James Patterson is one of the biggest selling authors of all time. He’s sold more than 300 million books worldwide, including 84 million in just the past decade. That’s also landed him at the top of the list of wealthiest authors according to Forbes.
The reason isn’t complicated: Patterson is very good at writing fast-paced, tense thrillers. His signature style of short chapters that end on exciting story beats, straightforward prose, and unflinching descriptions of brutal crimes have driven his popularity among readers. While Patterson has written—and found success—in almost every genre, he’s best known for his crime thrillers, and that’s the genre where you find his best work. So if you’re looking for a thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat, here are the 10 best James Patterson books to check out.
Alex Cross is James Patterson’s most famous and popular character, and the book that introduced Cross remains not only the best example of the series but the best Patterson book overall. If the basic template of the book—a brilliant detective teams with a fiercely driven female Secret Service agent to stop a deranged, brutal serial killer—seems familiar, that’s because Patterson perfected it.
What really elevates Along Came A Spider to the top of the list is the character work. Alex Cross is a modern version of the classic gentleman detective—highly intelligent, educated, and cultured, but capable of decisive action when necessary. By bridging the old-school Sherlock Holmes/Nero Wolfe detective onto a grisly story of serial murder and mental illness, Patterson struck gold and launched a franchise that is three films and nearly 30 books strong.
2. 1st to Die
Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series is a prime example of the sort of efficient, exciting story Patterson excels at: A team of four professional, accomplished women with disparate talents and resources combine forces to chase after a serial killer who targets couples. After being diagnosed with a rare, potentially fatal disease, Inspector Lindsay Boxer encounters the double homicide of a newlywed couple at the Grand Hyatt hotel. More couples are murdered, and the killings are dubbed the Honeymoon Murders.
As Boxer assembles her team of kick-butt women—a journalist, a medical examiner, a fellow cop—the story starts to feel like a superhero origin story. The contrast between some of Patterson’s most effective and gruesome descriptions of horrific crime scenes and an examination of female friendship gives the story a sense of stakes and surprising depth, making it one of his most consistently successful novels.
The second novel to feature Alex Cross is almost as good as the first. Kiss the Girls is fast-paced, complex, and filled with twists, but Patterson keeps a steady hand on the story. Two distinct sociopaths working on opposite coasts, The Gentleman Caller and Casanova, are serial killers linked by their choice of beautiful young women as victims. When Casanova abducts Alex Cross’s niece, he has no choice but to take on the case—risking his life and the lives of his loved ones as he does so.
Alex Cross is a brilliant investigator, and so coming up with suitable adversaries can be a challenge. Having two horrifying killers is an exciting solution to the problem. The doubling of the antagonists makes for a plausible challenge for the otherwise unstoppable Cross, and Patterson efficiently guides his villains into the same zip code while expertly raising the stakes. It’s a dense book, but it’s written with remarkable clarity and control.
Cross is once again on the trail of a terrifying psychopath, but a bold structural twist elevates what could have been merely a thriller into one of Patterson’s best works. A former MI-6 agent working in the British embassy revives a bizarre “game” he once played with several spies, disguising himself and murdering women he lures into his taxi. Nick-named the Jane Doe Murderer, he catches the attention of Cross who finds himself weighed down by politics in his efforts to solve the case.
Just when you think Patterson is following a familiar plot trajectory, he throws a curveball: Cross actually captures and charges the killer, a dapper man named Geoffrey Shafer, relatively early on. That sets up the rest of the novel, where Shafer subverts the legal process and launches a convincing argument that Cross has framed him. It’s a brilliant twist that flips several tropes at once, making Pop Goes The Weasel a must-read for thriller fans.
Patterson’s first published novel is largely forgotten nearly 50 years after its publication, but it’s still a terrific book. The Thomas Berryman Number won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1976 and immediately established the hotshot advertising executive as a force to watch in the writing world.
Set in the early 1970s, the novel begins with the murder of one of the first black mayors in Nashville’s history. A journalist, drawn into the story by the nervous ramblings of one of the killers, suspects the explanation for the killing is too easy, so he investigates. He quickly discovers a deeper conspiracy that is soaked in the sort of political paranoia infamous of the 1970s. Multiple shifts in POV give the story a sense of constant motion, but it’s tempered by a stronger focus on detail and description while Patterson unveils his well-constructed plot.
