TOP-10 CONSPIRACY NOVELS…make sure you look over your shoulder brainwash, frame-ups, and stolen identities are around everywhere…
Okay, confession: I have no idea which conspiracy novels you have or haven’t read. Obviously. So to avoid recommending books you probably have read, I set three simple ground rules:
Nothing written in the last quarter century
- Only one novel based primarily on the assassination of President Kennedy.
- Nothing by John le Carré. He’s an absolute master—to my mind, the Graham Greene of our time—but he hasn’t written a novel that I would presume you haven’t read.
Now that we have the rules, here is my Top-10 list, in reverse chronology…
We start with the Kennedy book. In this intensely researched reimagining of the Kennedy assassination, DeLillo asks a brilliant series of what ifs and presents a conspiracy theory that feels more than plausible; it feels true. This is, in part, because his portrayal of not just Lee Harvey Oswald, but of all the players involved, is so startlingly intimate. Along the way, Libra becomes not a story about how the Kennedy assassination might have happened, but about our relationship to conspiracy: how we come to engage in it, how it feels to go through life paranoid, and the seductive allure of conspiracy theories.
THE ILLUMINATUS! TRILOGY (1984)
—Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea
Started in 1975 and first published together in 1984, The Illuminatus! Trilogy is an insane, drug-fueled romp through at least a half-dozen literary genres. It is way-the-hell out there. Seriously twisted. And it includes just about every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard of. I came across this tome in the early 1990s, while obsessively reading all of Robert Anton Wilson’s books. In ’94, while working on a terrible TLC documentary series about the paranormal, I reached out to Wilson and got him to appear on the show, which was a thrill.
THE DOGS OF WAR (1974)
I read this one in 1980 after seeing the film adaptation starring Christopher Walken, which had just hit theaters. Everyone’s seen the movie, so I won’t regurgitate the plot (if you haven’t seen the movie, see it), but the book seems to have been unfairly forgotten.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1974)
—Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
I know, not a novel. Sue me. It works beautifully as a conspiracy thriller, and like the very best of them, it raises as many questions as it answers, tickling our own paranoia (or, our skepticism of the consensus reality we’re being sold, if that’s the way you roll). It did for me, anyway.
THE PARALLAX VIEW (1970)
Like The Dogs of War, I read this one after seeing the terrific movie (this time, starring Warren Beatty—you must also see this film, if you haven’t). Singer trained with the OSS during World War II, so he knew firsthand how men in dark rooms conspire. Although there are echoes of Kennedy in it, The Parallax View is Singer’s response to an entire decade of assassinations. What if, asks Singer, a secret organization systematically recruited mentally unbalanced men and trained them into killers? And what if every first-hand witness to a political assassination started dropping dead?
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1959)
Yes, you’ve seen the stellar movie with Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and Janet Leigh, and maybe you’ve seen the not-so-stellar remake, but if you haven’t read the chilling, claustrophobic novel, you’re in for a treat. Also read Condon’s Winter Kills, which I can’t talk about here because it would violate my one Kennedy book rule.
INVISIBLE MAN (1952)
Not a conspiracy novel, you say? Admittedly, I’m stretching the definition, but Invisible Man left me shattered, and in its way, it is about conspiracy—the massive and insidious psychological and social conspiracy that takes place when a culture accepts and embraces racial tribalism, and what that does to a man who belongs to the marginalized group designated “Other.”
THE MINISTRY OF FEAR (1943)
Arthur Rowe, recently released from a London mental hospital, wins a cake at a charity fair. But he’s given the wrong cake; this one contains a hidden canister of film intended for a Nazi agent. The “innocent man becomes a target when he stumbles into the midst of a shadowy conspiracy” setup is a familiar conceit, but this is Graham-friggin’-Greene we’re talking about, and what he does with it is extraordinary. Arthur Rowe’s tenuous grip on reality is broken as he finds himself hunted through the streets of London during the Blitz, haunted by a personal trauma in his past, the landscape around him constantly shifting, different each day, rearranged by the Nazi bombs dropped each night.
NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (1949)
Of course you’ve read it before. But. Nineteen Eighty-Four broke my reality tunnel when I was a teenager, and I’ve returned to it every five years or so, finding something new in it with each reading. Yes, it’s a dystopian novel, a political novel, a literary novel—but read it again as a conspiracy thriller. You’ll be glad you did.
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (1606)
Okay, not a novel. I know. But really, who cares? Shakespeare’s tragedies stand as perhaps the greatest crime fiction ever written, so he gets a pass here. Why Macbeth over Hamlet, or the even more conspiracy-focused Julius Caesar? Because the Scottish play takes us deep inside the minds of the co-conspirators—the warrior and recently promoted Thane of Cawdor, and his partner-in-crime, Lady Macbeth—as they become corrupted by their “vaulting ambition.” And Shakespeare adds a nice dollop of woo-woo to the proceedings, just for kicks.
I hope I’ve just added to your “To Be Read” pile, but if you’ve read everything on my list, then help me out in the comments section by adding some of your own favorites. Remember—these are supposed to be conspiracy novels that we haven’t read, so please don’t hit us with a recent bestseller.
Sean Chercover is the author of the Wall Street Journal bestselling THE TRINITY GAME, and the newly released conspiracy thriller THE DEVIL’S GAME.