There’s something for the secret agent in all of us in this roundup of the best spy fiction to keep you on the edge of your seat. CIA, FBI, M15/MI6, KGB/FSB, Mossad…pick your poison.
Without question, John le Carré, whose real name is David Cornwell, is the greatest spy novelist of the era. A former British Intelligence officer, he worked for MI5 and MI6 during the 1950s and 60s, running agents and luring defectors out of Germany.
His characters can be clever and charming at once and completely sinister at the same time. They are often inspired by people he worked with or even family members. The title character of The Little Drummer Girl is based on his younger half sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell; and the Soviet mole, code-name “Gerald,” who is hunted in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is based on Kim Philby, the infamous British double agent and member of the Cambridge Five who betrayed Cornwell.
When his book, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, was published in 1963, it became an international best-seller and he retired from intelligence work to focus on his writing. Since then he has published more than 20 novels alone (he has also written a number of short stories and works of non-fiction including his superb memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, published in 2016).
My favorite of his works:
Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy
The first of the trilogy known as “The Quest for Karla” (which includes The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People).
The Little Drummer Girl
This novel is being made into a miniseries by AMC featuring Alexander Skarsgard. I am seriously hoping it is as great as “The Night Manager.”
Why I may love him most though? Rumor has it he still writes his first draft in pen!
Other top notch spy novels:
Our Man in Havana and The Quiet American, by Graham Greene.
Graham Greene was an extraordinary writer who, like le Carré, also worked for British Intelligence. Both of these novels were written in the 1950s and have a sense of old-fashionedness and treachery. Our Man in Havana is about a former vacuum-cleaner salesman turned reluctant secret agent who fabricates reports, which then start coming true. The Quiet American features a young, inexperienced, idealistic CIA agent who is sent to Vietnam to “save” it. A powerful story that resonates today.
The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad
The story is woven around an attack on the Greenwich Observatory in 1894 masterminded by a Russian spy working for the police and posing as a member of an anarchist group. His masters instruct him to discredit the anarchists and when his evil plan goes horribly awry, the secret agent must deal with the repercussions of his actions.
Moonraker and Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming
Though one could argue any book featuring James Bond (aka 007) should be on this list, these are pure bliss, great beach or snowed-in-the-cabin-for-the-weekend reads. They bring new definition to the films, if you've seen them. Fleming is yet another example of a former British Agent who left his trench in the shadows for a wildly successful publishing career. James Bond, playboy and super spy, is the most exciting thing that may have ever happened to British intelligence. Fleming is just as fascinating, so be sure to read about him too (plenty of articles, books and films to choose from).
Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith
This is one my dad loved. It’s 1981 in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Arkady Renko, a chief investigator in Moscow, must find out who murdered three people found in a public park. The story continues on to New York, involves a love triangle, and numerous memorable characters. Classic and unforgettable.
The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth
This book is the epitome of a thriller novel about a mercenary hired to assassinate French president, General Charles de Gaulle.
Eye of the Needle, by Ken Follett
This was another one my dad read and gifted me. From Ken Follett’s website: “It is 1944 and weeks before D-Day. The Allies are disguising their invasion plans with a phony armada of ships and planes. Their plan would be scuppered if an enemy agent found out… and then, Hitler’s prize agent, “The Needle,” does just that. Hunted by MI5, he leads a murderous trail across Britain to a waiting U-Boat. But he hasn’t planned for a storm-battered island, and the remarkable young woman who lives there.”
The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy
Because don’t you sort have to include a book introducing CIA analyst (and reluctant action hero) Jack Ryan to the world? Especially with John Krasinski now stepping into the role for Amazon Prime. Addicted readers can binge on Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and the list goes on, with a total of twelve books featuring this fictional character.