Want to escape the humdrum? Here are twelve classic spy genre authors to keep you busy for a year or more. How many have you read?
Just a note before beginning: The list below is subjective and selected; it’s not comprehensive, but does include authors from “before, during, and after the Cold War.” While not all the authors are my favorites, it’s heavily weighted toward my personal preferences. Let me know about your likes and dislikes — plus your favorites — in the comments. And just so you know: The list is in no particular order.
THE MASTERS OF THE GENRE
John Le Carre
If you search lots of lists that celebrate the best spy novels of all time, one thing is for sure. They are almost all topped by John Le Carre, the nom de plume of David Cornwall. If you’re into the spy genre even a little bit, you’ve probably read one of his novels. If you haven’t had the pleasure, The Karla Trilogy is a good place to start. The trilogy is made up of:
- 1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
- 2. The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
- 3. Smiley’s People (1979)
Many of Le Carre’s books are available on platforms other than print. For example, the movie based on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy is available on many streaming services. Smiley’s People was made into a 1982 British six-part spy drama by the BBC. It’s now available on YouTube. And although no one has yet attempted to film The Honourable Schoolboy, either for television, for Hollywood, or for streaming, it’s available as an audio drama on YouTube.
Right now I’m reading one of Le Carre’s post Cold War novels, Mission Song (2006), and I’m finding it very enjoyable. You can read a review of it here. The article also touches on more general critiques of Le Carre’s work.
But enough of this novelist for now. They’ll be more on him later in October when Apple TV releases a new feature documentary, The Pigeon Tunnel, “featuring the storied life and career of former British spy David Cornwell, better known as bestselling author John le Carré.” Interested? You can find out more about the essential Le Carre in this New York Times piece here.
Ian Fleming’s James Bond is an action oriented counter weight to Le Carre’s “quiet hero” George Smiley. Fleming, like Le Carre was something of an intelligence officer himself. According to Wikipedia, while working for Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division during the Second World War, Fleming was “involved in planning Operation Goldeneye and in the planning and oversight of two intelligence units: 30 Assault Unit and T-Force. He drew from his wartime service and his career as a journalist for much of the background, detail, and depth of his James Bond novels.” After Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953, he went on to write 11 more. Although Fleming died at age 56 in 1964, the franchise has gone on without him.
I’m guessing that more of Fleming’s James Bond novels have been made into movies than any other authors. If I’m wrong you can correct me. Film lovers: All 27 of the James Bond films have been ranked by Rotten Tomatoes here.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read any of the James Bond books although I have seen several – but not all – of the movies. I love the action and adventure of the spy genre, but I’m not much into flamboyant fantasy. Smiley is much more my speed. But for all you Bond lovers, ENJOY! You can access Fleming’s author page on Amazon here.
Speaking of the thinking person’s spy, you can’t beat Graham Greene’s two outstanding novels, Our Man in Havana (1958 ) and The Quiet American (1955). Both have been made into films that are available on Amazon Prime. Apple TV also has a documentary about the author that includes comments from Le Carre among others. It’s called Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene.
Our Man in Havana is sometimes described as a comedy. In the book, Greene mocks intelligence services, especially the British MI6, and their willingness to believe reports from their local informants. One review notes: “The book predates the Cuban Missile Crisis, but certain aspects of the plot, notably the role of missile installations, appear to anticipate the events of 1962.”
The Quiet American (on my bedside table right now) is a story set in 1952 in Saigon, Vietnam (French Indochina at the time), toward the end of the First Indochina War (1946–1954) in which French forces fight the Communist-led Viet Minh rebels. On one level, it’s a love triangle, but on another level it’s about the growing American involvement that leads to the full-scale American war in Vietnam. Both of these books are rather short, and extremely good reads.
Dieghton is also a legend, still living at age 94. You can find out more about his life and his work on his website, The Deighton Dossier.
Deighton’s first work is his best-known. The Ipcress File (1962) is an account of deception and betrayal in an espionage agency. It was released as a full movie in 1965 starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer. Recently, a new series based on the novel was released on AMC+. (Just a hint – find the original film if you can.) If you’re a reader, start with one of the Harry Palmer books, either The Ipcress File (1965) or Funeral in Berlin (1966).
Deighton has more recently written about a beleaguered British spy, Bernard Samson. You can get to know him through various trilogies .The first comprises the books Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match, the second comprises Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker, and the third and final trilogy comprises Faith, Hope and Charity. You can find out more about Deighton in this recently released New York Times interview.
