The best social thrillers about money, race, and power

Why am I passionate about this?

I was born in the Bronx, New York. I arrived in Paris, France at the age of 32. Thought I would stay for one year. That was thirty years ago. I'm still in Paris, and the author of a memoir, a play, and seven novels. Many of my novels fit the term "social thriller," popularized by Jordan Peele to define his ground-smashing classic film Get Out. Peele identified a genre that has been with us, particularly when it comes to crime fiction, for a long time. I've always been fascinated by dark, suspenseful stories that explore the nature of greed, of racism, of political power. And how the three are so often wrapped around each other.


I wrote...

Viper's Dream

By Jake Lamar,

Book cover of Viper's Dream

What is my book about?

Viper's Dream is a hard-boiled crime novel set in the jazz world of Harlem between 1936 and 1961. The protagonist is Clyde "The Viper" Morton, one of the most powerful, respected, and feared Black gangsters in America. He is the reefer man to the top jazz musicians. But while Viper is the man to see for herb, he will not tolerate anyone in his sphere dealing heroin. To him, junk is destroying jazz by taking the lives of its greatest artists, like Charlie Parker. If you deal heroin in Viper's sphere, he will kill you.

November 1961. Tonight, Viper Morton has committed the third murder of his 25-year career as a criminal. For the third time, he has taken a person's life. But this is the first time he's ever regretted it.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Glass Key

Jake Lamar Why did I love this book?

Hammett is the great-grandaddy of hard-boiled crime fiction and I devoured The Maltese Falcon when I was still a middle schooler.

Only as a published author myself did I discover The Glass Key, this strange, complex thriller in which private perversity mirrors political corruption in an unnamed American city a brief train ride away from New York.

Ned Beaumont, a gambler and fixer, winds his way through a labyrinth of mixed motives, class conflicts, double crosses, and ambiguous bromance. Hammett's tight storytelling and lean, mean prose were a great inspiration for my book.

By Dashiell Hammett,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Ned Beaumont is a tall, thin, moustache-wearing, TB-ridden, drinking, gambling, hanger-on to the political boss of a corrupt Eastern city. Nevertheless, like every Hammett hero (and like Hammett himself), he has an unbreakable, if idiosyncratic moral code. Ned's boss wants to better himself with a thoroughbred senator's daughter; but does he want it badly enough to commit murder? If he's innocent, who wants him in the frame? Beaumont must find out.


Book cover of Cotton Comes to Harlem

Jake Lamar Why did I love this book?

Only when I arrived in Paris did I discover the works of this major African American writer.

Back then, Himes—still under-recognized in the USA—was a long-time household name in France. Himes not only brought the American crime novel to the Black part of town, he did it with a satiric bite that is his distinguishing feature.

The Black police detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are at the center of the nine novels in Himes's Harlem Cycle, an epic achievement in crime fiction.

Himes's Harlem is a violent phantasmagoria where Digger and Edin order to protect the poor, ordinary working folk of the communityare forced to be the baddest of the bad.

Cotton Comes to Harlem is my favorite work in the collection. Published in 1965, it skewers both Black militants and white racists with wicked glee.

By Chester Himes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cotton Comes to Harlem as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From “the best writer of mayhem yarns since Raymond Chandler” (San Francisco Chronicle) comes a hard-hitting, entertaining entry in the trailblazing Harlem Detectives series about two NYPD detectives who must piece together the clues of the scam of a lifetime. 

Flim-flam man Deke O’Hara is no sooner out of Atlanta’s state penitentiary than he’s back on the streets working a big scam. As sponsor of the Back-to-Africa movement, he’s counting on a big Harlem rally to produce a massive collection—for his own private charity. But the take is hijacked by white gunmen and hidden in a bale of cotton that…


Book cover of The Ax

Jake Lamar Why did I love this book?

It's the 1990s. Not exactly morning in America for Burke Devore.

Getting the ax from his mid-level executive job, in middle age, with a house and cars and two kids to put through college, has rendered Burke a desperate man. And very bitter about the new capitalist logic.

Even "healthy companies, firmly in the black," downsize people like Burke to pander to "stockholders' drive for return on investment."

In this pitch black, gruesomely funny thriller, Burke decides to literally kill off the competition for a coveted job at a paper mill.

Westlake, an absolute master, has the reader both sickened by Burke's methodical murders and, at the same time, actually rooting for him to get the job, by any means necessary.

