A Century of Thrillers: 200 Books From 1890 to 1990 –
A List by David L. Vineyard


   First a brief bit of definition. The Thriller as I am using the term is distinct from the Detective and Suspense novel by several factors which I’ll attempt to define as broadly and generally as possible.

   In the Thriller the primary emphasis is on incident, action, adventure, and movement with the protagonist — even when he is an innocent caught up in larger events — taking a proactive role in those events. The thriller to some extent has its models in Homer’s Odyssey and books like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (which is the model for the entire Buchan school). In a thriller all the elements are secondary to incident, action, and movement.

   In the Detective novel the emphasis is on method, motive, and the pursuit of clues. There may be colorful incident and action as well as considerable suspense involved, but at heart those things are secondary to the procedure of investigation. Atmosphere, locale, adventure, all the elements of the thriller may play a role, even a major role, but they are still secondary to the solution of the central problem.

   In the Suspense novel an individual or group is at the mercy of fate. Even when they try to take a proactive role they are still largely at the mercy of blind fate and seldom save themselves merely by skill, intelligence, courage, or even common sense. At best when the opportunity arises they may take advantage of it, but they are usually saved or damned not by their own actions but sheer fate.

   There is more crossover and argument about suspense vs thriller than any other area, but in general suspense novels are darker and more psychological. I’m including most Gothic novels under the broad suspense genre as well as most crime novels.

   For this little exercise I have defined four basic types of Thriller. Many books are combinations of these, so that Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household combines the novel of Chase and Pursuit with The Mission.

1. Chase and Pursuit — an innocent (usually) is drawn into a mysterious situation through no fault of his own, but using his intelligence (in some more comic versions his lack of it), cunning, and other untapped abilities he overcomes and usually not only survives but triumphs. Buchan’s The 39 Steps is the great model.

2. The Quest — the search for the Great Whatits, the McGuffin. It may be a place, a thing, a person, or even an idea, but it drives the action of the protagonist and the villains. Most of today’s thrillers in the Cussler school are quest novels.

3. The Journey — The protagonist or protagonists have to get from A to B. Why, how, and everything else related is still sublimated to the mere fact that they must reach the end of the journey. Elleston Trevor’s Flight of the Phoenix is a journey novel.

4. The Mission — this is often incorporated with the others and may feature an avenger hero, a tough professional of some sort, an amateur, or even a gentleman crook who sets out to accomplish some goal. It may be saving the world or swindling the crooks, rescuing a girl in trouble or destroying some evil. Most secret agent fiction is a mission style thriller such as From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming which also incorporates elements of the other three. Most Avenger style novels fit under the Mission category.

   But above all in a thriller incident, action, adventure, and movement are the predominant themes. Elements of horror, the supernatural, and even science fiction may appear. A few books on the list are closer to mainstream novels than genre novels, but that is another of the oddities about the thriller since it can run from the lowest denominator of the men’s action series to books that are clearly literature.

   The list is more or less chronological to when the writer in question first appeared, so in general even with a later book the writer in question will appear when his first work was published (though with Andrew Garve, Victor Canning, and Hammond Innes I have chosen to place them in the post-war era though all debuted pre-war, and both Richard Sale and Richard Llewelyn are listed in the 1930′s for books published in the 1960′s as is Frank Gruber for books published in the late 1950′s). The dates are general however and not exact. Many of these writers had careers that ran thirty and more years.

   I’ve limited myself to one book per writer, and in general few short story collections since there are not a lot of short thriller collections out there. I’ve also allowed for ties in a many cases, a second or equal work since many of these writers wrote over long periods of time.

   The starting date is not as arbitrary as it may seem, the thriller as we know it grows a great deal out of the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and since Kidnapped appeared in 1886 and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appeared in 1888, 1890 seemed a good starting place for the modern thriller, and since 1990 marked a natural cut off place I chose that, though obviously James Rollins, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs, Arturo Perez-Reverte, and Barry Eisler would all be represented if the list ran longer.

   I’ve also left out the crime novel which is often closer to the hard-boiled and or suspense school so certain writers such as W.R. Burnett, Peter Rabe, Dan J. Marlowe (whose best work in my opinion is in the crime school), Richard Stark, and the like are not listed. Most hard-boiled writers are closer to the detective story and not listed.

   As with my mystery and suspense list this is a list of favorites, not bests. Keep in mind many of these writers wrote other kinds of books that would be on other lists (Reginald Hill for instance) but this is confined to thrillers. It is very Anglo-centric since relatively few American writers worked in the thriller mode until recently.

   As in my previous list of 100 “best” mysteries, an * indicates a film or television adaptation.

