Top 10 Best Historical Thrillers
As someone whose own books freely mix history and mystery, fact and fiction, I have always been a sucker for novels that do the same. The best of the breed would have to include the following:
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
No matter how resistant high school students might be to learning about the French Revolution, this story should make it all go down much more easily. With unforgettable characters like the bloodthirsty Madame Defarge knitting by the guillotine, or the cold-blooded Marquis Evrémonde running his coach over a peasant child, who could not be caught up in the drama? Not to mention the dissolute but ultimately heroic Sydney Carton going to another man’s death . . . please see the 1935 movie with Ronald Colman in this signature role.
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
The French Revolution again—and from the author of the far more famous Wolf Hall—this is one of my personal favorites, featuring Danton, Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins, three revolutionaries who helped create the terrifying turmoil of the Reign of Terror, in which they themselves were ultimately destroyed.
Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff
The best seafaring adventure tale ever written, in my estimation, and based on the real-life mutiny in 1789 of the crew of the HMS Bounty, cruelly governed by the infamous Captain Bligh, who, to give the devil his due, was one of the most remarkable sailors in nautical history. The saga continued with Men Against the Sea and Pitcairn’s Island.
The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
Probably best remembered today for the 1981 movie adaptation starring Donald Sutherland, this is another great milestone in historical thrillers, an intricate tale in which Hitler himself and Winston Churchill make appearances, along with crippled RAF pilots and ruthless Nazi spies—most notably Henry Faber, a ruthless assassin called “The Needle” because he uses a stiletto (the dagger, not the shoe) to do his killings.
The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
How spectacular is it to have pulled off a novel, and later a great movie version, of a political assassination that everyone knows from the start never succeeded? Based on a real-life plot by a dissident French paramilitary organization to kill French President Charles de Gaulle, the book at times reads like a manual, as exhaustive as it is convincing, on how to conduct a murder plot on the highest possible level.
Night Soldiers by Alan Furst
Although I’m singling out this novel, it’s really just the first of about a dozen, including The Polish Officer, The World at Night, and The Foreign Correspondent, that taken together brilliantly evoke the world of wartime Europe in the 1930s and ’40s. What’s great is it’s never heavy-handed—Furst summons up the era with a deftly casual but always constant and reliable touch. You can feel the tension in the air.
The Alienist by Caleb Carr
A tilt of the hat (or more) is due to Carr for rejuvenating the genre of distinctly commercial American historical thrillers. Starring an alienist—the term used for psychologists in the Gilded Age—it’s the tale of a serial killer on the loose in Manhattan and pursued by, among others, the newly appointed police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt. But be forewarned—the crimes are grisly and graphically described.
The Eight by Katherine Neville
Another landmark thriller, this was, unbelievably enough, a debut novel, in which the heroine—an accountant and computer whiz—had to go on a quest to recover the pieces of a legendary, solid gold chess set, bequeathed by the Moors to the emperor Charlemagne and supposedly imbued with the secrets of unlimited power. A story with two intertwined narratives, set centuries apart, it allows us to meet, among others, Napoleon and Catherine the Great.
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
A really complex story set in New York in the early years of the 20th century, much of this book revolves around a ragtime piano player named Coalhouse Walker, whose reaction to racism and injustice leads to a siege of the Morgan Library (to this day one of my favorite haunts in Manhattan) and walk-ons from Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and Booker T. Washington, who attempt some unsuccessful negotiations with the revolutionary Walker.
IMPERIUM by Robert Harris
Officially a fictional biography of the Roman orator and later senator Cicero, it’s also the first in what would ultimately become a trilogy about the bloody intrigues and political struggles of the Roman Empire starting in the first century B.C. Think Game of Thrones, but for real, and written in a style as gripping as it is persuasive. Ever since I saw I, Claudius on TV, I’ve had a special fondness for toga tales.
ROBERT MASELLO is the author of many historical thrillers, rendered with a supernatural twist. They include The Einstein Prophecy and the upcoming The Jekyll Revelation, which focuses on the author Robert Louis Stevenson and the composition of his most famous work.