10 of the Best Political Thrillers Ever

When a former president writes a book, the world pays attention. When a former president writes a novel, things get really interesting.

Partnering with none other than James Patterson, one of the greatest thriller writers of all time, former president Bill Clinton has cowritten The President is Missing, in which the president of the United States disappears, shocking the world and setting in motion an unpredictable swirl of events. The book is full of the sort of details only a president would know. and considering its unique combination of an expert author and a man who knows all the inside scoop (he had access to the NSA and CIA for years, after all), we could not be more excited. Here are ten more incredible political thrillers you’ll want to read next.

House of Cards, by Michael Dobbs
The book that inspired the British TV show that in turn inspired Netflix’s very first original series, this is the story of Francis Urquhart, Chief Whip, a cynical, manipulative politician determined to become Prime Minister. He’s willing to use every secret he knows, every pressure point he can find, and every dirty trick in the book to secure his own rise to power—and in the process confirms just about every dark and terrible thing you thought you knew about politics. Dobbs drew on his extensive real-life experience in British politics for the books, and the result is an electrifying vision of how exceedingly violent governing can be behind closed doors.

The Manchurian Candidate, by Richard Condon
Condon’s 1959 novel is a paranoid classic, born at the beginning of the Cold War, that continues to influence people today (the fact that Homeland has a similar concept is a testament to the evergreen nature of the device). Soldiers captured during the Korean War are tortured and brainwashed, and one, Shaw, is programmed to fall into a hypnotic state when he sees his trigger—the Queen of Diamonds during a game of solitaire. He’s programmed to forget his orders once he regains consciousness, and thus is the perfect hidden assassin, who can pass any interrogation or test. His own ruthless, power-hungry mother is his KGB handler, and relays orders to assassinate the president in order to secure the office for the vice president, who will order martial law and request emergency powers as a puppet of the Soviets. It’s creepy, tense, and still shockingly modern—and in a bizarre real-life twist, some believe author Condon subtly cribbed from Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, number 8 on this list.

The Constant Gardener, by John le Carré
You might think of le Carré as a writer of espionage novels, but politics encompasses espionage and crime as well as law-making and foreign policy. His novels are as much about the secret tension between ruling and governing, and the crimes committed in the name of patriotism and realpolitik, as they are about skulduggery and moles. In The Constant Gardener, an unremarkable man with a remarkable wife is jolted out of a mediocre political career when his spouse is killed, and he determines to find out why she was murdered, and by whom. For the first time in his life he’s willing to take chances—and if there’s one thing the secretive world of politics can’t stand, it’s people who have nothing to lose. The end result is a pitch-perfect thriller.

The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth
The Cold War politics of this classic thriller are long gone, but Forsyth’s novel (winner of the 1972 Edgar Award for Best Novel) still carries the punch of a meticulously researched story set in a very real world. It’s a novel of agonizing anticipation: first, as we follow the slow, careful preparations and planning of the titular Jackal, hired to assassinate the President of France; then, as we follow along with the equally painstaking detective work of the man charged with identifying the Jackal as time runs out. The twin stories of detective and assassin remain separate right up until the moment the Jackal takes his shot, and it’s this element of cat-and-mouse between a devious killer and a brilliant agent—plus the elevated stakes of global politics—that make this a book that still resonates today. Forsyth was working in Paris when he wrote it, and used that firsthand knowledge to choose his setting. In fact, rumor has it the assassin’s sniping spot can still be located—with the precise view described in the text.

The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy
Clancy’s breakout novel is set at the hot height of the Cold War, but it remains a classic political thriller because it perfectly combines thrilling spycraft, visceral action, an insider’s view of behind-closed-doors political maneuvering, and global stakes. Clancy’s expert grasp of each of these aspects makes this story of a rogue Soviet submarine captain planning to steal the experimental sub he’s been assigned to and defect to the West—and the young CIA analyst, Jack Ryan, who tries desperately to convince everyone from the president down that this isn’t the Soviet Union starting World War III—just about the Platonic ideal of a political thriller. Rumor is Clancy’s grasp of top-secret technology rattled the FBI enough that they paid him a visit, and anyone who reads the book will believe it.

The Parallax View, by Loren Singer
Singer’s 1970 novel, which was adapted into a film starring Warren Beatty that’s become a cult favorite, is delightfully terrifying. A journalist witnesses the assassination of a president, and years later discovers that the other people who were eye witnesses to the event are being killed off in mysterious ways. His investigation leads him to the Parallax Corporation, which trains political assassins as part of a massive conspiracy to control the world—a conspiracy that truly goes all the way to the top. The book’s plot is complex, but the sense that everything is not right with the world, that things are happening beyond our control or comprehension is, sadly, as applicable today as it was back then. Any time we lose faith in our leaders and entertain the notion that the country has been bamboozled on a national scale, this book should be pulled off the shelf and rediscovered.

Absolute Power, by David Baldacci
Baldacci’s audacious 1996 novel pivots off a salacious moment wherein a professional thief, having broken into the luxurious home of a billionaire, stumbles onto a two-way mirror giving him a view of the billionaire’s wife and the President of the United States having a affair. The sex turns rough, and the President’s Secret Service detail bursts in and kills the woman. The thief just barely manages to escape, but the Secret Service pins the murder on him, and a game of cat and mouse ensues as the president and his team try to cover up the truth. While conceived during the go-go Clinton years, this is another evergreen political thriller that combines a thriller plot with a plausible look at what authority decoupled from responsibility might look like.

I, Claudius, by Robert Graves
A historical novel? True, but also a razor-sharp story of political maneuvering in ancient Rome that involves not just murder and conspiracy, but also leverage, fake news, real policy, and power brokers. Claudius, who survives the violent reign of his nephew Caligula because he’s old and stammers—making everyone assume he’s no threat—is proclaimed emperor after Caligula’s well-deserved assassination, then proves to be smarter than anyone suspected. What makes this and its sequel, Claudius the God, so amazing is that Claudius—despite his intelligence and desire to be a “good” emperor with the ultimate goal of re-establishing the republic—is terribly flawed, continuously abusing his power in the most selfish of ways.

Lions of Lucerne, by Brad Thor
Thor’s first Scott Harvath novel opens with a bang: former Navy SEAL and current Secret Service agent Harvath is overseeing the president’s security detail in Park City, Utah, when a brazen attack leaves thirty other agents dead—and the president kidnapped. Harvath, disgraced and confused, goes on a one-man mission to piece together what happened and why, while the United States dithers and hesitates to meet the kidnappers’ demands, resulting in a presidential finger being mailed to the White House. While a bit more oriented towards the thriller side of things, that doesn’t mean Thor lacks a fine touch when it comes to the political side, which he renders in an equally exciting manner, leading to an explosive ending that’s not to be missed.

The Ghost Writer, by Robert Harris
Harris’ novel is a master class in tension. Former British Prime Minister Adam Lang is very late in turning his memoir in to his publisher—in part because his long-time collaborator and assistant has died in a terrible accident. To get the book back on schedule, a professional ghostwriter is hired to complete the manuscript. The ghostwriter struggles to figure out what’s true and what’s not so true in Lang’s notes, and then stumbles on evidence that implies the dead collaborator was actually murdered. As Lang is charged with war crimes, the stakes and the tension keep rising and the ghostwriter—appropriately never named—finds himself ensnared in the very dirty world of power and politics.

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