         1890′s

Sant of the Secret Service or The Veiled Man [TIE] by William LeQueux
Dr. Nikola by Guy Boothby
The Iron Pirate or The Diamond Ship by Max Pemberton
The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings by L.T. Meade & Robert Eustace
The Prisoner of Zenda * by Anthony Hope

         1900′s-1910′s

El Dorado * by Baroness Orczy
Truxton King a Novel of Graustark by George Barr McCutcheon
The Four Just Men * or Dark Eyes of London * by Edgar Wallace
Phantom of the Opera * by Gaston Leroux
813 or The Countess Cagliostro * by Maurice Leblanc
The Adventures of Jimmie Dale the Gray Seal by Frank L. Packard
The Lone Wolf * by Louis Joseph Vance
The Day The World Ended or The Quest of the Sacred Slipper by Sax Rohmer
The Great Impersonation * or The Wrath To Come by E. Philips Oppenheim
The Riddle of the Sands * by Erskine Childers
The Three Hostages * or A Prince of the Captivity by John Buchan
Anthony Trent Gentleman Adventurer or The Secret of the Silver Car by Wyndham Martin

         1920′s

The Final Count * or Jim Maitland by H. C. McNeile writing as Sapper
The Man With the Club Foot or Mr. Ramosi by Valentine Williams
Ashenden or the British Agent * by W. Somerset Maugham
Blind Corner or Storm Music by Dornford Yates
Chipstead of the Lone Hand or The Curse of Doone by Sydney Horler
Portrait of a Man With Red Hair* by Hugh Walpole
Solomon’s Quest by H. Bedford-Jones writing as Alan Hawkwood
Jimgrim or King of the Khyber Rifles * by Talbot Mundy
The Trail of the Black King by Anthony Armstrong
Death Rides the Forest or Gunston Cotton Secret Agent by Rupert Grayson
Blackshirt by Bruce Graeme
The Murderer Invisible * or Experiment in Crime by Philip Wylie
The Last Hero or The Saint in New York * by Leslie Charteris
The Mystery of the Dead Police (aka X vs Rex) * by Philip MacDonald
The Confidential Agent * or Our Man in Havana * by Graham Greene

         1930′s

The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck by Andrew Laing
The White Python or King Cobra by Mark Channing
The Wheel Spins * by Ethel Lina White
Without Armor * by James Hilton
The Nine Wax Faces by Francis Beeding
The Himalayan Assignment by Van Wyck Mason
A Toast to Tomorrow or Alias Uncle Hugo by Manning Coles
A Coffin for Dimitrios * or Dr. Frigo by Eric Ambler
Mr. Moto is So Sorry or Think Fast Mr. Moto * by John P. Marquand
Murder Chop Chop by James Norman
The Devil Rides Out * by Dennis Wheatley
A Knife for the Toff or Mists of Fear by John Creasey
The Stars Are Dark or Dark Duet by Peter Cheyney
Four Men and a Prayer * by David Garth
The General Died at Dawn * by Charles G. Booth
Bridge of Sand or Brothers of Silence by Frank Gruber
End of the Rug by Richard Llewelyn
Above Suspicion * or Assignment in Brittany* by Helen MacInnes
Most Secret or No Highway * by Nevil Shute
Rogue Male * or Watcher in the Shadows * by Geoffrey Household
Night Without Stars * or Take My Life * by Winston Graham
For The President’s Eyes Only by Richard Sale

         1940′s

Never Come Back * by John B. Mair
Colonel Blessington by Pamela Frankau
The Small Back Room * or Mine Own Executioner * by Nigel Balchin
Game Without Rules or The Long Journey Home by Michael Gilbert
The Megstone Plot (A Touch of Larceny) * by Andrew Garve
Levkas Man * or Doomed Oasis by Hammond Innes
Finger of Saturn or Queen’s Pawn by Victor Canning
The Three Roads by Kenneth Millar
Woman in the Picture by John August
Desperate Moment * by Martha Albrand
Odd Man Out * by F. L. Green
The Conspirators * or Nine Days to Muksala by Frederick Prokosh
Undertow or Deadfall * by Desmond Cory
The Last Quarter Hour or Cold Spell by Jean Bruce
The Sub Killers or Tough Justice by San Antonio
Girl on the Run or Assignment–Lily Lamaris by Edward S. Aarons
Run Mongoose or The Last Clear Chance by Burke Wilkinson
White Eagles Over Serbia by Lawrence Durrell
Cormorant Isle or House of Darkness by Allan MacKinnon

