Review Roundup: Best Thrillers of January and February 2021

Happy New Year, everyone! (I’m late, I know.) If you follow me on Twitter, then you likely know that I was sick for most of December and took time away to get better. Though it took a lot longer to get back into my office than I would have liked, I was able to read a bunch of great books, so fear not, a ton of new content is coming to The Real Book Spy very soon—including our full 2021 Read Guide, among other things.

To get caught up, though, I’m trying something new. Instead of featuring individual reviews, I’ve compiled shorter, quick reviews of everything I read that came out in January and so far this month. I’ll be back to my regular review schedule next week, and you’ll see all kinds of featured content too, so check back soon.

Happy reading!

(*For more info, or to purchase any of the thrillers below, please click the book’s title.)


American Traitor by Brad Taylor (Featured Review)

Pike Logan is on the desperate hunt for a man who is about to betray his country—and ignite a horrific new world war—in this pulse-pounding thriller from New York Times bestselling author and former special forces officer Brad Taylor

Pike Logan and Jennifer Cahill are enjoying a sunny vacation down under when they get disturbing news: their friend and colleague Clifford Delmonty is in serious trouble. While working as a contractor at an Australian F-35 facility, the former Taskforce member—callsign Dunkin—saw something he shouldn’t have, and now he’s on the run from Chinese agents.

Pike and Jennifer soon discover that Dunkin’s attackers are a dangerous link to a much larger scheme that could launch a full-on conflict between China and Taiwan. In its quest for dominance, China is determined to reclaim Taiwan—a pivotal ally the United States has sworn to protect. Pike learns that the Chinese have a devious plan to bait the island nation into all-out war by destabilizing the government and manipulating an artificial intelligence defense system.

As the threat reaches a boiling point, Pike alone realizes that what they’re seeing isn’t actually real. A soldier who has always been trained to fight and win, Pike must now track down and neutralize the missing man who holds the key. With the help of Jennifer, the Taskforce team, and a brave Taiwanese intelligence agent, he races to prevent a catastrophic conflict from consuming a whole region of the world.

TRBS rating: 9.5/10

This one’s at the top of my list for a reason . . . Brad Taylor continues to absolutely slay the competition by delivering his most unputdownable book yet. There’s no question that when it comes to military thrillers, Taylor remains the king of the genre. Action aside, Taylor also continues to develop his cast of characters (which goes far beyond just his series protagionist, Pike Logan) masterfully. Without giving anything away, there’s a nice, subtle shift in Pike, who finds himself becoming more the family man with each passing book. That said, Pike ain’t hanging up his door-kicking shoes anytime soon, and in American Traitor, Taylor continues to show why his hero is poised to one day be remembered among the all-time greats.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz (Featured Review)

Forced into retirement, Evan Smoak gets an urgent request for help from someone he didn’t even suspect existed―in Prodigal Son, the next New York Times bestselling Orphan X book from Gregg Hurwitz.

As a boy, Evan Smoak was pulled out of a foster home and trained in an off-the-books operation known as the Orphan Program. He was a government assassin, perhaps the best, known to a few insiders as Orphan X. He eventually broke with the Program and adopted a new nameThe Nowhere Man―and a new mission, helping the most desperate in their times of trouble. But the highest power in the country has made him a tempting offer―in exchange for an unofficial pardon, he must stop his clandestine activities as The Nowhere Man. Now Evan has to do the one thing he’s least equipped to do―live a normal life.

But then he gets a call for help from the one person he never expected. A woman claiming to have given him up for adoption, a woman he never knew―his mother. Her unlikely request: help Andrew Duran―a man whose life has gone off the rails, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, bringing him to the deadly attention of very powerful figures. Now a brutal brother & sister assassination team are after him and with no one to turn to, and no safe place to hide, Evan is Duran’s only option. But when the hidden cabal catches on to what Evan is doing, everything he’s fought for is on the line―including his own life.

