Who is the most lethal character in the thriller genre right now?
Each year, we set out to answer that question, creating a new list based only on the books from that year.
So, no playing favorites or taking into account past action from previous books. If a character stopped a nuclear attack and smoked fifty bad guys in the process last year, but turned in a less impressive performance this time around, none of what happened before 2019 matters. This list focuses exclusively on the thriller genre’s most lethal heroes from last year, taking into account only the books that came out between January 1, 2019, and December 31st.
How do we rank ’em? Honestly, it’s a pretty grueling process that includes forming a list of about 50 characters, then sending them out to readers who were hand-picked to vote on who they thought were the baddest dudes in the game last year. With the list of characters under consideration, voters are asked a single question: Pretending you’re a bad guy, which of these characters (considering only what they did in 2019) in order from 1-10, would you most be afraid to have come after you?
There are some passionate debates, heated discussions, and even a few arguments from time to time, as voters work to determine which characters deserve to make the cut. Eventually, though, as the votes are tallied, the list begins to fall into the place until a leader finally emerges.
In past years, we did things a bit differently. For starters, over the past six years, the list has always come out in December. This year, we pushed it back so that readers had more time to finish fall and winter titles, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that that move had a major impact on this year’s Top Ten list. There were a couple of characters who, over the years, probably deserved to make the list and didn’t because their books came out too close to the voting period, not giving voters enough time to read them all. Of course, pushing the voting out presented new challenges too, as some voters had already read thrillers from this year, and with those events in mind, it was maybe a little harder to remember all the way back to last year.
Additionally, in the past, we always made it a point to include a few authors who didn’t have books come out that year, as well as a few people within the publishing industry, in the voting process. This year, we kept it to readers only, and in the end, I’m really pleased with how things turned out.
So, without further ado, here’s The Real Book Spy’s list of the top ten most lethal characters in the thriller genre right now . . .
10. Pierce Hunt
2018 Ranking: Didn’t place
The only character on this list who appeared in two books last year, 2019 turned out to be the year of Pierce Hunt and Simon Gervais—as the author launched his new series, hit the New York Times list, received rave reviews from everyone, including the AP, and cracked our Top 10 list all in the same calendar year.
A former Army Ranger, Pierce Hunt is no stranger to violence, something Gervais made clear right from the get-go, and over the course of two action-packed novels, we see over and over again just how capable Pierce is. From chasing down and going toe-to-toe with drug lords to eventually joining the CIA and again waging war with the Black Tosca cartels over a dangerous new drug spilling into the United States, Pierce is a one-man wrecking ball, plowing through bad guys while leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.
9. Logan West
2019 Book: Rules of War by Matthew Betley
2018 Ranking: Didn’t place
After a one year hiatus from our most lethal characters list, Betley’s Logan West is back on the Top 10, right where he belongs.
Logan West made the list his first two years out, but in 2018 he just missed after voters indicated that Logan’s BFFs John Quick and Cole Matthews stole too much of the action away from Betley’s protagonist. That, according to readers this time around, wasn’t an issue in Rules of War—a Dana Perino Book Club pick, and of the year’s most action-packed thrillers.
Known for his high-octane action, Betley has also demonstrated the ability to surprise readers with a number of emotionally-charged scenes in his last two books, creating a nice balance that makes for one heck of a reading experience.
8. Gabriel Allon
2019 Book: The New Girl by Daniel Silva
2018 Ranking: #9
Gabriel Allon, the wayward son of Israeli intelligence turned head of the Office, continues to show that he’s one of the most lethal characters in the thriller genre, regardless of age or his new position within the Mossad. An “operational chief,” Allon still gets into the field a bit here and there, but these days, he’s primarily running the operations and leaves the action to his operators. That said, where he remains incredibly dangerous is his ability to see the whole board and predict his enemy’s moves ahead of time. He knows everyone’s secrets, and if you’re on his radar for the wrong reasons, there’s nowhere you can go to hide from Gabriel Allon.
There is nobody he can’t get to.
