When you hear the term “top thriller novel,” what do you think of?
Gillian Flynn’s twisty, turny, psychological thriller GONE GIRL? Michael Crichton’s jaw-dropping techno-thriller JURASSIC PARK? The labyrinthine maze of Dan Brown’s THE DA VINCI CODE? Or maybe a skin-crawling serial killer encounter like Thomas Harris’ THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?
These are all great thriller novels. They’re all brilliant, fast-paced page-turners. E-ticket rides through the Dark Side. They make the heart zipline and ice-critters race up the spine. They’re hard to put down, and impossible to forget.
That’s what they have in common. But they don’t all fit neatly into the same box.
In fact, truth be told, the thriller novel category or “genre” contains a wide spectrum of sub-genres. Everything from psychological thrillers to serial killer thrillers, and a whole lotta stuff in between.
So how about we whip out our knife, slice the genre up and see what’s inside?
Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL falls into this category. So does Paula Hawkins’ THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. Also THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 by Ruth Ware, BEHIND CLOSED DOORS by B. A. Paris, and a slew of others.
While these novels usually contain a fair amount of graphic content, the focus is primarily on the psychological aspects of the story. Lies and betrayal. Amnesia or false memories. Sociopathic manipulation. Perfect husbands or wives who are not who they appear to be. Common elements are alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual abuse, infidelity, and murder.
John Grisham’s books fall into this category, as do John Lescroart’s and some of Michael Connelly’s. Novels in this category are often written in a series, with Grisham who usually writes stand-alones being the notable exception.
The protagonists are often attorneys, and storylines center around legal issues, litigation, law firms, and cases (criminal or civil) being played out in the courtroom. Villains can range from mobsters, criminals and other shady characters to normally upstanding citizens including police, corporate CEO’s, or even priests.
Some legal thrillers are quite graphic, offering details of murder scenes for example, while others tend to leave those types of details out and focus more on legal issues and procedures.
Corporate thrillers take place in the business world and usually feature workers and their colleagues, corporate executives, clients, and shareholders. The protagonist is often a rising young star in a company who is forced to deal with secrets, lies, powerplays, and sometimes an idealized work environment that turns out to be too good to be true.
Wrongdoings range from financial shenanigans and other white collar crimes to cold-blooded or hot-blooded murder. Joseph Finder is a master of this sub-genre.
This sub-genre covers a wide array of subjects and story possibilities, but what they have in common is a reliance on technology.
A scientist’s ability to clone dinosaurs from prehistoric DNA trapped in amber results in a futuristic theme park that turns deadly in Michael Crichton’s JURASSIC PARK. And in his scary techno-thriller WESTWORLD, advanced animatronics technology enables the creation of amazingly lifelike gunslingers in another theme park where things go hopelessly awry.
Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series, revolving around the exploits of cyber-hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander, also falls within this sub-genre, although arguably it can be placed in other thriller sub-genres as well due to its complexity.
John Sandford’s KIDD series, featuring con artist and computer whiz Kidd, is also a standout here.
So for this category, basically think technological breakthroughs run amok or shady dealings in a technological world like cyber-space.
These usually involve high-stakes games played in the corridors of power in Washington, DC. Political struggles, abuse of power, cover-ups, conspiracies, assassinations, and indiscretions by men in power abound.
Senators and other political figures, including the President, may play major roles in the plot. The protagonist usually is someone who has access to the hallowed halls, but is in some sense an outsider – as for example, disgraced former Secret Service Agents Sean King and Michelle Maxwell in David Baldacci’s acclaimed King & Maxwell series.
There is some overlap between this sub-genre and the Spy Thriller sub-genre, but political thrillers tend to take place on the domestic stage rather than an international one.
These thriller novels involve… well, crimes obviously, usually murder. They tend to be gritty and gory and gruesome. Murderous acts are described in graphic detail. Crime scenes are described in graphic detail. Autopsies are described in graphic detail. Well, you get the picture. The protagonists are often down-to-earth, world-weary, seen-too-much types. Usually they’re police detectives (active or retired), private investigators, FBI agents, or forensics experts. Books tend to be written as part of an ongoing series, rather than standalones.
Still, there’s a wide variety of offerings within this sub-genre. Just a few examples…
James Lee Burke’s alluring Dave Robicheaux series, which takes place mostly in the towns, steamy swamps and backwoods of Lousiana, is so delightfully atmospheric that the settings function like well-loved characters themselves.
Michael Connelly’s gritty, character-driven thriller series featuring LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch (who at one point turns in his badge) has a big-city electric charm that can’t be denied.