TRBS rating: 9.5/10

One of the stupidest things I’ve ever said was that Gregg Hurwitz would never be able to top himself. I spoke that nonsense a few years ago after the release of Out of the Dark, Book four in Hurwitz’s must-read series, and it’s almost as if the author took things personally because all he’s done since then is continue to deliver jaw-dropping adventures that prove how incredibly wrong I was. I’m not about to say Hurwitz will never top this one, but seriously, this is some of his finest work yet—and maybe not for the reasons you’d expect. Sure, there’s plenty of action (a trademark of the Orphan X books), but to go along with that Hurwitz serves up a heaping side of character development. Evan Smoak’s personal growth is key to this series, so being forced to quit his day (night?) job as a hard-hitting vigilante known only as the Nowhere Man, causes somewhat of an identity crisis for the former government operative. That is until his roam zone rings one more time, and the person on the other end claims to be the one person Evan has searched for his whole entire life . . .

With Prodigal Son, Hurwitz proves once more that he’s one of the most gifted authors working in the genre today. If you’re not reading this series, don’t wait a second longer.

Before She Disappeared by Lisa Gardner

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Gardner, a propulsive thriller featuring an ordinary woman who will stop at nothing to find the missing people that the rest of the world has forgotten

Frankie Elkin is an average middle-aged woman, a recovering alcoholic with more regrets than belongings. But she spends her life doing what no one else will–searching for missing people the world has stopped looking for. When the police have given up, when the public no longer remembers, when the media has never paid attention, Frankie starts looking.

A new case brings her to Mattapan, a Boston neighborhood with a rough reputation. She is searching for Angelique Badeau, a Haitian teenager who vanished from her high school months earlier. Resistance from the Boston PD and the victim’s wary family tells Frankie she’s on her own–and she soon learns she’s asking questions someone doesn’t want answered. But Frankie will stop at nothing to discover the truth, even if it means the next person to go missing could be her.

TRBS rating: 8.5/10

Gardner, a prolific writer, takes her game to a new level with this brilliant standalone. Honestly, a big fan of her D.D. Warren books, I thought I would miss those characters when I first learned that this one would stand on its own. But after a few pages, I never gave it another thought. This twisting plot will keep you up way past your bedtime—you know, assuming you still have one after a long year of COVID. In any event, strap in tight, because once Gardner has you, she doesn’t let go.

The Breaker by Nick Petrie

Peter Ash tangles with dangerous enemies and terrifying technology in the newest thriller from bestselling author Nick Petrie.

A man wanted by two governments, Peter Ash has found a simple, low-profile life in Milwaukee, living with his girlfriend June and renovating old buildings with his friend Lewis. Staying out of trouble is the key to preserving this fragile peace . . . but when Peter spots a suspicious armed man walking into a crowded market, he knows he can’t stand by and do nothing.

Peter does interrupt a crime, but it wasn’t at all what he’d expected. The young gunman appeared to have one target and one mission–but when he escapes, and his victim vanishes before police arrive, it seems there is more to the encounter than meets the eye. Peter’s hunch is proven correct when a powerful associate from his past appears with an interest in the crime, and an irresistible offer: if he and June solve this mystery, Peter’s record will be scrubbed clean.

While Peter and Lewis trace the gunman, reporter June digs into the victim of the incident, a man whose face rings a bell in her memory. As their parallel investigations draw together, they’re thrust into the path of a ruthless tech thief, an eerily cheerful assassin, a brilliant and troubled inventor, and a revolutionary technology that could wreak devastation in the wrong hands. But for Peter, even more is at stake: this investigation is his only path to a life free from the threat of prosecution or prison. Before the end, he’ll have to fight harder than ever before to ensure that freedom doesn’t come at too high a cost. . . .

TRBS rating: 9.0/10

One of my favorite writers on the thriller scene today, I always like to say that Petrie’s Peter Ash is the only character truly deserving of being compared to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. I stand by that, but this year, I’ll take it a step further. While Child’s books rely, to some degree, on a formulaic approach (Reacher takes a bus to a new city, instantly meets bad guys, defeats them all in a one-on-four fight, discovers a conspiracy, then exposes it and saves the day), Petrie continues to carve out his own fresh niche within the genre. I absolutely love his stuff, and The Breaker might just be his best work to date.

Savage Road by Chris Hauty

Hayley Chill descends even deeper into the dangerous political web of Washington, DC, in this thrilling sequel to the “propulsive, page-turning, compelling” (C.J. Box, #1 New York Times bestselling author) national bestseller Deep State.

