What a year it’s been for action-packed, high-flying thrillers. Thankfully, 2020 is gearing up to be another special year for readers, but before we officially turn the page and focus on the new year, here’s one last look at the very best this year had to offer. (Click on the book’s title for more info!)
Best Book of 2019
Readers were spoiled with numerous worthy contenders for Best Book of 2019, but at the end of the day, one title stood above the rest—and that’s Brad Thor’s phenomenal new thriller, Backlash.
When my review first ran back in June, I gave Thor’s most recent book a 9.95/10, before quickly updating that score to a 10/10, which it more than deserves and should have been from the beginning. It’s the first and only time I’ve ever adjusted a book’s score after the review posted. So, why’d I do it? Well, Thor’s book stuck with me long after turning the final page—and the more I thought about it, the more I realized how special Backlash is. Whereas most writers flame out or run out of magic around the 10-book mark, this is Thor’s 19th Scot Harvath novel, and when you look back on the series it becomes clear . . . this is his best book to date.
Think about rare that is, and Backlash becomes even more impressive, especially when you consider how strong Thor’s backlist is. But even on its own, Backlash—which is equal parts a survival story and a quest for revenge after Harvath finds himself stranded in the Russian wilderness during a blizzard, with no backup and nothing to keep him going but the anger burning deep inside—is special. As the year went on, it became the title I weighed all other books against, and the more I compared Backlash to the competition, the clearer it became that nobody was going to touch Brad Thor, or Scot Harvath, in 2019.
Backlash is my easy pick for the best book of 2019, but beyond that, it’s one of the best thrillers of the last two decades. Whatever you do, do not miss this book.
The rest of the Top 5 (in no particular order): The New Girl by Daniel Silva, Someone Knows by Lisa Scottoline, Lethal Agent by Kyle Mills, The Border by Don Winslow
Top 5 Action Thrillers
From dive-for-cover authenticity to jaw-dropping sequences that’ll leave you breathless, these five titles brought the action and then some in 2019.
Backlash by Brad Thor: As covered above, our pick for best book of 2019 stands above all other thrillers this year—period.
Lethal Agent by Kyle Mills: Since taking over the Mitch Rapp series, Mills has done an incredible job preserving Vince Flynn’s legacy and has even found ways to take this franchise to new heights. Taking the series back to its roots, Mills’ latest reads like a Flynn throwback—and it really works.
Daughter of War by Brad Taylor: Taylor has walked the walk for real, and that authenticity bleeds through each and every page. He’s also been incorporating kickass women into his series longer than just about anyone, a trend that continues in this one.
True Believer by Jack Carr: The closest thing to the second coming of Vince Flynn, Carr puts on a show with his second novel—proving he’s more than a one-hit-wonder after turning in the best debut of 2018 with The Terminal List.
Mission Critical by Mark Greaney: Nobody has come on stronger the last few years than Greaney, who continues to impress with another smart, action-packed story featuring the genre’s fastest-rising hero, the Gray Man.
Top 5 Political Thrillers
Smart and timely with heart-pounding action and ripped-from-the-headlines storylines, these five political thrillers struck gold in 2019.
Rules of War by Matthew Betley: One of the premier writers in the thriller genre today, Betley has never received the credit he deserves. His dialogue is second to none, and his action sequences remain among the best, while his recent infusion of emotionally impactful moments proves he can do it all.
The Night Agent by Matthew Quirk: Quirk’s latest is a stunner, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Almost eerily relevant, this one explores D.C. corruption of the highest order and has some really great twists along the way.
The Persian Gamble by Joel C. Rosenberg: Known for writing plots that have a tendency to one day come true, Rosenberg’s right on the money again with this one. Not only is it ripped-from-the-headlines, but it’s also wildly entertaining and a ton of fun to read.
Tom Clancy Code of Honor by Marc Cameron: Cameron has been a godsend to this franchise, which easily could have fallen off after Mark Greaney exited a few years back. Instead, Cameron came on board and immediately showed readers what he can do. Honestly, Jack Ryan has never been better—and with Cameron at the helm, the future remains bright for America’s favorite president.
The Russian by Ben Coes: Dewey who? Just kidding, Dewey Andreas is a stud, and he’ll be back in 2020. But pivoting to Rob Tacoma, Coes proved he has two thoroughbreds at his disposal, and he’s not afraid to trot either one out before readers. Darker and grittier than anything he’s written before, The Russian reads like a cross between John Wick and The Equalizer.
