Ever since the days of Sherlock Holmes, most mysteries and thrillers have been part of series that develop characters over time—sometimes decades. But there are also superb examples of the genre that stand by themselves. Here are 84 I’ve found and reviewed in the last eight years. The author and title link to my reviews. I’ve singled out the top 18 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers (arbitrarily limiting myself to one book per author). They’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names in each of the two groups below.
You’ll notice at a glance that a handful of authors appear multiple times on these lists. I’ve included ten novels by the incomparable Ross Thomas, six by John Grisham, four by Jo Nesbo, and three each by Joseph Finder, Alex Gerlis, Robert Harris, Carl Hiaasen, and Joseph Kanon. If you don’t find such popular authors as Michael Connelly or John Sandford here, it’s because nearly all their writing in the genre is in series of detective novels.
Top 18 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers
Matthew Carr, The Devils of Cardona – A gripping historical thriller masked as a thriller.
Charles Cumming, The Trinity Six – A new twist on the greatest spy scandal in history. Suspense galore.
Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves – Tragedy, on and off the reservation.
Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl – Impossible to see more than a few pages ahead.
Alex Gerlis, The Best of Our Spies – A World War II spy story grounded in historical fact
John Grisham, Sycamore Row – Another brilliant novel of the American South.
Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy – The Dreyfus Affair, reenacted in a suspenseful spy novel.
Jack Higgins, The Eagle Has Landed – A classic espionage thriller that’s well worth rereading.
Cara Hoffman, So Much Pretty – You will never forget Alice.
Joseph Kanon, Leaving Berlin – One of the best of today’s spy novels.
John le Carre, A Delicate Truth – The old master of spy stories pulls it off again.
Stuart Neville, The Ghosts of Belfast – A haunting novel of The Troubles.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer – The Vietnam War through the eyes of a Vietnamese spy.
Chris Pavone, The Travelers – A clever spy story that will keep you guessing.
Karin Slaughter, Pretty Girls – Three sisters, a marriage, a gruesome crime.
Olen Steinhauer, The Cairo Affair – A complex spy novel worthy of John Le Carre.
Ross Thomas, The Fools in Town Are on Our Side – One of the 100 best mysteries of all time.
Scott Turow, Testimony – An American lawyer goes to the Hague War Crimes Tribunal.
Another 67 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers
Sarah Bailey, The Dark Lake – Guilt and the allure of beauty in a suspenseful tale of murder in the Australian outback.
Scott Bakker, Disciple of the Dog – An unusually clever tale about a religious cult.
Linwood Barclay, A Tap on the Window – An engrossing small-town thriller.
John Byrne Barry, Wasted: Murder in the Recycle Berkeley Yard – Love, betrayal, murder, recycling.
Janelle Brown, Watch Me Disappear – A successful story of a disappearing housewife in the mode of Gone Girl.
John Burdett, The Last Six Million Seconds – Chinese triads and a triple murder in Hong Kong.
William Christie, A Single Spy – A Soviet spy in Nazi Germany.
Charles Cumming, The Hidden Man – A worthy novel of espionage from a latter-day master.
Nelson DeMille, The Cuban Affair – The CIA in Cuba on the cusp of the Cuban Revolution.
Helen Dunmore, Exposure – Gay life in Britain in a suspenseful historical thriller.
John Gregory Dunne, True Confessions – A classic novel of guilt and corruption.
Joseph Finder, High Crimes – Special Forces run amok in 1983 El Salvador.
Joseph Finder, Extraordinary Powers – A standout among espionage thrillers.
Joseph Finder, Suspicion – Nail-biting suspense about a writer who needs money.
Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects – Before Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn wrote this strange and disturbing novel
Lisa Gardner, Crash and Burn – A thrilling police procedural set in New Hampshire.
G. B. George, The Death of Rex Nhongo – A satisfying thriller set in Zimbabwe.
Alex Gerlis, Vienna Spies – British intelligence, the NKVD, and the Gestapo in World War II.
Alex Gerlis, The Swiss Spy – World War II spies in Switzerland.
Robert Goddard, Long Time Coming – There’s a sensational secret that you’ll never guess.