Co-authored with Michael Ledwidge, Gone is a bit of a departure for Patterson in that it’s a straight-up thriller with almost zero mystery elements. New York City Police Detective Michael Bennett is the only law enforcement officer to ever put drug cartel leader Manuel Perrine behind bars. When Perrine engineers his escape, he targets Bennett and his family for revenge. Bennett comes out of retirement to hunt Perrine one more time, prompting the drug lord to launch a campaign of terror, killing enemies, former associates, and anyone else who crosses his path—all while his homicidal daughter hunts for Bennett’s family.
Gone launched the Michael Bennett series, and the novel has the breakneck pace and strong character work that marks all of Patterson’s stories. It’s an example of two skilled writers producing a nearly flawless example of the genre.
Originally published under the title The Cornwalls are Gone, this collaboration with Brendan DuBois shows that Patterson sometimes produces his best work when he tweaks his usual thriller formula. Army Intelligence officer Amy Cornwall comes home to find her husband and daughter have been kidnapped. To secure their safe return, she has to find a way to free a mysterious prisoner, risking her life and her career. This sort of impossible scenario where the protagonist has no good choices makes for a terrifically tense story.
Patterson’s character work is once again exemplary. Amy’s reaction to an existential threat to her family lines up well with her training, career choice, and personality—but Patterson and DuBois don’t neglect the other Cornwalls, giving her family individuality and emotional heft. They could have existed simply to kick the plot into motion, but instead they come alive on the page. Combined with Patterson’s expertise in pacing and twisty plotting, and you’ve got a top-notch modern thriller.
The key to enjoying many of Patterson’s thrillers is to view them as superhero stories: The villains are almost superhuman in their cruelty and intelligence, while the hero—here again the brilliant but lovable Alex Cross—is burdened with far too much humanity. The antagonist here calls himself The Mastermind, and he delights in manipulating people into complex crimes that end in bloody massacres. His cool, icy brilliance is contrasted with Cross’s messy personal life as his relationship status fluctuates and his daughter suffers a mysterious malady.
It’s a clever trick—the many messy challenges in Cross’s life make him the underdog despite being a world-class detective and brilliant investigator, and The Mastermind’s cruel horrors remind the reader that none of us are as safe as we think we are. It’s a particularly tense example of what Patterson does best.
No one weaponizes plot twists like Patterson. Working with frequent collaborator David Ellis, Patterson constructs a master class in fooling the reader without irritating them. The opening sequence of The Murder House is pure bravado: No fewer than three seemingly unconnected mysteries are introduced in the first pages, including the mystery of what happened to the book’s protagonist, former NYPD detective Jenna Murphy, when she was a child.
Murphy has moved home after resigning from the force in disgrace, but a double murder in the town’s infamous “Murder House” where several violent tragedies have occurred over the years, pulls her back in. Her investigation is as much about discovering her own past as it is about the current murders. While the Murder House is obviously the center of the web, Patterson and Ellis continuously surprise the reader and keep them off-balance. Twists are often used like sledgehammers in thrillers, exploding logic at the end of stories to shock and amaze. Patterson and Ellis instead wield their twists like scalpels, slowly transforming and shaping the story. It’s a book you’ll want to read twice in order to spot how it all hangs together.
10. The Beach House
Patterson teamed up with journalist Peter De Jonge for this rare standalone thriller, and the result is one of his best because it employs a truly surprising resolution to the story. When law student Jack Mullen is told his brother Peter accidentally drowned on the property of shady billionaire Barry Neubauer, he’s shocked. When he sees Peter’s body, he knows he didn’t drown. But Neubauer’s money goes a long way, and Jack finds his attempts at finding out the truth frustrated by crooked cops and intimidated officials. Aided by his hometown friends and his grandfather, Jack accepts that the law, for once, can’t help him and pursues justice on his own.
The pivot into a dark vigilante story removes any chance that even the most experienced fan could guess where the story is going. You’ll be hard-pressed to guess the ending, making The Beach House a modern classic of its genre.