The joy of crime fiction: authors from Lee Child to Paula Hawkins pick their favourite books | Crime fiction

Paula Hawkins

Paula Hawkins

Author of The Girl on the Train

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
Memorable and compelling characters. Plot twists and cliffhangers can feel manufactured, but a great character never does.

What’s your favourite thriller of all time?
Barbara Vine’s A Dark-Adapted Eye, in which the mystery is not a murder but the puzzle presented by the fraught relationships, secrets and lies of a dysfunctional family. Vine’s shrewd psychological insights are applied not to serial killers or criminal masterminds but to us – ordinary people.

What’s the best one you’ve read recently?
Danya Kukafka’s Notes on an Execution, which subverts traditional serial killer narratives in a taut and compelling thriller and asks searching questions about the way we talk about (and write about) crime.

Richard Osman

Richard Osman

Author of The Thursday Murder Club

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
Characters we care about, set an impossible problem, or facing impossible obstacles. We live in a world where, increasingly, our problems seem to have no clear solutions. But in crime novels, however impossible the initial problem, the author promises you there will be a solution. That’s the contract that makes crime fiction so addictive and so enduring.

Favourite thriller of all time?
Such an awful question, I love it. I think I would have to go for Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.

Best recent read?
A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better by Benjamin Wood. Is it a thriller? I really couldn’t say. That’s the joy of beautifully written crime fiction.

Sean French

Nicci French

The pseudonym for the writing partnership of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, author of The Lying Room

Nicci Gerrard

What makes a great thriller/crime novel
Like any other great work of art, a great thriller has to be an unforgettably personal vision. It also needs a couple of real scares and an ending you didn’t see coming.

Favourite thriller of all time?
Nicci
: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: uncanny, eerily sinister, packed with strange, vivid characters, a gorgeous gothic masterpiece.
Sean: Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow (1987). Horrible murder, great setting, stunning twist.

Best recent read?
Nicci
: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk: a stunningly subversive feminist eco-thriller that is compelling, fierce and funny, with a shocking twist.
Sean: Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong (1950). An absolutely terrifying story about hiring the wrong babysitter.

SA Cosby

SA Cosby

Author of Blacktop Wasteland

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
I think the main ingredient for a great thriller is compelling characters you really care about. Doesn’t matter how intense your plot is if no one cares whether or not your characters survive.

Favourite thriller of all time?
I think I have to say Red Dragon by Thomas Harris: it’s a tour de force of suspense and gravitas. Followed closely by Darkness, Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane.

Best recent read?
I have two. What’s Done in Darkness by Laura McHugh and Her Name Is Knight by Yasmin Angoe… both incredible, powerful but very different books.

Karin Slaughter

Karin Slaughter

Author of False Witness

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
The characters have to matter as much as the plot, and the plot has to matter as much as the characters. Unless you have that balance, then readers will never care about your work as much as you do.

Favourite thriller of all time?
The Talented Mr Ripley is a case study in character-building through suspense. It is the first book that made me understand what an antihero can do. Heathcliff is so passive and broody. Ripley murders people and you’re really, really hoping he’ll get away with it.

Best recent read?
Things We Do in the Dark by Jennifer Hillier is a twisty, dark joyride.

Lee Child

Lee Child and Andrew Child

Authors of the Jack Reacher series

Andrew Child

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
Somehow we have to make our readers feel genuinely concerned, worried, anxious and scared by the predicament, while simultaneously offering them a subliminal reassurance that everything will turn out right in the end, with justice done and order restored.

Favourite thriller of all time?
Theseus and the Minotaur, as told by Plutarch. That 3,500-year-old tale has been endlessly reproduced – Ian Fleming’s Dr No is structurally identical – and never really improved upon.

Best recent read?
Lee
: Last year I reread Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal because I was asked to write a foreword for its 50th anniversary… It’s a year-zero genre reboot that defined the modern movement toward detailed, procedural narrative, where the intrigue is about how, not just what.
Andrew: Steve Cavanagh’s The Accomplice, out this month: suppose you’re a serial killer’s innocent, unknowing wife, but you’re on trial as his accomplice? It’s a great story that does everything we asked for in our first answer.