By Donald E. Westlake,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The multi-award-winning, widely-acclaimed mystery master Donald E. Westlake delivers a masterpiece with this brilliant, laser-sharp tale of the deadly consequences of corporate downsizing.

Burke Devore is a middle-aged manager at a paper company when the cost-cutting ax falls, and he is laid off. Eighteen months later and still unemployed, he puts a new spin on his job search -- with agonizing care, Devore finds the seven men in the surrounding area who could take the job that rightfully should be his, and systematically kills them. Transforming himself from mild-mannered middle manager to ruthless murderer, he discovers skills ne never knew…


Book cover of Lorraine Connection

Jake Lamar Why did I love this book?

It opens with the most brilliant disclaimer I've ever seen: "Warning. This is a novel. Everything is true and everything is false."

Dominique Manotti is a grande dame of French crime fiction, and a friend and mentor to me. Lorraine Connection is widely considered her masterpiece.

It's a sweeping 21st-century epic that starts in what might be considered a French rust belt town, in the region called Lorraine, where the old steel and iron works have been bought by the Korean firm Daewoo and transformed into a cathode-ray factory.

An industrial accident is the triggering event in this novel that explores the murderous effects of the globalized economy on a universe of characters from different classes, ethnicities, and nationalities. Virtuoso writing.

By Dominique Manotti, Amanda Hopkinson (translator), Ros Schwartz (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lorraine Connection as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The players in this deadly-serious game of Monopoly will stop at nothing.

In Pondange, Lorraine, the Korean Daewoo group manufactures cathode ray tubes. Working conditions are abysmal, but as it's the only source of employment in this bleak former iron and steel-manufacturing region, the workers daren't protest. Until a strike breaks out, and there's a fire at the factory. But is it an accident? The Pondange factory is at the centre of a strategic battle being played out in Paris, Brussels and Asia for the takeover of the ailing state-owed electronic giant, Thomson. Unexpectedly the Matra-Daewoo alliance wins the bid.…


Book cover of Arab Jazz

Jake Lamar Why did I love this book?

This witty and suspenseful tour-de-force is set in a Paris most tourists never see: the Nineteenth Arrondissement, a sprawling, multicultural district where working-class grit coexists uneasily with encroaching gentrification.

The author, who doubles as a well-known documentary filmmaker, is also a friend of mine from the French noir world.

Arab Jazz, first published in 2012, sardonically explores the religious fanaticism of Jews, Muslims and evangelical Christians while weaving a thrilling intrigue that earned it France's top prize for crime fiction.

By Karim Miske, Sam Gordon (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Arab Jazz as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Kosher sushi, kebabs, a second-hand bookshop and a bar: the 19th arrondissement in Paris is a cosmopolitan district where multicultural citizens live, love and worship alongside one another. This peace is shattered when Ahmed Taroudant's melancholy daydreams are interrupted by the blood dripping from his upstairs neighbour's brutally mutilated corpse.

The violent murder of Laura Vignole, and the pork joint placed next to her, set imaginations ablaze across the neighbourhood, and Ahmed finds himself the prime suspect. But detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot are not short of other leads. What is the connection between a disbanded hip-hop group and…


You might also like...

The Flower Queen: A 1970's Suspense Romance

By Kay Freeman,

Book cover of The Flower Queen: A 1970's Suspense Romance

Kay Freeman Author Of Hitman's Honey

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Retired art professor Tequila aficionado Weightlifter Owned by Standard Poodle Blues lover

Kay's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

It began with a dying husband, and it ended in a dynasty.

It took away her husband’s pain on his deathbed, kept her from losing the family farm, gave her the power to build a thriving business, but it’s illegal to grow in every state in the country in 1978.

It even brings her first love from high school back; the only problem is that he works for the FBI. Will their occupations implode their romance, or will the opposite happen?

A second chance at love, opposites attract, rags to riches heroine trope story.

The Flower Queen: A 1970's Suspense Romance

By Kay Freeman,

What is this book about?

It began with a dying husband and it ended in a dynasty.

It took away her husband’s pain on his deathbed, kept her from losing the family farm, gave her the power to build a thriving business, but it’s illegal to grow in every state in the country in 1978. It even brings her first love from high school back; the only problem he works for the FBI. Will their occupations implode their romance or will the opposite happen? A second chance at love, opposites attract , rags to riches heroine trope story.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in murder, murder mystery, and New York State?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about murder, murder mystery, and New York State.

Murder Explore 943 books about murder
Murder Mystery Explore 498 books about murder mystery
New York State Explore 740 books about New York State