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The Best British Crime Thrillers to Capture Your Fascination

These British crime thrillers are bloody brilliant. 

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  • Photo Credit: Michelle Ding / Unsplash

The most famous British sleuths from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction didn’t go in for fist fights, car chases, and the like. You can’t picture Miss Marple pursuing someone across the rooftops, or Lord Peter Wimsy having a gun battle.

But not all British crime books confine themselves to the drawing room, the conservatory, and the rose garden. Enter the British crime thriller—a subgenre that is a gripping tapestry of suspense, intrigue, and gritty realism. 

Infused with dark wit and nuanced characters, British crime thrillers navigate the shadowy underworld of crime with razor-sharp dialogue and intricate plots. From the labyrinthine streets of London to the remote moors of Yorkshire, these stories captivate audiences with a blend of psychological depth and pulse-pounding action, weaving tales of clever detectives, cunning criminals, and murky moral choices that blur the line between right and wrong.

Here are eight of the best British crime thrillers.

The Sign of the Four

The Sign of the Four

By Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes may be the spiritual godfather of detectives like Hercule Poirot and Albert Campion. Still, he’s a good deal more likely to engage in wrestling matches with his foes (he’s an expert in the martial arts, after all) than many of his successors. In this classic from 1890, he and the equally pugnacious Watson—who rarely leaves the house without his revolver—find themselves on the trail of a group of former soldiers who have looted treasure from an Indian palace and turned to murder to protect their ill-gotten gains. 

The Sign of the Four has all the classic Conan Doyle ingredients plus a deadly assassin and a heart-stopping chase down the foggy river Thames on a steam launch. 

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The 39 Steps

By John Buchan

More than even Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard, Scotsman Buchan was the patriotic novelist of Empire. Like all British gentlemen of his era, Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay takes a dim view of foreigners and has little time for women, especially ones with opinions. In his celebrated debut, Hannay arrives in London fresh from big game hunting in Africa and quickly finds himself embroiled in a fiendish enemy plot to start a world war.

When one of his friends is murdered, he escapes from the capital and is pursued across England and Scotland by sinister forces, before finally blowing the whistle on the villains. After his first adventure in this early example of the “man on the run thriller”, Hannay would go on to thwart Britain’s enemies on four further occasions. 

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The Mask of Dimitrios

By Eric Ambler

At a loose end after finishing a book, the narrator of this sweeping 1939 thriller, mystery writer Charles Latimer, pursues a ruthless international drug dealer, Dimitrios across a Europe that is in turmoil and on the verge of war.

Piecing together Dimitrios’ complex story from its apparent beginnings with an unsolved murder in Greece, via a dead body in a Turkish morgue, to gunshots in a hidden apartment in Paris, Ambler’s masterwork is an elegantly written, pacey and psychologically complex novel in which the reader always feels that somebody very nasty indeed is lurking just around the next corner, probably armed with a sharp knife. Ian Fleming was a huge admirer of Ambler’s book, and James Bond reads a copy in From Russia with Love

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Midnight Plus One

By Gavin Lyall

Journalist, writer, and pilot, Lyall was a serial winner of the British Crime Writer’s Association Silver Dagger Award during the 1960s and 1970s. He picked up his second for this superb 1965 euro-thriller featuring a former World War Two British agent, Lewis Cane who is hired to drive a wanted millionaire across France to the safe haven of Lichtenstein.

It seems a simple enough job, but soon Cane finds himself being pursued, not only by the French police, but also by a squad of hitmen that might just include former comrades from his days with the French Resistance. Steve McQueen was a Lyall fan and bought the film rights to this fast-paced thriller, but sadly died before he could make the movie. 

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Jack's Return Home

By Ted Lewis

Ted Lewis’ gritty, tense 1970 novel is set in the grim Lincolnshire steel town of Scunthorpe. The formidably tough Jack Carter works as an enforcer for a London mobster. He returns home to investigate the death of his niece. Soon he’s uncovered a pornography and prostitution ring run by the local crime boss with the help of corrupt public officials. Violence ensues.

Mike Hodges’ excellent 1971 adaption of Jack’s Return Home, Get Carter starring Michael Caine, moves the action north to Newcastle upon Tyne, but captures the hardboiled noir tone of the original novel brilliantly. 

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The Day of the Jackal

By Frederick Forsyth

A book about an assassination attempt that you know didn’t actually happen—the shooting of French President Charles de Gaulle – has no right to be as tense and page-turning as Frederick Forsyth’s superb 1971 thriller.

Featuring a cool, ruthless, and brutal English assassin known only by the code name “Jackal”, Forsyth’s book is filled with well-researched facts about his subject, and the minute planning of the contract killing is brilliantly described—from how to establish a false identity, to the way to alter your eye-coloring. Even though the reader knows the outcome, you still can’t help wondering if, just maybe, the Jackal will pull it off and alter history. 

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Bleeding Heart Square

By Andrew Taylor

Taylor is a modern master of historical fiction, best known for his excellent Marwood and Lovett series set in seventeenth-century London. He stays in the British capital for this superb thriller but leaps forward in time to the 1930s.

Bleeding Heart Square is a damp, foggy, and neglected place, home to a collection of misfits that includes an aristocratic lady fleeing an abusive marriage and a seedy London police officer. Students of True Crime will detect a resemblance to Rillington Place, home of the serial killer John Christie. His shadow hangs over a tense and brilliantly told tale of murder and detection. 

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No Way Out

By Cara Hunter

The third outing for Hunter’s Oxford-based policeman DI Adam Fawley is an absolute tour de force. Beginning with a house fire that kills one child and leaves another fighting for his life, the novel moves swiftly from one cliffhanger to another as Fawley attempts first to understand what has happened and then to track the killer. Blessed with a plot that twists like the River Thames, an empathetic sleuth, and dozens of heart-stopping moments, No Way Out is a stone-cold modern classic. 

Featured Photo: Michelle Ding / Unsplash