As we wind down the coverage for 2022, we’ve already started looking ahead to 2023.
Along the way, I thought might be fun to look at the highest-ranked books I’ve ever reviewed, prompting a fun trip down memory lane to look back at some of the greatest thrillers to hit bookstores over the ten or so years. To prepare myself to write this article, I went back and not only read my original reviews of these titles, but I re-opened the books too and poured back over the same pages that had once left me stunned. In the end, it was fun to see just how well these thrillers stand up to the thousands of books that have followed them.
Check out the list of my Top 10 Highest-Ranked thrillers in Book Spy history below, then leave me a comment—or better yet, join the TRBS Discord server and let’s discuss it—and let me know what your favorite books are and how you think my list stacks up.
1.) The Force by Don Winslow
First Published: June 20, 2017
The acclaimed, award-winning, bestselling author of The Cartel—voted one of the Best Books of the Year by more than sixty publications, including the New York Times—returns with a cinematic epic as explosive, powerful, and unforgettable as Mystic River and The Wire.
Our ends know our beginnings, but the reverse isn’t true . . .
All Denny Malone wants is to be a good cop.
He is “the King of Manhattan North,” a, highly decorated NYPD detective sergeant and the real leader of “Da Force.” Malone and his crew are the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, and the baddest, an elite special unit given unrestricted authority to wage war on gangs, drugs and guns. Every day and every night for the eighteen years he’s spent on the Job, Malone has served on the front lines, witnessing the hurt, the dead, the victims, the perps. He’s done whatever it takes to serve and protect in a city built by ambition and corruption, where no one is clean—including Malone himself.
What only a few know is that Denny Malone is dirty: he and his partners have stolen millions of dollars in drugs and cash in the wake of the biggest heroin bust in the city’s history. Now Malone is caught in a trap and being squeezed by the Feds, and he must walk the thin line between betraying his brothers and partners, the Job, his family, and the woman he loves, trying to survive, body and soul, while the city teeters on the brink of a racial conflagration that could destroy them all.
Based on years of research inside the NYPD, this is the great cop novel of our time and a book only Don Winslow could write: a haunting and heartbreaking story of greed and violence, inequality and race, crime and injustice, retribution and redemption that reveals the seemingly insurmountable tensions between the police and the diverse citizens they serve. A searing portrait of a city and a courageous, heroic, and deeply flawed man who stands at the edge of its abyss, The Force is a masterpiece of urban living full of shocking and surprising twists, leavened by flashes of dark humor, a morally complex and utterly riveting dissection of modern American society and the controversial issues confronting and dividing us today.
From my original review:
“At one point, Malone delivers a speech to corrupt officials that rivals the “you need me on that wall” speech given by Colonel Jessup (played by Jack Nicholson) in A Few Good Men. It’s just one of many emotionally-charged scenes that will stay with readers long after they finish the novel.
How it holds up today: Looking back at Winslow’s book, I still maintain that this is the greatest novel I’ve ever covered. It correctly, in my opinion at least, sits atop this list. Not only is it wildly entertaining, but it’s thought-provoking too. Not just in a “good cop vs. bad cop” kind of way, but on a deeper level, it examines how corruption enters a man’s soul, showing how it eats away at them until they no longer recognize themselves. Moreover, it’s as timely and relevant today as it was back in 2017, maybe even more so now. It’s also a book that only Don Winslow—one of the most prolific writers alive today—could write. As powerful as it is unforgettable, everyone should read this book.
2.) Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben
First Published: March 22, 2016
A widowed veteran gets the shock of her life in this impossible-to-put-down thriller from the bestselling author and creator of the hit Netflix drama The Stranger.