Top 5 Spy Thrillers
Spine-tingling suspense mixed with relevant plotlines and plenty of action sprinkled in for good measure, these five spy thrillers blew the rest of the competition away in 2019.
The New Girl by Daniel Silva: Silva, the master of the modern spy thriller, does it again—delivering the best espionage novel of the year, beating out a deep roster of notable titles. Gabriel Allon might be getting up there a bit, but Silva has shown zero signs of slowing down anytime soon. To read his stuff is to witness a master at work, and The New Girl is some of his finest writing yet.
The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon: Complex, rich with characters, and brimming with suspense, Kanon’s latest is a sure-fire pick for this list, and a must-read for all fans of espionage.
The Eighth Sister by Robert Dugoni: While he’s shown he can write anything and everything over the last few years—from legal thrillers to mystery and crime—Dugoni’s The Eighth Sister proves that espionage is right in his wheelhouse too, and this book is insanely awesome. Once you start, good luck putting it down.
Under Occupation by Alan Furst: He’s been at it a long while now, but Furst shows he’s still got it here, while reminding readers why he’s one of the best spy novelists of his time.
Agent Running in the Field by John le Carre: Honestly, it’s not up to the standard we’re used to seeing from le Carre, but even so, Agent Running in the Field is easily among the top spy thrillers of the year—which proves that even on his worst day, the famed novelist is still better than just about everyone else.
5 Best Military Thrillers
Like a flashbang grenade, these military thrillers are loud, strike without warning, and will leave you not knowing up from down. Strap in tight, because these five titles all brought the heat in a big way.
Red Metal by Mark Greaney & Lt Col Hunter “Rip” Rawlings IV: Greaney and Rawlings brought their A-game, and a whole lot of wargaming too, delivering this generation’s Red Storm Rising.
Red Specter by Andrews & Wilson: It’s shadow organization vs. shadow organization in the latest high-octane thriller from Andrews & Wilson, where two clandestine programs go to war in the shadows with everything on the line. This book is so good, it’s almost criminal that it doesn’t get more attention.
Treason by Rick Campbell: When it comes to technothrillers, Campbell reigns supreme, writing in the same vein as Clancy and Larry Bond to take readers beneath the waters and behind the scenes of a global world war that threatens America like never before.
All Out War by Sean Parnell: Parnell, author of the mega-bestselling nonfiction book Outlaw Platoon, knows action—and his latest has plenty of it. Parnell is currently running for congress in the great state of Pennsylvania, and it’s unclear what’ll happen to his series moving forward if he wins, but what is certain is that this book is straight fire.
Reaper: Threat Zero by Nicholas Irving and Anthony J. Tata: Two guys who know what it means to be a solider churn out another winner following one of the genre’s best new heroes. When that hero, Vick Harwood, begins to question orders handed down from POTUS, it creates all kinds of tension that Irving and Tata explore brilliantly. And the action is first-rate, as you’d expect.
Top 10 Mystery & Crime Thrillers
This year, we’re combining the mystery and crime books together to create the only Top 10 on this year’s list. From powerful whodunits to nail-biting crime, these ten books stand out above the rest.
Wolf Pack by C.J. Box: Another real contender for best book of 2019, Box’s latest Joe Pickett novel is one of his fastest, most unrelenting books so far—and features a high-concept plot that raises the stakes unlike anything the Wyoming game warden has faced before. For my money, this is the best franchise in print today, regardless of genre.
Someone Knows by Lisa Scottoline: One group of teens. One deadly secret. Now, two decades later, those secrets are threatening to spill out, and Scottoline captures all the tension, drama, and raw emotion perfectly, creating one of the best reading experiences of the year. Lisa Scottoline is a literary rockstar, and her reign as the queen of suspense continues in 2020.
Twisted Twenty-Six by Janet Evanovich: All she does is crank out #1 New York Times bestsellers year after year, and with no signs of her (or Stephanie Plum) slowing down for the foreseeable future, Janet Evanovich remains one of the biggest draws in publishing. And her latest is just the kind of wild, suspenseful, laugh-out-loud fun her readers have come to expect.
The Border by Don Winslow: Honestly, this one should probably be 1B to Thor’s 1A for best book of the year, as it brings Winslow’s iconic Cartel trilogy to a close. One of the most anticipated books of the decade, even the unprecedented hype didn’t do it justice, as The Border goes down as one of the best books in the best trilogy ever written. I gave it a perfect 10/10, and simply cannot rave about it enough.
