Conspiracy thrillers are books which centre on the conflict between the lead character and the source of the conspiracy. The story starts off with either a meaningless crime. The person investigating notices something out of kilter and digs deeper. There’s difficulty ascertaining the truth because of the rumours, lies and group intimidation built up around the incident. Fast paced and gripping these page-turners are full of twists and turns.
There’s a healthy dose of conspiracy in spy and political fiction. All reasons they make for good TV programmes like the Bodyguard, House of Cards, Homeland, Scandal. Against the backdrop of a glamorous environment, the dirty tricks and bullying traits of the powerful is usually in sharp contrast to their simpler personal personas.
It’s the human side, the motivation behind their behaviour and complexity of character we’re gripped by, as much as the secretive worlds they take us into. The more it resembles normal life, the closer we’re drawn in.
In my book The Missing Activist, a loyal if somewhat naïve young man is being bullied by a member of his own political party and fears it will damage his reputation and career. When he suddenly disappears it seems a bit storm in a teacup until an investigator finds there’s been a coverup and is determined to learn why. If there’s one thing the secretive world of politics can’t stand, it’s people threatening the party with negative exposure. Which is a cover-up for other misdemeanours. Here are some others:
House of Cards, by Michael Dobbs
The book that inspired the British TV show that inspired the huge Netflix’ hit. The story is 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. Written by someone who knew behind-the-scenes.
The Constant Gardener, by John le Carré
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 Ghost Writer, by Robert Harris
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, they hire a professional ghostwriter 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 murdered. Lang is charged with war crimes, and the ghostwriter is himself ensnared in the dirty world of power and politics.
The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon
Condon’s 1959 novel is about soldiers captured during the Korean War, tortured and brainwashed. One character, 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. This makes him the perfect hidden assassin, who can pass any interrogation or test. His own ruthless, power-hungry mother is his KGB handler, who relays orders to assassinate the president in order to secure the office for the vice president.