Maybe it’s due to the recent release of the Bill Clinton/James Patterson collaboration The President is Missing. Or maybe it’s because the current political climate (nationally and/or internationally) makes you feel the slightest bit uneasy (maybe that’s an understatement). Whatever your reasons are, if you’re wanting to delve into the world of political thriller books, consider this post your political thriller starter kit.
Classic POLITICAL THRILLER BOOKS
You could argue that works as early as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar could count as political thrillers, but “political thriller” as a term and as a genre really first rose to prominence during the Cold War. Here are a few of the highlights from the political thriller’s beginnings.
The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon
As with many political thriller novels, the film adaptations of this novel are just as (if not more) well known as the original novel itself. Condon’s 1959 novel was first adapted in 1962 starring Frank Sinatra, and then the events of the novel were updated for a 2004 film starring Denzel Washington. Condon’s novel starts off during the Korean War, where Major Bennett Marco, Sergeant Raymond Shaw, and the rest of their infantry platoon are captured and brainwashed into believing that Shaw saved their lives during combat. As the novel progresses and these men return back to their normal lives, Marco has disturbing nightmares about Shaw. When he discovers that another soldier from that platoon is having similar recurring nightmares, Marco begins to uncover what truly happened to them during the war. Though there has been some controversy surrounding this book and its similarities to another early political thriller classic, I, Claudius, this novel and its adaptations are still considered classics of the genre.
This is yet another novel that has been famously adapted for film more than once. The Quiet American takes a look at French-occupied Vietnam right as Americans were becoming more involved with the country. When the novel was first published, there was quite a bit of controversy surrounding the text’s “anti-American” message. The novel follows Thomas Fowler, a British journalist, his live-in lover Phuong, and the titular “quiet American” character, Alden Pyle. Fowler and Phuong’s lives are forever changed when they meet Pyle, a CIA agent working undercover. The three characters become entangle in a love triangle, and Pyle’s secret mission leads to bloodshed.
POPULAR POLITICAL THRILLER BOOKS
If you love political thrillers or mystery books in general and haven’t read these yet, then you should start here.
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
Speaking of film adaptations, this 2013 political thriller was recently adapted into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, which has put the novel back in the spotlight. Dominika is a former Russian ballerina who is forced to go into espionage training after an injury cuts her dance career short. She is trained at the Sparrow school, where trainees are taught the power of seduction as a technique for getting what they need from their targets. This novel has been praised for its accurate and detailed depiction of surveillance techniques, and it was optioned for a film before ever hitting the shelves. The sequel Palace of Treason was just released last June.
The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
When looking for popular political thrillers, I found it hard to choose which Tom Clancy novel to list here. Ultimately, I had to give it up for The Hunt for Red October, Clancy’s debut novel and the first appearance of the ever-popular Jack Ryan character. This novel is loosely based on the mutiny on the Soviet frigate Storozhevoy in 1974. If you’re interested in the true story that inspired the first Jack Ryan novel, check out Mutiny: The True Events That Inspired The Hunt For Red October. But back to the novel: the Red October is a highly advanced nuclear submarine, and both the Americans and the Russians want it. Jack Ryan is a CIA analyst who finds himself in the middle of this high stakes hunt.
Casino royale by ian fleming
According to The Politics of James Bond, nearly half of the world’s population has seen a James Bond film, so the Ian Fleming novels that the movies are based on definitely seem to fit in the “popular” category. Some Bond stories are more political than others, especially the earlier ones that rely heavily on Cold War tensions to build conflict. So with that in mind, I offer you the first Bond novel Ian Fleming ever published, Casino Royale. In it, the spy who needs no introduction is on a mission to neutralize a lethal, high-rolling Russian operative called “le Chiffre” (BTW, that means “the Number”). Fleming’s 14 Bond novels are loosely based on his own real-life experiences as a member of the British Naval Intelligence, but how much of Bond’s spy world is based in reality and how much is fantasy? Read and decide for yourself.
EVEN MORE POLITICAL THRILLER BOOKS
So you’re familiar with the classics and some of the more popular political thriller books. What to read next? Check out some of these newer and lesser-known titles that are definitely worth a read.
Too Bad to Die by Francine Mathews
Speaking of Ian Fleming, Francine Mathews’s 2015 novel places Fleming front and center as the protagonist of his own thrilling spy adventure. Featuring real historical figures such as Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin, Too Bad to Die infuses Ian Fleming into an actual moment in political history—the Tehran Conference on 1943. When Ian Fleming discovers that Hitler has sent one of his best assassins to kill off the three world leaders, he must go undercover to stop the killer.
Palace Council by Stephen Carter
This political thriller spans three decades, starting in 1954 and ending in 1974, and the major action of the story takes places in varied locations such as Harlem, Washington, and Saigon. Does this book sound ambitious enough for you? Eddie Wesley is one of Harlem’s rising literary stars when he finds the body of a prominent lawyer who died clutching the talisman of a secret society in his fist. Suddenly Wesley is caught up in a world of spies and assassins, and when his sister mysteriously disappears, Wesley and the woman he loves, Aurelia Treene, become caught up in a twenty-year search to uncover the truth.
Let You Be My Puppet Once by Preetika Mehra
And now for something different: a political thriller set in India. It’s difficult to say much about this novel without giving away important plot points, but I will try. Four young employees of a multinational corporation seek revenge on prominent politicians and businessmen after suffering at their hands. Their efforts uncover a lot about the dark secrets of politicians and business groups, such as their connections to the mafia, among other things.
Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee
Native Speaker is a political thriller, but it’s also a story of cultural identity/alienation and the difficulties of living in America as an immigrant. Henry Park is a man who struggles to figure out who he is between his Korean upbringing and his current life in America. He wants to sound like a native English speaker, but the more closely he begins to identify with his American life, the more he feels his Korean side slipping away from him. Then everything get much more complicated when Park is assigned to spy on a rising Korean American politician. The more deeply he becomes involved in his work as a spy, the more he questions his own identity and loyalties.
Political thriller fans, I’ve probably left one of your favorites off the list, so please let me know what you’d recommend in the comments. Happy reading!