The Night Fire by Michael Connelly: One of the genre’s most trusted authors, Connelly continues to deliver for his fans—and with Bosch now up there in age, the bestselling author continues to build a younger, well-developed cast of characters around him. Harry is still the star, but his new partner, Renee Ballard, is fast becoming the reason to buy these books the second they hit store shelves . . . and The Night Fire is as compelling as anything he’s ever written.
Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz: Hurwitz, the super talented writer behind a number of hits, has never been better than his last Orphan X book, Out of the Dark. I said it in my review on TRBS and in my CrimeReads column earlier in the year, and I’ll say it again—this is the book that Gregg Hurwitz will be remembered for.
Tear it Down by Nick Petrie: There is a whole lot of writers out there hoping they might be coined the next Lee Child, but only Petrie is actually deserving of such praise. If you fancy Jack Reacher and haven’t met Peter Ash, Petrie’s tough-guy nomad, it’s about time to pick up one of his books and see what you’re missing out on.
The Chain by Adrian McKinty: This one is dominating people’s “Best of” lists, and for good reason. McKinty’s chilling new thriller will test every parent who’s ever said “I would do anything for my children,” in ways mom and dad never could have imagined. Trust me, it’s a game-changer that’s not to be missed.
Miami Midnight by Alex Segura: The final book in his Peter Fernandez series is everything you could want and then some. And while it’s hard to see this franchise go, Segura goes out with a bang.
The Warehouse by Rob Hart: Another title that’s going to earn its fair share of awards as the year winds down, Hart’s latest thriller is a must-read for anyone who claims to be a fan of the genre. Painting a chilling picture of what happens when Big Brother meets Big Business, The Warehouse chronicles what the world we’re currently building might one day look like if we aren’t careful.
Top 5 Suspense Thrillers
Stop and take note—if you’re looking for unputdownable suspense, these five titles brought the psychological thrills unlike anything else in bookstores this year.
The First Mistake by Sandie Jones: Move over Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins, because Sandie Jones is the genre’s next star. After releasing her bestselling debut, The Other Woman, last year, Jones follows it up with another nail-biter that packs a wicked-good twist.
Girls Like Us by Christina Alger: She struck gold with last year’s The Banker’s Wife, then turned in another near-perfect ride of nonstop suspense this year. Good luck trying to predict how this one ends.
Run Away by Harlan Coben: Coben is so good at presenting readers with relatable characters and storylines—like a father desperate to re-connect with his estranged, drug-abusing daughter—and wrapping them in bigger, mind-bending conspiracies. Several well-timed twists make this one even better, and an easy pick to make this list.
The Better Sister by Alafair Burke: It turns out that when two estranged sisters are forced to work together to protect a child they believe to be innocent, readers are real winners—because Burke dials up another page-turner that packs a mean punch.
Outfox by Sandra Brown: If you liked the Will Smith movie Focus or the Nicolas Cage-starring Matchstick Men, then this one’s for you. Brown, a sure bet each and every time out, has outdone herself here, treating fans to a fast-paced, twisting thriller that begs to read in a single sitting.
Top 5 Historical Fiction Thrillers
From high-powered action to mind-bending mysteries and creepy conspiracies, step back in time with these perfectly-crafted historical fiction thrillers.
Metropolis by Philip Kerr: Kerr’s final Bernie Gunther book, which is actually a prequel of sorts, is but one more reminder of just how talented he was and how much he’ll be missed.
One Good Deed by David Baldacci: Is there anything Baldacci can’t write? The answer to that is no, by the way, and he proved it once again when he decided to take a break from his umpteen other bestselling series to launch a new one set in the late 1940s.
The Second Sleep by Robert Harris: The tagline for this one should read, “expect the unexpected,” because within the first 55 pages, Harris pulls the rug out from readers in a major way. Without spoiling it, it’s the single best twist of the year—and takes everything you thought you were getting with this book and throws it straight out the window. Trust me, it’s a jaw-dropper.
The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry: To tell his latest thriller, Berry revisits the past to set the table for the Knights of Malta, a legendary secret society that plays a major role when Cotton Malone is in Italy searching for letters between Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini and ends up finding more than he bargained for.
The Fifth Column by Andrew Gross: Since switching genres a few years back, Gross has turned in one hit after another, a streak that continues with The Fifth Column, which might just be his best book yet not named The One Man. If there was any doubt about him being one of the best historical fiction novelists in the game today coming into 2019, there’s no question heading into 2020. Andrew Gross is the real deal, and this one’s as good as it gets.
Praised as “One of the hardest working, most thoughtful, and fairest reviewers out there” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline, Ryan Steck has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.