Ten Best Mystery/Thriller Writers

Wrapping up my blog tour for my historical mystery, The Babe Ruth DeceptionI want to honor ten mystery/thriller writers who made me want to write that type of book.  The list reflects my tastes, freely acknowledged here:

  • Not a lot of gore or mass violence.  They’re distractions.
  • Smart, polished writing.
  • Close, loving attention to the people in the story, not just the story – unless the story’s totally amazing.

Ex-spook, brilliant spy and thriller writer, John Le Carre.

John Le Carre — The master.  From The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) through Russia House (1989), Le Carré captured the tensions, hypocrisies, and terrors of the Cold War.  With the fall of the Soviet Union, he reinvented himself, exploring the same themes around the globe in great yarns like The Constant Gardener (2001), The Tailor of Panama (1996), and Our Kind of Traitor(2010).  Witty, ironic, the Muse of Moral Ambiguity.

The “Dickens of Detroit,” Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard – The master, American version, who packed more description into fewer words than anyone.  Try this character from Tishomingo Blues: “all the way cool.”  You could use more words, but why?  He did Detroit-based stories (Split ImagesCity Primeval), Florida stories (Maximum BobOut of Sight) and anything he damn well pleased.  Get Shorty may be perfect.

Eric Ambler – This British espionage writer created dense atmosphere, quirky characters, and compelling yarns.  The early books (Journey Into FearThe Mask of Dimitrios) explore devious men wandering through the world-gone-mad of fascism and communism.  His later books widened his scope.  A favorite is his last, The Care of Time (as in “time will take care of him”).

Rex Stout – I haven’t yet joined the Nero Wolfe Literary Society (yup, there is one!), but I can’t resist the fat epicurean sleuth who loves orchids and never leaves his Manhattan townhouse (well, hardly ever).  Sidekick Archie Goodwin is the perfect counterweight (“weight,” get it?).  Try The League of Frightened Menor Too Many Cooksor any of them.

Baroness (of course!) P.D. James

P.D. James – A Scotland Yard investigator who writes poetry?  What can I say – it works in her Adam Dalgleish books (Cover Her FaceThe Private Patient).  James also made time for a woman protagonist, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.  Thoughtful, carefully-observed stories that draw you in deeper and deeper.

Olen Steinhauer – I know, I know, finally someone on this list who’s both alive and not yet eligible for senior discounts.  In fact, Steinhauer’s still in his 40s.  He’s hard for me to avoid, since his books appear on bookstore shelves just before mine (“Stei” comes before “Stew”. . .) and there are always quite a few more of his!  Still, concentrating on spy stories, he has produced a great trilogy (I loved The American Spy) and excellent stand-alone books (try The Cairo Affair).  The tension crackles, the intrigue is compelling.  An entire book told through a single dinner between former colleagues?  He pulled it off, beautifully, in All the Old Knives.

Robert B. Parker – The Spenser books.  I rest my case.  One of the few recurring-character series that I just kept coming back for.  They’re so good that new ones are still coming out even though Parker died seven years ago (written by Ace Atkins).  The novels go down fast, with the smoothest pacing. Try Early Autumn or The Judas Goat

Josephine Tey – Her novel The Daughter of Time showed that an investigator could unearth secrets from the historical past (in her case, the

Josephine Tey, who inspired my first book.

15th-century killing of the princes in the Tower of London).  That inspired my first mystery, The Lincoln Deception.  Though I haven’t been crazy about her other books, Daughter of Time is perfect.

Arthur Conan Doyle – It’s crazy to have him down this low on the list.  Sherlock Holmes will always be with us. Here’s a short list of Doyle’s legacy (1) The dog that didn’t bark.  (2) There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.  (3) When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Great stuff. Not to mention the deerstalker hat, the pipe, the cocaine, the violin, the crazy older brother.  Ah. . . .

Charles McCarry – Another espionage writer, also alive (!).  McCarry’s first novel, The Miernik Dossier, was extraordinary.  His novel about the Kennedy assassination, The Tears of Autumn, is the best guess I’ve seen as to what happened in Dallas in November 1963.  Also nice, I’ve met him (he lives in northern Virginia), and he’s a charming guy.

Charles McCarry and me, celebrating his most recent novel.

That’s my list so far.  Great writers didn’t make the cut:  Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, Walter Mosley, Alan Furst, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie.  Hey, it’s MY list.  Who’s on yours?


  1. Roger Fritts on August 1, 2017 at 7:38 pm

    I read and loved Dorothy L. Sayers, in my 20s. In my 30s I lived in New England and I read everything I could find by Robert Parker. In my 40s and 50s each year I would visit Santa Barbara and read Sue Grafton. After a visit to Edinburgh I started reading Ian Rankin. And when I visit Maryland I read D. Stewart!

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