Tess Gerritsen

Tess Gerritsen

Author of Listen to Me

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
Sky-high personal stakes. It’s nice if the hero saves the world, but unless readers are deeply engaged with his or her emotional journey, we won’t care what happens.

Favourite thriller of all time?
Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett. We know the Nazis will be defeated, but it’s the fate of the unassuming yet courageous heroine that makes our hearts race.

Best recent read?
Dark Objects by Simon Toyne. He paints characters with such fine strokes that we can see every pore. It’s exquisite writing with ever-ratcheting tension.

Michael Robotham

Michael Robotham

Author of When She Was Good

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
A great thriller has a ticking clock at the heart of the story, counting down to disaster. It is a race against time. Can the killer be stopped? Can the world be saved?

Favourite thriller of all time?
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris pits one of literature’s greatest villains, Hannibal Lecter, against a young, ambitious FBI agent, Clarice Starling, in a battle of wits and race against time to save the life of a kidnapped woman.

Best recent read?
Razorblade Tears by SA Crosby. Heartbreaking. Violent. Provocative. Brilliant.

Dorothy Koomson

Dorothy Koomson

Author of I Know What You’ve Done

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
Compelling plot, characters with depth, and a satisfying conclusion. A great thriller gives you enough info at the right time to technically work out the plot at any point. The worst thing is feeling cheated because all of the clues are thrown at you 10 pages before the end.

Favourite thriller of all time?
I’ve been reading for more than 40 years, I can’t have any favourite book of all time.

Best recent read?
Next of Kin by Kia Abdullah. It’s gut-wrenching because it deals with the death of a child and whether or not his aunt is responsible for his death, but it has all the great thriller elements of a compelling plot, realistic characters and a cracking ending.

Tana French

Tana French

Author of The Searcher

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
For me, the great crime novels are the ones that take the genre conventions and do something new with them – use them as a jumping-off point rather than a set of solid rules.

Favourite thriller of all time?
I have two all-time favourites: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – all the elements of a noir, but transposed to an alternative history where a chunk of Alaska has become a temporary Jewish homeland – and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a mystery turned inside out where you find out who killed whom on the first page.

Best recent read?
My favourite recent read was a classic: Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a standard country-house, closed-circle mystery with one twist that transformed the whole genre.

Rev Richard Coles

The Rev Richard Coles

Author of Murder Before Evensong

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
A world that seems tranquil and at peace with itself suddenly coming apart with violence. Then details we barely noticed start to come into focus, characters we thought we knew do something peculiar, and the tension that drives the action resolves in one way or another, although nothing is ever quite the same again.

Favourite thriller of all time?
My favourite thriller is probably Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s unsparing and ingenious account of innocence, experience and the complex and ambiguous nature of love.

Best recent read?
The one I’ve liked most recently is Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, about addiction and betrayal, gaslighting and bravery.

Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott

Author of Give Me Your Hand

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
Great thrillers get under your skin. They deal with primal emotions, fears, longings. The things we try to hide, the feelings that bring us shame, the impulses we try to control, the guilt we can’t shake. In thrillers, it all spills over on to the page. It’s a sort of exorcism.

Favourite thriller of all time?
Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, a perfect book, full of haunted glamour. A close second is A Secret History by Donna Tartt. I’ve gone back to it countless times and with each revisit I find new revelations hidden inside.

Best recent read?
Alison Gaylin’s The Collective. Utterly terrifying and uncannily of the moment.

Rachel Edwards

Rachel Edwards

Author of Darling

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
A great thriller is rarely “about” a body in a room. I need ideas. I also wish to accompany the protagonist at the point of greatest jeopardy and see how they get on. Peril is priceless. It fuels us, as humans: we need to know how we might cope.

Favourite thriller of all time?
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. An exquisite study of human frailty and flaws that is also irresistibly compelling.

Best recent read?
Without Prejudice by Nicola Williams. Published in 1997, it features a 30-year-old British barrister from a Caribbean background. I’m all for books that add something new and noteworthy to the literary world.

Mark Billingham

Mark Billingham

Author of the Tom Thorne novels

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
Character is key. As crime and thriller writers we have various weapons in our armoury – the reveal, the cliffhanger, the twist – but to create real suspense, you need to give readers characters they can genuinely engage with.