In the course of eight consecutive #1 New York Times bestsellers, millions of readers have discovered Harlan Coben’s page-turning thrillers, filled with his trademark edge-of-your-seat suspense and gut-wrenching emotion. In Fool Me Once, Coben once again outdoes himself…
Former special ops pilot Maya, home from the war, sees an unthinkable image captured by her nanny cam while she is at work: her two-year-old daughter playing with Maya’s husband, Joe—who was brutally murdered two weeks earlier. The provocative question at the heart of the mystery: Can you believe everything you see with your own eyes, even when you desperately want to? To find the answer, Maya must finally come to terms with deep secrets and deceit in her own past before she can face the unbelievable truth about her husband—and herself
From my original review: “Fool Me Once is the type of story that you don’t just get lost in, you find yourself entranced by it and hanging on the author’s every word. You’ll get all the same effects as a day spent at the amusement park riding roller coasters, but for a lot less money and without having to stand in line . . . Simply put, Harlan Coben’s new thriller is an absolute work of genius.”
How it holds up today: To this day, there’s never been a book that floored me the way Coben’s Fool Me Once did. As a critic, I pride myself on seeing all the twists and turns in a story way ahead of time, and it’s rare when something catches me by surprise. What makes this one so special, is that you will literally never see the ending coming, but once it’s revealed, you realize that it’s the only thing that ever made sense. That is how you pull off a twist and nobody . . . nobody does it like Harlan Coben.
3. ) The English Spy by Daniel Silva
#1 New York Times bestselling author Daniel Silva delivers another stunning thriller in his latest action-packed tale of high-stakes international intrigue featuring the inimitable Gabriel Allon.
First there was THE ENGLISH ASSASSIN.
Then there was THE ENGLISH GIRL.
Now comes THE ENGLISH SPY . . .
Master novelist Daniel Silva has thrilled readers with seventeen thoughtful and gripping spy novels featuring a diverse cast of compelling characters and ingenious plots that have taken them around the globe and back—from the United States to Europe, Russia to the Middle East. His brilliant hero, Gabriel Allon—art restorer, assassin, spy—has joined the pantheon of great fictional secret agents, including George Smiley, Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, and Simon Templar.
Following the success of his smash hit The Heist, Daniel Silva returns with another blockbuster—a powerhouse novel that showcases his outstanding skill and brilliant imagination and is sure to be a must-read for both his multitudes of fans and growing legions of converts.
First Published: June 30, 2015
From my original review: “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy meets The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in The Other Woman, an instant classic from Daniel Silva, whose latest masterpiece puts him firmly alongside le Carré and Forsyth as one of the greatest spy novelists of all time.”
How it holds up today: Probably the most gifted author on this list, Daniel Silva started to close the gap between himself and John le Carre right around the time that this book came out. The case could be made that he’s even surpassed le Carre now, but that’s an argument for another day. This book, which I actually listened to on Audible in preparation for writing this article, is special. So many things from Gabriel’s past come back up, forcing him to address them once and for all while trying desperately to remain in the present as he prepares for the next chapter in his life. Throw on top of that the completion of Allon’s greatest restoration to date—not a painting, but Christopher Keller—and it’s easy to see why this book is still such an extraordinary piece of work.
4.) Backlash by Brad Thor
First Published: June 25th, 2019
#1 New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal, and #1 Publishers Weekly bestselling author Brad Thor is back with his most gripping thriller yet!
In ancient texts, there are stories about men who struck from the shadows, seemingly beyond the reach of death itself. These men were considered part angel, part demon. Their loyalty was to their families, their friends, and their kings. You crossed these men at your peril. And once crossed, there was no crossing back.
They were fearless; men of honor who have been known throughout history by different names: Spartan, Viking, Samurai.
Today, men like these still strike from the shadows. They are highly prized intelligence agents, military operatives, and assassins.
One man is all three.
Two days ago, that man was crossed–badly.
Now, far from home and surrounded by his enemy, Scot Harvath must battle his way out.
With no support, no cavalry coming, and no one even aware of where he is, it will take everything he has ever learned to survive.
But survival isn’t enough. Harvath wants revenge.
In the most explosive novel Brad Thor has ever written, page after captivating page of action, intrigue, loyalty, and betrayal will keep you hooked until the very last sentence.
