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Many people have different opinions as to what goes into the best political thriller novels. Some readers want to read about a mystery, a conspiracy that, upon unfolding, will leave the world forever changed. Some readers want to read about soldiers defending their country's interests by combatting foreign threats, either utilizing their wits or very large guns.
We took both concepts into consideration when compiling this list of the best political thriller novels. Just one rule: only one book per writer. Otherwise, half this list would be Tom Clancy.
The best political thriller novels are powerful tails of intrigue and terror, of patriotism and political corruption, that leaves the reader – well, thrilled.
The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
Tom Clancy is one of the go-to authors if you're hungry for the best political thriller novels. Over the course of his career, Clancy (and his ghost writers) pumped out a great number of novels dealing with espionage, political intrigue, and open warfare.
Among his most famous novels are the Jack Ryan novels. And, among all of those, arguably the best of the Jack Ryan novels remains Clancy's debut novel: The Hunt for Red October.
This Cold War-era novel features Jack Ryan, CIA Agent, on the hunt for the Red October, a Soviet submarine hijacked by a Russian defector with a grudge against the communists in charge of his nation. The chase is on for the Red October. Whoever catches it can potentially forever alter the state of international politics.
While the film version starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin has become fairly iconic, the book is better.
The novel combines a real intense personal drama with the greater scope of political action. It elevated Clancy to international fame, establishing his career as the political thriller writer until his untimely passing in 2013.
House of Cards by Michael Dobbs
Ha! Didn't know the amazing Netflix series starring Kevin Spacey was an adaptation of a novel, did you? Yes, many know that House of Cards is based on a British television series from the early 90s, but, before that, there was the trilogy of novels by Michael Dobbs.
If you've seen either series, then the plot should be familiar territory. Political intrigue. Manipulation behind the scenes. A singular, charismatic politician (Francis Urquhart) who manipulates the political system to assume complete command of the country (in this case, Britain).
But there's a more subdued quality to the novel. Francis doesn't turn and talk to the audience like in the shows (that little element is drawn from a story very similar to House of Cards: William Shakespeare's Richard III).
For some, this may be a bit of a let-down when reading the book. For others, it may actually make the novel more dynamic, adding a layer of vulnerability and realism to the proceedings. Whatever your sensibilities, the novel remains one of the best political thriller novels ever written, and, certainly, a highly influential book in the world of entertainment.
Transfer of Power by Vince Flynn
Vince Flynn, for almost 15 years, posed as one of the few writers who threatened to dethrone Tom Clancy as one of the best political thriller novel writers. Flynn wrote a long-running series of political thrillers, centered around the character Mitch Rapp.
The books are known for being published out of chronological order. The chronological first book, American Assassin, is being released as a movie in September 2017.
The first published novel in Mitch Rapp's adventures (through, chronologically, the third book in the series), Transfer of Power tells the story of a terrorist attack on the White House.
The President is taken hostage, and the sinister Vice President, seeing a chance to rule, uses this moment to throw his political weight around. It's up to Mitch Rapp, super CIA agent and all-around badass, to save the President and stop the terrorists.
While the concept is simple and action-movie-ish, Transfer of Power is an incredibly thrilling novel. Flynn would end up becoming a story consultant on the television show 24 as a result of his fast-paced writing.
Flynn would continue to write novels until his untimely passing in 2013. 2013 was an awful year for the writers behind the best political thriller novels.
The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon
One of the greatest cinematic political thrillers of all time is based on a little clever novel. While the film has overshadowed the original novel behind it all, Richard Condon's Cold War story remains one of the best political thriller novels.
The concept is simple: a sleeper agent, hypnotized by the Russians, is picking off key political figures. All it takes is a single trigger to set off the killer – but who is it? Who is responsible? And how does this tie in to a group of soldiers who can't shake a series of dreadful nightmares ruining their peace of mind?
While many political thrillers dive into mysteries – be it conspiracies or murders – few capture the genuine paranoia of an era like The Manchurian Candidate does. It exploits genuine terror. There are no superhero super-spies in this. Just people subject to forces beyond their understanding. At times, it almost goes into horror territory in terms of how helpless and vulnerable all our characters seem to be.
This is not the kind of story where the hero can shoot his way to victory.
The Camel Club by David Baldacci
David Baldacci's The Camel Club remains a farcical mystery hidden within a political thriller. It introduced readers to a cast of characters who Baldacci would reuse in several novels to follow.
The Camel Club, located on the outskirts of Washington DC, investigate and research conspiracies for the fun of it. Their leader is the mysterious "Oliver Stone," named after the famed political thriller director. It's all fun and games, until the club witnesses a murder. The Secret Service contacts them, and, soon, their knowledge and experience with fictional conspiracies is put to the test to unravel a very real – and very deadly – conspiracy.
Unlike many of the best political thriller novels, Baldacci's book is a little farcical. It in many ways reflects on our cultural obsession with conspiracies and political controversies, while balancing out a straight-forward murder mystery narrative.
The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
What Forsyth does so well in his novel is create a genuine sense of paranoia and anxiety.
A failed assassination attempt has left the country of France in an uproar. The OAS, a right-wing group, has hired the Jackal to kill the president after their most recent assassination attempt failed. The Jackal, as you can guess, is one of the most dangerous assassins out there - and has no issue killing others to reach his target.
Detective Claude Lebel is on the case, investigating the tangled web of international intrigue behind the Jackal assassinations. And he better do it fast, because Lebel believes that the Jackal's next target will be the President of France.
The book follows the Jackal on his journey to assassinate President de Gaulle, as well as Lebel's chase after him. Can Lebel prevent the biggest assassination in modern French history?