Truth is, even if he isn’t always pulling the trigger himself anymore, Gabriel has the furthest reach of anyone else on this list—and that makes him an incredibly dangerous force.
7. John Dempsey
2019 Book: Red Specter by Andrews & Wilson
2018 Ranking: Didn’t place
It took longer than it should have, there’s no doubt about that, but John Dempsey has finally placed on the Top 10 list here, and he deserves it.
Here’s the thing, nobody has been hurt more by past voting rules than Dempsey. Until this year, the voting was always done in October or November, and the list was rolled out in December. The issue there is that Andrews and Wilson (the best co-author team in the business) typically release their new Dempsey books in the fall. So, that didn’t give readers much time to consider him.
However, since we changed things up for the 2019 list, with all voting happening after the year ended, readers have spoken, and Dempsey was rightfully voted in. Honestly, it’s a no-brainer because Dempsey, the top operator for Ember—an elite, off-the-books counterterrorism task force—is as lethal as they come.
6. Evan Smoak
2019 Book: Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz
2018 Ranking: #6
Evan Smoak—aka The Nowhere Man, aka Orphan X—might have been the hardest character to spot on this year’s list. Without giving away any spoilers, Evan had the most high-profile kill of the year, and it’s not close. But in the feedback I saw from voters, placement on this list is predicated on the overall volume of action scenes and the amount runnin’ and gunnin’ each character does.
Evan does have some great takedowns, and I love the way Hurwitz forecasted those sequences (which is very reminiscent of Robert Downey Junior’s version of Sherlock Holmes), but they’re also non-lethal on more than on occasion and, overall, Evan’s more of a scalpel here as opposed to a sledge hammer. It’s tough because I truly believe this will be the book Hurwitz is remembered for . . . and six does feel a bit low. Then again, it’s tough this year, as everyone seems to have come out swinging!
5. James Reece
2019 Book: True Believer by Jack Carr
2018 Ranking: #5
Last year, Jack Carr’s hero, James Reece, made a little bit of Book Spy history when he became the first new character to place inside the Top Five their first time out. But then, if you read Carr’s debut, The Terminal List, you already know why.
Now, two books in, Reece is still seating at number five on our list, and several voters did point to the book’s slower opening as one of the reasons. Here’s my take on that . . . following book one, and everything Reece went through, Carr rightfully gave his character time to catch his breath and that opening (no spoilers) was the best way to sort of soft-reboot the series. It’s also the calm before the storm because no matter what you think about how True Believer starts out, once Reece is approached by the CIA to hunt down a terrorist, things kick into overdrive, and it’s all nonstop action from there on out.
The real question now is, will Reece finally climb his way up in 2020? Savage Son, which just recently came out, is absolutely lights-out and my favorite of Carr’s three novels so far. Keep an eye on James next time around.
4. Courtland Gentry
2019 Book: Mission Critical by Mark Greaney
2018 Ranking: #2
This is the first spot that indicates just how tough this list really is. Personally, if I had to meet one of the characters on this list in a darkened alleyway, I think I might be afraid of the one they call the Gray Man more than anybody else. I mean, the guy’s callsign is Violator, after all, and Gentry is by far one of the coldest killers in the game today. For my money, I’d honestly spot him at one or two, but listening to voters, I think Court was really just a victim of some other characters doing some crazy stuff this time around that helped boost their stock a bit.
For what it’s worth, only the top four characters received any first-place votes, including Court, who is gunning to reclaim his title with One Minute Out, which came out earlier this year and rocketed to the very top of the New York Times bestsellers list. Mark Greaney is as good as anyone in the game today, so the other three characters above Gentry on this list better watch their back for next year.
3. Pike Logan
2019 Book: Daughter of War by Brad Taylor
2018 Ranking: #5
Pike Logan finally cracks the Top Three on this list, and honestly, it’s been a long time coming. One of the best characters in the genre right now, Pike’s capable of dishing out a major ass-kicking to whatever bad guy needs it most, and in Taylor’s Daughter of War, we see him serve up plenty of hard-hitting action sequences. Interestingly enough, this was the first year Pike received a couple of first-place votes (2) among voters, which might signal a #1 spot in his future . . . and if you’ve already read Hunter Killer, Taylor’s latest thriller that came out earlier this year, well, then you already know he’s definitely the 2020 front runner at this point.
