[Newly updated with more great books!] 2020 has been an amazing year for fans of mystery and thriller books so far. We’re only halfway done with the year, and already we are seeing an abundance of amazing choices is coming from all categories.
As always, it’s a daunting job to narrow the list down from the hundreds of books our team receives to just a handful.
In terms of authors, our in-progress list of the best mystery and thriller books is incredibly diverse:
– A first-time novelist
– Books representing multiple genres including crime thrillers, historical fiction, humorous mystery, science fiction, superhero fiction, a political thriller, two religious conspiracy thrillers and a legal thriller
– A mix of hugely successful books from major publishing houses and under-the-radar books from small press
Our list contains many first-time honorees, including Minka Kent, Quinn Avery, Paul Levine, Jasper T. Scott, Rich Leder, Joe Pulizzi, Lee Matthew Goldberg and Jason Palmer.
And Daniel Silva, whose lack of an appearance on our annual list until now is a complete mystery.
Returning to our list is Liam Fialkov, who was on our Best of 2019 list with his gem The Last Broadcast, as well as three-time honoree Ronald S. Barak.
Each of these mid-year picks is bound to keep you up late at night.
Some may keep you from sleeping.
Others will reframe the way you think about suspense and ripped-from-the-headlines topics.
Devoted by Dean Koontz
Following up on his brilliant Nameless story collection, Koontz once again proves that age continues to make his work even more spellbinding and potent. Devoted is a towering achievement that is both suspenseful and full-bodied in terms of character development. Of all the characters Koontz has created in his storied career, canine Kipp is top five.
Woody Bookman hasn’t spoken a word in his eleven years of life. Not when his father died in a freak accident. Not when his mother, Megan, tells him she loves him. For Megan, keeping her boy safe and happy is what matters. But Woody believes a monstrous evil was behind his father’s death and now threatens him and his mother. And he’s not alone in his thoughts. An ally unknown to him is listening.
A uniquely gifted dog with a heart as golden as his breed, Kipp is devoted beyond reason to people. When he hears the boy who communicates like he does, without speaking, Kipp knows he needs to find him before it’s too late.
Woody’s fearful suspicions are taking shape.
A man driven by a malicious evil has set a depraved plan into motion.
And he’s coming after Woody and his mother.
The reasons are primal. His powers are growing. And he’s not alone. Only a force greater than evil can stop what’s coming next.
The Ancestor by Lee Matthew Goldberg
When Wyatt Barlow wakes up in the Alaskan Wilderness, he has no idea who he is, or what he had been doing before he lost consciousness. He has nothing on him except a mirror and a journal with the date 1898. He has only one certain thought: I must make it out of here.
When he sees another man hunting nearby, he follows the man home. He soon learns that the year is 2020, and the man is Travis Barlow, his great grandson. How did this happen? And more importantly, why?
In a narrative style strongly reminiscent of Blake Crouch’s supernatural thrillers, author Lee Matthew Goldberg immerses readers in a state of disorientation that is urgent, suspenseful and compelling. The question of if and when Wyatt will reveal his true self burns at the core of the story. Meanwhile, Wyatt must adapt to the new world or die trying. His efforts to survive – nibbling at chum left by fisherman at the dock, begging for money outside a local pizza joint – offer a compelling window into a world filled with homeless people like himself.
Told in chapters that alternate between Wyatt and Travis’ point of view, Wyatt’s obsessions grow. As the gold fever he experienced during his previous life returns, he becomes obsessed with his great-grandson’s wife (in one moving and unnerving moment, he steals a photo of her). Goldberg draws the Alaskan wilderness with vivid passages filled with ice-capped mountains and caribou. Later, he captures the poverty and desperation of the reservation on the outskirts of town with just as much detail.
When I Was You by Minka Kent
Minka Kent gives identify theft an entirely new meaning in this thoroughly engrossing novel.
But soon, Brienne discovers evidence that she has a double. Someone else has her name, her car, her hair, her clothes and even the same social media network. Is this real, or a side-effect of her already disturbing neural issues?
To find out, Brienne must overcome the agoraphobic-like instincts that have kept her a prisoner of her own home. She ventures out into the world to hunt this familiar stranger that goes by her own name.
Kent’s new thriller is gripping from the very first chapter, as Brienne – who tells the story in the first person – recounts the story of her trauma in painful detail. In the audiobook version, narrator Erin deWard successfully captures Brienne’s vulnerability and paranoia without ever becoming whiny.