From my original review: “Raw emotion, nonstop action, and relentless pacing makes Backlash another one-night read from Brad Thor, who delivers the book to beat in 2019. Think David Morrell’s Rambo meets Vince Flynn’s Consent to Kill . . . when it’s all said and done, this is one of the books Thor will be remembered for.”
How it holds up today: Brad Thor went for it with this book, and he delivered what I still consider to be his greatest thriller to date. What’s crazy is that we’ve seen Harvath hurt before, both physically and emotionally. But never quite like this. In a lot of ways, Thor reset his series with the decision to kill off so many characters, leaving his beloved hero a broken man in the process. Broken and stranded in the middle of Russia during a blizzard, mind you, with nothing but hate and rage to warm him and keep him going. To fans of old-school action thrillers, this one’s for you!
5.) Dark Sky by C.J. Box
First Published: March 2, 2021
Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett must accompany a Silicon Valley CEO on a hunting trip–but soon learns that he himself may be the hunted–in the thrilling new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author C. J. Box
When the governor of Wyoming gives Joe Pickett the thankless task of taking a tech baron on an elk hunting trip, Joe reluctantly treks into the wilderness with his high-profile charge. But as they venture into the woods, a man-hunter is hot on their heels, driven by a desire for revenge. Finding himself without a weapon, a horse, or a way to communicate, Joe must rely on his wits and his knowledge of the outdoors to protect himself and his companion.
Meanwhile, Joe’s closest friend, Nate Romanowski, and his own daughter Sheridan learn of the threat to Joe’s life and follow him into the woods. In a stunning final showdown, the three of them come up against the worst that nature–and man–have to offer.
From my original review: “It’s about to get Western in the latest must-read, can’t-miss thriller from C.J. Box . . . the best series in print today, regardless of genre.”
How it holds up today: The most recent release on this list, I’m amazed that Box delivered this as the 21st book in his series. Like, how is that even possible? Whereas most authors are probably fast running out of ideas long before reaching this point, Box came out swinging, treating readers to what’s arguably his best book so far. There’s just something magical about Joe Pickett alone on that mountain, trying to keep this tech billionaire alive at all costs that hits differently. Please do yourself a favor and start reading this series if you’re not already.
6.) Order to Kill by Kyle Mills
First Published: October 11, 2016
In the next thrilling novel in the #1 New York Times bestselling Mitch Rapp series, the anti-terrorism operative heads to Pakistan to confront a mortal threat he may not be prepared for. In fact, this time he might have met his match.
Mitch Rapp is used to winning.
But in this follow-up to #1 New York Times bestselling The Survivor, the CIA operative finds himself chasing false leads from continent to continent in an effort to keep Pakistani nukes from falling into the hands of terrorists. Together with friend and colleague Scott Coleman, Rapp struggles to prevent the loss of these lethal weapons, particularly because Russia is also interested in the nukes, though not for the same reason as Rapp and Coleman.
Soon, it becomes alarmingly clear that the forces in Moscow are bent on fomenting even more chaos and turmoil in the Middle East, and Rapp must go deep into Russian territory, posing as an American ISIS recruit. There, he uncovers a plan much more dangerous and insidious than he ever expected, one that could have far-reaching and catastrophic consequences.
Written with breathless tension and heart-pounding action, Mitch Rapp’s latest adventure is as timely and provocative as ever.
From my original review: “When Mitch Rapp enters the picture, bad guys stop breathing in bunches. And in Order To Kill, the body count has never been higher as Rapp leaves behind a bloody trail on his way to trying to stop a nuclear catastrophe—not to mention his inevitable showdown with Grisha Azarov, which is now personal.”
How it holds up today: Looking back, the thing that made this book so special was that Mitch Rapp finally had an equal, someone who could truly match him skill-for-skill on the battlefield. Mills upped the ante when that man, Grisha, throws a hurting on Scott Coleman, Rapp’s closest friend and most trusted battle buddy. With the stakes set, much of the main plot (and this is no knock on the story in any way), was almost an afterthought in some ways, with the real excitement coming between that highly-anticipated showdown between Rapp and his new enemy. Not for nothing, but this was the book where it was abundantly clear that Kyle Mills is the only writer alive today worthy of stepping in for the late Vince Flynn to keep his series going.