Again, this political thriller novel gets what makes political thriller novels so powerful: thrills. And not the sort of thrill you get hearing about a super soldier mowing down a line of adversaries. No, our hero is vulnerable and in over his head. The Day of the Jackal effectively captures the terror of the mystery in order to really leave the reader more than a little uncomfortable.
Fatherland by Robert Harris
Some of the best political thriller novels deal with fantastic ideas. Super spies? Conspiracies? All fine and good, but Robert Harris's debut novel Fatherland, written after a career working at the BBC, tackles an interesting concept: what if Adolf Hitler won the war?
When a high ranking German official is murdered, an SS officer named Xavier March investigates the scene, uncovering a secret conspiracy to cover up a secret operation carried out in the 1940s: The Final Solution.
Though many alternative history novels have speculated how WWII might have been different given various factors (including a few novels where Nazis ride dinosaurs), Robert Harris adds a dose of realism in this novel. This isn't some crazy, over-the-top story, but a genuine, serious look at how the world would be different under Nazi occupation.
Furthermore, it not only presents a cynical world view where Nazis won, but it even presents a world where the very Holocaust is forgotten – especially among the people living under Nazi occupation. Even our protagonist, Xavier, has no idea what happened to Europe's Jewish population. It's a grim book, but one that offers a fascinating look at a world that could have been – but, thank God, never happened.
The Lions of Lucerne by Brad Thor
Brad Thor's debut political novel received mixed reviews upon release. While the literary community dismissed it for the most part, fans of political thriller novels embraced it seemingly overnight, with many raising Thor to the ranks of Clancy. Perhaps for this reason alone, The Lions of Lucerne is worthy of consideration among the best political thriller novels ever.
An attack on the president has left 30 Secret Service agents in the grave and the president kidnapped. The only survivor is Scot Harvath, ex-Navy SEAL and all around badass.
The White House has declared that a terrorist organization is behind the whole affair, but Scot, who saw the attack first hand, has doubts. His pursuit for the truth leads to the discovery of a shadowy conspiracy within the United States, one that will leave the whole world in jeopardy.
The novel launched Thor's career as a writer, leading to him creating many more political thriller novels worth reading, as well as plenty of more adventures for his hero, Scot Harvath. Most notably, The Last Patriot, which would have made this list if it clearly wasn't a knock-off of The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure.
Yes. I compared Brad Thor's work to a Nicolas Cage family film. Deal with it.
Deception Point by Dan Brown
Dan Brown is far more renown for ignoring centuries of history for his thriller novels. The Da Vinci Code convinced countless people that a work of fiction somehow presented the secret to the Holy Grail (in part because Dan Brown overtly made stuff up, and presented it as truth throughout the book).
His earlier novel Deception Point has sort of faded into obscurity, which is a real shame. In many respects, it's Brown's best book.
When NASA discovers a meteorite in the Arctic, the organization – which was suffering a period of bad press following high expenditure and minimal results – claims to have found evidence of extraterrestrial life. Independent scientists – including the daughter of a senator running for president – are dispatched to analyze the meteor.
And learn that the meteor is a fake.
A massive network of conspiracies begins to unravel, and each one might lead to the complete alteration of the American political landscape.
Dan Brown's novel is not about a conspiracy theory, but, rather, several competing conspiracies fighting for supremacy. It feels at once cynical and real – a lot more real, in fact, than most of Dan Brown's works.
Power Down by Ben Coes
A lot of political thriller novels read sometimes like over-the-top action movies. And there's nothing wrong with that. Some novels are layered, nuanced commentaries about society. Others are about people blowing up.
Ben Coes, when writing Power Down, went for the latter.
Terrorists blow up a dam and demolish an oil rig – all in an attempt to cripple America. The only solution? A really, really badass former soldier named Dewey Andreas. Dewey is here to kick-ass, stop terrorists, stop corrupt billionaires funding terrorists, and all in the name of 'Merica!
As I understand it, Ben Coes was a White House speech writer before publishing Power Down. I am convinced that Coes's education on story structure and narrative technique comes from watching Commando and Rambo III. This novel has no intellectual value whatsoever. This isn't a book that feeds your brain.
This is a medium-rare bacon cheeseburger. It is an overly macho story filled with chases and thrills. Just try not to think too much about some of the problematic implications (do normal women not exist in this world?).
From Russia, With Love by Ian Fleming
You didn't expect me to talk about the best political thriller novels without mentioning at least one James Bond novel, did you? The super spy may be a cinematic icon, but before Sean Connery or Roger Moore turned their guns on SPECTRE spies, there was Ian Fleming, the writer behind it all.
Of all Fleming's novels, perhaps his best is From Russia, With Love, in part because it is the most unusual and distinct of his works. It also is the most political thriller-y of all his novels, dealing with the interaction between the nations on either side of the Iron Curtain.
Of course, it's important to note that Fleming's Bond is different than Connery's Bond. Fleming wrote Bond as a sociopathic assassin without empathy toward other people. In many respects, this makes the character far more unpleasant, and turns a story about good and evil into a narrative about a protagonist fighting a clearly worse organization. It adds a real layer of nuance to the conflict, if only because Bond isn't a good person. He's a misogynist, a functioning alcoholic, and actually enjoys killing a little. Bond is a hero by function, but not by personality.
It's funny. So many of the political thriller heroes are inspired by Bond. They're all elite spies or soldiers, and so many authors make them the hero.
Bond himself isn't "nice" in these books - at all, really. I don't know if Fleming intended on Bond to come across as such a monster, but that darker layer to the character exists in the novels, which makes him, in many respects, a far more interesting character. This level of gray, which is emphasized especially in From Russia, With Love, makes Ian Fleming the mastermind behind several of the best political thriller novels ever written.