For those of us who don’t regularly set foot in the halls of power, the allure of knowing what happens is irresistible. Thankfully, these pulse-pounding, detail-packed political thriller books are here to answer our most burning questions, from what would happen if the Russians tried to assassinate the U.S. president with a sleeper agent to how far a corrupt businessman would got to pack the Supreme Court in his favor. Whether you prefer the paranoid 1970s style or the guns-a-blazing blockbusters of the 80s and 90s, these 11 political thriller books are the best of the genre.
The Manchurian Candidate
Such is the influence of this 1959 thriller—and the firm place its title holds in the American vernacular—that even if you’ve never read it, nor seen either of the two film adaptations, you know the story. After saving his platoon during the Korean War, POW Richard Shaw returns to a hero’s welcome. In reality, he’s a Communist sleeper agent controlled by two post-hypnotic triggers: The queen of diamonds means “kill”; the suggestion to play solitaire wipes his short-term memory clean. When Shaw’s rising political cachet puts him in the perfect spot to assassinate the president, it’s up to his platoon mates to remember what really happened in Korea and stop him. Condon didn’t invent the anxiety that America’s enemies are plotting to control its government—he weaponized it.
The Day of the Jackal
Based on a real-life assassination attempt on French president Charles de Gaulle, this blockbuster novel imagines that the right-wing paramilitary organization behind the failed plot hires a professional killer to finish the job. As the British sniper, known only as the “Jackal,” prepares for his assignment, French security forces infiltrate the OAS and learn the outlines of the plan. But the only way to stop the Jackal is to discover his true identity, which sets up a riveting race against the clock as detectives in France and England hunt for clues while the Englishman brilliantly eludes their grasp. Although readers knew the outcome going in—de Gaulle wasn’t assassinated, after all—the novel’s gritty realism made it a worldwide sensation. The 1973 film adaptation The Day of the Jackal is excellent, too.
The Pelican Brief
Supreme Court politics are at the heart of this pulse-pounding thriller, the third in a trio of blockbuster novels (it was preceded by A Time to Kill and The Firm) that made Grisham a household name. When two Justices—one liberal, the other conservative—are assassinated in quick succession, law student Darby Shaw stumbles onto the unlikely link that explains their deaths. Her legal brief on the matter comes to the attention of powerful political figures who want to keep the truth from coming out, and Darby is soon on the run from the CIA and a ruthless Middle Eastern terrorist. The story’s breakneck pace and shattering violence provided the template for a new wave of political thriller writers including David Baldacci, Vince Flynn, and Brad Thor.
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Best known for his crime novels set in an alternate universe where Germany won WWII, Harris turned his attention to contemporary British politics in this acid-drenched political thriller. When the political aide who was helping former Prime Minister Adam Lang compose his memoirs drowns, a new ghostwriter is brought in. Meanwhile, a former ally turned adversary is at the UN and agitating to have Lang prosecuted for his role in the invasion of Iraq and the war on terror. When the new ghostwriter uncovers a dangerous secret in Lang’s past, he starts to believe the politician might be guilty not just of war crimes, but cold-blooded murder. Harris freely admitted that the novel was inspired by his disillusionment with Prime Minister Tony Blair, and expected to be sued under England’s strict libel laws. Thankfully for suspense fans, he took the risk.
The Sum of All Fears
With its badass title and behemoth length (800 pages), the fifth-released Jack Ryan novel did not come to mess around. The former CIA analyst is now serving as the agency’s deputy director, which puts him in the crosshairs of National Security Advisor Elizabeth Elliott, who happens to be sleeping with the president. When a terrorist organization hatches an audacious plot to draw the US and the Soviet Union into nuclear war, Ryan must find a way to outwit his trigger-happy political rivals and defuse the situation before it escalates to armageddon. And that’s after he’s already brought peace to the Middle East. A blockbuster in every sense of the word, The Sum of All Fears is Clancy at his wonky, no-holds-barred best.
Originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this nail-biter set the standard for Cold War political thrillers. When an unidentified aircraft disappears from radar somewhere over the Atlantic, nuclear bombers are scrambled to Soviet airspace to await their final orders. The unidentified aircraft turns out to be a passenger plane and most of the bombers are recalled. But a technical error causes six planes to receive the fail-safe code—the order to attack. With radios jammed by Soviet Air Defense, the bombers proceed toward Moscow, setting into motion a deadly game of brinksmanship between world superpowers. Stanley Kubrick turned a similar idea into the brilliant anti-war satire Dr. Strangelove, but Fail-Safe is pure thriller, made all the more terrifying for its firm basis in reality.
Six Days of the Condor
You probably know it as Three Days of the Condor, the title of the classic Robert Redford film it inspired. But no matter what you call this propulsive story of a CIA analyst who returns from lunch to discover that all of his office mates have been killed, it’s one of the most gripping political thrillers of all time. Ronald Malcom analyzes the plots of mystery novels for clues to real-life espionage problems. More of a librarian than a secret agent, he’s ill-equipped to solve his colleagues’ deaths while staying one step ahead of the killers. Yet that’s exactly what he must do, with the help of a kidnapped paralegal and CIA handlers he may or may not be able to trust. Grady’s plot starts with a bang and never lets up, perfectly capturing the political paranoia of the 1970s era in which it’s set.
Related: An Iconic CIA Operative Returns in Condor: The Short Takes
Baldacci’s debut starts at the top of a cliff and plunges off it before you’ve had a chance to catch your breath. Sixty-six-year-old cat burglar Luther Whitney breaks into a Virginia mansion looking for a quick score. Instead he finds the president of the United States having rough sex with a billionaire’s wife. When the woman is accidentally killed, Luther becomes the only loose end in a perfect Secret Service cover-up. He turns to his friend and lawyer, Jack Graham, for help, but the president’s ruthless chief of staff and a pair of Secret Service marksmen won’t stop until Luther is either dead or in jail for the mistress’s murder. Sexy, violent, relentless, and packed with inside-the-Beltway details, Absolute Power turns a dark concept—the president is an amoral cad—into pure entertainment.
Night of Camp David
Both the original 1965 edition and the 2018 reissue featured a jarring question on the cover: “What would happen if the president of the USA went stark-raving mad?” Congress gave its answer in the form of the 25th Amendment, but the terror of the question still resonates. Summoned to the presidential retreat in rural Maryland, Senator Jim MacVeagh expects to be offered the job of vice-president. But when he’s subjected to President Tom Hollenbach’s late-night ravings about the deep state, media conspiracies, and the necessity of abandoning Western European alliances in order to strike a new chord with the Soviet Union, MacVeagh fears that his political hero has lost his mind. But the senator has skeletons in his own closet, and nobody wants to believe him. Can he change their minds before it’s too late?
The Constant Gardener
Corporate malfeasance and political corruption combine to devastating effect in this moving and frequently angry novel from British spymaster le Carré. Justin Quayle is a minor British diplomat in Kenya, where he’s happy to tend to his garden while his younger wife, Tessa, crusades across the country doing good deeds. But when Tessa is killed during a trip to Lake Turkana, the official story—that she was murdered by her African lover, a Sorbonne-trained doctor—strikes Justin as false. Spurred into action for the first time in his life, he travels the globe in pursuit of the truth, eventually uncovering it in the labs of a pharmaceutical giant and the highest corridors of power within the British Diplomatic Office. By turning his attention from Cold War hijinks to the evils of global capitalism, le Carré reinvigorated the political thriller and his own career.
Related: In from the Cold: 13 Thrilling Books for John le Carré Fans
Our Man in Havana
A deft combination of espionage thriller and political satire, Greene’s 1958 masterpiece unfolds in Havana just before the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. James Wormold is a British vacuum cleaner salesman with an estranged wife and a materialistic 16-year-old daughter. Short on money, he can’t refuse an offer to become an agent for MI6— even though he has no secrets to sell. Instead, he makes them up, using vacuum-cleaner manuals as his guides. But when his fictional reports appear to come true, innocent lives are lost and international peace is threatened. Caught in a web of treachery and deceit, Wormold finds that once spies take you seriously, it’s hard to get them to stop. Brisk, cynical, and brilliantly plotted, Our Man Havana is the rare novel to turn bureaucratic incompetence into a thrilling adventure.
Related: Ministry of Fear: 10 Graham Greene Mysteries and Thrillers You Need to Read