The vulnerability earned in those early pages creates significant narrative momentum that will propel many readers to finish the book – which weighs in at an economical 282 pages – in just one or two sittings.
Cooking for Cannibals by Rich Leder
Devastatingly funny, dark and unputdownable.
As Cooking for Cannibals opens, 35-year-old gerontologist Carrie Cromer is committing her first crime. Carrie works in a lab that seems to have created nothing less than the fountain of youth. The miraculous drug has reversed aging in her lab rats, seems destined for further testing, and one day, FDA approval. But that will take years, and Carrie’s 86-year-old mother’s health is deteriorating rapidly. She needs the drug now.
Within 16 hours of taking the stolen drug, Joanna looks like a woman in her mid-40s, and she claims to feel better than she actually did at that age. Dining in the restaurant within the low-budget nursing home where she lives, the Copa, she decides to reveal her secret. Soon, all the residents were significantly more youthful.
Meanwhile at the lab, Carrie finds that two people are under suspicion: Carrie, and Stuart Langston, the lab’s creepy biostatistician, whom she had tried to frame for the theft. To Carrie’s horror, her boss isn’t content to let the police solve the crime. His investor has instead hired a murderous fixer named Eduardo Wolf.
Author Rich Leder had us with the book’s premise, but his most brilliant stroke is the drug’s side effect, which is a ravenous craving for meat. Leder, who is the author of the hilarious Workman’s Complication and Swollen Identity, creates perhaps his most hilarious situation yet when the newly empowered Copa residents defend their cook, Johnny, from his corrupt parole officer. Among Leder’s many brilliant linguistic
innovations in the ensuing chapters is “Fabulous Fat-Man Fricassee.”
Shocking without ever veering into the gruesome, Cooking for Cannibals offers the wit of a cozy mystery with absurdist comedy. No matter how low she goes, Carrie is a protagonist every reader will be rooting for.
JK’s Code by Ronald S. Barak
A timely, compulsively readable political and legal thriller that wryly connects the terrors of the dark web with the fragile state of democracy. One of the year’s best thrillers.
In a world where activists like Julian Assange have become famous for extravagant government exposes, Ron Barak’s new political thriller imagines what is at stake for the hackers on the front lines. JK’s Code is named for the text-based key to the mystery that American cybersecurity buff Jake Klein, known as JK, developed to impress his older sister. Little did he know that one day it could be used in an attempt to save his own life.
In the novel’s early chapters, a brilliant Russian hacker named Leonid Gradsky takes a meeting with Russian President for Life Alexi Turgenev and demonstrates the power of his new computer program. Turgenev’s advisors soon come to the conclusion that the technology will enable them to manipulate the 2020 U.S. election results effectively and discreetly. They also initially assume that they can appropriate Gradsky’s election-manipulating solution at any time. Little do they know that the software is dependent on the innovation of a Kazhak developer named Cipher.
Enter JK, who soon discovers Gradsky’s real identity, and more importantly, that Turgenev is conspiring with the President of the United States to rig the election.
In the book’s early chapters, Barak’s burgeoning fan base may wonder what this all has to do with retired U.S. District Court Judge Cyrus Brooks and homicide detective Frank Lotello, whose names are the basis for the entire series. The connective tissue is Leah Klein Lotello, the older sister of Jake “JK” Klein, wife of Frank Lotello and step-mother of Charlie Lotello and Madison Lotello (if you didn’t get all that, don’t fear – Barak has generously added a cast of characters before the prologue). Leah also happens to be an attorney. To say much more about Cyrus and Frank’s involvement would add spoilers, but it’s safe to say that both play a significant role. Barak has created perhaps his most ingenious plot yet, one that maintains a coherent, suspenseful thread across two continents and the dark web while still carving out a hefty lift for Brooks and Lotello. The dynamic duo’s entrance also adds a layer of wry humor to the high stakes political and legal drama.
JK’s Code is a book that will captivate readers well beyond the 2020 election.
The Newton Code by Liam Fialkov
A must-read for fans of Dan Brown and Steve Berry.
While Sir Isaac Newton’s scientific legacy is well-established, novelist Liam Fialkov uses Newton’s lesser known obsessions with Christianity and metaphysics as the core of a spellbinding religious conspiracy thriller.