         1950′s

From Russia With Love * or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service * by Ian Fleming
Soldier of Fortune * by Ernest K. Gann
A Sunlit Ambush by Mark Derby
The Fifth Passenger by Edward Young
A Noble Profession by Pierre Boulle
Uhruhu or Something of Value * by Robert Ruark
Murder in Morocco or The Man With No Shadow by Stephen Marlowe
Free Agent by Frederic Wakeman
Dead Men of Sestos or Eye of the Devil * by Philip Loraine
The Breaking Strain by John Masters
Night Walker or Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton
The Silk Road or The Red Road by Simon Harvester
The Rose of Tibet or Kolmsky Heights by Lionel Davidson
The Old Dark House of Fear by Russell Kirk
Maneater * or The Buckingham Palace Connection by Ted Willis
The High Road to China * or The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary
The Achilles Affair or Without Prejudice by Berkeley Mather
The Fever Tree by Richard Mason
Flaw in the Crystal by Godfrey Smith
Ossian’s Ride by Fred Hoyle
The League of Gentlemen * by John Boland
A Captive in the Land by James Aldridge
The Game of X * or Dead Run * by Robert Sheckley
Wildfire at Midnight or Airs Above Ground by Mary Stewart
The White Tower * by James Ramsey Ullman
Third Side of the Coin or The Green Fields of Eden by Francis Clifford
The Expedition or Nine Hours to Rama * by Stanley Wolpert
The Last Mandarin or The Chinese Bandit by Stephen Becker
The Guns of Navarone * or The Satan Bug * by Alistair MacLean
High Wire or The Telemann Touch by William Haggard
Rampage * by Allan Calliou
Kill Claudio by P. M. Hubbard
High Citadel or Running Blind * by Desmond Bagley
Winter’s Madness by David Walker
Flight of the Phoenix * as Elleston Trevor or The Kobra Manifesto as Adam Hall
Midnight Plus One by Gavin Lyall

         1960′s

Season of Assassins by Geoffrey Wagner
River of Diamonds or Hunter Killer by Geoffrey Jenkins
Gibraltar Road or The Man From Moscow by Philip McCutchan
The Manchurian Candidate* by Richard Condon
A Small Town in Germany or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy * by John Le Carre
Ring of Roses or A Scent of New Mown Hay by John Blackburn
Rather a Vicious Gentleman by Frank McAuliffe
No Road Home by Geoffrey Rose
Village of Stars by Paul Stanton
Red Alert * by Peter George
Seven Days in May * by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey II
Charade * by Peter Stone
Dark of the Sun (aka The Mercenaries and Last Train From Katanga) * by Wilbur Smith
Not Only the Same Sun by John Gordon Davis
Isle of Snakes or The Hoffman Miniatures by Robert L. Fish
False Beards (aka Barbouze) or Holy of Holies by Alan Williams
The Ordeal of Major Grigsby by John Sherlock
A Dandy in Aspic * by Derek Marlowe
The Liquidator * by John Gardner
I, Lucifer or A Taste for Death by Peter O’Donnell
Diecast by Michael Brett
Otley by Martin Waddell
For Kicks or The Edge by Dick Francis
The Wrath of God* as James Graham or East of Desolation as Jack Higgins
Black Camelot by Duncan Kyle
Passport for a Pilgrim (aka Where the Spies Are) * by James Leasor
Sergeant Death by James Mayo
Callan * as James Mitchell or The Man Who Sold Death as James Munro
The Ipcress File * or Funeral in Berlin * by Len Deighton
Spargo by Jack Denton Scott
Murderer’s Burning by S. H. Courtier
Tree Frog or Blue Bone by Martin Wodehouse
The Dolly Dolly Spy by Adam Diment
The Yermakov Transfer as Derek Lambert or Blackstone and the Scourge of Europe as Richard Falkirk
Chinaman’s Chance or The Singapore Wink by Ross Thomas
Assassin by Evelyn Anthony
Deadlight by Archie Roy
Her Cousin John or Crocodile On the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters
Nightclimber by Jon Manchip White
Our Man in Camelot or Colonel Butler’s Wolf by Anthony Price (I’m not sure if one or both of these was adapted for the Terence Stamp David Audley series or not)
The Man From Greek and Roman by James Goldman
Night Probe or Treasure by Clive Cussler
Dolly and the Singing Bird or Dolly and the Starry Bird by Dorothy Dunnett

         1970′s

Stained Glass or Who’s On First? by William F. Buckley
A Flock of Ships by Brian Callison
The Wilby Conspiracy * by Peter Driscoll
The Scarlatti Inheritance or The Bourne Identity * by Robert Ludlum
Tank In Armor or The Heights of Zervos by Colin Forbes
Shibumi by Trevanian (Rod Whitaker)
Vandenberg * by Oliver Lange
The Day of the Dolphin * by Robert Merle
Day of the Jackal* by Frederick Forsyth
The Other Side of Silence by Ted Allbeury
Royal Flash or Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonald Fraser
Heights of Rim Ring by Duff Hart-Davis
Firefox * by Craig Thomas
Madonna Red by James Carroll
Eye of the Needle * or Night Over Water by Ken Follett
The Spy Who Sat and Waited by R. Wright Campbell
The Trans-Siberian Express by Warren Adler
Kiss Me Once as Thomas Maxwell or Assassini as Thomas Gifford
A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone
Sisters by Robert Littell
The Better Angels by Charles McCarry
The Sixth Directive by Joseph Hone
Code Name: Grand Guignol by Ib Melchior
Marathon Man by William Goldman
The Man Who Loved Mata Hari by Dan Sherman

