I’ve always enjoyed a good political thriller, but I think my love of this particular genre increased massively after becoming a major fan of the TV series The West Wing in the early 2000s. Even to this day it is probably my favourite TV series. I was gutted when it ended, and so whenever I get the chance to relive some of that political buzz in my reading I jump at the chance.
To be clear, these books I’ve chosen are books about actual politicians and political events, not just political ideas. I were to widen the scope to include books that included political ideas, I’d be choosing from millions. As usual, these books aren’t in any particular order; they’re all classic political novels that are a great read.
- Advise and Consent by Allen Drury – This is the story of prominent liberal politician Robert Leffingwell who is being nominated for the position of Secretary of State during the early days of the Cold War. It is a very controversial nomination as evidence begins to mount that he was a member of the Communist Party. What’s great about this novel is that the author really knew his stuff – he was a political journalist for many years including several years as the United States Senate correspondent for United Press. His characters and the political machinations they get up to feel so real as a result, and if you like this book there are several more hefty sequels to dig your teeth into.
- All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – This book portrays the dramatic rise of Willie Stark, a populist governor in the American south, as portrayed by political journalist Jack Burden who becomes his right hand man. It became a major American classic, being filmed twice – in 1949 and 2006, the first of which winning a Best Picture Oscar – and was has appeared in several lists of the best books of the 20th century.
- No Safe Place by Richard North Patterson – Richard North Patterson is better known as a writer of legal thrillers, mining the same vein as the likes of John Grisham, but he also wrote a political trilogy, of which this is the first. This book follows the political campaign of a real conviction politician Kerry Kilcannon. He’s someone to believe in, an all round good guy like President Bartlett from the West Wing, but inevitably he has his own inner demons to overcome along with the tough external battles he faces. The other two books in the series, Protect and Defend and Balance of Power are at least as good as this one, and put together make a great series.
- First Among Equals by Jeffrey Archer – As popular as he is, Jeffrey Archer probably doesn’t appear on many top 10 lists, however I really liked this book. So far on this list all the books have been about American politics, but this one is set in Britain, and follows a set of four young politicians from different parties through their political careers from the 1960s to the 1980s. Jeffrey Archer was a British MP for five years, so is another writer who knows what he is talking about.
- The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon – Set during the Cold War, this is the story of an ex-prisoner of war and stepson of a prominent politician, who was secretly brainwashed in captivity and programmed to be a “sleeper” – an assassin who will be unleashed when a secret signal is sent. This story reflects the paranoia of the time when it came out in 1959. Despite accusations of plagiarism (apparently, whole passages were lifted from I, Claudius by Robert Graves) it remains a political classic that has twice been made into a film.
- House of Cards by Michael Dobbs – This is another British novel, about the scheming politician Francis Urquhart. As Chief Whip, he holds secrets on everyone, and he is not afraid to use them to ruthlessly propel himself to the top, willing to betray everyone to achieve his goal of becoming Prime Minister. This was made into an excellent British TV mini-series, but will be more familiar to most people as the award winning Netflix TV series starring Kevin Spacey as US politician Frank Underwood.
- Absolute Power by David Baldacci – I love David Baldacci thrillers. Most of them are set in and around Washington D.C. and feature politicians in some way, but Absolute Power is much more political than most of his books. Professional burglar, Luther Whitney, breaks into a billionaire’s house intending to rob him, but instead witnesses the President of the United States having sex with the billionaire’s wife. Things get a bit violent, and Secret Service agents rush in and kill the woman. Whitney manages to escape but not before being seen by the Secret Service, who then pin the murder on him. It’s a great thrill a minute book you won’t be able to put down.
- Imperium by Robert Harris – Robert Harris has written many great books, a number of them political. The most overtly political is probably The Ghost Writer, but I like Imperium and it is different from the rest of the books on this list as it is set in Ancient Rome. It is the first in a trilogy about Roman senator and orator Cicero, as narrated by his faithful secretary (and slave) Tito. Really brings to life the old Roman Republic, and is as political as any books on this list.
- Debt of Honor/Executive Orders by Tom Clancy – As a teenager I loved thriller writer Tom Clancy, and in my opinion these books are him writing at his peak. Both books feature super spy Jack Ryan, who has featured in numerous films and now a TV series. I don’t want to give away the plot, but things go a bit crazy at the end of Debt of Honor, and through pure chance, Jack Ryan is sworn in as President of the United States. Both great books, but together they are over 2,000 pages so better set aside a good chunk of time as once you start you won’t want to put them down.
- The President is Missing by Bill Clinton – I thought I’d end on a more up to date note, with a book co-authored by mega-selling thriller writer James Patterson and two time President of the United States Bill Clinton. Opinions on this book are a bit of a mixed bag, but there’s no denying that Clinton brings a lot of insider knowledge to the table and for that alone it should be worth a read.
What are your favourite political novels? Let me know in the comments.