As The Newton Code opens, computers around the world are held captive. For 13 minutes, frustrated users are met with a cryptic message and an almost indecipherable image of the Ark of the Covenant. Then, without so much as a demand for ransom, the crisis is over.
Meanwhile, Michael, a 32-year-old investigative journalism professor and budding spy, is recruited for his second mission. His task is to patiently infiltrate a group of religious extremists who seemingly devote their time to decoding Biblical prophecies as well as Newton’s theories about the Temple of Solomon. He soon learns that the group intends to destroy the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of the world’s holiest Islamic shrines, in order to spark a holy war that will eventually bring the second coming of Christ. What’s more, the group is funded by a charismatic billionaire who is married to a woman that Michael finds almost irresistable.
Fialkov, whose novel The Broadcast was named one of 2019’s Best Thrillers of the Year, has created a worthy follow-up. Through alternating chapters told in the present and ~1000 B.C., Fialkov demonstrates the irony of how doomsday cults not only continue to thrive despite quantum leaps in science and technology, but also how technologies such as the Internet can become enablers.
Michael is believable as a bored professor relishing his new career as a part-time espionage agent with the potential to prevent a global catastrophe. When it comes to his love life, Michael is so new at the espionage game that he’s adorably indiscreet, revealing critical mission details to his unhappy wife, Melany. When he tells her that he intends to make it look like they are estranged, he never dreams how many temptations might arise for both of them while he is away.
While emotional vulnerability isn’t typical in an espionage hero, Michael turns out to be far more interesting than the stereotypical hard-nosed womanizer. Complete with a healthy dose of history and the occult, religious conspiracy thriller fans will find The Newton Code irresistible.
First Encounter by Jasper T. Scott
A must-read for any sci-fi thriller fan.
With 20 books to his credit, Jasper T. Scott is already a standard-bearer among the hardcore sci-fi faithful. First Encounter may be the breakthrough book that launches him into the broader public consciousness, much like Andy Weir’s The Martian did several years ago.
In the distant future, the United Nations of Earth sent out the Forerunner ships to explore and colonize the four most promising star systems within 50 light-years of Earth.
Forerunner One left Earth under the command of Captain Clayton Cross, heading for Trappist-1. After a ninety year journey to reach it, the crew encountered not only a habitable world, but alien life already inhabiting it, and dark secrets lurking beneath the surface.
The revelation of who these aliens are and what they want proves more terrifying than promising, and Captain Cross is forced to make tough decisions that will affect not only his crew, but the fate of the entire human race.
Like all Jasper Scott books, First Encounter features tons of action and mystery while still delivering the kind of intellectual and existential heft that sci-fi fans crave. Here, Scott’s characterization is nearly as well-developed as his plot, which pays major dividends for more casual fans.
Cheater’s Game by Paul Levine
A razor-sharp, rollicking legal thriller that deftly transforms the college admissions scandal into a hugely entertaining crime story.
As Cheater’s Game opens, 20-year-old Kip Lassiter races his Tesla X through the Florida Everglades with twenty-five thousand dollars in cash hidden under the back seat. Soon, a Maserati pulls up alongside him, and two masked goons threaten Kip by name before forcing the Tesla into a canal.
When Kip wakes in the hospital, his uncle, legendary defense attorney Jake Lassiter, is there to question him. How did he wreck? How could he afford such an expensive car? And why has Kip, whose probation terms should have prevented him from leaving the country, been to the Cayman Islands five times in recent weeks?
Kip brushes off his uncle’s questions, but it’s only a matter of time before he’s charged with selling admissions slots at the nation’s most prestigious universities to the parents of rich kids.
When Jake decides to come to his nephew’s defense, he puts himself at the epicenter of a nationwide scandal. He also finds himself squarely in the crosshairs of some very powerful people. But as Jake says, “If there’s blood on the courtroom floor, let it be mine.”
Author Paul Levine, whose novel Solomon vs Lord (Volume 1) was named one of the Best Legal Thrillers of the 21st Century, is again firing on all cylinders. The book’s success has everything to do with the richness with which Levine has drawn Jake. A veritable quote machine (a favorite: “A criminal trial is a contact sport. I buckle my chin strap and hit somebody”), Jake’s banter is equally addictive in the courtroom or at home with fiancée Melissa. His ongoing battle with C.T.E., as a result of his football career, adds unusual depth, making him among the most compelling protagonists in the legal thriller genre.
