2019 was an amazing year for fans of mystery and thriller books. An abundance of endlessly entertaining choices came from all categories, including crime thrillers, medical thrillers, legal thrillers, psychological thrillers, fantasy novels and more.
Narrowing the list down from the hundreds of books our team has read this year to just a handful was daunting.
In terms of authors, our 2019 list of the best mystery and thriller books is incredibly diverse:
– Three first-time novelists
– Six books from major publishing houses
– Nine books from small publishing houses or that were independently published.
Our list contains many first-time honorees, including Leigh Bardugo, Lisa Jewell, Gordon J. Campbell, Preston & Child, Alex Lettau, Michael Allan Scott, Craig Hooper, Liam Fialkov and Lawrence Matrick M.D.
Returning to our list is Andrew Diamond, who was on our 2018 list with his gem Gate 76, living legend Harlan Coben and cross-genre master Stephen King.
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.
The Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Yale’s freshman class may look homogenous, but there’s at least one outlier within: Galaxy “Alex” Stern. Alex has survived attempted murder, loser boyfriends and a hippie upbringing.
Lightning strikes when she receives a full ride to Yale. But nothing in life is free, and Alex’s sponsors ask her to monitor Yale’s secret societies.
Anyone who follows politics has heard about Yale’s Skull and Bones society, whose members included President George Bush and Secretary of State John Kerry. The rumors pale in comparison to what novelist Leigh Bardugo has dreamed up in The Ninth House. The book feels literally haunted, its plot brimming with black magic and suspense as thick as Turkish coffee.
In Alex, Bardugo has created a character that is at once transparent and vulnerable, while still managing to surprise with her capabilities. Fans of Night Circus will love The Ninth House.
The Courier by Gordon J. Campbell
In The Courier’s intense opening pages, four thugs are gunned down by an assassin in Bangkok, a businessman’s contract is brutally terminated in Tokyo, and a DEA agent saves an overdose victim in Charleston, West Virginia.
What’s the connection between these seemingly disparate tragedies? Debut novelist Gordon J. Campbell deftly answers that question over the next 300 pages, writing in bite-sized chapters that rarely fail to pack an emotional or physical punch.
The heart and soul of Campbell’s novel is 40-year-old Canadian Gregg Westwood, a devoted family man and medical sales rep based in Japan. Just as Gregg is double-crossed by his employer in Tokyo, he’s recruited by intelligence agents to deliver a package to Bangkok. As they see it, Gregg’s inexperience in espionage is his biggest asset.
But once there, the handoff doesn’t go as planned, and their new courier is in way over his head. Meanwhile, back in Japan, the life Gregg has so carefully constructed is suddenly at risk.
In what is shaping up to be an incredible year for first-time novelists, The Courier’s edge-of-your-seat plot is eclipsed only by Campbell’s lush landscapes. The claustrophobic density of Shinjuku and the stylish grit of Bangkok leap off the page, while the homeyness of the U.S. Air Base invokes a sense of nostalgia that transcends our era. The Courier is a rather lean book, but Campbell has seemingly chosen just the right details to create an environment for Gregg’s inevitable transformation.
The Bottom Line: One of the year’s best thrillers. Fans of Michael Connelly’s Bosch series will love Agent Garrison Chase.
When FBI Agent Garrison Chase’s old mentor Slim shows up unannounced and badly beaten, he knows trouble can’t be far behind. Years earlier, Chase and Slim had been recruited to kill a Thai General and human trafficker called The Rat. They failed, and now Slim is set to testify against him – if he can first survive an attempted poisoning.
Chase knows that simply by association, his own life may already be in danger. Meanwhile, he learns that Slim has been hired by congresswoman and presidential candidate Henrietta Valenzuela to investigate her opponent Barrington Bradford Bollinger III. She purportedly suspects that the candidate is faking his blindness, and Slim asks for Chase’s help. But before he can make much progress, Chase is framed for the murder of someone he’s close to.
The second installment in author Craig N. Hooper’s Garrison Chase series begins with a bang, featuring one of the greatest opening lines we’ve seen all year: “The man who taught me two different ways to kill a person with my index finger showed up on my doorstep at twenty past six.” As with Hooper’s stellar debut, The Greatest Good, The Thin Line manages to operate within the dirty world of politics without being remotely political while delivering a thoroughly satisfying FBI procedural. While Chase has his theories as to the complex network of human trafficking, murder and politics at the book’s core, Hooper manages to deliver surprises until the very end.