And Patricia Cornwell’s well-devoured Kay Scarpetta series features a self-assured Chief Medical Examiner who’s never shy about revealing the nittiest-grittiest forensics details, which are of course quite fascinating.
Crime thrillers are not for the faint of heart, but appear to be highly popular guilty pleasures for many.
These thrillers usually feature macho loner-type guys who shoot their guns a lot. The guys tend to be extremely physically fit, stoic, self-assured… and emotionally wounded. They’re usually in law enforcement or the military, or retired from those pursuits, and they can take a bullet or two without even blinking. And there’s something offbeat but noble about ’em, like tarnished knights.
Lee Child’s wildly popular Jack Reacher series falls into this category. As does David Baldacci’s excellent series featuring government-sanctioned hitman Will Robie and his hitwoman partner Jessica Reel (who is muy macha herself!).
Spy Thrillers usually take place on an international stage, and feature spies actively involved in espionage who are often trained assassins as well. The plots are complex and well researched, and usually revolve around current political and world issues or events.
Typically these thrillers are riddled with intrigue, betrayal, deception, expert cat-and-mouse games, and double agents, and often contain an element of romance. Usually they involve some globe-hopping, and feature a large cast of characters that in addition to spies may include U.S. political figures, foreign dignitaries and diplomats, terrorists, etc. Plots often revolve around weapons of mass destruction, terrorist plots, assassinations, or the theft of state secrets.
Frederick Forsyth’s unputdownable THE DAY OF THE JACKAL was a trailblazer in this sub-genre. And John Le Carré’s THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and his other novels are not to be missed. Other standouts include spy thrillers by Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum, and Daniel Silva.
Medical Thrillers may take place in hospitals, laboratories or other medical facilities, or out in the wide, wide world. The main characters are typically doctors, nurses, patients, medical students, scientists, or officials from such agencies as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Plots may revolve around Angels of Death, viral outbreaks or plagues, strange diseases, grievous medical error or malpractice, lethal parasites, deadly poisons, mysterious comas, illegal organ harvesting, dangerous medications, surgeries gone awry, or a host of other medical-related subjects.
The standout author in this sub-genre is Robin Cook, who wrote COMA and OUTBREAK and a slew of others.
These thrillers take place on a massive scale and revolve around disasters such as major earthquakes, volcano eruptions, raging fires, floods, asteroid strikes, etc. with widespread wipeout potential for a large population or for the entire world.
The main protagonist trying to thwart the disaster may be an expert in a related field, or an ordinary Joe or Jill average citizen. Usually they partner up with someone or gather a team to save their community or save the world.
Arthur Hailey’s AIRPORT is an edge-of-your seat example of this sub-genre, when a blizzard wreaks havoc at an airport, endangering thousands of lives. And Michael Crichton’s STATE OF FEAR is another, when an attorney races to avert a global environmental catastrophe.
These are exactly what they sound like, thriller novels about serial killers. The person hunting them down is typically an FBI agent, police detective, or other member of law enforcement and may have a partner or be part of a team.
These thrillers are characterized by offbeat villains, high body counts, and unusual methods of killing and/or displaying victims. Murders, crime scenes, and autopsies are all described in gory, graphic detail.
These novels are occasionally standalone, but usually part of a series. One of the best novels ever written in this sub-genre is of course Thomas Harris’ THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, featuring imprisoned serial killer Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter and rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling. His prequel RED DRAGON and sequels HANNIBAL and HANNIBAL RISING are also quite compelling.
Last, but not least, there are a number of outstanding, highly original thriller novels that simply can’t be shoehorned into any sub-genre, that I call “Wild Card Thrillers.”
One standout in this category is C. J. Box’s part-thriller/part-western series featuring game warden Joe Pickett, which compulsively unfolds in the wilds of Wyoming.
Others are the incomparable thriller novels of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, which combine breathtaking suspense with history, science, archaeology, anthropology, sci fi, and more. I highly recommend both their fabled co-authored Agent Pendergast series, as well as solo efforts by Preston (BLASPHEMY, IMPACT, THE CODEX, etc.) and by Child (THE THIRD GATE, LETHAL VELOCITY, DEATH MATCH, and others).
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I hope you enjoyed this little romp through the Thriller genre and these 11 ways to slice it up!
Can you think of other thriller novel sub-genres that aren’t covered here? Do you have any questions or comments? Feel free to post your thoughts below!
Hey, check out my psychological thriller novel, THE SUMMER OF MY ENLIGHTENMENT…