Characterization aside, Cheater’s Game stands out for its rapid-fire plot, where everything from the car chases to the courtroom scenes seem to move at high velocity.
The Dead Girl’s Stilettos by Quinn Avery
A stylish, sexy and smart crime thriller with an amateur sleuth that readers will fall in love with.
Bexley Squires has made a name for herself as a top investigative journalist, but her critical success hasn’t yet translated into a cash windfall. Living in a Brooklyn loft, she finds herself brilliant and beautiful, but also broke. The pitiful state of her bank account is the only thing holding her back from spending all her time solving the mystery of her sister’s disappearance.
Everything changes when Bexley gets an offer she can’t refuse. Hollywood sex symbol Dean Halliwell is accused of murder, and pledges $50,000 for Bexley to start digging into the investigation. If she finds the real killer, she’ll earn another $500,000. While Bexley digs on behalf of Dean Halliwell, she hires a PI named J.J. Stronghold to find her sister.
While both investigations are intriguing enough to demand rapt attention, it’s Bexley herself that stands out in a crowded field of amateur sleuths. Author Quinn Avery has created a heroine that is both accessible and complex. While Bexley didn’t grow up in the lap of luxury, her NYU education and street smarts have prepared her to navigate well-to-do social circles in ways that an undercover law enforcement agent never could. At home, she’s a master of creating a boho chic look on a tight budget, and it’s these little touches that will endear her to readers.
Don’t let the book’s cheeky title fool you – The Dead Girl’s Stilettos isn’t a cozy mystery. Author Quinn Avery seems on the verge of creating her own sub-genre of crime fiction, delivering a clever protagonist with serious emotional heft that does her best work amongst the playgrounds of the super rich and famous. Fans of Willow Rose will love this novel, but Avery is an original.
The Will to Die by Joe Pulizzi
A small town conspiracy thriller that is anything but small. Joe Pulizzi’s debut novel delivers edge-of-your-seat intrigue with a huge heart.
Desperate entrepreneur and gambling addict Will Pollitt is on the verge of winning a much-needed contract. Will is out of cash, deep in debt, and if he doesn’t pay his daughter’s college tuition, her academic career at Penn State will be over. At a critical point in the meeting, he receives a text message that rocks his world: “DAD DIED.”
Will immediately returns to Sandusky, Ohio, to view his father’s body in the funeral home he spent his life operating. Having grown up around the family business, Will immediately picks up on a key detail that doesn’t seem quite right. Further complicating matters, his ex-wife is set to do the embalming, and his frazzled sister doesn’t trust the coroner who performed the autopsy. Did their father really die of a heart attack, or was he murdered?
Author Joe Pulizzi has woven a sophisticated family drama into a tautly written conspiracy thriller where almost everyone has a possible motive. When Will’s attorney uncle shows the grief-stricken siblings a will that was purportedly updated just weeks before their father’s death, he finds himself on the wrong end of the inheritance. His sister gets a house on the bay that has recently been appraised for $400,000. Will is left with the burden of his father’s wish that he take over the flagging funeral home. But conveniently, a sale has already been prearranged with his father’s friend and employee, Jack.
As Will investigates his financial options and his father’s death, Jack discovers that business is booming at Pollitt Funeral Home’s cross-town rival. Pulizzi raises the book’s stakes as Will discovers a series of other deaths that may be related. While this is Pulizzi first fictional novel, the verteran storyteller is a master of pacing. Mounting evidence is continuously revealed in lockstep with Will’s emotional arc as he resigns himself to the fact that only he can discover the truth behind the town’s mysterious deaths.
The book’s emotional heft is reminiscent of HBO’s excellent family drama Six Feet Under, but it crackles with the urgency and intrigue of a top-shelf crime thriller. That’s largely due to the intricate vulnerability written into Will’s character. Even as Will is unable to manage his personal life, his transition to amateur sleuth is fully believable.
Thrash by Jason Palmer
Deadpool fans will adore this superhero thriller. Thrash deftly combines dark comedy and dystopian sci-fi to create one of the most original stories of the year.
Thirty-five-year-old shapeshifter Harry McComber remembers the good old days, when a universally adored superhero named Enduro helped people. For his many acts of saving grace, Enduro was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional medal of Honor, while kids loved him like Santa Claus. But all that changed when Enduro renounced his “slave name” – he goes by Brian Thurgold now – and devolved into an evil, unstoppable super villain whose temper tantrums lead him to pull the wings off planes and demolish monuments.