Much like Harry Bosch in Michael Connelly’s outrageously successful series, Chase is obsessed with two things: delivering justice in a hopelessly unjust world, and protecting the fragmented remains of his family. Written in the first person, Chase exudes humanity and a depth of character that is rare for the genre. In particular, his relationship with Karla is expertly written, beautifully exploring the reality that those close to him always seem to pay a high price. Highly recommended.
The Ninth Session by Deborah Serani
Dr. Alicia Reese’s first encounter with new patient Lucas Ferro begins as she finds him suffering from a crippling panic attack in her darkened office bathroom. Ferro has been in therapy before, and he’s worried that nobody can help him. By their third meeting, he discloses vague details of what may be a murder scene, and Dr. Reese’s post-session notes set the stage for what will be a deeply unsettling relationship: “Am I in danger knowing this?”
Author Dr. Deborah Serani, a widely published psychologist whose work can be found across mainstream media, has crafted a thriller that is as hair-raising as it is believable. Serani tells the story from Dr. Reese’s point of view, who feels duty-bound to balance her legal and ethical obligations with fears for her personal safety. Should she risk Googling the details of the alleged incident to try to learn more, knowing that her search could be compromised or tracked? Should she confide in her supervisor?
Serani employs a tightly wound plot, wasting little time on backstory or world-building. While a personal tragedy in Dr. Reese’s life becomes relevant to the narrative, Serani prefers to focus on the sense of foreboding that begins in the first chapter and how much Dr. Reese’s professional code weighs on her in real-time. It’s a magnificent setup, and the build-up pays off early and often throughout the book. Let’s hope Serani has a series planned for Dr. Reese.
The Institute by Stephen King
A psychic thriller that ranks among King’s best.
Stephen King’s latest thriller The Institute is in no way a sequel to Dr. Sleep (which itself was a sequel to The Shining), but thematically speaking, it’s a close cousin. As in Dr. Sleep, villains with terrifying psychic powers are hell bent on leveraging the powers of gifted children.
In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”
In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help.
But no one has ever escaped.
Brave readers will not be disappointed.
Watching You by Lisa Jewell
What’s creepier than a peeping Tom? How about an obsessive, socially dysfunctional teenager who spends all his free time watching and cataloguing the movements of his neighbors? He even has nicknames for them, like “red boots.” Oh, did I mention that his biggest dream is to become a spy?
Melville Heights is one of the nicest neighborhoods in Bristol, England; home to doctors and lawyers and old-money academics. It’s not the sort of place where people are brutally murdered in their own kitchens. But it is the sort of place where everyone has a secret.
As the headmaster credited with turning around the local school, Tom Fitzwilliam is beloved by one and all—including Joey Mullen, his new neighbor, who quickly develops an intense infatuation with this thoroughly charming yet unavailable man. Joey thinks her crush is a secret, but Tom’s teenaged son Freddie (the one who is always watching) is all too aware.
One of Tom’s students, Jenna Tripp, also lives on the same street, and she’s not convinced her teacher is as squeaky clean as he seems. For one thing, he has taken a particular liking to her best friend and fellow classmate, and Jenna’s mother—whose mental health has admittedly been deteriorating in recent years—is convinced that Mr. Fitzwilliam is stalking her.
Meanwhile, twenty years earlier, a schoolgirl writes in her diary, charting her doomed obsession with a handsome young English teacher named Mr. Fitzwilliams.
What could go wrong?
Lisa Jewell has created a complete ecosystem made up of just the right people, with the right urges, and the right weaknesses for a delectable mystery. Impeccably paced, Watching You is not to be missed.
Run Away by Harlan Coben
You’d never know by looking at her, but drug addict Paige Green is the daughter of a Wall Street financial adviser and a pediatrician. When her father, Simon, spots her playing guitar and panhandling in Central Park, he tries to help. But all hell breaks loose as addict boyfriend Aaron Corval gets in the way.
Paige flees during the melee, only to become a suspect in Aaron’s murder when he’s found dead in the Bronx.