When a series of devastating cyber-attacks rock the United States, Hayley Chill is tasked by the “deeper state” to track down their source. NSA analysts insist that Moscow is the culprit, but that accusation brings plenty of complications with Hayley directing the president as a double agent against the Russians. With increasing pressure on the president to steer him towards a devastating war, it’s up to Hayley to stop the mysterious computer hacker and prevent World War III—while also uncovering some shocking truths about her own life.

Magnificently crafted and superbly unpredictable, Savage Road is an edge-of-your-seat political thriller ideal for our times.

TRBS rating: 8.5/10

Last year, Hauty delivered the twist of the year in Deep State. Now, in his latest Haley Chill thriller, the veteran screenwriter turned novelist outdoes himself by introducing readers to the deeper state, as Chill takes on her toughest mission yet. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let me just say this: Hauty nails another huge twist that’ll forever make me paranoid when reading his future books. Just when you think you have it all figured out and know where he’s going, he yanks the rug out. Again. If you’re looking for a fast-paced read, here it is.

Tropic of Stupid by Tim Dorsey

Serge A. Storms embarks on a tour to meet his long-lost relatives in this latest madcap entry in the bestselling series from Florida’s “compulsively irreverent and shockingly funny” (Boston Globe) Tim Dorsey.

Devoted Floridaphile Serge Storms is a lover of history, so he’s decided to investigate his own using one of those DNA services from late-night TV. Excited to construct a family tree, he and Coleman hit the road to meet his kin. Along the way, he plans to introduce Coleman to the Sunshine State’s beautiful parks where he can brush up on his flora, fauna, and wildlife, and more importantly, collect the missing stamps for his park passport book.

But as the old saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far . . .  Serge is thrilled to discover he may be related to a notorious serial killer who’s terrorized the state for twenty years and never been caught. Which one of his newfound relatives will be the one to help him hunt down this deranged maniac? Serge doesn’t know that a dogged investigator from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is also hot on the trail.

Then Serge meets a park ranger who’s also longing to make a family re-connection. But all is not as it appears on the surface, and Serge’s newfound friendship in the mysterious swamps of Florida may lead to deadly results.

Finding his own relatives has made Serge understand the importance of family. Of course he’ll do anything to help . . .

TRBS rating: 5.5/10

I’ve long enjoyed Dorsey’s Serge Storms character, but I have to admit, this one just didn’t do it for me. The late-night TV DNA kit was an intriguing setup, as Serge began investigating his own past and family history, but the story itself moved slower than I expected, and while there is plenty of humor, much of it feels forced. Still worth a read if you’re a fan of the series, but not Dorsey’s nest outing.

Spin by Patricia Cornwell

Captain Calli Chase races against time to thwart a plot that leaves the fate of humanity hanging in the balance in this new thriller from international bestselling author Patricia Cornwell.

In the aftermath of a NASA rocket launch gone terribly wrong, Captain Calli Chase comes face-to-face with her missing twin sister—as well as the startling truth of who they really are. Now, a top-secret program put in motion years ago has spun out of control, and only Calli can redirect its course.

Aided by cutting-edge technologies, the NASA investigator and scientist turned Space Force pilot sets out on a frantic search for the missing link between the sabotaged rocket launch and her predetermined destiny…a search that someone else seems very interested in stopping.

From NASA to the Chase family farm, to the White House to distant orbits of space, Calli plays a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek with a cunning and ruthless adversary. One wrong move will unleash cataclysmic consequences reaching far beyond the boundaries of Earth.

This heart-pounding Captain Chase thriller from Patricia Cornwell will leave readers desperate for more.

TRBS rating: 7.0/10

Let’s be honest, expectations were high when Cornwell signed with Amazon’s publishing imprint Thomas & Mercer. The media kit put together for Quantum, the first book in her new series, was one of the best I’ve ever seen. However, the book was a flop. Readers didn’t respond to her space adventure that, well, lacked adventure. Maybe that’s unfair, as the book is more of a technothriller, but the slow-moving plot and unusual amount of time spend on developing characters before the conflict, didn’t work. Cornwell, obviously, is a powerhouse, and it’s no surprise that she rebounded here—at least to a degree. Good, not great, but still worth a read if you like her stuff.

