My 56 favorite authors of mysteries and thrillers

favorite authorsOK, I admit that number 56 is a little over the top. Well, maybe a bit more than a little. How could I have 56 different “favorite” authors, much less in a single genre? Well, a little arithmetic tells the tale.

Since January 2010, nearly six and a half years ago, I’ve been reading an average of more than 100 books per year (more than 150 over the past three years or so). Mysteries and thrillers constitute more than one-third of those books. Call it 250 or more all told. In addition to those books, I’ve dipped into a fair number of others that I couldn’t finish reading, much less feel comfortable reviewing—certainly more than 50, maybe 100. So, perhaps I can be excused for claiming 55 “favorite” mystery and thriller writers.

If you scan the list below, you may notice that a number of familiar names are missing. Just for example: James Patterson, Agatha Christie, David Baldacci, P.D. James, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Daniel Silva, Robert Crais, Dan Brown, and Dean Koontz. (There are a lot more.) It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with their work. It’s that I don’t like it. Of course, there are many more authors whose work I haven’t yet read, or read enough of, to judge.

In the list below, divided by category, the authors’ names or pen names (with real names in parentheses) are followed by the featured character or characters in their books. If most of the action takes place within a particular locale, that’s indicated within parentheses.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re wondering whether I have any individual favorite books among the hundreds written by these authors, here goes: Ross Thomas’ brilliant send-up of politics, The Fools in Town Are on Our Side; Gillian Flynn’s mystifying thriller, Gone Girl; Jack Higgins’ classic spy story, The Eagle Has Landed; and Olen Steinhauer’s panoramic five-book cycle that illuminates the history of Communism in a fictional Central European country, the Ruthenia Quintet.

Spy thrillers

The innumerable spy thrillers written by the eight authors listed below tend to shift from one protagonist, and one locale, to another. Only Alex Berenson’s once and former CIA agent, John Wells, is the exception.

Alex Berenson—John Wells

Charles Cumming

Joseph Finder

Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson)

John Le Carre (David Cornwell)

Olen Steinhauer

Ross Thomas

Edward Wilson

Private detectives

For the most part, the private detectives featured in the books of the four authors listed below tend to operate close to their home bases.

Cara Black—Aimee Leduc (Paris)

Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)—Cormoran Strike (London)

Sara Paretsky—V. I. Warshawski (Chicago)

George Pelecanos—Spero Lucas (Washington, DC)

Police detectives

For reasons that should be obvious, most crime fiction involves detectives who work for the police. These 21 authors have brought to life a passel of brilliant investigators whose work spans the world from Moscow to San Francisco.

Elizabeth George—Inspector Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers (London)

Jussi Adler-Olsen—Department Q (Oslo)

Michael Connelly—Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller (Los Angeles)

Donna Leon—Commissario Guido Brunetti (Venice)

Henning Mankell—Kurt Wallander (Ystad, Sweden)

Deborah Crombie—Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James (London)

Louise Penny—Chief Inspector Armand Gamache (Three Pines, Quebec)

Jo Nesbo—Harry Hole (Oslo)

John Sandford (John Roswell Camp)—Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers (Minneapolis)

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö—Martin Beck (Stockholm)

Ian Rankin—John Rebus (Edinburgh)

James Lee Burke—Dave Robicheaux (New Iberia Parish, Louisiana)

Martin Cruz Smith—Arkady Renko (Moscow)

Joseph Wambaugh (Los Angeles)

Peter Lovesey—Peter Diamond (Sussex, England)

Tana French—Dublin Murder Squad (Dublin, Ireland)

John Lescroart—Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitsky (San Francisco)

William Ryan—Captain Alexei Korolev (Moscow)

Camilla Lackberg—Ericka Falck and Patrik Hedström (Fjällbacka, Sweden)

Karin Slaughter—Dr. Sara Linton, Chief Jeffrey Tolliver, and Will Trent (Atlanta and rural Grant County, Georgia)

Johnathan Kellerman—Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis (Los Angeles)

Historical crime fiction

For a history buff such as me, crime fiction set in historical times is often the most rewarding—so long as the author has undertaken thorough research. To the best of my knowledge, these 11 writers have done so.

Rennie Airth—John Madden (London)

Benjamin Black (John Banville)—Dr. Quirke (Dublin, Ireland)

Rebecca Cantrell—Hannah Vogel (Berlin)

Alan Furst

Joseph Kanon

Tom Rob Smith—Leo Demidov (Moscow)

Philip Kerr—Bernie Gunther (Berlin)

Robert Goddard

Charles Todd (Charles Todd and Caroline Todd)—Inspector Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford (London)

Charles Finch—Charles Lenox (London)

Jacqueline Winspear—Maisie Dobbs (London)

Mysteries in faraway locales

Some of the most engaging crime fiction is set in places that are unfamiliar to the majority of Americans. These five authors have written some of the best.

John Burdett—Sonchai Jitpleecheep (Bangkok, Thailand)

James Church—Inspector O (Pyongyang, North Korea)

Stan Jones—Nathan Active (Native Alaska)

Alexander McCall Smith—Precious Ramotswe (Gaborone, Botswana)

Peter May—Fin MacLeod (Outer Hebrides, Scotland)

Other mysteries and thrillers

From the lurid thrillers of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, to the baffling puzzle of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Donald Westlake’s hilarious adventures of his favorite criminal, some of the most enjoyable crime fiction doesn’t fall neatly into any of the subcategories I’ve listed above. These seven writers prove the point.

Gillian Flynn

John Grisham

Dennis Lehane

Elmore Leonard

Donald E. Westlake—John Dortmunder (New York)

Stieg Larsson—Lisbet Salander and Mikael Blomqvist (Stockholm)

Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis—Nina Borg (Copenhagen)



Mal Warwick

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