Enter, Elena a retired FBI agent who is now a private investigator. The ensuing story is a rollercoaster involving drugs, cults and the power of family. While there are some powerful dramatic moments in the book, the story is driven by quick pacing and plot twists that few will see coming. Expect to be heavily invested in these characters from the get-go.
The Broadcast by Liam Fialkov
That is the promise of a fascinating technology at the center of The Broadcast, a novel about a television network called TXB that produces believable footage of contemporary events, as well as historically significant ones, such as the Battle of Gettysburg, without so much as a set, a production crew, actors or animators. The footage appears to be, for lack of a better term, authentic. Is it real, or some kind of hoax?
Meanwhile, TXB fan Sarah, a psychologist who lives with her husband in a small central California town directly on the San Andreas Fault, is perpetually haunted by the forced adoption of her newborn son when she was just sixteen. While she and her husband appear to build a life together – complete with three dogs, eleven cats, the chickens, ducks, and geese – it’s really a house of cards on the verge of collapse. The circumstances surrounding her pregnancy and the mystery over her son’s whereabouts have left a void in her life that proves impossible to satiate, leading to increasingly provocative behavior that threatens to turn her life upside down. Author Liam Fialkov takes his time building Sarah’s character arc, and the payoff is worth the wait.
In terms of sheer real estate, one could argue that this is Sarah’s story, but the concept itself is truly the star. When religious groups become concerned about whether TXB can reach back 2000 years, and what future episodes might reveal, Liam Fialkov’s fascinating concept becomes a bonafide page-turner. Like Dave Eggers’ The Circle, The Broadcast also evokes important questions about society’s relationship to media, surveillance and personal privacy.
The Madhouse by Lawrence Matrick M.D.
The Madhouse is the story of New Orleans native Alex Gage, who struggles out of poverty to become not only a respected psychiatrist, but also an aspiring reformist. The story begins in the deep south as Alex is born with a clubfoot that keeps him from being drafted (it would be surgically repaired later in life). Despite his ascension to higher learning, he finds himself working as a physician in a Canadian mental institution – a nightmarish shop of horrors that would make Dante reconsider his definition of hell.
Alex’s colleague, Dr. Aaron Levy, a former Italian mafia thug, spends his time sexually assaulting the nurses, plying them with cocaine and morphine, abusing his patients, and talking about himself in the third person (“Aaron is poorly prepared.”)
Alex’s life takes a turn for the worse when he stupidly confides in Aaron, telling him about a deadly encounter with a man his mother knew back home. Shortly afterwards, Aaron begins blackmailing him, repeatedly requesting that he break the law in exchange for his silence. It’s a brilliant twist that instantly raises the book’s already sky-high stakes.
Alex’s girlfriend, Monique, organizes the women to march and force the early changes to the primitive abortion laws in the country. The nuns, the female ward supervisors, Rani, an East Indian female doctor, and the female nurses endeavor to help Alex change the oppressive attitudes towards the institutionalized orphaned children, the aboriginals, the mentally deficient and intellectually deprived patients. Working together, will they be able to change the course of treatment as to prefrontal lobotomies, and to abolish illegal female sterilization?
Author Lawrence Matrick, M.D. has drawn an extremely evocative world where danger lurks around every corner, especially where medicine is practiced. But The Madhouse is more than just a gritty crime thriller. Matrick, himself a former psychiatrist with experience as a mental hospital resident, employs the medical practices of 20th-century psychiatry to terrifying effect. Note that The Madhouse is not for the faint of heart. The book is chock full of bone-chilling afflictions and remedies, ranging from venereal disease to lobotomies and shock therapy, and Matrick includes them without ever seeming gratuitous. As an added bonus, Matrick has added an epilogue detailing a brief history of the evolution of mental institutions.
To Hell With Johnny Manic by Andrew Diamond
The Bottom Line: One of the year’s best thrillers. Part psychological suspense, part contemporary noir, Johnny Manic is wonderfully unreliable.
Tom Gantry, a.k.a. Johnny Manis, a.k.a. Johnny Manic, is having an identity crisis of epidemic proportions. As Tom tells it, the gregarious, effortlessly cool Johnny Manis became legendary in the tech world for making a fortune off mobile video games, publishing a manifesto, then deleting his social media accounts and going off the grid. He has a spotless criminal record, or so he tells himself. Meanwhile, alter ego Tom is a fugitive embezzler with a gambling problem who is in violation of his parole.