Bone Canyon by Lee Goldberg

A cold case heats up, revealing a deadly conspiracy in a twisty thriller by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lee Goldberg.

A catastrophic wildfire scorches the Santa Monica Mountains, exposing the charred remains of a woman who disappeared years ago. The investigation is assigned to Eve Ronin, the youngest homicide detective in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, a position that forces her to prove herself again and again. This time, though, she has much more to prove.

Bones don’t lie, and these have a horrific story to tell. Eve tirelessly digs into the past, unearthing dark secrets that reveal nothing about the case is as it seems. With almost no one she can trust, her relentless pursuit of justice for the forgotten dead could put Eve’s own life in peril.

TRBS rating: 8.0/10

After first introducing readers to Eve Ronin in last year’s Lost Hills, Goldberg brings back his new star protagionist in this one, which follows the LA Detective as she investigates a cold case after the body of a woman who disappeared years ago suddenly turns up following a catastrophic wildfire. Like his last book, Goldberg had me on the edge of my seat with Bone Canyon, which is even better than the series launch. Mark this one down as a page-turning thriller that is not to be missed.

A Stranger at the Door by Jason Pinter (Featured Review)

From the Amazon bestselling author of Hide Away comes the gripping second installment of the Rachel Marin Thriller series.

Rachel Marin is in a good place. After years of struggle, the single mother has found both a stable, loving relationship and a new purpose: putting her investigative skills to work solving crimes for the local PD. But just as the pieces of her life are finally starting to fall into place, her teenaged son’s teacher is gruesomely murdered, starting a domino effect that shatters her peaceful existence.

When Rachel discovers an ominous email the teacher sent to her just before his death, she knows she must help bring his killer to justice. But soon a figure from her past reappears, threatening to expose Rachel’s darkest secrets if she doesn’t tread lightly. And when her son is recruited by a shadowy businessman who may be connected to the murder, Rachel knows this has just gotten very, very personal.

Someone out there is dead set on keeping this grisly cover-up good and buried, which means if Rachel’s not careful, it’s only a matter of time before her dream life becomes her worst nightmare.

TRBS rating: 8.5/10

Rachel Marin is finally happy, so you just know something is about to threaten her newfound joy and stable living situation. Sadly, that’s exactly the case when her son’s teacher is murdered. Now solving crimes for the local police department, Rachel is pulled in after realizing the teacher sent her an email before his death—but as she begins investigating things, she finds far more than she bargained for. Pinter, already an underrated talent, takes his young series to new heights with this one. Trust me when I say to buckle up before starting this one.

Robert B. Parker’s Someone to Watch Over Me by Ace Atkins

In the latest thriller featuring the legendary Boston PI, Spenser and his young protégé Mattie Sullivan take on billionaire money manager running a network of underaged girls for his rich and powerful clients.

Ten years ago, Spenser helped a teenage girl named Mattie Sullivan find her mother’s killer and take down an infamous Southie crime boss. Now Mattie–a college student with a side job working for the tough but tender private eye–dreams of being an investigator herself. Her first big case involves a fifteen-year-old girl assaulted by a much older man at one of Boston’s most prestigious private clubs. The girl, Chloe Turner, only wants the safe return of her laptop and backpack. But like her mentor and boss, Mattie has a knack for asking the right questions of the wrong people.

Soon Spenser and Mattie find ties between the exploitation of dozens of other girls from working class families to an eccentric billionaire and his sadistic henchwoman with a mansion on Commonwealth Avenue. The mystery man’s wealth, power and connections extend well beyond Massachusetts – maybe even beyond the United States. Spenser and trusted ally Hawk must again watch out for Mattie as she unravels a massive sex-trafficking ring that will take them from Boston to Boca Raton to the Bahamas, crossing paths with local toughs, a highly-trained security company, and an old enemy of Spenser’s–the Gray Man–for a final epic showdown.

