In Edgar Award winner Chris Pavone’s latest tale of intrigue and adventure, Two Nights in Lisbon, American businessman John Wright vanishes one morning from his hotel in the eponymous Portuguese city. His wife, Ariel Pryce, insists he was kidnapped, but issues soon emerge that make both the Lisbon police and the CIA skeptical. When Pryce comes up with €2 million for a ransom payoff, the web leads investigators to the bank account of the current U.S. treasury secretary, who’s soon to become the U.S. vice president and has a past that could subject him to blackmail. Pavone skillfully layers plot details, often shifting points of view, all the way to the end of this superior, elegantly crafted yarn.
What exactly is an international thriller? For me, the phrase means that the protagonist is abroad, somewhere outside the comfortable confines of everyday life, facing threats that take on extra-perilous dimensions because of the challenges of being away from the language, customs, and support structures of home. Conflict is heightened. Stakes are raised. Danger appears around unexpected corners when you’ve never before walked unfamiliar streets. For me, the best international thrillers also contain an element of travelogue, providing sensory experiences and rich atmosphere to help transport readers, heightening the adventure. At heart, they’re adventures. Or, rather, misadventures. Here are 10 of my favorites:
1. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
No list like this would be complete without 007, and I think the best place to start is, no surprise, at the start: the world’s introduction to James Bond is a tight little masterpiece of tension, character, and excitement. A large part of the joy in Bond is the sheer ridiculousness, and Casino Royale fits the bill perfectly: Bond’s unlikely mission is to bankrupt the international villain Le Chiffre at a casino in France by beating him in baccarat, a premise that’s both spectacularly insane and thoroughly enjoyable.
2. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Tom Ripley lucks into a terrific job: go to Italy to convince the son of an enormously wealthy shipping tycoon to return home to 1950s New York. But Tom is a scam artist, and he uses the opportunity to insinuate himself into Dickie Greenleaf’s life, befriending Dickie’s girlfriend, even wearing Dickie’s clothes, and eventually pretending to be Dickie. More than one murder ensues in a riveting story that examines identity, ambition, sexuality, and a few different forms of love.
3. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
This might be the least thrilling thriller on this list, but it’s also perhaps the most credible, moving, and important of the books. (Isn’t that always the tradeoff?) This is a thoughtful, complex meditation on foreignness, and friendship, and love, and also a resonant disquisition about the arrogance of American and European interference in the affairs of the rest of the world, as exemplified by Vietnam. And it was written a decade before the American debacle in that country began in earnest.
4. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré
During the summer after I graduated from college, in 1989, I picked up a mass-market paperback of this novel at an English-language bookstore in Bologna, and consumed it along with un etto of prosciutto, a hunk of bread, and a 50-cent bottle of Valpolicella in the Alpine town of Courmayeur, in the shadow of Monte Bianco. It was all a revelation. What appeals to me most in espionage fiction is the thing that John Le Carré does best: betrayal. It’s what we all worry about, isn’t it? That the people closest to us—our colleagues, our friends, our lovers, our spouses—aren’t who they claim to be, but are instead using us, waiting for the chance to exploit our relationship. This is the heart of a great spy novel, and I think no one has ever done it quite like Mr. Le Carré.
It seems almost ludicrous to recommend such a ubiquitous bestseller, but it also seems irresponsible to omit Dan Brown’s blockbuster: perhaps no novel defines “international thriller” like this entertaining, informative, nonstop-exciting chase across Europe looking for a ruthless killer and a vast conspiracy and the actual Holy Grail. One of the bestselling novels of all time, for good reason.
The heart-racing ticking-clock plot of The Fear Index (what a great title!) is set in the intersection of high tech and high finance in Geneva, where a scientist runs a hedge fund that uses human emotions to predict financial markets, earning billions. Then, of course, everything goes horribly awry, and it all happens in the course of an increasingly desperate and breathless 24 hours.
This one has so many subplots and characters and international destinations that it defies summary. A few years ago, at a book festival in England, I saw Mr. Hayes speak, and he admitted that he purposefully wrote this sprawling suspense novel as something of a professional palate cleanser after a career working in Hollywood, where among many credits he wrote a couple of Mad Max movies. But he’d always yearned to create something all his own, without dozens of studio executives meddling with every choice. The result is a tremendous novel that pits a Hollywood-type good guy code-named Pilgrim against a Hollywood-type jihadist called the Saracen, but with the unifying voice and point-of-view of a novelist working at the top of the game.
Since the end of the Cold War, the espionage novel has been steadily receding in prominence, largely replaced on bestseller lists with other subgenres of suspense fiction. There’s a dwindling cadre of novelists who are still writing about spies, but Mr. Steinhauer is possibly the best of them, and Cairo is an espionage novel of the highest order, packed with betrayals, double-crosses, hidden agendas, moral conflicts, international relations, globe-trotting atmosphere, and even a delectable double-entendre of a title.
9. The Banker's Wife by Cristina Alger
The milieu seems comfortable enough, placid, maybe even boring: American expats in finance in Geneva, a city not known for its thrills. Gotcha! The protagonist suddenly finds herself an unexpected widow when her banker husband dies in a plane crash, a suspicious accident that raises a variety of red flags and launches a diabolical, fast-paced plot that’s packed with compelling characters and sharp insights. Tremendous fun.
The setting migrates from a New York book-publishing firm to the isolated house of a novelist upstate and then dramatically to Morocco, while the narrative evolves from a handwringing coming-of-age tale to a head-spinning, heart-pounding international thriller with shocking plot twists galore.