As the novel begins, Tom is in a Vegas casino, and is on a losing streak. Afraid that his addiction to roulette and craps will leave him broke, he wires $240,000 to his ailing father’s healthcare provider, leaving just $10,000 for his own survival. Eager to get out of town, and yet equally motivated to “kill John Manis once and for all,” Tom meets a computer technician from Napa and, following a crazy impulse, offers to purchase the man’s struggling business.
Tom may be mixed up about who he is, but grifting his in his blood. When he spots Marilyn Dupree in a grocery store, his killer instinct takes over. Marilyn is the wealthy wife of a philandering software tycoon. Having consciously or unconsciously found his mark, Tom begins a precarious journey that catches the attention of local Detective Lou Eisenfall. As Tom works his magic while balancing his identity, the ensuing cat-and-mouse game is one for the ages.
Andrew Diamond, author of the critically acclaimed Gate 76, has created a truly riveting tale of deception, murder and psychological suspense. Part psychological thriller, part noir, Diamond has accomplished the incredibly difficult task of deriving true suspense from the battle for supremacy going on within Tom’s own mind. As Diamond unfurls this highly entertaining caper, readers will take great pleasure in spotting the lies Tom tells himself – and us.
Verses for the Dead by Preston & Child
What could be worse than an extended government shutdown? For the eccentric Aloysius Xingu Leng Pendergast, the answer is a leadership overhaul at the FBI New York field office. Pendergast likes to work alone, and thanks to the agency shakeup, those days are seemingly over.
In Preston and Child’s 20th series book, Pendergast and his new colleague, junior agent Coldmoon, are assigned to investigate a rash of killings in Miami Beach, where a bloodthirsty psychopath is cutting out the hearts of his victims and leaving them with cryptic handwritten letters at local gravestones. The graves are unconnected save in one bizarre way: all belong to women who committed suicide.
But the apparent lack of connection between the old suicides and the new murders is soon the least of Pendergast’s worries. Because as he digs deeper, he realizes the brutal new crimes may be just the tip of the iceberg: a conspiracy of death that reaches back decades.
It goes without saying that Preston and Child are among the best in the business at constructing a deliciously elaborate crime and meticulously deconstructing it. The question here is whether Pendergast is better served with a partner, and the answer is yes. Like Holmes and Watson, Pendergast and Coldmoon are a wonderfully odd pairing, and equal far more than the sum of their parts. If you’ve never read any books in the series, Verses for the Dead is a perfect place to start.
LION: Escape from Russia by Douglas Misquita
As the Islamic State closes in on one of Syria’s most notorious military prisons, captured Syrian freedom fighter Aslan “The Lion” Terzi is on the brink of suicide. Having suffered betrayal and torture, he welcomes death when the ISIL fighters storm his cell. To his great surprise, they set him free.
But as he is leaving Syria, Terzi learns that Sarah Rashnikov – the daughter of a rebel financier, whom Terzi had vowed to keep safe – is a virtual prisoner by her madman husband (the same man who betrayed Terzi in the days leading up to his capture). Terzi also happens to be in love with her. Against all sound reason, he turns back into the war-torn country to fulfill his destiny.
Author Douglas Misquita’s sixth novel is perhaps his richest yet, brimming with complex geopolitics involving Syria and ISIL, intelligence agencies from Russia and the United States, and a large cast of characters. Misquita’s depiction of spycraft and alliance-building across organizations and cultures is substantial and completely engrossing.
Ultimately, Terzi’s plight is the heart of the novel, which is reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo – not only because it begins with a stroke of fortune after a period of prolonged imprisonment, but also because the themes of revenge, duty and love are so prevalent throughout. As heroes go, Terzi is a series-worthy combination of brains, brawn and courage, and Misquita uses him to great effect.
Yellow Death by Alex Lettau
The Bottom Line: Yellow Death is an irresistible medical thriller with the urgency of Contagion and the gritty conspiratorial intrigue of Narcos. One of the year’s best thrillers.
When two cases of fatal hepatitis C are reported in a small town, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) sends medical detective Dr. Kris Jensen to Mississippi to investigate. Both victims were junkies. A fatal hep C cluster is almost unheard of, and Dr. Jensen becomes convinced that a previously unknown virus is responsible for the deaths.
