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These Crime Thrillers Bend the Rules Until They Break

Sometimes, both criminals and heroes fight dirty.

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  • Photo Credit: Steve Johnson / Unsplash

Thrillers come in all shapes and sizes. While there’s always going to be a tense narrative with life-or-death consequences hanging in the balance, not every thriller ends with a dead body.

If you’re looking for murder, you want a crime thriller, where the story doesn’t end with death, but typically starts with it.  

More than a murder mystery, these are stories told from a grittier, darker perspective. They’re about the world where criminals don’t play fair and heroes might have to bend the rules they’re sworn to protect.

In the crime thriller, justice isn’t black or white and the truth behind the crime often ends in devastation.

If that sounds like the kind of story you’re looking for, we rounded up thirteen of the best crime thrillers guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat. 

Death in a Strange Country

Death in a Strange Country

By Donna Leon

When a body is fished out of a fetid canal in Donna Leon's Death In A Strange Country, all signs point to a mugging gone bad. But that seems all too convenient for Venice Police Commissario Guido Brunetti.

And when he goes to the victim’s apartment, he becomes convinced that someone is trying to cover up a crime. Is he simply refusing to admit this is nothing more than a violent robbery? Or is there a darker conspiracy taking place? 

A Death in China

A Death in China

By Carl Hiaasen, Bill Montalbano

It had been years since art history professor Tom Stratton saw his former mentor when they meet on a chance encounter at a guided tour of China.

Unfortunately, the reunion doesn’t last long. After Wang is found murdered and the American embassy botches the investigation, Stratton decides to find answers on his own.

But he quickly finds himself in over his head with a deadly conspiracy threatening to close in on him if he doesn’t find the killer first.  

Out of Bounds

Out of Bounds

By Val McDermid

Karen Pirie is used to expecting the unexpected. It’s part of the job working in the cold case division of Police Scotland.

But when a teenager crashes a car, killing two and ending up in a coma, a routine DNA test brings up a startling connection to an unsolved murder over two decades prior.

The clues lead Karen to another mystery, one rooted in a terrorist bombing from twenty years ago. In both cases, nothing is what it seems. 

The Last Affair

The Last Affair

By Margot Hunt

Abby Landon is nursing a broken heart. Home from college, the last thing she wants is more drama.

So, when she finds her married father kissing a married woman, she vows to make the homewrecking woman pay. After all, to anyone looking in, Abby’s mom is living the ideal suburban life.

Until she’s found dead. And finding the truth threatens to turn the peaceful seaside town inside out with the twisted secrets it reveals. 



By Thomas Perry

In Thomas Perry's Fidelity, Emily Kramer is left penniless and alone after her PI husband is shot dead. She has no idea why he was on that deserted suburban street or why he emptied their bank account.

All she’s left with is the unsettling realization that she has no idea who she married. Jerry Hobart is left with questions, too. He didn’t ask why he was hired to kill Phil.

But now that the same wealthy man wants him to kill Emily, Jerry knows there’s something else at play. And if he can figure it out, it might lead to a bigger payday. 

The Ultimatum

The Ultimatum

By Karen Robards

Bianca St. Ives was raised to be her father's daughter. Together, they run a multinational firm conning crooks out of the money they stole.

But when one of her mission ends with two hundred million dollars gone, government documents vanished, and her father dead, everything is derailed. The U.S. government doesn’t believe her father is dead. 

And they’ll go to any lengths—including using Bianca as bait—to find him. With only a fellow criminal as help, Bianca has to uncover the truth behind what really happened, before it’s too late. 



By Arthur Hailey

All Detective Sergeant Malcolm Ainsley wants is to take a long overdue vacation with his wife. He should have ignored the phone call that came in hours before they were scheduled to leave.

The one where a prison chaplain delivered a message from serial murderer Elroy Doil, the man Ainsley helped put away. Doil wants to make a confession before he’s executed. Only to Ainsley.

It’s the chance to solve the other ten murders Doil is suspected of, but never tied to. Only, what Doil tells him leads him to investigate the most elite levels of his own police force, ending with the top of the Miami City government.  

Shifty's Boys

Shifty's Boys

By Chris Offutt

The last thing Army CID officer Mick Hardin needs is more trouble. He’s home on leave, nursing an injured leg from an IED attack.

But when Barney Kissick is found dead, the police dismiss it as the hazard of being the local heroin dealer. Barney’s mother, Shifty, doesn’t believe that’s why her son is dead. And she asks Mick to look into it.

That’s where the trouble starts. Because after he starts looking, someone starts shooting at him, too. 

Absolute Proof

Absolute Proof

By Peter James

What would it take to prove God exists? That’s the question posed to investigative reporter Ross Hunter. Dr. Harry Cook claims he can prove the existence of God.

And that Ross was the only person who could help him spread his message seriously. But before they can reveal the truth to the masses, they have to contend with the false faith of an evangelist billionaire and a lifetime of work from a famous atheist, while navigating how this discovery will threaten the credibility of all the world’s major religions.

Of course, to do any of that, Ross has to survive long enough to present the evidence. 

Six Feet Under

Six Feet Under

By Dorothy Simpson

Investigating a murder is never easy. But when Inspector Thanet tries to figure out who killed an unpleasant spinster in Kent, he discovers that the woman has a surprising number of secrets.

And she was hoarding plenty on everyone else in town, as well. It seems the tranquil town has a lot more going on under the surface than anyone would believe.

When Thanet finally uncovers the truth behind the murder, it’s more bizarre and tragic than he ever could have conceived. 

Razorblade Tears

Razorblade Tears

By S. A. Cosby

Finding two cops on his doorstep isn’t good news for Ike Randolph. He hasn’t had so much as a speeding ticket since he was released from prison fifteen years ago, but that doesn’t stop the fear.

But he never dreamed they’d be telling him his son and his husband were murdered. Like Ike, Buddy Lee had a difficult time accepting his son was gay. That doesn’t mean he won’t find out who killed him.

Together, the two men join forces. With nothing in common but their criminal past and a complicated love for their sons, they will stop at nothing to find out who hurt their boys and make them pay. 

The Devil Takes You Home

The Devil Takes You Home

By Gabino Iglesias

Mario never wanted to be a hitman. But when he finds himself buried in debt after his young daughter is sick, he reluctantly agrees. And then tragedy strikes.

With his life destroyed, he agrees to one last job. All he has to do is hijack a cartel’s cash shipment before it reaches Mexico, and he walks away with almost a quarter of a million dollars.

With an old friend and a cartel insider, they travel across the desolate state of Texas to the border and back. As they face nightmares and unravel secrets, one thing becomes clear: if Mario survives, he’ll never be the same. 

Mystic River

Mystic River

By Dennis Lehane

Dennis LeHane knows how to write heartbreak.

In Mystic River, everything changes for three childhood friends when a strange car pulls up on their street. One boy got it, the other two didn’t. And what happened broke their friendship and irrevocably changed their lives.

Twenty-five years later, Sean is a homicide detective, Jimmy is an ex-con who owns a corner store, and Dave struggles to keep his demons from making him do terrible things. When Jimmy’s daughter is murdered, Sean is assigned to the case.

Jimmy wants to find who did it and inflict the only justice that matters. And then there’s Dave. Who came home the night Jimmy’s daughter was murdered. Covered in someone else’s blood. 

Featured image: Steve Johnson / Unsplash