Spy fiction is a relatively young genre, but despite its short life span it’s already stuffed with classics. We've picked 10 of the best, but read quickly—this message will self-destruct in 10 seconds.
W Somerset Maugham – Ashenden: Or the British Agent
How’s this for audacious? Following the outbreak of the First World War, the Secret Service asked Maugham to go to Switzerland on their behalf. His position as a celebrated writer and socialite left him ideally placed to pass information back, and all the while he claimed to be working on a play.
Ashenden gathers a selection of stories based on his experiences. There were more of them, 14 to be exact, but rumour has it that Winston Churchill asked for these not published as they were far too revealing. Titles like The Hairless Mexican should give you an idea of what to expect from these droll, playful tales.
Eric Ambler – The Mask of Dimitrios
Ambler is frequently credited with inventing the modern thriller, and it’s books like The Mask of Dimitrios that established the ground rules: fish-out-of-water tales of Englishmen abroad, enveloped by the paranoia permeating the continent in the lead up to World War Two.
Ambler’s drab, taught realism provided the template for so much of the spy writing that would follow.
Ian Fleming – From Russia With Love
Fleming’s Bond books remain hugely popular, but in many ways they haven’t aged well (don’t look here for political correctness!).
They’re also ripe for parody, and the amount that 007 drinks, smokes, and eats makes it hard to imagine him being able to move at all, let alone sneak around or win a fistfight. However, there’s something about Fleming’s prose that will see chapter after chapter race by like an Aston Martin.
From Russia With Love, the fifth book in the series, is widely considered to be the one where Fleming properly found his stride.
Graham Greene – The Human Factor
Greene placed his novels in two categories. There were his serious stories, such as The Power and The Glory and Brighton Rock, novels he considered his reputation as a writer to be built upon. But he also wrote what he referred to as ‘entertainments’; thrilling spy novels often informed by his own experience working for MI6.
As a tense spy tale that’s also rather thought provoking, The Human Factor straddles both of these categories.
John le Carre – The Looking Glass War
It’s hard to think of another writer—historians and journalists included—who has chronicled the second half of the 21st Century like le Carre.
Each of his novels offer a snapshot of how spying was done and wars were fought at the moment in which he wrote them. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy are his best known, both genre classics. However, for a tale that captures Cold War paranoia perfectly, with all its absurdities and amorphous loyalties, check out the lesser-known The Looking Glass War.
Lionel Davidson – Kolymsky Heights
Kolymsky Heights is a classic undercover quest narrative that takes the hero half-way across the globe. It seems a far-fetched sequence of events, but Davidson's writing style makes each of the steps along the way utterly plausible (the same can’t be said for the lead character’s absurdly broad skill set).
Although it received some acclaim upon its publication in the 1990s, Davidson’s career began to peter out. However, 2015 is the year he was rediscovered, and high praise from the likes of Philip Pullman (‘The best thriller I’ve ever read’) has arrested the books slow sink into obscurity.
Anthony Burgess – Tremor Of Intent
This is a spy story that has its cake and eats it. An affectionate pastiche of Fleming-style espionage novels, all the trappings you’d expect are there: femme fatales, fights, defections, double crosses and battles of wits.
A boisterous meditation on the nature of good and evil, Tremor of Intent is terribly serious, but also exciting, pacey, and very very funny.
Tom Clancy – The Cardinal of the Kremlin
Tom Clancy is the thriller writer that other thriller writers read—although that might be because it counts as research.
His books (which could double as doorstops) are packed with real-life detail, and also frequently consulted by people in the military. Clancy is the grandmaster of the technothriller, and his early novel The Cardinal of the Kremlin sees him turn his focus squarely to espionage. The chilly terror of the Cold War forms the setting for the second (and arguably best) book in the Jack Ryan series.
Stella Rimington's Liz Carlyle series
Spy fiction is, regrettably, a boys club. As things stand there are a real lack of female voices. Thankfully we have Stella Rimington to help redress the balance.
Having smashed the glass ceiling to smithereens during her time as Director General at MI5, Rimington has since embarked on a phenomenally successful writing career. Alongside a much-lauded autobiography come her Liz Carlyle novels—there are now 8 in the series, all pacey and dripping with authenticity.
Len Deighton – The IPCRESS File
Deighton is the master of razor-sharp dialogue, which lends an almost noir element to his books. The IPCRESS File is probably his most well-known, aided in part by the film adaptation (which helped catapult a certain Michael Caine to fame).
Deighton’s books are the antithesis of the martini-drenched glamourous junkets of James Bond. The lead character, who stays anonymous throughout, is a working-class spy with a Burnley accent, who you sense would rather be anywhere in the world than on Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
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