And what could be worse than an outbreak of an unknown disease? Losing the expert charged with the investigation. While drawing heart blood from a corpse, Dr. Jensen is accidentally stuck with a needle and infected with the fatal mystery disease.
Author Alex Lettau, the pen name of an American infectious disease specialist, sets the hook deep and early with a series of fast-paced early chapters that would translate well to the big screen. Lettau frames Dr. Jensen with a truly unique conundrum: does she tell anyone she’s infected? If she does, she would surely get pulled off the investigation into the outbreak, which could lessen the probability of finding answers to the virus’ origin.
After heading to New Orleans in search of a “sparkly” new heroin that could be the cause, she uncovers a conspiracy set in motion by another federal agency. The futility of the war on narcotic drugs, and the blowback by heavy-handed American tactics, has rarely been more smartly illustrated. The entirety of the investigation feels authentic, from the motivations of shadowy DEA agents down to the sketchy lab test results.
Just as the stakes seem as high as they could possibly get, Lettau raises them again: when Dr. Jensen travels to the Venezuelan jungle to investigate the origin of the virus, she finds that her infection isn’t the only thing threatening her life.
Bionic Bug by Natasha Bajema
The Bottom Line: A funny, vibrant, high-tech detective novel. One of the year’s best thrillers.
Set nearly a decade in the future, Bionic Bug begins as struggling private investigator Lara Kingsley and her partner and best friend, Sully, are hanging out at their favorite local haunt. Lara notices something odd about his appearance, but he doesn’t want to talk about it. Days later, the pair arrive separately to a Washington Nationals baseball game. Only Lara leaves the game alive.
Does Sully’s death have anything to do with the swarm of drones that descended upon the stadium? What was the gadget he held at the stadium? And did his death have anything to do with a terrorist attack he helped the FBI prevent?
As Lara begins the investigation into Sully’s death, she learns that the FBI was actually keeping him under surveillance. Her quest to find out what Sully was involved in and who killed him lead her to a world where gene editing is increasingly threatening, the dark web is alive and well, and the stakes for humanity are higher than she ever imagined.
While Natasha Bajema’s twisty plot is well-crafted and filled with plenty of surprises, what sets the novel apart from the crowd is Lara, easily one of the most personable and empathetic characters this year. As a business owner, she’s an utter failure, but not because she isn’t smart. The brilliant surveillance expert has even joined Mensa as an alternative to online dating, and her observations, whether professional or personal, are often effortlessly hilarious. We look forward to riding along as she fights for love and justice in an increasingly frightening world. Readers will want to get in on the ground floor of this vibrant sci-fi detective series.
Blood-Red Mist by Michael Allan Scott
In Michael Allan Scott’s second Jena Halpern series book, the formidable psychic boards a plane to Washington, D.C., where her terminally ill stepfather is hospitalized in nearby Silver Springs Silver Spring. The trip is a powder keg of emotion, as the two haven’t spoken in years. At one time in the distant past, the two came perilously close to having an affair.
En route to the hospital, Jena instructs the Uber driver to change course and take her to the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. She’s not entirely sure why – it’s just a strong feeling. In alternate chapters told from the point of view of FDA Director Thomas A. Friedman, M.D., we gradually understand that Jena is right. Something is very wrong at the FDA. In exchange for ten million dollars and a trip to the Cayman Islands, Friedman is willing to approve a dangerous new antidepressant. But before that can happen, his contact goes missing.
Is there a connection between Jena’s stepfather’s lymphoma and whatever is happening at the FDA?
Blood-Red Mist finds Jena Halpern trusting her intuition and very real extrasensory powers. At the same time, she realizes that she is extremely vulnerable – the powerful physical effects of her visions have actually hospitalized her in the past. She must somehow learn to control them, and this inner struggle is one of the most compelling stories in fiction today.
Aside from Scott’s jaw-dropping character development, he has created a wholly believable medical thriller that is rooted in reality. Blood-Red Mist comes at a time when accusations about FDA corruption appears to be at an all-time high, and the consequences of big pharma’s seemingly unchecked power is terrifying. The book isn’t just one of the year’s best thrillers. It’s also one of the most important.