Unfortunately, he’s also completely obsessed with Harry.
Thrash begins three weeks into Harry’s recovery after suffering a terrible beating by Thurgold. Suffering from cabin fever and far from fully recovered, Harry finds himself out of booze. He also knows that leaving the apartment could prove fatal. Like ants waging war with humans, the military engages in regular, futile skirmishes with Thurgold, turning the city into a war zone. But when the TV goes out, which has been his lone companion, Harry is unable to help himself. He dons a mask and sneaks over to the neighborhood bar, a fateful journey that sets an enthralling rollercoaster in motion.
Palmer, author of masterfully crafted prison thriller The Big Guy, has created one of the most sympathetic and vulnerable superheroes in literature. While Harry’s animosity toward “The Institute” that made him covers some familiar ground, the psychological struggle he endures as to whether to accept their desperate pleas to return are highly original, ratcheting the tension into the stratosphere. There’s also a palpable sense of loneliness and misplaced guilt as Harry is alone with the knowledge that violence will continue to plague the city until he indulges Thurgold’s pleas for them to “play” together again.
Told from Harry’s perspective in chapters that progressively peel away the mystery of The Institute’s programs, Thrash is a novel that superhero fans won’t be able to put down.
Heirs Apparent by Thomas J. Thorson
Heirs Apparent begins in Chicago as an assassin enters his target’s 18th-floor apartment, only to find that his intended victim has just been executed by someone else. A quick look around the apartment indicates that it was a professional hit by someone who knew the victim.
Six months earlier, a mysterious man named Malcom Winters arrives in Rapid City with a supply of burner phones and a desire to become someone else. He sends a coded message to a forgery expert named Freddy Four-Fingers, ordering a fake birth certificate, passport, tax returns, employment history, social media presence and more. His next stop is Nashville, where a chance meeting with an equally cryptic woman named Fyre changes his life.
Malcom’s smoldering tryst with Fyre takes a dark turn when a passing car attempts to gun them down outside a restaurant. She refuses to acknowledge that anyone out of the ordinary happened. But which of them was the target?
Writing in a style reminiscent of Matthew FitzSimmons, author Thomas J. Thorson is as disciplined a storyteller as they come, revealing backstories and character insights in tiny, potent doses within a well-paced plot. While Malcolm isn’t an unreliable narrator per se, Thorson holds key motivations and essential truths back in the early going en route to an explosive second act. Less patient readers may not find the stakes high enough in the early going, but they will be rewarded by staying the course. Thorson’s meticulous prose and clever insights keep things moving en route to a massively entertaining second act that will keep readers up well into the night.
Fans of Matthew FitzSimmons will love Thorson’s meticulous, deliberate style.
The Hiding Girl by Dorian Box
When two predators come to 12-year-old Emily Calby’s home asking to siphon gasoline, she immediately senses what her mother does not – their lives are in imminent danger. Only Emily escapes.
Armed with extraordinary powers of perception and five-thousand dollars that her father had stashed in the garage, she goes on the run. A born survivalist, Emily prowls unlocked cars at night, finding a stun gun, a knife, makeup and a Stephen King book. She makes it to a sketchy neighborhood in Memphis, where she pays a professional counterfeiter named Lucas in cash for a fake ID, becoming sixteen-year-old Alice Regina Miller from Chattanooga, TN.
Like Emily, Lucas’s entire family is dead. The two bond, and he becomes an unlikely ally in her quest for justice. After nothing comes of the anonymous tips Emily sends the Sheriff back home, she receives an unexpected message from the FBI to her fake email address. The special agent in charge of the investigation wants to bring her back to Georgia. But for Emily, there’s far too much at stake to simply head home to be placed with a foster family. Only justice will give her peace.
In Emily, Author Dorian Box has created a rarity – a teenage protagonist that is at once sympathetic, vulnerable and largely fearless. Made unusually mature for her age after losing her father in an accident, Emily is an old soul in a way that is both tragic and inspiring. And while her plight gives her little time for grief, those brief moments of raw emotion resonate hugely. This sharp characterization within a fast-paced work of suspense makes The Hiding Girl one of the year’s most exciting series openers.