2. Mitch Rapp
2019 Book: Lethal Agent by Kyle Mills
2018 Ranking: #1
Rapp, our most lethal character of 2018, nearly repeated this year but lost his title to another character who stacked bodies a bit more than even Mitch did in 2019. More on that below . . .
For Rapp, 2019 brought on all kinds of new challenges—most notably, the first biothreat of his career. Kyle Mills continues to use Rapp’s physicality brilliantly, and at times, he’s downright savage in this book. (I mean, *SPOILER* he actually uses fragments of a human bone to pick a lock at one point!) So, yeah, Mitch isn’t slipping by any means, which is good, because, with the way the world currently is, we sure could use him around for years to come—and with Kyle Mills at the helm, I’d expect to see Rapp back in the top spot sooner rather than later.
1. Scot Harvath
2019 Book: Backlash by Brad Thor
2018 Ranking: #3
It’s a clean sweep for Brad Thor and Scot Harvath on The Real Book Spy this year. Not only was Backlash my pick for best book of the year, but Harvath has now been crowned the most lethal character in the genre for the first time in the six years we’ve been doing this.
Previously, he reached as high as number two on the list. Last year, he came in at number three, and the consensus among voters was that while Spymaster was awesome, Harvath’s team came on strong, thus taking away from Scot’s body count. One of our voters even noted that near the end of that book, Harvath was in position for a major takedown, but was passed by his team—which to them suggested that Scot was slipping a bit as he enters his late 40s.
Well, turns out, that couldn’t be further from the truth, because when you put a seriously pissed off Harvath in the middle of the Russian wilderness during a blizzard with nothing but anger and hate to keep him going, he’s still as lethal as they come—and you can practically hear Drowning Pool’s Let the Bodies Hit the Floor playing in the background throughout this one.
Botton line: Harvath is still an apex predator . . . and he is not someone you want to mess with.
Once again, I’m really happy with how this year’s list turned out, and appreciate the voters who took the time to correspond with me and weigh in with their insight and thoughts. Whereas I totally agreed with Courtland Gentry and Mitch Rapp coming in at number one in 2017 and 2018 respectively, I too strongly felt that in 2019, Scot Harvath was the most lethal character in the game— and for a number of reasons.
For starters, the guy was stranded in the middle of nowhere Russia during frigid temperatures, and he was still completely unstoppable. Fueled by rage, Harvath battled the elements and his enemies in search of the men who killed his family and loved ones. His thirst for revenge fueled the plot, and really, it was just a matter of time until Norseman dished out some payback.
In a lot of ways, all of Brad Thor’s previous books have slowly prepared Harvath for what would end up being the fight of his life in Backlash. And it is such a treat to watch him call on every ounce of experience and skill he’s assembled and finetuned over the course of 18 previous books to pull off the events of Backlash, one of the few books I’ve ever scored a perfect 10/10.
As for who didn’t make the list this year, Ben Coes’ Dewey Andreas was noticeably absent, but for good reason—he hasn’t released a new Dewey Book since 2018’s Bloody Sunday. Likewise, both Tom Wood’s Victor the Assassin and Ted Bell’s Alex Hawke, two Top Ten regulars, both sat out 2019 as well, disqualifying them from this list. That said, Bell is back with a new book this summer called Dragonfire, so expect to see Lord Hawke reclaim his spot in 2020.
Other characters under consideration were: Jack Reacher, Vick “The Reaper” Harwood, Nate Romanowski, Cotton Malone, Marcus Ryker, Rob Tacoma, Peter Ash, Jonathan Grave, Zac Miller, David Slaton, John Rain, Bob “the Nailer” Swagger, and more.
Last year we released our first Top 15 Lethal Ladies list, and that too will return in 2020. In fact, keep an eye out for that sometime this summer!
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.