The best crime/thriller books for characters and character

Who am I?

When I first thought about crime writing I was probably too lazy to do the research on police procedures so decided instead to feature an “ordinary” character with no official role but who still intervenes when evil seems to be triumphing and nobody is paying attention. Key elements of this are reflected in my list—the importance of stories and storytelling, some great thrillers, and thoughtful consideration of why someone would put themselves in jeopardy for others. Having worked with many criminals and victims I have seen that ordinary people can make a difference. In a way my books ask the question, “What would you do in David Hidalgo’s shoes?”

I wrote...

Benefit of the Doubt: He Fled, Danger Followed

By Les Cowan,

Book cover of Benefit of the Doubt: He Fled, Danger Followed

What is my book about?

Benefit of the Doubt is the first in the David Hidalgo series and begins with our hero newly returned to Edinburgh from Spain, a broken man, everything precious taken from him in a drug related killing. Given his fragile state of mind it is not surprising that, when the granddaughter of a church member disappears having become involved with drugs, he initially turns down the plea for help. Given his character and convictions however this is not sustainable for long. 

The quest results in ghosts from the past, an unexpected romance and ultimately the sense of purpose his life has been lacking. Benefit of the Doubt is a love story, a quest, a puzzle, a dilemma, and a journey of self discovery and restoration.

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The books I picked & why

The Big Sleep

By Raymond Chandler,

Book cover of The Big Sleep

Why did I love this book?

Despite writing mid last century, I see Raymond Chandler as the first really modern crime writer. He once famously commented “… down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” and Philip Marlowe admirably fulfills these qualities. Gritty problems, witty dialogue, glamorous but unstable women and men without scruples people his books in gripping prose. Read The Big Sleep to dive with Philip Marlowe into an underworld of corruption, danger, and crime. Thank goodness Marlowe is on our side! I read Chandler long before my character David Hidalgo appeared in my imagination and certainly wasn’t aware of any influence but it turns out Hidalgo shares many of Marlowe’s characteristics despite not being a detective himself. So thank you Raymond Chandler!

By Raymond Chandler,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked The Big Sleep as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Raymond Chandler's first three novels, published here in one volume, established his reputation as an unsurpassed master of hard-boiled detective fiction.

The Big Sleep, Chandler's first novel, introduces Philip Marlowe, a private detective inhabiting the seamy side of Los Angeles in the 1930s, as he takes on a case involving a paralysed California millionaire, two psychotic daughters, blackmail and murder.

In Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe deals with the gambling circuit, a murder he stumbles upon, and three very beautiful but potentially deadly women.

In The High Window, Marlowe searches the California underworld for a priceless gold coin and finds himself…

Wolves Eat Dogs

By Martin Cruz Smith,

Book cover of Wolves Eat Dogs

Why did I love this book?

Martin Cruz Smith’s first book in his Arkady Renko series, Gorky Park, did very well and was made into a successful film. Later books are perhaps not so well known which I think is a great pity. Smith’s books ooze atmosphere, intrigue, and authenticity taking us into other worlds—in this case, that of Russian oligarchs and the deadly exclusion zone round Chernobyl. Arkady Renko is an incorruptible investigator in a society where everyone is on the makeanother parallel I’ve found very applicable to my own work. And, unlike many thriller authors, Smith is also a brilliant writer of scintillating, gripping narrative. I’d love David Hidalgo and Arkady Renko to meet and have a chat over a few glasses of red wine, vodka, or both!

By Martin Cruz Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Wolves Eat Dogs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Don't miss the latest book in the Arkady Renko series, THE SIBERIAN DILEMMA by Martin Cruz Smith, 'the master of the international thriller' (New York Times) - available to order now!


'One of those writers that anyone who is serious about their craft views with respect bordering on awe' Val McDermid

'Makes tension rise through the page like a shark's fin' Independent

The iron curtain has fallen and a screen of nouveau capitalism stands in its place. Though the New Russia is foreign to Renko, the corruption and brutality that he encounters are all…

The Second Sleep

By Robert Harris,

Book cover of The Second Sleep

Why did I love this book?

I could easily recommend any of Robert Harris’s “intelligent thrillers” however I’ve picked this one because I like the idea of an “ordinary” man who finds himself in the midst of a dangerous mystery. Briefly, The Second Sleep is set in the future after our civilisation has destroyed itself and where life is now functioning at the medieval level. The church, which controls everything, has banned investigation into the past. A humble priest is sent to visit a village in his parish and begins to suspect that things are not as they seem. Eventually, against the orders of the church, he decides to try to penetrate the past with alarming consequences. So, as for my character, David Hidalgo, we find that ordinary people can make a difference!

By Robert Harris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Second Sleep as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE LATEST NOVEL FROM ROBERT HARRIS: chosen as a Book of the Year by The Times, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Mail on Sunday, and Express

'One word: wonderful. Two words: compulsive reading. Three words: buy it tomorrow. Four words: tonight, if it's possible.' STEPHEN KING
'A thoroughly absorbing, page-turning narrative.' SUNDAY TIMES
'Genuinely thrilling.' DAILY TELEGRAPH
Dusk is gathering as a young priest, Christopher Fairfax, rides across a silent land.

It's a crime to be out after dark, and Fairfax knows he must arrive at his destination - a remote…

Book cover of Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them

Why did I love this book?

Rather than a great story in itself this is a book about great storytelling. Perhaps telling stories is one of our strongest links with our prehistoric past. Today we might sit on the bus with a Kindle whereas they gathered round the fire outside a cave but the process is the same. A master storyteller entertains and intrigues their audience with powerful and intriguing tales. John Yorke explains in a fascinating way the power of great stories, why we enjoy them, and how they are constructed and have their effect. In some ways I wish I’d read this before starting to write however it’s been very comforting to find that by luck or good judgment I have ended up following many of Yorke’s guiding principles. 

By John Yorke,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Into The Woods as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The best book on the subject I've read. Quite brilliant' Tony Jordan, creator/writer, Life on Mars, Hustle

We all love stories. But why do we tell them? And why do all stories function in an eerily similar way? John Yorke, creator of the BBC Writers' Academy, has brought a vast array of drama to British screens. Here he takes us on a journey to the heart of storytelling, revealing that there truly is a unifying shape to narrative forms - one that echoes the fairytale journey into the woods and, like any great art, comes from deep within. From ancient…

Book cover of The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life

Why did I love this book?

Brooks is interested in what makes for a good society and how we as individuals can lead moral, principled lives that benefit others. This must be a subject of interest to everyone but I think has a particular application for writers trying to portray men and women of character and moral purpose. In Brooks’ metaphor the first mountain consists of career, family, wealth, reputation, and everything you would put into your CV. The second mountain is what they might say about you after you die when none of that matters anymore. The issue now is character not achievements. Were you kind, hospitable, generous, compassionate, and humble in your outlook, or ego-centric and proud? For any one trying to write a character with character this is fascinating reading.

By David Brooks,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Second Mountain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Everybody tells you to live for a cause larger than yourself, but how exactly do you do it? The author of The Road to Character explores what it takes to lead a meaningful life in a self-centered world.

“Deeply moving, frequently eloquent and extraordinarily incisive.”—The Washington Post

Every so often, you meet people who radiate joy—who seem to know why they were put on this earth, who glow with a kind of inner light. Life, for these people, has often followed what we might think of as a two-mountain shape. They get out of…

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