has not dated one jot.

A Time to Kill

by John Grisham

Published in 1989, Grisham’s first legal thriller remains his best, though it was its successor, 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 which is shattered by two drunken white men. The girl’s father takes justice into his own hands, and acquires an assault rifle for revenge. A young defence attorney, Jake Brigance, sets out to save his client’s life, and eventually his own, as racial violence flares in the divided community.

Deeply felt and truly moving.

The Lincoln Lawyer

by Michael Connelly

This 2005 novel introduced us to criminal defence attorney Mickey Haller, who works out of the back of a Lincoln Town Car.

He is the half-brother of Connelly’s most famous creation, detective Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch. Prepared to take any case to survive, Haller appears to be no more than a sleazy charlatan, but gradually reveals himself as a man of honour and surprising principle.

The People vs Alex Cross

by James Patterson

It’s easy to sneer at Patterson, one of the world’s bestselling thriller writers who has produced more than 150 novels since 1976, yet those numbers overlook his immense skill and commitment.

This was his 25th story featuring detective, criminal profiler and psychotherapist Alex Cross, and interweaves Cross’s trial for killing three followers of a serial killer with the abduction and imprisonment of a string of young, blonde girls.

Cross is Patterson’s favourite character and that shows in the power and emotion he demonstrates on every page. If you’ve never tried him, start here.


by Robert Harris

This was the hugely talented Harris’s 12th thriller. In it he returns to the rich seam of history that inspired his first hit, Fatherland, which imagined a scenario in which Hitler won World War II.

Here, he recounts British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s visit to Munich in September 1938. It shows him in a far more favourable light than he is usually portrayed by opponents of appeasement, casting him as a formidable, almost heroic figure. It’s a tour de force.

The Dry

by Jane Harper

The most compelling crime debut of the past three years grips like a vice from the first page, atmospherically evoking the small town of Kiewarra, outside Melbourne, which has been rocked by a murder/suicide in the midst of a fearsome drought.

A mother and her six-year-old son have been killed by their husband and father, who then turned the gun on himself. Police officer Aaron Falk returns for the funeral and is drawn into investigating.

The story lingers in the memory long after the last page.

The Dry by Jane Harper, left, and Big Sky which was written by Kate Atkinson

Big Sky

by Kate Atkinson

This fifth outing for the laconic former Met Police detective Jackson Brodie was one of the best crime novels published last year, and a richly warranted hit for the award-winning Atkinson.

Brodie is now a private investigator on the North Yorkshire coast, mainly looking into cheating spouses, but then he rescues a man attempting to throw himself off a cliff and finds himself ushered into far darker territory. It never, ever, lets the tension drop.

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