John Grisham, Camino Island – A daring heist, a frustrated novelist, and the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
John Grisham, The Rooster Bar – John Grisham on diploma mills, student loans, and ICE.
John Grisham, The Whistler – John Grisham takes on judicial corruption.
John Grisham, Rogue Lawyer – The police come off badly in this John Grisham novel.
John Grisham, Gray Mountain – John Grisham vs. Big Coal.
Jane Harper, The Dry – Multiple murder in the Australian outback.
Robert Harris, The Fear Index – A taut thriller about the world of multibillion-dollar hedge funds.
Robert Harris, Munich – Why Neville Chamberlain went to Munich.
Susan Hasler, Intelligence: A Tale of Terror and Uncivil Service – An insightful satirical take on the CIA under George W. Bush.
Noah Hawley, Before the Fall – Why did this plane crash?
Carl Hiaasen, Star Island – A story of skullduggery in South Florida, and it’s full of laughs.
Carl Hiaasen, Basket Case – Carl Hiaasen skewers newspaper publishers and rock musicians.
Carl Hiaasen, Bad Monkey – A severed arm, a detective on the roach patrol, and a bad monkey.
Jack Higgins, A Prayer for the Dying – A thriller that revolves around a Catholic’s confession.
David Ignatius, The Increment – A gripping tale of American espionage in the Iranian nuclear program.
Ha Jin, A Map of Betrayal – Betrayal is in the eye of the beholder.
Chris Morgan Jones, The Silent Oligarch – Putin’s Russia in the spotlight.
Joseph Kanon, Defectors – An American spy defects to the USSR.
Joseph Kanon, The Prodigal Spy – An espionage novelist to rival John Le Carre.
Kathleen Kent, The Dime – A tough female cop takes on a Mexican cartel.
Renee Knight, Disclaimer – An unusual psychological thriller from Britain.
John le Carre, Single & Single – Money-laundering and the Russian mob.
Dennis Lehane, The Drop – Boston’s lowlife acts out in this short crime novel.
Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird – Multiple murder and small-town dynamics in a rural Texas town.
Francine Matthews, Too Bad to Die – Ian Fleming stars in this delightful spy story.
Denise Mina, The Long Drop – An intriguing courtroom drama in Edinburgh based on historical fact.
Jo Nesbo, Midnight Sun – Murder above the Arctic Circle.
Jo Nesbo, The Son – A top-flight detective novel and a thriller.
Jo Nesbø, Blood on Snow – Outstanding Scandinavian noir.
Jo Nesbo, Headhunters – A crime novel about executive recruiters.
Mark Nykanen, Primitive – A brilliant and timely conspiracy.
Chris Pavone, The Expats – A truly suspenseful novel about cyber theft.
Richard Price (Harry Brandt), The Whites – Cops out of control.
Karin Slaughter, The Good Daughter – A brutal 28-year-old murder and a school shooting in rural Georgia.
Olen Steinhauer, All the Old Knives – A terrorist hijacking, the CIA, and two former lovers at dinner.
Nick Stone, The Verdict – A fascinating English courtroom drama.
Erik Axl Sund, The Crow Girl – Pedophiles, serial murder, and the Holocaust in a Swedish psychological thriller.
Ross Thomas, Out on the Rim – Con men, a $5 million bribe, and a Philippine rebellion.
Ross Thomas, Briarpatch – It’s hard to beat this political thriller.
Ross Thomas, The Mordida Man – International intrigue has rarely been more fun.
Ross Thomas, The Eighth Dwarf – Snow White wouldn’t like this dwarf.
Ross Thomas, The Porkchoppers – A brilliant and witty novel about dirty politics.
Ross Thomas, The Backup Men – Skullduggery galore in this tale of competing hit men.
Ross Thomas, The Singapore Wink – Crime and espionage in 1960s Singapore.
Ross Thomas, Cast a Yellow Shadow – A novel about assassination that’s lots of fun.
Ross Thomas, The Cold War Swap – Making the Cold War seem like fun.
Scott Turow, Innocent – Justice, Chicago-style.
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