Favourite thriller of all time?
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. In Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, Harris gives us two iconic characters to engage with, albeit in very different ways.

Best recent read?
Mick Herron’s Bad Actors is the latest in the wonderful Slough House series. With all the thriller jollies any fan of espionage fiction could want, it’s also wickedly satirical and laugh-out-loud funny.

Val McDermid

Val McDermid

Author of The Wire in the Blood series

​​What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
If we’re not invested in the characters, we have no skin in the game. We need to believe in what they stand to lose, and the threats they face have to ratchet up. And of course we have to have those “Oh, my God!” moments when we didn’t see something coming. And at the end, a moment of resolution tinged with regret.

Favourite thriller of all time?
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré. Ominous, tense, clever, confounding and heartbreaking.

Best recent read?
Lying Beside You by Michael Robotham.

Mick Herron

Mick Herron

Author of the Slough House series

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
Most ingredients are easily stated: characters, dialogue, prose and plot all need to be of a high quality. But to reach greatness rather than mere competence, a touch of alchemy is also required; the ability to put these things together in a way no one has managed before.

Favourite thriller of all time?
Gorky Park. Martin Cruz Smith is a true alchemist.

Best recent read?
I much enjoyed Tim Weaver’s latest, The Blackbird. It’s a fine addition to an excellent series.

Attica Locke

Attica Locke

Author of The Cutting Season

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
For me, it’s a keen sense of place, being taken into a new world. Whether it’s South Central Los Angeles in the 1940s, as in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, or a working-class neighbourhood in Boston in Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, for example.

Favourite thriller of all time?
My answer to this question changes all the time. But one is Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott. It’s another that takes us into a new world – female scientists in the cut-throat field of academic research. It’s both thrilling and a deeply felt story about female friendship.

Best recent read?
The Searcher by Tana French.

Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz

Author of the Alex Rider series and a recent trilogy of James Bond novels

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
The book must refuse to let you go, demand that you keep turning the page, keep you utterly immersed in the story. Readability? Suspense? A brilliant idea gradually unveiling itself? It’s all three and more.

Favourite thriller of all time?
Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson is certainly one of them. A rediscovered classic from 1994, it’s tense and often brutal from start to finish – and brilliantly realised.

Best recent read?
I recently reread I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes and that’s also a superbly honed and cleverly constructed geo-political thriller. It set the world on fire at the time but what happened to the sequel? That’s one of the greatest literary mysteries of all.

David Lagercrantz

David Lagercrantz

Author of the ongoing Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
It takes style, of course, rhythm, some kind of musicality in the language. Also, surprises are a necessity. There can never be any inevitability in the course of events. Cliches, though, might be necessary; the genre would not survive without them. However, as an author you need to be aware of them and perhaps play with them. A touch of humour won’t hurt.

Favourite thriller of all time?
Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. I will never forget the feeling I had while reading it, entering a completely departed world and, afterwards, not only having been entertained, but also educated, enriched.

Best recent read?
I liked Jo Spain’s With Our Blessing very much.

Abigail Dean

Abigail Dean

Author of Girl A

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
That page-turning desperation to find out what really happened. A good thriller takes me back to childhood reading habits: a torch under the duvet, turning the pages as fast as I can. When that’s paired with great writing and fabulous characters, it’s magic.

Favourite thriller of all time?
Both Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects.

Best recent read?
I was transfixed by Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind. It had me thinking about it in the middle of the night, which can only be a good thing.

Rachel Howzell Hall

Rachel Howzell Hall

Author of These Toxic Things

What makes a great thriller/crime novel?
Great characters caught up in a great plot with an unforgettable setting. The people in the story have to be fully formed and real. The plot should be well paced, with breathless moments and moments where you can catch your breath. The setting should be menacing or challenging, as much a character as the humans. All of this as well as the sense of dread – readers should sense that something’s coming, something bad is about to happen… “Now? OK, what about now?”

Favourite thriller of all time?
Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, which is set in an insane asylum. It’s twisty and the characters are riveting. You care about Teddy and his struggles to find out whodunnit. I want to write a story like that one day.

Best recent read?
Ill Will by Dan Chaon. It has all the elements I believe make great thrillers. Unsolved crimes, unreliable memory… in Cleveland. There’s lots of dread and I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

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