TRBS rating: 7.5/10

Spenser, Parker’s iconic hero, continues to thrive under Atkins, who delivers yet another tight, enjoyable reading experience. Even more than his past offerings, Atkins channels the late Parker here, presenting a Spenser that diehard fans of the series will immediately take to. The story, which moves fast enough but does spend time setting the table early on, might seem like it takes a bit to unfold, but once it does—it’s full-steam ahead.

The Lost Boys: A Decker/Lazarus Novel by Faye Kellerman

Faye Kellerman returns with an atmospheric, fast-paced mystery set in bucolic upstate New York, full of unexpected twists and turns that build to a shocking and surprising end—the latest thrilling entry in her New York Times bestseller Decker/Lazarus series.

When Bertram Telemann goes missing from a local diner near Greenbury, the entire community of the small upstate New York town volunteers to search the surrounding woods in hopes of finding him. Bertram had been on a field trip with the staff and fellow residents of the Loving Care Home when he vanished.

When no trace of the man is found, the disappearance quickly becomes an official missing persons case and is assigned to detectives Peter Decker and his partner Tyler McAdams. As their investigation deepens, the seasoned Decker becomes convinced that Bertram hadn’t lost his way, but had left with someone he knew. Soon Decker discovers that Elsie Schulung, a recently fired nurse who had worked at the home, seemed to be especially interested in Bertram. But answers proves elusive when Elsie disappears and human blood is found in her kitchen.

But the complications are only beginning. While combing the woods, searchers discover the remains of one of three young men who had vanished during a camping trip. And for Decker, personal problems are adding pressure as well. After a ten-year absence, the biological mother of Decker’s and Rina’s foster son, Gabriel, has suddenly appeared in New York, children in tow, wreaking emotional havoc on the young man.

Juggling the personal and professional, a hot case and a cold case, Decker and McAdams race to find answers, sifting through cabinets of old files, a plethora of clues and evidence, and discouraging dead ends. As on-going searches for Bertram and the campers’ missing remains continue, the frustrated detectives begin to wonder if the woods will ever give up its dark secrets . . . and if these intertwining cases will be solved.

TRBS rating: 8.0/10

I don’t want to give much away, but expect the unexpected when you dive into this one. A wonderfully-plotted, page-turning mystery that will keep you guessing right up until the very end.

The Treadstone Exile by Joshua Hood (Featured Review)

Former Treadstone Operative Adam Hayes finds himself at the center of a web of warring factions and high-level secrets in the second novel in the Treadstone series, the newest addition to the Robert Ludlum universe.

After the revival of Operation Treadstone, former agent Adam Hayes has retreated to Africa, determined to leave behind the black-ops CIA program behind for good. As a former Treadstone operative, Hayes knows just how destructive the program can be, as it turns government agents into nearly superhuman assassins. But his quiet life in Africa changes irrevocably, when, while attempting to complete a charitable mission in Burkina Faso, Hayes is attacked by extremists. Forced to make an unexpected landing, his plane is damaged and he is left in a hornet’s nest of trouble.

In order to get back in the air, Hayes agrees to transport a passenger–Zoe Cabot, the daughter of a tech baron–to a small coastal city. But just after Hayes completes his flight, Zoe is kidnapped. During his search for Zoe, Hayes funs afoul of multiple enemies, including a rogue Treadstone operative, all of whom are searching for him–and for the information about a wire transfer of millions of dollars bound for the relief effort in Burkina Faso. In an action-packed, twisty showdown, Hayes must outrun the factions that are hunting him, and prevent the theft of the much-needed millions from one of Africa’s poorest nations.

TRBS rating: 9.0/10

I’ve had the pleasure of covering Hood’s work since his anticipated debut (Clear by Fire) in 2015, and I can say with the utmost confidence that his second Adam Hayes thriller is his finest work to date. While longtime fans of his might miss Mason Kane, Hood’s found something special with Hayes—who finds himself in a web of corruption here. As always, you cannot have a Josh Hood book without a boatload of hard-hitting action sequences, and he delivers in a big way with this one. Hood’s “all killer, no filler” motto rings true yet again. Trust me . . . do not sleep on this book. It’s early, but The Treadstone Exile should stand among the year’s best action thrillers when it’s all said and done.


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. Additionally, he co-hosts ThrillerTalk, a new podcast with author K.J. Howe. 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.

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