In an increasingly turbulent world, the slightest struggle between political powers can make anyone uneasy. The fate of the many is at the hands of a select few. But whether those few will put the people’s interests at heart is the million-dollar question.
Political thrillers capture this anxiety in the stories they tell. They map out the complicated movement of events that are brought about by political deals, corruption, and plots that go so far out of the law that they enter the realm of conspiracy.
Best Political Thrillers
Whether it’s on the national or international stage, political thrillers draw suspense from the high-stakes, high-pressure atmospheres they cultivate.
From double-dealings to political assassinations, they’re stories that detail what people might do for the sake of taking or preserving power.
Here are some of the best political thrillers that will get you hooked:
1. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
For two years, journalist Thomas Fowler has been witness to Vietnam’s struggle against colonial rule. When he meets a young and disastrously patriotic man, he realizes the already tangled political mess is only about to get messier.
The young man, Alden Pyle, believes that communism and colonialism aren’t the answers to Vietnam’s prosperity. Instead, he plans to bring American democracy into the picture—by any means necessary.
2. The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon
Sergeant Raymond Shaw is a hero of the first order. Taken captive along with his entire unit, he manages to save them all and earn the Medal of Honor.
But he has a secret that not even he knows about: brainwashed and turned into the perfect assassin by his captors, he’s been returned to the U.S. for one simple mission: kill a presidential candidate.
3. November Road by Lou Berney
Frank Guidry has always known that everyone’s expendable in the Mob, no matter how loyal they are. And when he learns he played an unsuspecting part in the crime of the century, he knows he’s next on the kill list.
Going on the run is the best thing he could do. But he never expected to find a reason to live on the way to Vegas. Now he’s not just on the run for himself, but potentially for someone else.
4. The Camel Club by David Baldacci
The Camel Club has been meeting in secrecy for years. They spend all day gathering and studying conspiracy theories, power movements, and government actions to discover what’s really going on in the world.
Their efforts bear little fruit until their last meeting place becomes the scene of a murder. With their own lives on the line, the club must get up close and personal with a conspiracy they’ve never seen before.
5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
England is on the brink of civil war. King Henry VIII is without an heir and is only interested in having his twenty-year marriage annulled to marry Anne Boleyn.
In steps Thomas Cromwell, a self-made man of high ambition. As he rapidly rises to power, he must juggle the King’s impossible demands with the nation’s best interests.
6. Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
Dominika Egorova is a former ballerina forced into the spy game after a career-ending injury. She trains as a Sparrow, an expert in seducing marks to obtain sensitive information.
She is assigned to take on Nathaniel Nash, the CIA’s handler on the agency’s assets in Russia. As both agents begin a cat-and-mouse game, their mutual attraction threatens each other’s careers and countries.
7. Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee
Henry Park is a man struggling with alienation. The more he begins to identify as an American, the more his Korean roots seem to drift away.
Everything is further complicated when he’s assigned to spy on a rising Korean-American politician. As he navigates the growing political and racial friction in his city, he must also understand who he really is.
8. The Pelican Brief by John Grisham
Two Supreme Court judges—one conservative, the other liberal—are assassinated in quick succession, and law student Darby Shaw stumbles on the most unlikely explanation for their deaths.
Soon she finds herself narrowly evading a murder attempt. Powerful people are beginning to move, and some of them won’t hesitate to do anything to cover up the truth.
9. Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler
An unidentified aircraft approaches Europe and bombers are sent to intercept. While the aircraft proves to be harmless, a technical error transmits an attack code to the bombers. Believing that a nuclear war has been started, they proceed to Moscow.
As they grow closer to bombing the city with their nuclear missiles, the United States and the Soviet Union must work together to prevent a nuclear disaster.
10. Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings
Someone’s been killing political figures all over the world and going mostly undetected—that is, until she kills a prominent Russian politician.
MI5 tasks dogged agent Eve Polastri with finding out who’s behind the killings. Her investigations attract the attention of the killer herself, leading to a deadly cat-and-mouse game across the world.
11. House of Cards by Michael Dobbs
Francis Urquhart is willing to use every secret he knows, every connection he has, and every dirty trick in the book to guarantee his rise to power. Friend or foe, he’ll spare no one to become Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, Mattie Storin is an up-and-coming reporter with a knack for sniffing out the truth. To untangle Urquhart’s web of lies, she must risk everything she has, including her own life.
12. The Constant Gardener by John le Carré
Justin Quayle is jolted out of a stagnating political career when his wife is killed while traveling across a deserted stretch of Africa. Investigating on his own, he learns that the murder may be darker than what the official report says.
He goes deep undercover, retracing the events that lead to his wife’s demise. And as he slowly pieces things together, the killers he’s searching for begin to take notice.
Reading Political Thrillers
A political thriller rarely stays within the bounds of its own definition. It frequently overlaps with other thriller subgenres, most especially conspiracy fiction.
While it’s as much about the tensions of governance or the lack thereof, a political thriller is also about the shady deals and off-record activities that abound politics. The crimes committed for the sake of patriotism, the “greater good,” and realpolitik are regularly explored.
The average reader isn’t exposed to these things in real life. You can only wonder what’s happening when two countries negotiate, how politicians secure support, or when political conflicts begin turning into armed ones. The desire to know pushes you to satisfy your imagination through stories that depict these situations.