5 Codebreaking Thrillers You Should Be Reading

Read Jess Lourey's list of five codebreaking novels you should be reading, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of her latest Salem's Cipher novel, Mercy's Chase!

At 80 million copies sold and counting, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is poised to surpass the current bestselling mystery of all time, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Clearly, Brown hit on something with his fourth novel: readers love to crack a code. Mix in a little romance and some heavy intrigue with the codebreaking (or cryptanalysis, as it’s properly called), add a dash of apocrypha, and you’ve created a mystery that readers can’t put down.

While The Da Vinci Code may be the most well-known cryptanalytical thriller, here are five more worth checking out.

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Cover of Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

Named after the simple device invented in 1851 to demonstrate the earth’s rotation, Eco’s 1988 Foucault’s Pendulum was the first cryptanalytical thriller to garner international attention. It imagines a meta-mystery, one where three jaded book editors construct an elaborate conspiracy theory that turns out to be real. The novel features codes within codes, starting with Colonel Ardenti’s encrypted discovery suggesting that the Knights Templar have a plan to take over the world. Described by critics as “encyclopedic” and “convoluted,” the book has a tendency to over-describe but is still a fantastic read, managing to be both educational and thrilling.

The Eight by Katherine Neville

Cover of The Eight by Katherine Neville

The Eight’s Katherine Neville takes readers back and forth between two storylines, one set in 1972 and the other in 1790. The 1790 storyline is set during the French Revolution, featuring historical characters such as Napoleon and Catherine the Great, while the more modern storyline includes layered cryptanalysis. The parallel plots are connected by the Montglane Service, an ancient chess set with the power to change history. Each stunning, jeweled Montglane chess piece contains a code. The protagonists are hiding and hunting them, unaware that they themselves are being moved and played like chess pieces. A well-paced mystery with layered history, a touch of romance, and buckets of adventure, The Eight is not to be missed.

The Expected One by Kathleen McGowan

Cover for The Expected One by Kathleen McGowan

McGowan’s debut novel hit at #1 in 2007, proving that thrillers and Mary Magdalene mix well. The Expected One echoes The Da Vinci Code in that it is built around a search for Mary Magdalene’s Gospels, which supposedly prove that she was married to Christ. It also features cryptic clues embedded in famous art. A key difference between the books? Author McGowan claims to be a descendant of Christ and Magadelene, and her novel to be a fictionalized version of her own life story. Originally self-published, this mystery has more romance than the others on the list and is a perfect escapist read.

The Lost Army of Cambyses by Paul Sussman

Cover of The Lost Army of Cambyses by Paul Sussman

That Sussman is a trained field archeologist comes through in the fabulous Egyptian setting and detailed dig descriptions found in his international bestseller. The book’s title and central storyline come from a search for Persian pharaoh Cambyses II’s missing army of 50,000. According to Greek historian Herodotus, the army was lost in 523 BC in a sandstorm, and their great wealth lost along with them. In Sussman’s telling, a pottery shard scratched with hieroglyphics holds the secret to the location of the lost army. Due to its exceptional pacing, The Lost Army of Cambyses is the most thrillerish of all the books on this list.

The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman

Cover of The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman

The only YA novel on this list, The Book of Blood and Shadow features a teenage protagonist and a cryptic manuscript that points to a 400-year-old secret. While this novel is bloody and rivals Sussman’s for pacing, it’s also relationship-based in a way that’s unusual for thrillers; I found it stuck with me longer than the rest for this reason. I also enjoyed how it’s built around the Voynich manuscript, one of the most enduring uncracked codes in the history of cryptography. The Voynich manuscript is a handwritten codex, carbon-dated to the early 15th century. Brought to international attention when it was bought by Polish art dealer Wilfrid Voynich in 1912, the uncracked treatise features an unknown language, naked women, plant sketches, and zodiac symbols, making it a ripe bed for thriller writers and readers alike.

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Mercy’s Chase by Jess Lourey!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

Mercy’s Chase Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/5-codebreaking-thrillers-you-should-be-reading-comment-sweepstakes beginning at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) September 8, 2018. Sweepstakes ends at 11:59 a.m. ET September 18, 2018. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

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  1. Andrey Golubzen

    ___123___5 Codebreaking Thrillers You Should Be Reading – Criminal Element___123___

  2. Laurent Latulippe

    I’m terrible at code breaking but I like trying to figure them out. Thanks for the list. I’ll check them out.

  3. John Smith

    I should read some Umberto Eco!

  4. Catherine Myers

    Love code breakers

  5. Karen Mikusak

    Would love to win!

  6. Susanne Troop

    Love a good book!

  7. Elena

    This one sounds good! Thanks for the chance =)

  8. Marjorie Manharth

    Going to read Salem’s Cipher so I’ll be ready to win this one.

  9. Carolyn

    I love mysteries about codes/codebreaking and I’ve already read 2 of the 5 books on your list!

  10. Michael Carter

    Please enter me in this sweepstakes.
    Thanks —

  11. Susan T.

    The Eight is one of my favorites!

  12. Anne

    These are all intriguing and exceptional.

  13. Pearl

    Mysteries and codes are the best. Thanks.

  14. Deanna Stillings

    Codes are always interesting. I often wished I had been able to work at Bletchley during WW2, however I was but a babe in arms at that time.

  15. susan beamon

    Some of these books I know about and are on my to be read list. Others I had not heard of so I will have to add them to my list. That list is so long now, I will have to live for a couple of centuries to get to the end.

  16. pat murphy

    Love the chase to decode .

  17. Margit Curtright


  18. dbranigan

    Thank you for the list. I look forward to reading your novel.

  19. Lori P

    All of the above are good reminders that codes can be planted almost anywhere, and that mental gymnastics can be satisfying exercise.

  20. Michelle

    Would love to win a new book!

  21. teresa sopher

    The Eight was a terrific read. Added the other titles to my TBR list…

  22. Shirley Evans

    I love discovering authors I have never read before and would love to win this book.

  23. lasvegasnv

    interesting list

  24. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  25. Janet Gould

    I’m definitely going to check out those 5 books.

  26. Linda Cosby

    I would like to read this.

  27. joel timmons

    Code breakers. What a. Thrill. Ride. Of. A. Book

  28. Susan Morris

    I want to read all of these!!

  29. Rhonda Barkhouse

    I would love to win a copy!

  30. Saundra K. Warren

    lots of good stuff in there

  31. Sheila Broocke

    This would be an awesome win!

  32. johnna smith

    thank you for the good review and I thank you for the chance to win!!

  33. Pat Murphy

    Count me in. They all sound great.

  34. Linda Leonard

    Would love to add this to my list of “codebreaking” novels. Thanks for the opportunity.

  35. kathy

    I can’t wait to read it.

  36. downeaster

    Count me in

  37. Barbara Bates

    Would love to win this book!

  38. L

    I love a good code breaking book. Mystery with high stakes. All these books need to go on my list!

  39. Patricia C

    Codes have been around forever. By now they must be part of our DNA. No wonder we are drawn to them.

  40. Deb Philippon

    I’ve always been intrigued by codes, and I admire a writer who can plot an intricate storyline around them. Wish me luck!

  41. Deb Philippon

    Repeated, because I should know to sign in by now. I’ve always been intrigued by codes, and I admire a writer who can plot an intricate storyline around them. Wish me luck!

  42. Sally Schmidt

    I think you’re right – we love to crack a code, or try to anyway!

  43. Daniel M

    sounds like a fun one


    Thanks for the opportunity to win!

  45. rebecca ward

    Awesome! Winner Winner Chicken Dinner

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