Bestselling author James Rollins knows his thrillers. The highly anticipated latest installment in his Sigma Force series, The Seventh Plague, hits shelves this week. In celebration of this exciting release, Rollins is sharing his favorite thrillers with Bookish readers.
As one of the founding board members of the International Thriller Writers, I remember the consternation among our membership at answering the simple question: What defines a “thriller”? Pick any genre and you’ll find titles that could fit under this umbrella term: historical thrillers, scientific thrillers, mystery/thrillers, romantic thrillers, and on and on. In the end, it seemed every reader had their own definition, bringing their own particular bias to the table. And I’m no exception. I love thrillers with an adventurous bent, especially if the stories involve cloak-and-dagger action set against a backdrop of historical mysteries and scientific intrigue. So with that in mind, here are a handful of my all-time favorites.
Before Ken Follett shot to international stardom with his historical novel, The Pillars of Earth, he was best known as the master of the spy thriller. In this story set during World War II, a German spy matches wits with a young Englishwoman. The tension ratchets up with every turn of the page until the stunner of a climax on an isolated island off the coast of Scotland. I read this novel in high school, and again just a few years ago. If anything, I’m even more impressed with the level of detail, the amount of research, the rich characterization—and yes, the story still had me turning pages late into the night.
Okay, I have to admit that I was first exposed to David Morrell’s work through the movie version of his novel First Blood (where Rambo was born). I went out immediately and found a copy of Morrell’s latest novel at the time, The Brotherhood of the Rose, and promptly forgot all about Rambo. This is the first book in a trilogy, featuring a pair of orphans raised to be assassins. It’s a story of betrayal and revenge, of conflicted loyalties, and of sudden violence. In my opinion, it’s one of the finest thrillers ever written.
Forget the movie, read the book. I’ve been an avid Clive Cussler fan for decades so it was difficult for me to pick just one novel for this list—but you cannot go wrong starting with this Dirk Pitt novel. It is essential Cussler, and I can’t think of a more perfect adventure story. It has everything I love: swashbuckling set pieces, a bigger-than-life hero, a huge historical mystery, and so many twists and turns, you’d swear you were riding a rollercoaster.
This dynamic duo of authors has produced some of my favorite books, both working together and separately. But for its pure over-the-top mix of genetics, monsters, and mayhem, all locked within the claustrophobic confines of the American Museum of Natural History, you cannot go wrong with Relic. Whenever I teach a writing course, I always suggest would-be novelists set their stories in locations that readers aren’t normally allowed to go, like behind that door in a museum that reads “Employees Only.” In this particular case, it’s a frightening and terrifying journey.
It would be an easy choice to add a Dan Brown novel to this list, as he has become synonymous with the term “international thriller,” but instead I’m putting a book that has all those Dan Brown elements—historical intrigue, assassins, a breakneck race from one continent to another—yet manages to elevate each and every one of those story details.
I recommend you read everything by Michael Crichton. I know I did. If I had to pick one great influence on my own writing, I would point a finger at this man for his ability to weave cutting-edge science into a modern thriller. I chose this novel because it doesn’t get as much love as Jurassic Park or The Andromeda Strain, but I remember reading this book in one sitting. Maybe it’s my background as a veterinarian that particularly enamored me to this story, what with it featuring a sign-language-speaking gorilla as a main character.
James Rollins is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of international thrillers that have been translated into more than forty languages. His Sigma series has been lauded as one of the “top crowd pleasers” (New York Times) and one of the “hottest summer reads” (People magazine). In each acclaimed novel, Rollins unveils unseen worlds, scientific breakthroughs, and historical secrets—and he does it all at breakneck speed and with stunning insight.