The New York Times has called MacInnes the only major female spy novelist – and she was an early one at that. Others call her the ‘queen of international espionage fiction’. One of her critics, though, the writer Ken Follett, said her plots were “just a channel through which a love story can flow.” Still, she wrote 21 novels, 4 of which were made into movies. You can read synopses of some of her best books here, novels like Above Suspicion (1941), The Salzburg Connection (1968), and Agent in Place (1976). You can read a Times article, Spies Like Hers, here.
MacInnes published her first novel during World War II, and her early novels are all based on her staunch opposition to the Nazi government, “often featuring lay people who become spies or are otherwise caught up in acting on behalf of the Allied war effort.” Later she wrote more about characters within the context of the Cold War. Her husband’s work as a British intelligence agent for MI6, in addition to MacInnes’s own research and traveling, influenced her writing.
Like MacInnes, Follett’s early work centers on the Germans. Two of his best known spy novels are Eye of the Needle (1978) and The Key to Rebecca (1980). Follett was only 27 when he wrote Eye, an instant international bestseller. The book opens in 1940, when a German spy who goes by the code name “the Needle” is on assignment to get important information on London to send to Berlin. He is framed for murder, and ends up escaping to a tiny island off the shores of Scotland.
A World War II Abwehr spy, Johannes Eppler, inspired Follett’s main character in The Key to Rebecca. Eppler, a German, was raised in Egypt by his Egyptian stepfather. Knowing this, it’s not too surprising when Alex Wolff — Follett’s character — heads to Egypt to deliver a code to the German General Erwin Rommel. This code, linked to another novel, Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier, will open the doors of Cairo to German forces.
Ken Follett later departs from his thriller work to create Pillars of the Earth (1989). This book is the first in a series set in the Middle Ages and following the lives of a community in a fictional town in England. In 2021, however, Follett returns to his roots, publishing a novel called Never , an 813 page espionage thriller. One reviewer says the work is “positively frightening for people who pay attention to global politics.” You can read all about Follett and his creative process in Publisher’s Weekly here.
Ludlum wrote 27 novels and each one was a New York Times best seller. Eighteen of these were in the Bourne series. So unless you live under a rock, you probably are familiar with Ludlum’s work. Among his best-sellers were The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971), The Osterman Weekend (1972), The Matarese Circle (1979), and The Bourne Identity (1980). The number of copies of his books in print is estimated at between 300 and 500 million.
Ludlum’s character Jason Bourne has become a franchised series with the overall plot centering around his story as a CIA assassin suffering from dissociative amnesia. The actor Matt Damon is most often thought of as the face of Jason Bourne; he was replaced by Jeremy Renner for The Bourne Legacy but later returned. Although I’ve read and enjoyed most of Ludlum’s earlier work, I’ve watched rather than read Bourne. You too can pick your poison!
Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal (1971) is probably the best of the author’s bestselling novels. Other works include The Odessa File (1972), The Dogs of War (1974), The Devil’s Alternative (1979), and The Fourth Protocol (1984). All are highly rated. Trained as a journalist, this author decided to write novels using similar research techniques to those used in journalism. Jackal, his first full-length work, became an international bestseller, winning the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel. Too bad the movie wasn’t as good.
If you’re interested in Africa, you’ll probably want to read The Dogs of War (1974). There aren’t lots of books written about the continent, but in this one a British mining executive hires a group of mercenaries to overthrow the government of an African country. The intent is to install a puppet regime that will allow him cheap access to a colossal platinum-ore reserve. Given today’s struggle for minerals, the work should keep your interest. While you’re reading about Africa, be sure to check out our Cold War post titled The Manhattan Project: The Congo and the Quest for Uranium.
Under the name Jack Higgins, Henry “Harry” Patterson wrote a number of thrillers and espionage novels. His first book as Higgins, The Eagle Has Landed (1971), sold more than 50 million copies and was adapted into a successful 1976 movie of the same title. According to Wikipedia “some of his other notable books are A Prayer for the Dying (1973), The Eagle Has Flown (1991), Thunder Point (1993), Angel of Death (1995), Flight of Eagles (1998), and Day of Reckoning (2000). Higgins’ 85 novels have sold more than 250 million copies and have been translated into 55 languages.
If I were you I’d start with The Eagle Has Landed. It tells the story of an elite team of Nazi paratrooper who descend on British soil in November of 1943. Their goal: to abduct Winston Churchill and cripple the Allied war effort.