         1980′s

November Man by Bill Granger
Metzger’s Dog by Thomas Perry
Daddy by Loup Durand
The Queen’s Messenger by W. L. Duncan
Yellowfish by John Keeble
Who Guards a Prince? as Reginald Hill or The Long Kill as Patrick Ruell
Shipkiller by Justin Scott
The Quest by Richard Ben Sapir
The Names by Don Delillo
The Two Thyrdes by Bertie Denhem
Winner Harris by Iain St. James
In Honour Bound by Gerald Seymour
The Frog and the Moonflower or The Power of the Bug by Ivor Drummond
Red Dragon * by Thomas Harris
The Seventh Sanctuary or Brotherhood of the Tomb by Daniel Easterman
The Eight by Katherine Neville
Embassy House by Nicholas Proffett
Imperial Agent by T. N. Murari
Sharpe’s Gold or Wildtrack by Bernard Cornwell
The Beasts of Valhalla by George Chesbro
Night Soldiers by Alan Furst
The Scorpion by Andrew Kaplan

   I’m sure someone will notice I did not choose a Fu Manchu novel for Sax Rohmer. Much as I like the Devil Doctor, I think the two I chose are among Rohmer’s best thrillers and better than any individual Fu Manchu titles. However if forced to pick a Fu Manchu I suspect The Masks of Fu Manchu and Daughter of Fu Manchu would be my choices.

   And just for arguments sake, here is a quick list of supernatural, lost world, and science fiction thrillers that only just miss the list:

Dracula * by Bram Stoker
The Beetle by Richard Marsh
The Mucker by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Marching Sands by Harold Lamb
The Flying Legion by George Allan England
Seven Footprints to Satan * and Creep Shadow * by A. Merritt
The Ghoul * by Frank King
The Aerodrome by Rex Warner
Ninth Life by Jack Mann
Undying Monster * by Jessie Douglas Keruish
The Ka of Gifford Hillary or The Star of Ill Omen by Dennis Wheatley
The Edge of Running Water * by William Sloane
Dark Freehold (aka The Uninvited) * by Dorothy MacArdle
Conjure Wife * by Fritz Leiber
Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson
Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell
Heroes Walk by Robert Crane
The Haunting of Hill House * by Shirley Jackson
Beyond Eden by David Duncan
The Main Experiment by Christopher Hodder-Williams
A is For Andromeda* or Andromeda Breakthrough* by Fred Hoyle and John Elliott
Fire Past the Future by Charles Eric Maine
The Man With Two Shadows by Roderick Macleish
The Other * by Tom Tryon
Salem’s Lot * by Stephen King
Lord of the Trees by Philip Jose Farmer
Neither the Sea Nor the Sand * by Gordon Honeycombe
Catholics * by Brian Moore
Somewhere in Time * or Hell House * by Richard Matheson
Running Wild by J. G. Ballard
The Further Adventures of Captain Gregory Dangerfield by Jeremy Lloyd
Runes by Christopher Fowler
Mutant 59 the Plastic Eaters * by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis
The Andromeda Strain * by Michael Crichton

   Finally, honorable mention who did not make the list with a single book, but who deserve credit: George Goodchild, Hugh Cleverly, Berkeley Gray, Edmund Snell, Captain A. O. Pollard, Gerard Fairlie, Ernest Dudley, L. F. Hay, Francis Gerard, Richie Perry, John Newton Chance, Francis Durbridge, William Diehl, William Martin, Phyllis Whitney, Kenneth Royce, George B. Mair, Achmed Abdullah, A. E. Apple, Walter Wager, William Stevenson, Eric Van Lustbader, David Morrell, R. Vernon Beste, Nicholas Luard, Norman Lewis, David Gurr, A.W. Mykel, Michael Malone, David Lindsey, Dan Simmons, Hans Helmut Kirst, Lindsay Hardy, Alan Dipper, Marvin Albert, Ken Crossen, and too many others to list.

   Plus as a small army of writers whose work has appeared since my cut off date of 1990, including James Rollins, Jack Du Brul, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Barry Eisler, Neal Stephenson, Matt Reilly, Anthony Horowitz, Boris Akunin, and many more.