13 Mystery and Thriller Books That Inspired Films

Originally published on The Lineup

Whether it’s a secret agent infiltrating an international spy ring, a private investigator hot on a killer’s trail, or even a woman’s disappearance from her suburban home, there’s nothing that gets us going like a great mystery book.

What’s more: Many of these books provide the material for top-notch mystery flicks. From page to screen, these mystery and thriller books that inspired films are guaranteed to get your heart racing, as you zig zag through twists and turns before reaching the shocking end.

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 1. The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan (1915) – The 39 Steps (1935)

Still from The 39 Steps via Gaumont British Picture Corporation of America

In this mystery/thriller, set on the eve of World War I, expatriate Scotsman Richard Hannay is returning to his London home when he is confronted by an American stranger. The stranger claims that he has been hot on the tail of a German spy ring known as the Thirty-Nine Steps, who have plans to steal British military intelligence. Hannay is immediately plunged into a dark world of murder, espionage, and secrets, as he finds himself on the run from the same mysterious spy ring.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, The 39 Steps, is based on Buchan’s novel, though the plot of the movie departs from the original text at times.

2. The Mr. Moto Novels, by John P. Marquand (1935-57) – The Mr. Moto Collection (1937-39)

Still from Think Fast, Mr. Moto via Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Mr. Moto is the protagonist of six Marquand novels. A Japanese secret agent with all the talents of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes combined, Mr. Moto travels the globe helping to expose villainous plots and untangle vast webs of mystery and intrigue.

Eight Mr. Moto movies were released between 1937 to 1939, and star Peter Lorre in the titular role. Lorre starred in many other mystery films, often portraying a villain—including The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The Maltese Falcon (1941).

3. The Detective, by Roderick Thorp (1966) – The Detective (1968)

Still from The Detective via Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

A man dies in an apparent suicide at the local racetrack, but his wife is convinced of foul play. When she hires private investigator Joe Leland to look into the case, the lies, fraud, and corruption begin to unfold.

The Detective was turned into a movie in 1968, starring Frank Sinatra as Leland. The film received positive critical reception, and is said to be one of Sinatra’s most intense and dedicated performances.

4. Mischief, by Charlotte Armstrong (1951) – Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

Still from Don’t Bother to Knock via Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

In this suspenseful thriller, two new parents leave their child with a babysitter, Nell, for the night while the father delivers an important speech in New York City. Though things start off okay, the babysitter’s facade quickly cracks to reveal the madness underneath. Marilyn Monroe portrayed the unhinged sitter in the movie adaptation, Don’t Bother to Knock, which was her first co-starring role.

5. Ride the Pink Horse, by Dorothy B. Hughes (1946) – Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

Still from Ride the Pink Horse via Universal Pictures

Sailor knows that his employer, a senator, ordered a hit on his own wife. And while Sailor has agreed to remain silent for a payoff, when a cop, out for blood, emerges on the scene, the situation grows increasingly explosive. As an annual Fiesta in New Mexico rages on in the background, these three men close in on one another.

The movie, Ride the Pink Horse based on the book, starring Robert Montgomery, was released in 1947. Though many characters are changed, the general plot of blackmail during a Fiesta remain the same.

6. To Die For, by Joyce Maynard (1992) – To Die For (1995)

Still from To Die For via Columbia Pictures

A reporter at a local news station is desperate to make it in the big leagues: Even if that means ordering her young lover to murder her husband, and then using the story as ammo for a potential TV deal.

To Die For, the cult classic film starring Nicole Kidman, was, of course, based on Maynard’s book. The black comedy received rave reviews and also stars Matt Dillion, Joaquin Phoenix, and Casey Affleck.

7. Six Days of the Condor, by James Grady (1974) – Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Still from Six Days of the Condor via Paramount Pictures

When gunman massacre all of Ronald Malcolm’s colleagues at the CIA, he knows his team has uncovered something they were not meant to find … and that he is the next on the hit list. Malcolm soon discovers a conspiracy that reaches all the way up to the highest levels of the CIA.

The book inspired the movie Three Days of the Condor, which stars Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, and Max von Sydow. It was released in 1975, capturing the high tensions and paranoia of the time.

8. Dead Calm, by Charles William (1963) – Dead Calm (1989)

Still from Dead Calm via Warner Bros.

In this psychological thriller, newlyweds are yachting through the Pacific Ocean when they come across a young man who survived a shipwreck. They take the man on board, but soon become suspicious of both his story and his intentions.

Dead Calm was adapted into an Australian film in 1989, starring Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill and Billy Zane. The three actors play the sole characters in this claustrophobic, terrifying film.

9. The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett (1929) – The Maltese Falcon (1941)


Still from Maltese Falcon via Warner Bros.

Fictional private detective Sam Spade, introduced in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, is considered one of the key figures in the development of the hard-boiled crime fiction genre. He also was a major inspiration for Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. After his partner is murdered, Spade is dragged into a complicated world of crime and intrigue, all in the pursuit of a valuable falcon statue.

The Maltese Falcon was turned into a film in 1941, starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, and was nominated for three Academy Awards. Variety praised the film saying it’s “one of the best examples of action-full and suspenseful melodramatic story telling in cinematic form.”

10. Gone, Baby, Gone, by Dennis Lehane (1998) – Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Still from Gone, Baby, Gone via Miramax

Dennis Lehane, the author of Mystic River and Shutter Island, pens this thriller that follows private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro who are hired by a woman to look into the case of her niece’s disappearance.

Ben Affleck wrote the screenplay for and directed the movie adaptation Gone Baby Gone. The movie stars Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan, and received many awards and nominations, including Amy Ryan’s Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

11. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (2005) – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

Still from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo via Yellow Bird

Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller follows the exploits of Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant and mysterious hacker, and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who is hired by an ailing former business tycoon to help solve the mystery of his niece’s disappearance.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Swedish-language film adaptation of the book, starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace, was released in 2009. An American version followed, starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig in 2011. Both films were popular and received positive reviews. While the second and third books in the Millennium series were adapted into Swedish films, they have yet to receive the Hollywood treatment.

12. The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler (1939) – The Big Sleep (1946)

Still from The Big Sleep via Warner Bros.

In the first of the famous Philip Marlowe novels, the P.I. is hired by a wealthy old general who wants him to stop a bookseller from blackmailing his younger daughter. Marlowe is in for a wild ride, as secrets, murder, and double-crosses await down the line.

The Big Sleep was adapted into the classic hit film by the same name in 1946, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It’s known as one of the most important American films, and was added to the National Film Registry in 1997 by the Library of Congress.

13. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (2012) – Gone Girl (2014)

Still from Gone Girl via Twentieth Century Fox

In Gillian Flynn’s best-selling psychological thriller, Nick Dunne is immediately considered the primary suspect when his seemingly perfect wife, Amy, goes missing. Suffice it to say there is much more to Nick and Amy’s marriage—and to Amy, in particular—than meets the eye.

David Fincher directed the film adaptation Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as Nick and Amy, respectively. Pike’s performance received great praise, and the film started a wave of adaptations for Gillian Flynn’s thrillers.