The best thrillers about underdogs overcoming impossible odds

Neil Turner Author Of A House on Liberty Street
By Neil Turner

Who am I?

I’m a Canadian thriller and suspense novelist with an abiding affinity for stories of good ultimately overcoming evil. I’m partial to reluctant heroes battling powerful entities that are inflicting injustice. If our protagonist is flawed and forced to overcome internal demons and/or challenges, so much the better! My Tony Valenti thrillers feature a mom-and-pop law firm known as Lawyers to Little People and Lost Causes, so I know a thing or two about this type of book. Characters using brains, integrity, and bravery—moral and/or physical—fascinate me every time.

I wrote...

A House on Liberty Street

By Neil Turner,

Book cover of A House on Liberty Street

What is my book about?

​Meet Tony Valenti. His high-flying corporate law career just cratered. His society marriage blew up in a bitter divorce. He’s returned to the Chicago suburbs to lick his wounds and regroup in the haven of the Valenti family home. 

Tony’s elderly father inexplicably shoots a sheriff’s deputy on their front porch. Nobody knows why, and Papa isn’t talking. Then their house becomes an unlikely target for condemnation and expropriation by corrupt local officials and their cronies. Tony steps up to defend his father and take on city hall. He quickly finds himself in peril when he unearths sinister connections between the two cases. The audacity of the plot against his parents fuels a gritty determination to get to the bottom of what really happened. 

The books I picked & why

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The Quiet Game

By Greg Iles,

Book cover of The Quiet Game

Why this book?

The Quiet Game introduces a troubled Penn Cage, who returns with his daughter to his hometown of Natchez, Mississippi when his father lands in trouble. For Penn, family is sacrosanct. Iles uses Natchez brilliantly to support characterization, atmosphere, and plot. Events unfold quickly in a series of twists and turns that thrill the reader and severely test Penn as he struggles to unearth his father’s connection to a horrific Natchez mystery that the town is determined to keep buried. I admire how Penn battles relentlessly on behalf of his father, doggedly pursues a truth that frightens him, and protects his daughter in the face of growing condemnation and danger. He hews to his moral compass even when it would be expedient to abandon it.

Last Girl Ghosted

By Lisa Unger,

Book cover of Last Girl Ghosted

Why this book?

In Last Girl Ghosted, a friend of skeptical twenty-eight-year-old Wren pushes her to take a break from work and live a little. Wren finally caves to the pressure and is pleasantly surprised to find herself in a satisfying relationship—until having peeked into a dark corner of the online world leads to chilling consequences. Unger has created a witty, engaging protagonist in Wren, so we suffer and share her fear as Unger plunges her into a wild series of twists and turns that lead to a satisfying conclusion. Every time I begin a Lisa Unger novel, I look forward to spending time with characters I will care deeply about and hate to say goodbye to at the end of the story. Who could ask for more?

Life of Pi

By Yann Martel,

Book cover of Life of Pi

Why this book?

This is a clever and often witty tale built upon a wildly unlikely scenario. It was the humanity of Pi that drew me into this story. Martel has Pi use character, intelligence, and compassion to bond with a tiger that Pi is sure will eventually devour him, which leads to an unexpected and satisfying resolution. Overcoming daunting odds with brains, compassion, and humility was a revelation for me at a time when most stories I read resorted to brute force to defeat the hero’s adversary. This concept appealed to me and opened my eyes to a wider range of novels.

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee,

Book cover of To Kill a Mockingbird

Why this book?

To Kill a Mockingbird set the stage for all legal thrillers that followed, and it is still arguably the best of the bunch. Court is an inherently rich vein of drama and conflict to mine for a novel, but the suspense is sometimes diluted by page after page of tedious courtroom minutiae. To Kill a Mockingbird avoids this pitfall. While the story includes events that unfold in a courtroom, it is, at heart, a coming-of-age story and morality tale about confronting entrenched injustice at great personal cost. There’s a purity of character and purpose here that touches a chord deep inside me. I suspect this is what has given the novel such remarkable staying power.

A Time for Mercy: A Jake Brigance Novel

By John Grisham,

Book cover of A Time for Mercy: A Jake Brigance Novel

Why this book?

If there is an heir to Harper Lee in the realm of legal thrillers, my vote goes to John Grisham. There’s a basic sense of decency in Grisham’s books that appeals to me. In A Time for Mercy, Grisham’s enduring character Jake Brigance returns to Clanton, Mississippi in a story constructed around a polarizing small-town murder. However, precious little can be categorized along strictly black and white lines in this crime. Grisham understands that we live in a world where the grays of reality are predominant and inherently more interesting. He makes sure we understand the characters, even those we may dislike or disagree with. Grisham doesn’t take the easy way out in A Time for Mercy. The story unfolds to a surprisingly untidy yet satisfying conclusion that leaves the reader with plenty of food for thought.

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