When Higgins died in 2022, The Guardian published a lengthy obituary documenting his writing career. You can read it here. A bit of trivia: Before beginning his writing career, Higgins served in the British Army along the East German border.
Known for his technically detailed espionage and military-science storylines set during and after the Cold War, Clancy’s website boasts that he was America’s, and the world’s, favorite international thriller author. That’s debatable. But he certainly was popular and a major player in the thriller/espionage world. Starting with The Hunt For Red October (1984), his books were stalwarts of The New York Times Best Seller List. Other books of his that you might enjoy are Patriot Games (1987), Clear and Present Danger (1989), and The Sum of All Fears (1991). His character, Jack Ryan, is a favorite in film and on streaming services.
Seventeen of Clancy’s novels have been bestsellers and more than 100 million copies of his books have been sold. That’s a lot of books, but he has a bit to go before he matches Robert Ludlum. Books under Clancy’s name continue to be written after his death, many by Mark Greaney. According to The Imaginative Conservative
For all intents and purposes, Mr. Greaney is Clancy. I mean this in the best sense. A native Tennessean, born in 1967, Mr. Greaney’s writing breathes the spirit of both Clancy and Reagan. His characters, if anything, are even better drawn than were Clancy’s. His tales are gripping and plots captivating; however the characters are what stand out the most. They learn, they fail, they grow, and they succeed. And, bodily harm is pretty much imminent for every one of them.
I”m happy to vouch for Greaney since I love his Gray Man series. The Netflix movie of that name was disappointing, but his books are not. I’m sure he’ll come up in a future post, but if you want to get a head start you can read about him here.
Although I like and respect all of the novelists listed above, I’m crazy about both of these next two authors. I wait patiently for their books to be released, buy them on the first day of publication, and (when I can) I take a day or two off work to make my way through their words.
Silva’s writing revolves around Gabriel Allon — Mossad agent, art restorer, and music lover extraordinaire.
As far as subject matter is concerned, some of the Allon novels involve Islamic terrorism, some involve Russian villains, and some are about historic events related to World War II and the Holocaust. Gabriel goes on missions that take him into challenging situations in wonderful locales – everywhere from the Middle East to Vienna to the Vatican.
The first book in the Allon series, The Kill Artist (2001), documents Gabriel’s recruitment by the head of “The Office” (a loose cover name for Mossad). He is convinced (coerced?) to participate in Operation Wrath of God, an act of vengeance to hunt down and eliminate the Black September terrorists who perpetrated the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games. The operation, conducted across Europe, lasts three years. It results in the derailment of Gabriel’s future career as a painter but the beginning of his career as an restorer. Want to learn more about Gabriel? You can do so here.
Twenty-two books later and I’m still reading. My recommendation: Do yourself a favor. If you’re not a fan already, start reading the series, but in order.
What can one say about Mitch Rapp, a human in the mold of a superhero. That is to say, he is a real live human being who has abilities beyond those of ordinary people, and fits the role of the hero, using his powers to help the world become a better place, and dedicating himself to protecting the public. His origin story is laid out in An American Assassin (2010). In the book, we follow Rapp’s transformation from a gifted college student to a CIA counter terrorism agent. Wikipedia notes:
Rapp’s primary focus is to thwart terrorist attacks on the US, and he is presented as an aggressive operative willing to take measures more extreme than might commonly be considered acceptable. His constant frustration with procedures and red tape is a major theme in the series.
Flynn died on June 19, 2013, after a three-year battle with prostate cancer, but Mitch’s story has continued. Starting in 2015 with The Survivor, the Flynn character has been cared for by Kyle Mills. Some make the argument that the series was elevated after he took over. The Mills tenure has come to an end, however, with the newly released Code Red. The author Don Bentley has been chosen to continue the saga. Bentley is best known for his own Matt Drake series and for the work he’s done in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series. You can read all about the “breaking news” here.
Many of the authors listed above have developed characters that have their own sense of morality and their actions are often questionable – at least as far as I’m concerned. Violence is the name of their game and they kill with impunity. But all of the writers mentioned have produced ‘good reads’. In fact, this list should give you enough ideas to keep you engrossed for a full twelve months. As I said in the intro, the list is selective, not comprehensive. If you have a favorite book or author or a comment about any of the authors or books listed, please share in the comments.
HAPPY READING EVERYONE!!
Featured photo of Spy vs Spy: Rodney Brown (Flickr)