7.) The One Man by Andrew Gross
First Published: September 22, 2016
Poland. 1944. Alfred Mendl and his family are brought on a crowded train to a Nazi concentration camp after being caught trying to flee Paris with forged papers. His family is torn away from him on arrival, his life’s work burned before his eyes. To the guards, he is just another prisoner, but in fact Mendl—a renowned physicist—holds knowledge that only two people in the world possess. And the other is already at work for the Nazi war machine.
Four thousand miles away, in Washington, DC, Intelligence lieutenant Nathan Blum routinely decodes messages from occupied Poland. Having escaped the Krakow ghetto as a teenager after the Nazis executed his family, Nathan longs to do more for his new country in the war. But never did he expect the proposal he receives from “Wild” Bill Donovan, head of the OSS: to sneak into the most guarded place on earth, a living hell, on a mission to find and escape with one man, the one man the Allies believe can ensure them victory in the war.
Bursting with compelling characters and tense storylines, this historical thriller from New York Times bestseller Andrew Gross is a deeply affecting, unputdownable series of twists and turns through a landscape at times horrifyingly familiar but still completely new and compelling.
From my original review: “I don’t say that often, especially about books in this genre, but The One Man isn’t like anything else I’ve read in the past few years . . . I loved everything about this book, including the emotional rollercoaster of events. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll cheer on these extraordinary characters as they attempt to defy the odds and escape beyond Auschwitz’s barb-wired fences.”
How it holds up today: I can’t recall a book that left me quite as emotionally spent as this one, and I mean that in the best way possible. Gross churched out such a powerful story here, one full of hope, tragedy, love, heartache, danger . . . and he even manages to make you laugh a few times along the way. Add to that a brilliantly-crafted twist at the end, and seriously, how can anyone argue this masterpiece isn’t one of the greatest historical fiction thrillers ever written?
8.) Back Blast by Mark Greaney
First Published: February 16, 2016
From Mark Greaney, the #1 New York Times bestselling coauthor of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels, comes the fifth explosive thriller featuring the lethal assassin known as the Gray Man…
Five years ago, Court Gentry was the CIA’s best covert asset. Then, without warning, his masters at the Agency put him at the top of their kill list. Court fled his country and became an enigmatic killer for hire known as the Gray Man.
Determined to find out what made the Agency turn against him, he plans to get his hands on the men who sent him on his last mission, Operation BACK BLAST. What he doesn’t realize is that the questions that arose from his time as an American assassin are still reverberating in the U.S. intelligence community, and he’s stumbled onto a secret that powerful people want kept under wraps.
The result: everyone has Court in their crosshairs . . .
From my original review: “Mark Greaney is without a doubt one of the hottest names in the political thriller genre right now. . . . If you enjoy the Jason Bourne series by Robert Ludlum, you’ll love the Gray Man series. There are many similarities between the characters and their pursuit of finding the truth about their pasts, with Greaney’s books being slightly more violent in nature.”
How it holds up today: They just don’t make ’em like this anymore. Greaney’s Back Blast remains one of my favorite thrillers ever written, and it’s because of the way he set things up prior to writing this book. Now, incredibly, you actually don’t have to go back and read the earlier entries in the series for this to make sense, as he paced in a ton of backstory—which is what makes this work. And then, well, c’mon, the action in this one is insane! Court is on a warpath for answers after coming back to the US, and he gets them all right, in a way that only the Gray Man can. A throwback to when action was king, Greaney let it all hang out. I love this book.
9.) The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly
First Published: November 1, 2016
In this #1 New York Times bestseller, California’s newest private investigator, Detective Harry Bosch, must track down a missing heir while helping a police department connect the dots on a dangerous cold case.
Harry Bosch is California’s newest private investigator. He doesn’t advertise, he doesn’t have an office, and he’s picky about who he works for, but it doesn’t matter. His chops from thirty years with the LAPD speak for themselves.
