20 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers

These novels are excellent standalone mysteries.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 more than 100 I’ve found and reviewed in the last eight years. The author and title link to my reviews. I’ve singled out the top 20 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.

This post was updated on October 27, 2020.

Top 20 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers

November Road by Lou Berney – A desperate woman, a passel of gangsters and JFK’s assassination

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 (Spies #1) – A World War II spy story grounded in historical fact.

Tess Gerritsen, Harvest—A classic medical thriller about organ transplants

John Grisham, Sycamore Row – Another brilliant novel of the American South.

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.

Ruth Ware, The Woman in Cabin 10 – A #1 bestselling psychological thriller that’s suspenseful to the end

More than 80 other excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers

Cristina Alger, The Banker’s WifeA gritty novel of intrigue about an offshore banking scandal

Kate Atkinson, Transcription – Kate Atkinson’s latest is a beautifully written spy story

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.

Fiona Barton, The Widow – A psychological thriller about a child abduction

Lou Berney, The Long and Faraway Gone—A prize-winning novel of suspense probes the impact of crime

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister the Serial KillerTwo Nigerian sisters and three murders

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.

Graeme Macrae Burnet, His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae – An unreliable narrator explains three brutal murders in 19th century Scotland

William Christie, The Warriors of God—Iranian terrorists attack the White House in an exciting thriller.

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.

James Ellroy,The Black Dahlia—A classic crime novel about LA’s unsolved Black Dahlia murder.

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.

Joseph Finder, Judgment – A high-stakes courtroom drama in Joseph Finder’s new novel

Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects – Before Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn wrote this strange and disturbing novel

Frederick Forsyth, The Fox – A great new spy novel from the author of “The Day of the Jackal”

Tana French, The Witch Elm – The latest Tana French is a 500-page psychological thriller

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 (Spies #3) – British intelligence, the NKVD, and the Gestapo in World War II.

Alex Gerlis, The Swiss Spy (Spies #2) – World War II spies in Switzerland.

Alex Gerlis, The Berlin Spies (Spies #4) – The best spy novelist you’ve never read

Robert Goddard, Long Time Coming – There’s a sensational secret that you’ll never guess.

John Grisham, The Reckoning – John Grisham digs deeply into history with this excellent WWII novel

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.

John Grisham, Camino WindsA hurricane, a murder, and a nursing home scam.

Jane Harper, The Dry – Multiple murder in the Australian outback.

Jane Harper, The Lost Man – A superb murder mystery set in the Australian outback

Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy – The Dreyfus Affair, reenacted in a suspenseful spy novel.

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.

George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle The classic Boston crime novel that inspired Elmore Leonard.

Jack Higgins, A Prayer for the Dying – A thriller that revolves around a Catholic’s confession.

Jack Higgins, Luciano’s LuckFact and fiction about the Mafia and the WWII Allied invasion of Sicily.

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.

Joseph Kanon, The Good German—The cost of total war was clear in Berlin after World War II

Kathleen Kent, The Dime – A tough female cop takes on a Mexican cartel.

Fletcher Knebel, Night of Camp David—A novel that anticipated Donald Trump, five decades ago?

Renee Knight, Disclaimer – An unusual psychological thriller from Britain.

Michael Koryta, How It Happened – All the ingredients of a top-notch thriller.

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.

Laura Lippman, The Lady in the Lake—Laura Lippman’s shifting point of view in her latest novel

Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird – Multiple murder and small-town dynamics in a rural Texas town.

Attica Locke, The Cutting Season– Two murders on a Southern plantation, separated by a century.

Helen MacInnes, The Salzburg Connection—Nazis, Communists, and Western spies clash in this classic spy novel.

Tim Mason, The Darwin Affair—When Charles Darwin threatened the stability of English society.

Francine Matthews, Too Bad to Die – Ian Fleming stars in this delightful spy story.

Alex Michaelides, The Silent PatientThe Silent Patient underwhelms as a psychological thriller.

Denise Mina, The Long Drop – An intriguing courtroom drama in Edinburgh based on historical fact.

Denise Mina, ConvictionMysteries inside mysteries in Denise Mina’s mind-bending new novel.

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.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Nairobi Heat – An African American detective investigates the Rwanda genocide.

Daniel Nieh, Beijing Payback—Dirty money from China is at the root of this thriller.

Mark Nykanen, Primitive – A brilliant and timely conspiracy.

Brad Parks, Interference—It looks like science fiction but it’s not

Chris Pavone, The Expats – A truly suspenseful novel about cyber theft.

Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth—A mystery set in a remote corner of Siberia

Richard Price (Harry Brandt), The Whites – Cops out of control.

Kate Jessica Raphael, Murder Under the Bridge – In a Palestinian mystery, a young female cop confronts Israeli corruption

Karin Slaughter, The Good Daughter – A brutal 28-year-old murder and a school shooting in rural Georgia.

Karin Slaughter, Pieces of Her – Karin Slaughter’s latest novel is unlike her previous work

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.

Ben H. Winters, Golden StateA riveting hybrid science fiction mystery novel that questions reality.

For additional reading

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