Soon one of Southern California’s biggest moguls comes calling. The reclusive billionaire is nearing the end of his life and is haunted by one regret. When he was young, he had a relationship with a Mexican girl, his great love. But soon after becoming pregnant, she disappeared. Did she have the baby? And if so, what happened to it?
Desperate to know whether he has an heir, the dying magnate hires Bosch, the only person he can trust. With such a vast fortune at stake, Harry realizes that his mission could be risky not only for himself but for the one he’s seeking. But as he begins to uncover the haunting story–and finds uncanny links to his own past–he knows he cannot rest until he finds the truth.
At the same time, unable to leave cop work behind completely, he volunteers as an investigator for a tiny cash-strapped police department and finds himself tracking a serial rapist who is one of the most baffling and dangerous foes he has ever faced.
Swift, unpredictable, and thrilling, The Wrong Side of Goodbye shows that Michael Connelly “continues to amaze with his consistent skill and sizzle” (Cleveland Plain Dealer).
From my original review: “With heart-pounding suspense written into every page and several never-saw-it-coming twists along the way, Bosch races to uncover the identities of two very different people, for two totally different reasons . . . nobody does this stuff better than Michael Connelly.”
How it holds up today: What’s life look like for Harry Bosch when he’s no longer part of the LAPD? That’s the question we all wondered six years ago, and Connelly answered by dialing up one of his most twisting stories to date. I loved the format of this book, and the premise—can Bosch find an heir to a billionaire’s fortune before it’s too late?—but what makes it so special is that we have a character who, for 18 books, did one job. This was a transitional time in his life, and this series and Connelly absolutely aced it.
10.) The Kremlin’s Candidate by Jason Matthews
First Published: February 13, 2018
The “terrifically good” (The New York Times Book Review) finale in the New York Times bestselling Red Sparrow trilogy continues the dangerous entanglements of Russian counterintelligence chief Dominika Egorova and her lover, CIA agent Nate Nash, on the hunt for a Russian agent working in the US government.
Russian president Vladimir Putin is planning the covert assassination of a high-ranking US official with the intention of replacing him with a mole whom Russian intelligence has cultivated for more than fifteen years.
Catching wind of this plot, Dominika, Nate, and their CIA colleagues must unmask the traitor before he or she is able to reveal that Dominika has been spying for years on behalf of the CIA. Any leak, any misstep, will expose her as a CIA asset and result in a one-way trip to a Moscow execution cellar. Ultimately, the lines of danger converge on the spectacular billion-dollar presidential palace on the Black Sea during a power weekend with Putin’s inner circle. Does Nate sacrifice himself to save Dominika? Does Dominika forfeit herself to protect Nate? Do they go down together?
With a plot ripped from tomorrow’s headlines, The Kremlin’s Candidate is “both timely and timeless; an espionage tale that takes the reader behind and beyond the headlines of Russia’s assault on America” (Nelson DeMille).
From my original review: “Chilling, timely, and emotionally-charged from beginning to end, The Kremlin’s Candidate is another masterpiece from Jason Matthews, and a sure bet to leave readers absolutely stunned. . . this trilogy is the new gold standard for espionage thrillers moving forward, and a top contender for best spy book of the year.”
How it holds up today: Jason Matthews. Oh, what a talent. Taken far too soon, nobody could deliver quite like Matthews (may he rest in peace), who revolutionized the modern spy thriller with his iconic trilogy. To say it was an honor to cover his work would be a massive understatement. It was, quite frankly, one of the highlights of my career. Why? Because he did things nobody else could, in ways nobody else dared. If you’ve read the Red Sparrow trilogy, then you know what I mean. If you haven’t . . . well, you need to.
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 co-hosts the ThrillerTalk podcast when he’s not streaming and hanging out with his growing community on Twitch. His debut thriller, FIELDS OF FIRE, which #1 New York Times bestselling author Jack Carr says “will leave you speechless and begging for more,” is now available in bookstores. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook.