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The Best Spy Books of 2022, According to Spybrary Listeners

It is that time of year once again when book critics and reviewers are asked what are the best spy books of the year. Spybrary is a ‘by spy fans for spy fans' production so it is in that spirit that we asked our own Spybrary Podcast listeners and community members to reveal what were their best spy books of 2022 with a twist.

We asked our spy book readers two questions.

  • What is the best spy book you have read that was published in 2022?
  • What is the best espionage novel you have read this year that was published before 2022?

So if you are looking for spy book recommendations, then read on. Warning , Spybrary does not accept any liability for bankruptcies or divorces that may occur as a result of you browsing this list of the best espionage novels! If you are looking to join a community of other spy book fans then do come and join us over at the Spybrary Community . (Whilst I have added Amazon links below and yes we do earn a small cut from each purchase, we would love it if you could purchase these books from an independent bookstore. I add the Amazon link so you can read the reviews before deciding to buy.)

Best Spy Books of 2022

Tim Shipman

review of spy novels

The best spy books published in 2022 is a tough category as we are being treated to some very high-quality work at the moment

1. I can’t separate Paul Vidich’s The Matchmaker A Spy in Berlin and The Berlin Exchange by Joe Kanon. Both were hugely atmospheric, based on a fascinating premise grounded in fact, tight, taut, and packed an emotional punch. They’re a short nose ahead of Mick Herron’s Bad Actors , where Mick brilliantly tackled my world of politics. Some of his best writing. I’m about to do Simon Conway’s The Survivor and also excited about Tom Bradby’s Yesterday’s Spy .

2. I enjoyed getting to know Jonas Merrick in Gerald Seymour’s The Crocodile Hunter but nothing was better for me than a re-read of Big Bear Little Bear by David Brierley, whose work is reminiscent of both Vidich and Kanon. This really is a stone cold spy classic.

best spy writers ranked

Martin Paul

Best spy books of 2022 I'm going to say Tom Bradby and Yesterday's Spy . Managed to be serious but with a truly sad undertone.

Pre 2022 , I'm going for Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal if we can stretch the definition. Because although we know how it will end, we still enjoy the ride.

Peter Newman

review of spy novels

For me, my best spy novel of 2022 novel is Mick Herron's ‘ Bad Actors ’, I’m afraid. Not very original! An honourable mention for Conway’s excellent ‘The Survivor’, which was a coin toss loser for the title.

I didn’t read an enormous amount of pre-2022 spy fiction this year, but I think my vote would go to Paul Vidich’s ‘ The Mercenary ’ which I enjoyed immensely.

Steve Ritterman

review of spy novels

Difficult, but here goes: My favorite spy book, published in '22 was Paul Vidich's THE MATCHMAKER. …a wonderful cold war story told in lean, clean fashion…reminiscent of Ambler, it had everything I love about espionage fiction. A number of contenders for best spy books read this year and published before, but I'm going with David McCloskey's DAMASCUS STATION …..meaty and visceral, it put me into a world I know little about…if there's a better ‘debut' espionage novel out there, I've yet to read it.

Peter Morgan

Slow Horses By Mick Herron

1 Not read a 2022 published spy book

2 – 2022 is the year I broke my Mick Herron duck so I'll go with Slow Horses .

Clarissa Aykroyd

1. I am only about two-thirds of the way through, but for best spy books in 2022, I will go with the ever-excellent Mick Herron's Bad Actors .

2. I haven't read a lot of spy books this year in general, but I had at least a couple of candidates for “before 2022”. I'll go with the non-fiction The Red Web (about the internet and surveillance in Russia) by our own Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan. Relevant and even if you're somewhat knowledgeable in this area, will probably give you many angles you weren't aware of.

I can only answer (2) but it the best spy book I read that was published before 2022 has to be Ben Macintyre's The Spy and The Traitor ; it's a cliche but it really does roll like a film – and should be made into one.

Thomas Peretti

I also can only answer #2, but I got a lot of great reading inspiration from the Shipman best spy author list and would probably put The Soul of Viktor Tronko just above A Firing Offense. Two great books in the world of American espionage, which I hadn’t enjoyed much of before this year, and I’m glad an Englishman pointed me in the right direction.

Joe Modelewski

1. Judas 62 , Charles Cumming (US pub 2022)

2. The Tourist , Olen Steinhauer, pub 2009

Mike Hassel Shearer

1. Dan Fesperman?, Joseph Kanon?, Paul Vidich? hmmm…. I'll go with a new guy William Maz- The Bucharest Dossier . 2. The Kremlin Letter by Noel Behn. Very complicated even on a 2nd read.

Błażej Gębura

review of spy novels

Best spy book of 2022: Winter Work by Dan Fesperman , I really liked the theme of cleaning up after STASI being in agony. Also, the family situation (if you can call it that) of the main character added some psychological depth to the plot.

2. “ Our Man in Havana” by Graham Greene . Neither before nor since have vacuum cleaners been more fun.

Payne Harrison

Nothing on #1

#2: The New Girl by Daniel Silva

Best espionage novel published in 2022 Winter Work by Dan Fesperman Pre 2022: The Sisters by Robert Littell

1. The Order by Daniel Silva (I think it is from 2022), 2. The Spy and The Traitor by Ben Macintyre

Mark Lambert

I’m going with a couple of American spy novels: 1) Joseph Kanon’s The Berlin Exchange and 2) Charles McCarry’s The Last Supper . It started me on a bit of a McCarry run – currently wrapping up book 8 of the Paul Christopher series Shelley’s Heart.

Stephen England

For this year, I'd have to go with Bevan Roberts' “Kingdom of Spies .” An exceedingly entertaining look at the realities of espionage in an often-overlooked corner of the War on Terror.

For before 2022, I'm torn between David McCloskey's “Damascus Station” and Olen Steinhauer's “ All the Old Knives. ” They were both incredibly good and I'm hard-pressed to pick between them.

Chris Lueloff

I have not read any spy books published in 2002 but I have to say the best book I have read this year is “ To the Lions” by Holly Watt (2019).

Jeff Popple

1. Best spy books of 2022 – Very tricky to answer – I thought that Fesperman's Winter Works; Vidich's The Matchmaker and Bradby's Yesterday's Spy were all great, but I think that Mick Herron's Bad Actors was my favourite

2. Best espionage novels published before 2022 is also hard as I have been reading/ re-reading a number of old spy novels this year: McCarry's The Miernik Dossier, Greg Rucka's The Last Run (great), Porter's A Spy's Life, some of the early Deightons and others. On balance I think it was Deighton's Yesterday's Spy . I also re-read the 3 Nick Maasten quasi spy novels by Owen Sela and really enjoyed them 

Matthew Bradford ( Double O Section Blog and Spybrary Contributor)

Hm… I could be forgetting something crucial, but off the top of my head, my favorite 2022 spy novel (among quite a few good ones!) was Kanon’s THE BERLIN EXCHANGE . I think it was my favorite Kanon book, in fact. (Though I haven’t read them all.)

Older books… again, I read a lot of great ones this year! (Many thanks to Tim’s top 125 spy authors list .) But I think my favorite was probably QUILLER SOLITAIRE . I’ve been stretching out this wonderful series for I think 16 years now, savoring it and not wanting it to end, going in order, but slowly, even re-reading some of my favorite ones multiple times along the way. (I am not a binger when it comes to book series I love.) In my forward momentum, I finally entered the Final Three with this one… and it’s the best in quite a while! Overall I prefer the initial ten books to what I think of as “the second series” that started in the mid-Eighties and put “Quiller” in all the titles. Those ones are all still great, just mostly not AS great as the original run. But SOLITAIRE was a real corker, up there with Hall’s best!

That leaves one orphan, though, that doesn’t quite fit into either category: Charles Cummings’ BOX 88 was published in 2021, but didn’t come out in America until January of this year. So I’m not sure which it counts as, but I loved it. I’m a big Cumming fan, and this was my favorite one since A FOREIGN COUNTRY. Can’t wait to read the sequel, which just came out here!

Bob Gaboury

The best spy books I have read in 2022 are Damascus Station by David McCloskey and The Mercenary by Paul Vidich

Timothy Hardy

For best spy books published this year, it’s a tough choice between “The Matchmaker” by Paul Vidich and “Bad Actors” by Mick Herron. Loved the plot and exquisite writing in the former but at this point in the Slough House series, I’m so invested in Herron’s characters and humor that Bad Actors get the slightest edge.

For the pre-2022 book, Damascus Station by David McCloskey is an easy win. Hands down, one of the most exciting books I’ve read (ever). Greatly anticipating McCloskey’s next book.

Lachlan Page

1. Best spy books of 2022 – Kingdom of Spies — Bevan Roberts

2. Best spy book pre 2022 – Box 88 — Charles Cumming

Sierra Six by Mark Greaney Mexico Set by Len Deighton

Karl Gunnar Oen

1. Almost impossible to choose the best spy book in a year that’s seen the publication of Matchmaker, JUDAS 62, With a Mind to Kill, Berlin Exchange and Winter Work -which I have read- and with The Lunar Housewife and Bad Actors, still in the TBR-pile. For one who fancies Berlin as the location, it’s been like Christmas all year around. Cumming and Fesperman are neck on neck in this round for me, but if the Berlin-factor comes into play, the prize goes to Dan Fesperman's Winter Work.

2. The last one I read was Gerald Seymour’s The Crocodile Hunter , but that was a 2021 publication, so not overtly old…

The best spy books I read this year: Damascus station , the Spanish Game by Charles Cumming , Slow Horses by Mick Heroon and Len Deighton's Berlin Game (2022 was a big intro to the genre for me)

Spybrary Spy Podcast Discussion Group

Todd Wilkins

The Handler from MP Woodward

James Stejskal

Two spy books each by Furst and Kanon — Foreign Correspondent, World at Night; Istanbul passage, Leaving Berlin. Of course, I didn't read Shane's instructions… none were published in 2022, I just read them in 2022. Published in 2022… Damascus Station .

Samson Deighton

1. Tough call between Winter Work, The Matchmaker, Judas 62 (I’m 1/2 way through and it’s fantastic) and Berlin Exchange. But a very slight edge to Kanon’s Berlin Exchange. My 2nd favorite Kanon book behind The Defectors.

2. 2022 was the year I was introduced to Bernard Samson. What a wonderful year it was. I flew through the 3 trilogies and it was glorious. Samson is my favorite all time spy…Len Deighton is my favorite author. Since I have to pick one, it has to be the first book, Berlin Game .

Even though not really a spy thriller, my favorite non Len Deighton book I read in 2022 was Five Decembers by James Kestrel.

Martin Reynolds

In a year when I actually got a decent amount of reading done…1. Judas 62 by Charles Cumming . Hadn't read any Cumming before this. Thoroughly enjoyed the book which I'll admit at the time of purchase was an impulse buy rather Spybrary guided.

2. The Stone Roses by Sarah Gainham . Much inspired by the discussions in the build up of classic authors discussed in Tim Shipman's top 125 spy writers list and it's subsequent drip feed I probably overpaid owing to the scarcity of the book in the UK. Finances aside it's a great little thriller and was well worth the search.

Murali Murti

1. I read only two espionage novels published in 2022, both absolutely not from mainstream authors, and honestly don't know whether “best” is a rating I would give to either. However, both were certainly Out-of-the-Box and Unusual:

– Undermoney , by Jay Newman

– Ace of Shadows , by Balkrishna Kamath.

Must relate an anecdote from the New Yorker feature on Undermoney. It seems that the publishers sniffed and told Newman “Needs more sex”. So he added a couple of sex scenes. The publisher said “More spice”. So Newman added a threesome scene. Newman's son went like “Dad, stop it !”. Then the publisher said “Hmmm, maybe there's too much sex”. That's when Newman told them “FO, it publishes as is now”.

2. Pre-2022 : Have started on Slow Horses, and am enjoying it hugely. I'm experiencing a strange sensation – I'm finding it a little difficult to stop thinking like one of the elite a la JLC, and to start thinking like one of the proles, although that's not the best description I guess.

And of course, re-read (very carefully this time) the entire Karla trilogy. As some may have noticed, my recent comments reflect that.

Andy Ways Laska

# 1 – The Cassandra Complex (Frazer Douglas) I am still reading this but it is such a great Cold War setting/story so far.

#2 – Box 88 (Charles Cumming) in audiobook, a fun listen contemporary take.

Highly recommend both!

Chris Rawlings

For 1. Best spy books of 2022 – Winter Work by Dan Fesperman probably edges it just over Berlin exchange. I liked that Marcus Wolf was in it.

2. Well I finally got around to reading the first 3 Bernard Sampson books and yes, they are something special. I may now be more in the Deighton rather than Le Carre camp, just. Will be continuing soon with the rest of them.

Ian Douglas

review of spy novels

1. Best spy books of 2022 – Berlin Exchange – it’s the only new book that I’ve read this year but enjoyed it immensely. Cold War Berlin always interests me and this was a well-plotted, engaging story.

2. From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

One of Fleming’s best. A tight story with strong, often dislikeable characters. Close to the classic film too.

David Hardman

Len Deighton's Berlin Game - Book Club Edition on the Spybrary Spy Podcast

1. The only 2022 ‘spy' novel I've read this year is ‘ The Partisan' by Patrick Worrall . It's more of an assassin story really. It was alright, I wasn't especially bowled over.

2. ‘ Berlin Game' by Len Deighton ; although selecting the first novel is really a tribute to the entire series. You go “Oh my God” at the end and know that you've been well set-up for more intrigue to follow.

David Clark

1. The only spy fiction published in 2022 that I managed to read is The Partisan by Patrick Worrall , which I enjoyed a lot. It’s a very well-written and accomplished debut novel. Although it lost me a little in the middle, I will definitely look out for future releases by the same author. 2. Like many, I spent a lot of time reading the soy classics recommended on Spybrary. I particularly liked Big Bear, Little Bear by David Brierley, and Charlie Muffin by Brian Freemantle , which I’ve just finished. The pick of the year for me, however, is The Double Game by Dan Fesperman . It’s something of a love letter to the genre and has such an engaging, innovative plot. I rate it a must-read.

Simon Chapman

The best spy books published this year: The Survivor – Simon Conway , is a superb finale to a carefully described trilogy (look at the top of the back cover). There’s so much to love about this: strongly-drawn characters, male and female; a clear sense of “now” – modern; exposing the fragilities of the complex networks we all depend on every day; nuanced characters (eg Lee Chapeau would have been caricatured by JLC or Henry Porter – the latter is always worth reading, especially Firefly); a couple of fabulous cooking scenes – I get the sense Mr Conway is pretty good in a kitchen too); an unforgettable villain. Looking forward to what he does next.

Honorable mention to Judas 62 (Cumming).

Of yesteryear, Tim Shipman has, as he has for so many, broadened my horizons and reduced my bank account. Dan Fesperman is my favourite of the authors I hadn’t come across before. Safe Houses is excellent.

Tim didn’t mention Murray Smith, who wrote some fantastic thrillers in the 90s – do look out for his David Jardine books.

PS – I quite and astoundingly forgot that this was the year I met Modesty Blaise – thank you Tim for introducing us!

Richard Sambrook

The best spy book of 2022 for me would be Joseph Kanon's Berlin Exchange . I'm a sucker for cold war Berlin! About to start Damascus Station based on Spybrary recommendation! Otherwise I enjoyed going back to Graham Greene's The Human Factor – I hadn't read it in 30 years….

Ahmed Siddiqi

#1 Damascus Station, David McCloskey . Or The Matchmaker, Paul Vidich .

#2 Atomsk, Carmichael Smith AKA Cordwainer Smith. Recommended on here in 2021 and finally got round to it earlier in spring. Like very little else I've read- bizarre, occasionally beautiful and brilliant in its own way.

Only Pre 2022 , “Moonraker” , “Smiley's People” , “The Ipcress File” …all of'em are my favourites, hard to decide so I mentioned all three.

Shane Whaley (Spybrary Host)

As Tim Shipman writes, we have been spoiled this year with top-drawer spy writing. Regular listeners know that I love Cold War espionage novels set in Berlin/East Germany. This year we were treated to three thrillers set in the German Democratic Republic with Joseph Kanon's Berlin Exchange, Paul Vidich's The Matchmaker, and Dan Fesperman's Winter Work. These are all excellent reads and if I had to pick one it would be Fesperman's Winter Work for his excellent portrayal of Markus Wolf who he weaves into the story and his research of the compounds where head of the Stasi Erich Mielke lived and the holiday dacha of Wolf and Co. But ask me next week and you may get a different answer because Vidich and Kanon's spy books of 2022 are books that join that august list of Cold War spy novels that I will re-read.

Tim Shipman's top 125 spy authors list has kept me busy tracking down and reading spy novels of yesteryear. The highlight for me is David Brierley's Big Bear Little Bear set in 1948 revolutionary Czechoslovakia, London and then, you guessed it, Berlin. I have much to say on BBLB (watch out for an upcoming review) which was also a Mike Ripley and Len Deighton recommendation. If you are a fan of the more realistic cold war spy story then you are in for a treat. In fact Big Bear Little Bear may well have crept into my top five best spy novels ever written. Stay tuned for an interview with author David Brierley coming to soon the Spies and Books, Spybrary Podcast.

He had no weapon but his wits.     It takes more than physical strength to slip past the snares of the field. Orris was resilient, resourceful, suspicious, reliant on himself and nobody else. He was a survivor: only in marriage, his private war, had he lost. Big Bear Little Bear by David Brierley

What do you reckon were the best spy books you read in 2022? Let us know over in our Spybrary community

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The 15 best espionage novels

Posted by Mal Warwick | Commentaries , Most Popular Posts , Reading Recommendations | 2

The 15 best espionage novels

Over the past decade, I’ve read and reviewed more than 150 espionage novels (not counting a great many more I never finished). My 15 favorites—well, make that 16: I couldn’t choose—are listed immediately below. Though my preliminary list included multiple titles by several of the authors included here, I’ve arbitrarily limited myself to a single title from every writer. And I gave every one of these 16 titles a score of ★★★★★ on its review. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

Estimated reading time: 0 minutes

This post was updated on November 14, 2023.

An abundance of runners-up

Below the list of my 16 favorites, you’ll find reviews of the full list of the best espionage novels I’ve reviewed with ratings of at least ★★★★☆. Those titles, too, are listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. There, you’ll find multiple titles by a number of the authors featured here: Alex Berenson , Charles Cumming , Alan Furst , Mick Herron , Joseph Kanon , John le Carré , Jason Matthews , Stella Rimington , Ross Thomas , Paul Vidich , and Edward Wilson .

As you’ll see below, a great many of the books listed here are in series. And for the most part you’ll find all the novels in each series listed below. There are some exceptions for titles I read before I began reviewing books, others for those I rated below ★★★★☆, and still others that I simply haven’t read yet.

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A word of caution: I do not pretend that these 15 books are the best espionage novels ever written—only that they’re the best ones I’ve read and reviewed on this site. There may well be tens of thousands of spy novels in print, and no one—nor even any group of people—could possibly claim to identify the very best among all those stories.

15 (well, actually, 16) top espionage novels reviewed here

Image of spies in action, a possible scene from one of the best espionage novels reviewed here.

A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939) 309 pages ★★★★★ – Still a lively read among classic spy novels

First published in 1939, A Coffin for Dimitrios is widely regarded as one of the best spy novels ever written. That reputation is richly deserved. But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole what may be Eric Ambler’s most accomplished work as merely an espionage novel, as it features few of the familiar devices of that genre—which may be why it’s so highly regarded. However,  A Coffin for Dimitrios  can be best seen as an historical novel that depicts Europe between the two World Wars, and does so masterfully.

The novel is structured as an account of a wide-ranging investigation into the life and death of a notorious international criminal named Dimitrios Makropoulos. After surviving one of the gruesome massacres of Armenians and Greeks undertaken by Kemal Ataturk , the legendary founder of modern Turkey, Makropoulos is said to have participated in assassination plots in at least two countries, engaged in espionage as a freelance agent, and murdered several men. The unlikely investigator is Charles Latimer, “a lecturer in political economy at a minor English university” who has left behind the academic life and become a successful author of formulaic detective novels. Read the review .

Cover of "Transcription" by Kate Atkinson

Transcription by Kate Atkinson (2018) 331 pages ★★★★★ – Kate Atkinson’s latest is a beautifully written spy story

Strange. After reading her earlier books, the last thing I would have expected is humor. Yet Kate Atkinson’s latest,  Transcription, is surprisingly funny. Well, maybe witty is a better word. This is British humor, after all. Dry humor. The sort of thing most Americans frown through.

Atkinson spins out her tale in sections that shift abruptly through the years, from 1981, back to 1950, then further to 1940, and so forth. Nearly all the action takes place in those three years. The story revolves around Juliet Armstrong. We meet her in 1981 as she nears 60 years of age. But the formative events in the plot occur three and four decades earlier, when Juliet had been recruited as a typist by MI5.

Ten years later, we find her working as a children’s radio producer for the BBC, when her wartime work comes back to haunt her. However, we don’t learn the full story until nearly the end of the book. It you read it, prepare for a shock. Even though Atkinson’s tale appears to be quite pedestrian through much of the book, with only her brilliant use of the language to carry the tale, it’s nothing of the sort. Trust me. This book is a thriller, and a good one. Read the review .

Cover image of "Three Hours in Paris," one of the best espionage novels reviewed here

Three Hours in Paris by Cara Black (2020) 361 pages ★★★★★ — A suspenseful World War II espionage thriller set in Paris

England shuddered in terror in the summer of 1940. Following the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in May, Nazi Germany’s U-boat campaign threatened to starve the British people, and an invasion was imminent. Preparations for Operation Sea Lion were underway, revealed by a growing chorus of chatter in German radio communications. In response, a shadowy British intelligence unit known as Section D sent a wave of agents into France on desperate, often suicidal, missions to frustrate Hitler’s plans. San Francisco mystery novelist Cara Black writes convincingly about one of those missions in her heart-pounding new World War II espionage thriller, Three Hours in Paris . The story she tells never happened. But it might’ve.

It’s a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game. The cat is Gunter Hoffman, a brilliant former Munich homicide detective pressed into service in the Reichssicherheitsdienst , a branch of the SS , as a member of the Führer ‘s elite protective detail. The mouse is Kate Rees, a young widow, an American rifle champion, dispatched by Section D to Paris to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In Three Hours in Paris , Black lays out the game over the two-day period June 23-24, 1940. The suspense—and the surprises—don’t let up until the very end. Read the review .

Cover of "The Trinity Six"

The Trinity Six  by Charles Cumming (2011) 421 pages ★★★★★ – A stellar new spy story by Charles Cumming

Much of the latter-day literature of espionage is based, directly or indirectly, on the notorious Cambridge Five —young, bright Cambridge men seduced by the lure of Communism as undergraduates during the tumultuous 1930s who spied for the Soviet Union during World War II. Their defection to the USSR following the war created what was arguably the greatest spy scandal in modern history. For many years thereafter, rumors of a “sixth man” continued to roil the waters of the British Secret Intelligence Service. The Trinity Six  relates an ingenious story about that sixth man and his longer and even more consequential career.

The protagonist of this tightly written novel is an English scholar of Soviet and modern Russian history named Sam Gaddis. Heavily in debt and under pressure from his ex-wife for more money to support their daughter, Gaddis finds himself facing what seems the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to learn the truth about the sixth man and publish a best-seller that will cure his financial troubles once and for all. The problem is, nearly everyone Sam talks to ends up dead — and Sam soon finds himself in desperate flight from their killers. Read the review .

Cover image of "The Eye of the Needle"

The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett (1978) 364 pages ★★★★★ – The 40th anniversary edition of Ken Follett’s classic WWII spy novel

British author Ken Follett is best known to a wide public these days for the Kingsbridge Trilogy , his mammoth multi-generational account of an English cathedral town. Together, the three books run to nearly 3,000 pages (and a fourth, a more recent prequel, takes the total to nearly 4,000). They’ve reportedly sold more than 80 million copies around the world. But that’s only half of the 160 million books Follett has sold since the publication of his first novel in 1974 . And he has been topping the bestseller lists ever since the publication of his classic WWII spy novel,  The Eye of the Needle, in 1978. The book sold 10 million copies, and it frequently appears on lists of the all-time best spy novels . So it’s no surprise that Penguin has brought out a 40th-anniversary edition of the novel. It fully deserves all the attention it gets. Read the review .

Cover image of "Kingdom of Shadows," one of the best espionage novels reviewed here

Kingdom of Shadows (Night Soldiers #6)  by Alan Furst (2001) 274 pages ★★★★★ – One of the best spy novels of recent years

Welcome to Night Soldiers, the brilliant series by one of our most accomplished writers of espionage novels. Here you’ll meet Nicholas Morath, 44, an aristocratic Hungarian living in Paris, where he is a partner in an advertising firm. His uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, is a senior diplomat in the Hungarian mission to France who is engaged in organizing the resistance to Hitler in Eastern Europe. World War II hasn’t yet started in earnest. Germany’s  Anschluss with Austria is still weeks away, and the occupation of the Czech Sudetenland on the distant horizon. But Polanyi sees the future with clarity. He presses his nephew into taking on a dangerous mission in Budapest . . . and the trouble begins.

Morath, known as Nicky to Cara, his young Argentine lover, is one of those world-weary Europeans who surely abounded on the Continent during the fateful years of the 1930s. “He was doomed to live with a certain heaviness of soul, not despair, but the tiresome weight of pushing back against it. It had cost him a wife, long ago, an engagement that never quite led to marriage, and had ended more than one affair since then.” As war approaches, Morath’s already complicated life becomes ever more challenging. His work for his uncle exposes him to grave danger. The stakes grow as the months go by. And the suspense increases apace. Read the review .

Cover image of "The Quiet American"

The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955) 232 pages ★★★★★ — The classic Vietnam novel by Graham Greene

Graham Greene (1904 -91) hovers near the top of any list of the twentieth century’s most readable and insightful spy novelists. He was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 and 1967, confirming his bona fides as an author who roamed far outside the limits of genre. And of his more than two dozen novels, The Quiet American is widely recognized as among the handful that retain their power more than half a century later. In its portrayal of a hopelessly naive CIA officer who blindly follows a warped ideological view of the insurrection against the French in Indochina , this classic Vietnam novel proved prophetic just a decade later, as the United States stumbled headlong into a profoundly misguided war there.

The Quiet American is set in Vietnam during the desperate French effort to remain in control in the face of a nationalist rebellion they didn’t understand. Chaos reigned. Private armies and drug traffickers freely operated during the war between the French and the Vietminh . As Greene describes it, “This was a land of rebellious barons. It was like Europe in the Middle Ages.” But if the French were tone-deaf to realities on the ground, a newly arriving American is even more naive.

Alden Pyle works out of the Economic Aid Mission in the US Embassy, but it soon becomes clear that he is an officer of the (unnamed) CIA. A committed anti-colonialist, Pyle is determined to advance the half-baked “Third Force” theory professed by some scholars and journalists at the time. In all innocence, hoping to supplant both the colonialists and the Communists, he supplies arms to a corrupt warlord named General Thé — with predictably disastrous consequences. Read the review .

Cover image of "An Officer and a Spy"

An Officer and a Spy  by Robert Harris (2020) 361 pages ★★★★★ – The Dreyfus Affair, reenacted in a suspenseful spy novel

The Dreyfus Affair . In the closing years of the nineteenth century and for decades thereafter, that notorious case was seen as indelible a stain on the veneer of European civilization as the Holocaust came to represent a half-century later. A Jewish officer in the French Army was convicted of treason on trumped-up charges and relegated to solitary confinement on the notorious Devil’s Island for several years before a courageous fellow officer uncovered the truth and, with the help of the country’s most famous writer, forced it onto the consciousness of an unhappy nation. Dreyfus was only exonerated and restored to the rank of major in the French Army in 1906, twelve years after his conviction.

Robert Harris has retold the story of the Dreyfus Affair in a brilliantly suspenseful novel based largely on historical facts. An Officer and a Spy reads more like a contemporary novel of espionage than on a reconstruction of real-life events. Read the review .

Cover image of "Slough House," one of the best espionage novels reviewed here

Slough House (Slough House #10) by Mick Herron (2021) 247 pages ★★★★★ — British secret intelligence muddles through a crisis of its own making

Lady Di has painted herself into a corner. Oh, not that Lady Di. This one is Diana Taverner, the newly anointed Director General of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (Well, she and everyone else refers to the job as First Chair. But we all know what’s going on.) And—acting purely out of patriotic motives, mind you—she has turned to the private sector to fund an off-book mission that her parsimonious handlers in government have proven unwilling to support. These days, British secret intelligence is on the dole. And now the private sector wants its pound of flesh.

Even worse, in that off-book mission, Lady Di dispatched a contract killer to Russia to eliminate one of the GRU ‘s most feared assassins. The murderer in question—the Russian, not the mercenary—had herself recently been in England, where she ended the life of one of Lady Di’s agents. So the mission was payback. And it was successful. Unfortunately, now the GRU insists on exacting vengeance for that impertinence. The Russians have sent a team of assassins, which is now in the process of escalating the conflict by murdering former Slough House residents. And threatening the ones who work there now. Read the review .

Cover image of the spy novel "Siro"

Siro by David Ignatius (1991) 625 pages ★★★★★ – The most intelligent spy novel I’ve read in many years

The 1970s brought little but trouble for the CIA . The legacy of Allen Dulles’ long tenure at the helm of the agency was scandal. One after another, Congressional investigators brought to light the ugly reality of the nation’s most visible intelligence service: Watergate, the bungled operations, the assassinations and attempted assassinations of heads of state, the intervention in domestic affairs. Directors appointed to reform the agency forced out much of the old guard, with the heaviest toll landing on the clandestine Directorate of Operations.

By 1979, the few survivors of the CIA’s early years considered the agency to be dysfunctional. One of those survivors is one of the three central characters in Siro . And the world he confronts is fraught with change on a massive scale.

Nineteen seventy-nine was a watershed year in world affairs. Islamic forces led by the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran and imprisoned 90 hostages in the US embassy in Tehran. Meanwhile, at the White House, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel signed a peace treaty.

At nearly the same time, civil war broke out in El Salvador, and the Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. Provisional IRA terrorists killed Lord Mountbatten in Ireland. The United States and the People’s Republic of China established full diplomatic relations. And the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

This is the tumultuous historical setting in the background of David Ignatius’ dazzling novel of espionage, Siro . It’s the most intelligent spy novel I’ve read in many years. Read the review .

Cover image of "Leaving Berlin"

Leaving Berlin  by Joseph Kanon (2014) 385 pages ★★★★★ – One of the best of today’s spy novels

Joseph Kanon’s spy novels reek of authenticity. Set in the years immediately following World War II, they conjure up the fear and desperation that hung over Europe in the early days of the Cold War, when it seemed as though open war might well break out between the two emerging superpowers, erstwhile allies. For  Leaving Berlin , Kanon has chosen as his setting the bleakest possible time and place: rubble-strewn Berlin in 1949 as the Allied airlift to embattled West Berlin was underway.

For  Leaving Berlin , Kanon has chosen as his setting the bleakest possible time and place: rubble-strewn Berlin in 1949 as the Allied airlift to embattled West Berlin was underway. It was before West Germany was created, before the Wall went up, when the border between East and West was still porous and Walter Ulbricht’s East German regime had yet to begin shooting at will at everyone who crossed into the American, British, or French zones. Read the review .

Cover image of "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold," one of the best espionage novels reviewed here

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré (1963) 228 pages ★★★★★ — Is this the best spy novel ever written?

If a general reader can call up the title of only a single espionage novel, it seems likely to be The Spy Who Came In From the Cold . John le Carré’s iconic 1963 story, and the 1965 film on which it was based, have cemented in generations of readers a view of the Cold War spy game as a dirty business fought between ruthless, amoral adversaries who know each other’s names. It’s often thought to be the best spy novel ever written. Many other popular authors in the genre have followed le Carré’s lead, depicting spies who will do just about anything to score a point on the opposition. Whether there’s much truth to this portrayal is uncertain. But it’s what we’re led to believe espionage is all about. Today the reality is different.

Cynicism oozes from the pages of this novel—as much from the author’s acknowledged feelings as expressed in his introduction as from his portrayal of Alec Leamas. As le Carré asks in his introduction, “how far can we go in the rightful defense of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?” In The Spy Who Came In From the Cold he tells us that MI6 , and by extension the Western intelligence services, have proven to be as ruthless and amoral as the East German Stasi and the Soviet KGB . Read the review .

Cover image of "Red Sparrow"

Red Sparrow (Red Sparrow Trilogy #1) by Jason Matthews (2013) 577 pages ★★★★★ – Authentic espionage tradecraft in this gripping novel by a CIA veteran

Red Sparrow  is not a conventional spy story. True enough, it’s well-written, ingeniously plotted, and endlessly suspenseful. On that account alone, fans of John le Carré , Joseph Kanon , or Alan Furst should appreciate it. But the book rises above the level of the genre because the author has infused it with detailed, intimate knowledge of authentic espionage tradecraft employed both by the CIA and by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service , the SVR. Red Sparrow also reveals a great deal about the SVR’s structure and practices. I was so taken aback by the level of detail that I checked a number of details at random; they all proved accurate. I can easily imagine this novel being passed around at the CIA training center known as the Farm as a fictionalized (if no doubt exaggerated) account of what an officer might encounter in the field. Read the review .

Cover image of "The Sympathizer"

The Sympathizer  by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015) 351 pages ★★★★★ – The Vietnam War through Vietnamese eyes

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s remarkable debut novel, The Sympathizer , has won a slew of literary awards, including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was also a finalist for a number of other prestigious awards and has been named a Best Book of the Year on more than twenty lists, including those of the New York Times Book Review , Wall Street Journal , and Washington Post. If there is such a thing as a Great Vietnamese Novel, as there is supposedly a Great American Novel, this book would certainly be a candidate.

The Sympathizer opens in April 1975 as troops of the North Vietnamese army and the National Liberation Front ( Viet Cong ) are closing in on Saigon . The remnants of the American mission and many thousands of South Vietnamese officials and other collaborators are frantically fighting to claim the few remaining spaces on American airplanes available for the evacuation. In the midst of this chaos we meet the narrator, a captain in the South Vietnamese army.

He introduces himself this way in the opening line of his account: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” He is, in fact, the Sympathizer of the title — a secret agent of the NLF actually living in the home of the General who commands the South Vietnamese security police, the Special Branch. He is  Eurasian, the son of a French priest and a poor Vietnamese woman, and regularly receives abuse as a result. Read the review .

Cover image of "The Soul of Viktor Tronko," one of the best espionage novels reviewed here

The Soul of Viktor Tronko  by David Quammen (1987) 403 pages ★★★★★— Digging down deep to find the mole in the CIA

At the time, few in any inside the Agency would have called him a “mole.” That term didn’t enter wide use until the publication in 1974 of John le Carré’s novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy . But for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, the CIA’s counterintelligence chief, James Jesus Angleton , turned the Agency inside out in a futile search for the highly placed KGB spy he was convinced the Soviet Union had embedded at Langley.

By some accounts, Angleton’s paranoid obsession began in 1963 when his long-time friend Kim Philby defected from the UK to Moscow. And his unrelenting search for the mole in the CIA continued until Director William Colby fired him in December 1974. But the damage had been done by then. Reportedly, Angleton pursued at least forty suspects, damaging their careers and forcing many to leave the Agency—although he never found the fabled mole. That fruitless search is the subject of David Quammen’s endlessly fascinating novel, The Soul of Viktor Tronko . Read the review .

Cover image of "The Coldest Warrior," one of the best espionage novels reviewed here

The Coldest Warrior  by Paul Vidich (2020) 222 pages ★★★★★ – Project MK-Ultra and the scientist who fell to his death

On November 28, 1953, an American scientist named Frank Olson who had been working on biological weapons for the US Army “fell or jumped” to his death from the thirteenth floor of a New York City hotel. Paul Vidich , the author of four other superb historical spy novels, imagines what might really have happened that day in The Coldest Warrior . The story unfolds twenty-two years later as both the US Senate and the CIA undertake investigations into the Agency’s notorious Project MK-Ultra on “human behavior modification,” which administered LSD to Olson and others without their knowledge or consent.

After an introductory chapter set in 1953 in the hotel where “Dr. Charles Wilson” (Frank Olson) dies, the scene shifts to 1975 at a hearing in the United States Senate exploring that death.

During that period, all the chickens were coming home to roost for the CIA. Its many crimes — assassinating foreign leaders, overthrowing governments, corrupting labor and student groups, and Project MK-Ultra — were coming to light in an orgy of recriminations. Read the review .

All the best espionage novels I’ve reviewed

A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler – Still a lively read among classic spy novels

Transcription by Kate Atkinson – A beautifully written spy story

Duet in Beirut  by Mishka Ben-David— A failed Mossad operation threatens catastrophe

Alex Berenson’s John Wells series

  • The Faithful Spy (John Wells #1) – Al Qaeda from the inside out: a thriller filled with suspense
  • The Ghost War (John Wells #2)  – North Korea, Afghanistan, China, Iran, all in one superb spy novel
  • The Silent Man (John Wells #3)  – An able spy story about terrorism, nuclear weapons, and Russia
  • The Midnight House (John Wells #4)  – The Pentagon and the CIA take a lot of punishment for rendition
  • The Secret Soldier (John Wells #5) – Jihadis, the Saudi royal family, and an American soldier-spy
  • The Shadow Patrol   (John Wells #6) – A suspense-filled thriller about the war in Afghanistan
  • The Night Ranger (John Wells #7)  – An outstanding thriller set amid the refugee crisis in Kenya and Somalia
  • The Counterfeit Agent (John Wells #8) – John Wells takes on a rogue ex-CIA agent
  • Twelve Days (John Wells #9)  – In a nail-biting thriller, John Wells must stop a US war with Iran
  • The Prisoner (John Wells #11)  – Going undercover for the CIA in ISIS
  • The Deceivers (John Wells #12) – Russia takes the next step in the latest John Wells spy novel

Three Hours in Paris by Cara Black— A suspenseful World War II espionage thriller set in Paris

Yesterday’s Spy  by Tom Bradby— A gripping spy novel set amid an Iranian coup

Secret Service (Kate Henderson #1)  by Tom Bradby— Is Britain about to elect a Russian spy as its new Prime Minister?

Double Agent (Kate Henderson #2)  by Tom Bradby— Upheaval in MI6—and a prime minister who may be a traitor

The Hot Country (Christopher Marlowe Cobb #1) by Robert Olen Butler— American vs German spies in the Mexican Revolution

The Star of Istanbul (Christopher Marlowe Cobb #2) by Robert Olen Butler— An American spy in World War I takes on the German Empire

Death by Disputation (Francis Bacon #2) by Anna Castle— Religious conflict in Elizabethan England fuels this gripping spy story

A Single Spy  by William Christie – A Soviet spy in Nazi Germany

Charles Cumming’s suspenseful spy thrillers

  • A Spy by Nature  – A worthy spy story that foretells more good reading to come
  • The Trinity Six   – A stellar new spy story by Charles Cumming
  • Typhoon – A right-wing Washington cabal seeks to destabilize China
  • The Hidden Man  – A worthy novel of espionage from a latter-day master of the craft
  • A Foreign Country   (Thomas Kell #1) – Spies in conflict in contemporary Europe
  • A Colder War (Thomas Kell #2) – Spycraft takes center stage in this novel of espionage
  • A Divided Spy (Thomas Kell #3)  – The latest from a latter-day John le Carre
  • The Moroccan Girl – A spy novelist turns to espionage in Charles Cumming’s excellent new novel
  • BOX 88 (BOX 88 #1) –  A top-secret Anglo American spy agency

The Lazarus Solution  by Kjell Ola Dahl— A gripping tale of intrigue in wartime Stockholm

Berlin Game (Bernard Samson #1) by Len Deighton— A classic novel of Cold War espionage reminiscent of John le Carré

Mexico Set (Bernard Samson #2) by Len Deighton— In Len Deighton’s classic spy series, Bernard Samson goes to Mexico

A Spy in the Struggle by Aya de León— From Aya de León, a brilliant thriller that exposes the FBI’s illegal tactics

A Prisoner in Malta (Christopher Marlowe #1)  by Phillip DePoy – A delightful historical mystery novel starring Christopher Marlowe

Moscow Sting (Anna Resnikov #2) by Alex Dryden— A former British intelligence officer imagines a female Russian superspy

Exposure  by Helen Dunmore – Gay life in Britain in a suspenseful thriller

Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe (Mistress Jaffrey #1)  by Kathy Lynn Emerson— Intrigue and murder in Elizabeth’s court

Winter Work  by Dan Fesperman— Intrigue in East Germany after the Wall came down

Espionage thrillers from Joseph Finder

  • High Crimes – A taut thriller about Special Forces running amok in El Salvador in 1983
  • Extraordinary Powers – A standout among espionage thrillers
  • Paranoia – A devilishly clever tale

Ken Follett’s classic novels of espionage

  • The Eye of the Needle – The 40th anniversary edition of Ken Follett’s classic WWII spy novel
  • The Key to Rebecca  by Ken Follett— One of the best World War II spy stories
  • Hornet Flight  by Ken Follett— The Danish Resistance and a secret Nazi base

The Fox by Frederick Forsyth – A great new spy novel from the author of “The Day of the Jackal”

Devil Makes Three  by Ben Fountain— A dramatic tale of a military coup in Haiti

The historical Night Soldiers series by Alan Furst

  • Red Gold (Night Soldiers #5) – A brilliant novel of the French Resistance
  • Kingdom of Shadows (Night Soldiers #6) – One of the best spy novels of recent years
  • Blood of Victory (Night Soldiers #7) – Spies at work in WWII Istanbul and Rumania
  • Dark Voyage (Night Soldiers #8) — A gripping spy story set on a ocean freighter in World War II
  • The Foreign Correspondent (Night Soldiers #9) – A superb historical espionage novel
  • Spies of the Balkans (Night Soldiers #11) – Alan Furst’s superb novel, “Spies of the Balkans”
  • Mission to Paris   (Night Soldiers #12) – At the dawn of World War II, a Hollywood film star in an espionage novel
  • Midnight in Europe (Night Soldiers #13) – Arms merchants and spies in a thriller set during the Spanish Civil War
  • A Hero of France (Night Soldiers #14) – Vive la Resistance!
  • Under Occupation (Night Soldiers #15) – Alan Furst on the French Resistance

Alex Gerlis’s outstanding wartime spy novels

  • The Best of Our Spies   (Spies #1)  – An extraordinary World War II spy story grounded in historical fact
  • The Swiss Spy   (Spies #2)  – World War II spies in Switzerland
  • Vienna Spies   (Spies #3)  – A stirring tale of spies in wartime Vienna
  • The Berlin Spies (Spies #4) – The best spy novelist you’ve never read
  • Prince of Spies (Richard Prince #1) — British spies and the Nazi V-2 rocket
  • Agent in Berlin (Wolf Pack #1) — A new series about British spies in Nazi Germany

The Ways of the World (James Maxted #1)  by Robert Goddard – A superb novel of espionage set in 1919 Paris

The Quiet American by Graham Greene— The classic Vietnam novel by Graham Greene

An Officer and a Spy  by Robert Harris – The Dreyfus Affair, reenacted in a suspenseful spy novel

Intelligence: A Tale of Terror and Uncivil Service by Susan Hasler – A satirical take on the dysfunctional CIA under George W Bush

Mick Herron’s clever Slough House novels

  • Slow Horses (Slough House #1)  – British satire about misfit spies in MI5
  • Dead Lions (Slough House #2)  – Russian sleeper agents and the misfits of MI5
  • The List (Slough House #3)  – Bumbling spies again in Mick Herron’s Slough House series
  • Real Tigers (Slough House #4)  – Slough House spooks are on the loose again
  • Spook Street (Slough House #5) – MI5’s Slough House spies uncover a decades-old conspiracy
  • London Rules (Slough House #6) – MI5’s misfit spies outdo themselves in this very funny novel
  • The Marylebone Drop (Slough House #7)  – Mick Herron scores with another entry in the Slough House series
  • Joe Country (Slough House #8) — Mick Herron’s latest spy thriller will keep you guessing
  • The Catch (Slough House #9) — About that billionaire who committed suicide in prison
  • Slough House (Slough House #10) — British secret intelligence muddles through a crisis of its own making
  • Bad Actors (Slough House #11) — Mischief and misadventure in abundance at Slough House
  • The Secret Hours — A standalone novel from the author of “Slough House”

Classic espionage novels by Jack Higgins

  • The Eagle Has Landed – A classic espionage thriller that’s well worth rereading
  • Eye of the Storm (Sean Dillon #1)  – Reimagining Saddam Hussein’s role in history
  • Thunder Point (Sean Dillon #2) – One of Jack Higgins’ best thrillers
  • Touch the Devil (Liam Devlin #2)  – The IRA, the KGB, MI5, and the Corsican mob all conflict

Clean Hands by Patrick Hoffman— A diabolically clever thriller about corporate espionage

Compelling spy stories by David Ignatius

  • The Increment – A gripping novel about Iran and the CIA
  • The Bank of Fear – Saddam Hussein, secret offshore banks, and a dissolute Saudi prince
  • Siro – The most intelligent spy novel I’ve read in many years
  • A Firing Offense – A suspenseful espionage story about journalists and spies
  • Agents of Innocence — The CIA and the PLO in Cold War Beirut
  • The Paladin — The latest from David Ignatius is a little hard to believe

A Map of Betrayal  by Ha Jin – Betrayal is in the eye of the beholder

Joseph Kanon’s superb spy stories

  • Leaving Berlin – One of the best of today’s spy novels
  • The Prodigal Spy  – An espionage novelist to rival John Le Carre
  • Defectors  – A superb new novel about defectors in Moscow
  • Stardust — Intrigue among German emigrés in postwar Hollywood
  • The Berlin Exchange — An ingenious tale about a spy swap in East Berlin

Red Widow  by Alma Katsu— A poisoned CIA asset, and a hunt for a CIA mole

Red London (Red Widow #2)  by Alma Katsu— A joint MI6-CIA operation targets Russian oligarchs in London

Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht – A puzzling spy story set in Argentina in the time of the generals

John le Carré’s classic novels of espionage

  • The Spy Who Came In From the Cold — Is this the best spy novel ever written?
  • A Legacy of Spies  – The Cold War reexamined in John le Carré’s terrific new novel
  • Our Game – John le Carré on British espionage at the end of the Cold War
  • Our Kind of Traitor – The spy who never left the cold
  • Agent Running in the Field – John le Carré doesn’t like Donald Trump
  • Silverview — A nostalgic look at espionage from John le Carré

The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes — Nazis, Communists, and Western spies clash in this classic spy novel

Too Bad to Die  by Francine Mathews – Ian Fleming stars in this delightful spy story worthy of James Bond

The brilliant Red Sparrow Trilogy by Jason Matthews

  • Red Sparrow (Red Sparrow Trilogy #1) – Authentic espionage tradecraft in this gripping novel by a CIA veteran
  • Palace of Treason (Red Sparrow Trilogy #2) – Nonstop action in the sequel to the bestseller Red Sparrow
  • The Kremlin’s Candidate (Red Sparrow Trilogy #3) – The gripping conclusion to the Red Sparrow Trilogy

Prague Spring by Simon Mawer – A tale of love and espionage during Prague Spring

The Colonel’s Mistake (Mark Sava #1)  by Dan Mayland— A spellbinding Middle Eastern spy story

The Leveling (Mark Sava #2)  by Dan Mayland— A compelling tale of intrigue in Central Asia

The Bucharest Dossier by William Maz — A spy thriller set during the tumultuous Romanian Revolution

Damascus Station  by David McCloskey— A spellbinding novel about espionage in Syria

Moscow X by David McCloskey— A CIA plot to destabilize the Russian government

An Expensive Education by Nick McDonell— Special Forces are up to no good in Somalia

The Sympathizer  by Viet Thanh Nguyen – The Vietnam War through Vietnamese eyes

My Father’s House (Rome Escape Line Trilogy #1)  by Joseph O’Connor— The WWII Vatican Escape Line for Jews and Allied POWs

Warlight  by Michael Ondaatje— A wartime mystery wrapped in fog

The Strivers’ Row Spy (Renaissance #1) by Jason Overstreet— African-American history comes to life in this engaging spy novel

Secrets of State by Matthew Palmer – A deep state conspiracy to trigger a Pakistani-Indian war

Heresy (Giordano Bruno #1) by S. J. Parris— An historical spy thriller in the Elizabethan Age

Chris Pavone’s engaging espionage novels

  • The Expats – A truly suspenseful novel about cyber theft
  • The Accident – Rogue spies on the loose
  • The Travelers  – A clever spy story that will keep you guessing
  • The Paris Diversion   – The CIA, a crumbling marriage, and terrorist threats in Paris

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott— Doctor Zhivago and the women in the CIA typing pool

East of Hounslow (Jay Qasim #1) by Khurrum Rahman— Undercover, a small-time drug dealer becomes an accidental jihadist for MI5

The well-crafted Liz Carlyle novels by Stella Rimington

  • At Risk (Liz Carlyle #1)  – High stakes in an excellent espionage thriller
  • Secret Asset (Liz Carlyle #2)  – An engrossing novel about British counter-espionage
  • Illegal Action (Liz Carlyle #3)  – An engaging spy novel from former MI5 director Stella Rimington
  • Dead Line (Liz Carlyle #4) – Liz Carlyle stars in an outstanding British espionage novel
  • Present Danger (Liz Carlyle #5) – Do all the best spy novels come from Britain?
  • Rip Tide (Liz Carlyle #6) – Somali pirates, Al Qaeda, and home-grown terrorists in England
  • The Geneva Trap (Liz Carlyle #7) – Former MI5 Director spins a fascinating tale of espionage
  • Close Call (Liz Carlyle #8) – The former MI5 director spins another great tale of espionage
  • Breaking Cover (Liz Carlyle #9)  – Russian agents under cover in the UK
  • The Moscow Sleepers (Liz Carlyle #10) — An interesting new twist on Russian sleeper agents

Provisionally Yours by Antanas Sileika— A fascinating spy story set in Lithuania following World War I

The Cairo Affair  by Olen Steinhauer – A complex spy novel worthy of John Le Carre

All the Old Knives  by Olen Steinhauer – A terrorist hijacking, the CIA, and two former lovers at dinner

Ross Thomas’s witty spy stories

  • The Cold War Swap – Making the Cold War seem like fun
  • Cast a Yellow Shadow  – A novel about assassination that’s lots of fun
  • The Singapore Wink  – An engaging novel of crime and espionage set in 1960s Singapore
  • Missionary Stew  – Cocaine, the CIA, and a Central American revolution
  • Out on the Rim  – Con men, a $5 million bribe, and a Philippine rebellion

Spymaster (Scot Horvath #18) by Brad Thor— Brad Thor showcases his anti-Russian perspective in this novel

Paul Vidich’s haunting historical spy novels

  • An Honorable Man  – The Cold War, the early CIA, and the McCarthy Era
  • The Good Assassin  – A compelling spy novel set during the Cuban Revolution
  • The Coldest Warrior  – Project MK-Ultra and the scientist who fell to his death
  • The Mercenary – A superb Cold War thriller from Paul Vidich
  • The Matchmaker: A Spy in Berlin – A dangerous spy game in Berlin before the fall of the Wall
  • Beirut Station: Two Lives of a Spy — A compelling spy novel about living a double life

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson – An African-American spy in the maelstrom of Cold War rivalry in Africa

Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams— American defectors in Moscow mirror the Cambridge Five

The William Catesby novels by Edward Wilson

  • The Envoy (William Catesby #1)  – The CIA, the KGB, British intelligence and the H-bomb
  • The Whitehall Mandarin (William Catesby #4)  – In the early days of the Cold War, nuclear espionage in search of the H-bomb
  • A Very British Ending (William Catesby #5)  – A harsh look at post-war British intelligence

For related reading

You might also enjoy my posts:

  • 20 good nonfiction books about espionage
  • 12 great war novels reviewed here
  • Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers
  • Top 10 mystery and thriller series

And you can always find all the latest books I’ve read and reviewed on the Home Page .

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kenneth Cook

I can’t simply go without leaving a comment. This post is a great read. I hope you can take the time to read my post as well Spy Novels that Changed the World of Mystery Literature

Mal Warwick

Thanks. I’ve just read your post, and I can see that our taste is very different. Of the five books you cite, I recognize only two as great spy novels, “Baskerville” and “Red Sparrow.” I abhor Agatha Christie, “Silence of the Lambs” is horror not espionage fiction, and the “Da Vinci Code,” though popular and a gripping thriller, is just that, not a spy novel. And it’s not great, because it’s so poorly written. But each to his taste.

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40 Best Spy Novels of All Time

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Blog – Posted on Thursday, Nov 26

40 best spy novels of all time.

40 Best Spy Novels of All Time

Lovers of spy fiction are some of the most devoted genre fans of all, and it’s easy to see why. The best spy novels are thrilling, dangerous, and often a little sexy. They explore politics and history through a unique lens (and we’re not just talking about night vision goggles). Their heroes speak seven languages and drive a minimum of four expensive cars — all well above the speed limit, might we add. Plus, admit it: you always secretly thought you’d make a great spy.

Well, good news! If you’re looking for vicarious fulfilment of those ambitions, we’ve got you covered in this post that lists the 40 best spy novels of all time. From oldie-but-goodie classics of the genre to cutting edge contemporary techno-thrillers, these books will have you time travelling and globe-trotting. You’ll be scaling buildings, defusing bombs, and toppling entire governments – all from the comfort of your favorite reading chair. 

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1. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

Le Carré’s name has come to be synonymous with the spy genre, and it was this very book that propelled him to international acclaim. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is the third of Le Carré’s spy novels centred on the activities of a British Intelligence unit known as ‘The Circus,’ inspired by le Carré’s own experiences working in intelligence for MI5 and MI6 in the 50s and 60s. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the story follows Agent Leamas, who is called to complete one final mission: he’s going undercover as a defector to East Germany in order to bring down the German Intelligence Unit. 

2 . Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

Another well-known title from le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy continues in the same fictional realm set up in le Carré’s previous spy books. As tensions continue to simmer between Soviet Powers and the West, we follow a now retired agent of The Circus, George Smiley, as he is thrust back into action on the hunt for a traitor in their ranks. As suspicions mount, Smiley must question everyone around him, including even his most trusted colleagues, to weed out the mole that has cost The Circus so dearly. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is peak le Carré at his best — one of the best spy novels to masterfully capture the peril and paranoia of betrayal.

3. The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

Jason Bourne is rescued by fishermen, the sole survivor of an attack at sea. When he comes to, he’s suffering from amnesia, unable to remember anything about himself or his past life outside of the intermittent flashback. Armed with only the details for a bank account, he sets off to try to piece together his own identity. As the truth begins to unfold, panic mounts when it becomes clear that Bourne’s life was anything but quiet and ordinary. But is it his past he should be scared of — or what he must do next? 

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4. Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

This award-winning classic (and Ken Follett’s first bestseller) follows a German spy, nicknamed ‘The Needle’ due to his signature use of a needle-pointed blade when killing his victims. As the last remaining German intelligence agent, he has to try and save the Nazi forces from the Allies’ D-Day ploy. But when he makes a huge discovery that could jeopardize it all, he becomes MI5’s most wanted. With British intelligence hot on his heels, following the trail of victims he has left in his wake, The Needle flees — only to stumble into the only thing he hadn’t expected: an unforeseen romance that might be his undoing. In this nail-biting race against time, we are reminded that even stone-cold killers are not immune to afflictions of the heart.

5. The Innocent by Ian McEwan

Set in Cold War Berlin, The Innocent is the story of Leonard Marnham: a 25 year-old British post office engineer who’s whisked into a covert operation to help the Americans tap Soviet phone lines. While carrying out his mission, he meets the older, divorced Maria Eckdorf, and the two begin a relationship. But when a ghost from Maria’s past shows up, Leonard finds himself dragged into a complicated cover up. This once unassuming man now bears two deadly secrets — and one has got to give.

6. Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

After an injury cuts short her promising career as a ballerina, Dominika Egorova finds herself an unwilling student of Russia’s top secret “Sparrow School.” There, she learns how to seduce enemy operatives into compromising situations where she can then extract information from them. Her next target: Nathan Nash, a CIA handler. But Nash sees Egorova coming, and what results is a thrilling pursuit marked by seduction and deception. Written by a retired CIA operative, Red Sparrow is lauded as one of the most accurate literary portrayals of espionage. If you enjoyed the 2018 film of the same name, it’s well worth giving its source material a try.

7. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This Pulitzer prize-winning debut novel follows a nameless protagonist: a captain in the South Vietnamese army, who flees to the United States during the fall of Saigon in 1975. Once in Los Angeles, the protagonist and his companions, including the General he advises, find that navigating American life is not quite what they expected. While the group grow weary of their new home and plan their return to Vietnam, the protagonist has good reason for wanting to stick around: he’s a communist informant, feeding back information to Vietnam on anti-Communist activities in America. The Sympathizer explores the duality of a protagonist perpetually straddling two sides, from his mixed Vietnamese and French heritage to his duplicitous espionage.

8. American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

Marie Mitchell, a young black FBI officer, is rescued from the monotony of endless paperwork when she is sent to destabilize the rise of communism in Burkina Faso in 1986. Her target? Only the charismatic revolutionary, Thomas Sankara — the real-life former president of Burkina Faso. Despite her discomfort with the mission's MO, she takes on the job — but she'll also have to deal with the eventual fallout, as she struggles to decide how far she is willing to compromise her principles in the line of duty. An artful mix of spy thriller and historical fiction, American Spy will introduce you to a complex and criminally overlooked face of the Cold War.

9. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Casino Royale, Fleming’s first book, marks the birth of the world’s favourite secret agent: 007. Bond is the name, and Baccarat is the game as he carries out his assignment to take down Le Chiffre, an operative for the Russian Secret Service. The stakes are in the millions as he plays with the sole aim of bankrupting Le Chiffre (which, as you can imagine, makes for some very sore losers).  And when attempts to settle scores are moved off the table, the stakes spiral ever higher into life-or-death territory. Bond himself is flirting with the "death" end of the equation when he's driven into the arms of a female agent — but is her warm embrace the haven he thinks it is? If you want to see how the man, the myth, and the legend all began, this is the best place to start.

10. The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

The setting: the vast ocean. The players: Russia and America. The trigger? A Soviet submarine captain, who has suddenly and inexplicably veered The Red October off course to the West. What results is one of the greatest espionage chases in literary history, as the submarine quite literally slips under the radar and a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse ensues... except in this game there are two cats who want The Red October : Russia, and America. The debut novel that launched Tom Clancy's career into the stratosphere when it was published in 1984, The Hunt for Red October also marks young CIA agent Jack Ryan's first appearance — and it stands the test of time still today.

11. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

When an ennui-ridden young man who’s been hoping for a break from his boredom finds a corpse in his flat, he learns that you should always be careful what you wish for. Unsurprisingly, Richard Hannay is now suspect number one in the murder of the man found dead in his home. Slightly more surprisingly, he’s also now at the centre of an international assassination plot — one which could have seismic conseqences for the whole of Europe. Hannay goes on the run, fleeing to his native Scotland in an attempt to evade both the police and enemies of a more shadowy variety. Another genre classic, this pulse-raising adventure book is considered by many to be the ideal form for the ‘chase novel.’

12. Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

In 1938, a British man sets out to kill an unnamed European dictator. This is no  political assassination, however. What he’s interested in is the thrill of the chase — and he doesn’t even know if he’ll go through with it. Sure enough, just as he finally gets close enough to strike, he’s caught at the last minute. Tortured and left for dead, the nameless protagonist soon realizes nowhere in Europe is safe for him now. This seminal spy novel redefined the genre, and has deeply influenced many of the most beloved stories written since. If you want to truly get familiar with thrillers, this is the ideal starting point.

13. The House of Fear by Ibn-e Safi

Ibn-e Safi is an acclaimed (and prolific) Indian writer, whose whopping series of 120 spy novels still enjoys cult classic status in South Asia. The House of Fear comes from this series and is the first of Safi’s spy books to have been translated from the original Urdu and published in English. At its heart is Ali Imran, the guy who’s always the butt of the joke at his job in the secret service. But little do his colleagues know that they are seriously underestimating him, for Ali is actually the perfect spy — a devastating combination of strength, wits, and agility. And his extraordinary talents will be put to work solving a set of mysterious murders as a string of dead bodies are found, all bearing the same meticulous wounds.

In a stroke of two-for-one luck, The House of Fear also includes a second novella, Shootout at the Rock, in which Imran is one man’s only hope of being saved from a murderous gang. 

14. Agents of Innocence by David Ignatius

This American classic focuses more on the diplomatic side of spy work than the out-and-out action, but the depth and complexity of this fascinatingly plausible novel is more than enough to make up for the lack of motorcycle chase scenes. Ignatius’ spy book follows the story of a CIA agent Tom Rogers who has recently arrived in Beirut, and is working hard to cultivate connections within the Lebanese intelligence community. One of his new contacts is playboy Jamal Ramlawi, a valuable but slippery asset. Rogers soon learns that their lack of trust makes for a very precarious alliance. Combining an intricate plot with historical accuracy, Agents of Innocence may be a slow burn, but boy does it pay off.

15. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Charlie is a young American woman who has been sent, disgraced, to Europe by her wealthy but controlling family who wish to have her pregnancy discreetly ‘taken care of.’ Eve, once a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed recruit who was trained by the famous ‘Alice’ herself during the war, lives a life of seclusion in the UK, drowning her sorrows and nursing memories of the downfall of the spy network she had once devoted her life to. Two women, two very different pasts. But — when their paths cross in London —  they find themselves working together, chasing a common truth which might just end years of anguish for each of them.

16. Transcription by Kate Atkinson

We’ve already raved about this spy book on our list of World War II books by female authors , but we can’t resist another mention. In Transcription, a blast from the past jogs Juliet’s memories of her experiences during the war and we’re taken back in time with her to 1940. Juliet, then just eighteen years old, is reluctantly recruited by MI5 to painstakingly transcribe recordings from surveillance of fascist-sympathizers. But this tedium is short-lived. Sent out undercover to find ‘the Red Book,’ a notebook containing the names of Nazi sympathizers, Juliet quickly becomes entangled in the action herself. Back in the present, the truth about her time as a spy starts to bubble to the surface. And it soon becomes apparent to Juliet that the past she thought she left behind is in fact creeping up right behind her... 

17 . Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings

You may have heard of the hit BBC show, Killing Eve . And by “may,” we mean you definitely have. Well, this is where it all started — as a self-published series of four novella ebooks in which Eve, an unassuming but tenacious agent, finds herself up against the alluring and ruthless Villanelle, an expert assassin (who’s allegedly based on the real life ‘Tigresa,’ a Basque hitwoman). After coming across a particularly high-profile assassination, Eve embarks on her mission to find Villanelle, and a stunning game of cat and mouse ensues. Prepare to be gripped as you follow these two women, each so different to the other and yet each exceedingly good at what they do, closing in on one another.

18. Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

Vera Kelly has mastered the art of pretending, born out of years of hiding her sexuality in a world not ready to accept her. And yet her talents are wasted as she pulls night shift after night shift at the radio station, struggling to make ends meet. That is, until she’s scouted for the CIA and swept off to Argentina. Going undercover as a Canadian student, Vera has to conduct surveillance of student revolutionaries — a task fraught with danger and potential betrayals. But it’s Vera’s personal development that takes center stage, helped along by flashbacks to Vera’s past that let us slowly understand who she is. A subtle and engrossing piece of new LGBT fiction , Who is Vera Kelly? promises much more than your average espionage novel.

19. The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins

In an imagined 1943, Heinrich Himmler’s brainchild, Operation Eagle, is underway. The goal: kidnap Winston Churchill on British soil. It’s a long shot, but Himmler is determined to see his audacious plan through, and months of plotting and reconnoitering come to a head one quiet November evening in an even quieter English village. The stakes are almost impossibly high. But will the German task force be up to the job? An enduring piece of war fiction, The Eagle Has Landed remains as fresh today as it was in 1975 — perhaps because it is not just a story of subterfuge, but also a masterful exploration of the nuance and murkiness of war, in a world where being on the ‘wrong’ side doesn’t necessarily make you irredeemably bad.

20. Ultimatum by Frank Gardner

Amid mounting tension, an insider agrees to give up information to British intelligence regarding Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. But when a rendezvous at a remote mountain monastery ends in disaster, MI6 realize they need a change of approach. They have to find a new insider — and fast. Enter Agent Luke Carlton, who’s instructed to bring a new contact on side.. until the kidnapping of a senior British government minister throws everything into a tailspin. Written by a former BBC Security Correspondent, Ultimatum reaps all the benefits of its author’s first-hand knowledge of international relations, taking the reader on a thrilling ride with one foot firmly planted in reality.

21. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Published in 1907, The Secret Agent may very well be the most timeless spy novel on our list. In London, 1886, we are introduced to Adolf Verloc, a man who lives a seemingly banal life as a shop owner. The operative word here is “seemingly”: behind this facade, he’s in bed with the anarchists and is a bumbling secret agent, working for an unnamed country. When Verloc is summoned to carry out an attack on the Greenwich Observatory, he makes the decision to betray his family — setting in motion a sequence of events that may well be the undoing of them all. Based on the real bombing in Greenwich in 1894, Conrad provides an imaginative and classic backstory for a crime that remains unexplained to this day.

22 . I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

A series of grisly crimes. A secret plot so destructive that it would devastate humanity forever. The two are connected, but how? Only one man can find the answer: Pilgrim, a young, mysterious intelligence agent of many names who had gone into early retirement, only to return when he finds that he just can’t seem to stay away from the fast life. Cue a whirlwind hunt around the world, as I Am Pilgrim takes you hurtling around continents following a trail of gruesome clues that Pilgrim hopes will uncover the origin of the threat. Time is of the essence, and Terry Hayes's debut novel truly puts the thrill in spy thriller.

23. The Quiet American by Graham Greene

British journalist Thomas Fowler is feeling pretty world-weary. Years living in Saigon, chronicling the conflict between Viet Minh communists and France’s colonial forces, have left him a staunch pessimist. Enter Alden Pyle, a young CIA agent new to Saigon. While Pyle — the eponymous Quiet American — may be mild-mannered, he’s nevertheless a devout patriot, and every bit as idealistic as Fowler is cynical. But his attempts to covertly propagate American-style democracy have disastrous consequences for the locals. As the bodies pile up, Fowler cannot continue to sit back and watch Pyle careering from disaster to disaster. But is it his own morality, or an affair of the heart, that leads him to intervene? A deeply controversial and razor-sharp examination of American exceptionalism and colonialism, Greene’s novel remains one of the true classics of the genre.

24 . Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

Very different in tone from Greene’s other entry in our list The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana tells the satirical story of James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman turned unlikely spy. When his sixteen-year-old daughter Milly’s extravagant tastes start to run him into debt, James has no choice but to take on a side hustle: espionage. The thing is, he doesn’t actually feel like doing any of the work. Instead, James fabricates his reports back to London, cobbling together Shakespeare plots, the names of acquaintances, and some complex-looking vacuum cleaner blueprints. Everything’s going off without a hitch — that is, until those made up dispatches start coming true...

25. The Expats by Chris Pavone

Meet Kate Moore: stay at home mom, devoted housewife, and former spy. After fifteen years with the CIA, Kate decides to put family first and follow her husband to start a new life in Luxembourg. Sure, she struggles to deal with the occasional culture shock after trading in undercover operations for bathtime — but Kate soon realizes that playdates are the least of her problems when the arrival of two very suspicious neighbours has her worried. Is Kate’s past about to catch up with her? And if it does, what will come of the very family she gave it all up to protect? Very few authors hit a home run with their first novel, but Chris Pavone does just that with the captivating The Expats .

26. The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

A botched assassination attempt has left the French President on red alert. He’s now the most heavily guarded man in the world and a seemingly impossible target  — that is, until his enemies set the Jackal on him. An English undercover operative whose true identity is a secret even to those who have hired him, the Jackal may be the only person able to cut through the President’s impenetrable defenses and alter the course of the world as we know it. Inspired by the real-life assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle, this incredible speculative spy novel is a nail-biting race against time and a giant in the spy thriller genre.

27 . The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

It’s the height of the Cold War, and two women have been entrusted with a dangerous task — smuggle a revolutionary novel into the USSR, where it has been banned for its subversive content. The CIA believe it may be the key to turning the tides of the Cold War, so secretary Irina is plucked from the typing roster and tasked with getting Doctor Zhivago into the hands of the Russian people under the tutelage of seasoned pro Sally. This female-driven tale of intrigue will keep you on the edge of your seat, and make you really appreciate the power of a good book. A spy novel about spies and novels? Sign us up.

28 . Berlin Game by Len Deighton

Bernard Samson has been on desk duty in London for years, until an important assignment unexpectedly calls him back out into the field. A high-ranking spy working out of East Germany has had enough — he wants to come to the West. The extraction won’t be easy, but Samson is indebted to the agent on the other side of the Iron Curtain: that same operative once saved Samson’s life, so it’s time for him to return the favour. If, by the end of this nimble tale of treachery (a personal favorite of Quentin Tarantino!), you find yourself growing rather fond of  Samson, you’re in luck —  there are 8 more books waiting for you in the series.

29. Secret Service by Tom Bradby

MI6 officer Kate Henderson has made a bombshell discovery: the Prime Minister is dying, and one of the candidates to replace him is a Russian mole. The trouble is, Kate doesn’t know which — and her superiors are sceptical about the veracity of her claims. Is she simply being paranoid? And is that paranoia playing right into the hands of the enemy? Kate begins to unravel, as she desperately tries to hold her career, her family, and the nation together. This bestselling psychological thriller is so full of political power-play and fever-pitch tension, you’ll have to take up a permanent position on the edge of your seat.

30 . The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

The body of an infamous murderer has been found floating in the Bosphorus. Charles Latimer, a former lecturer turned would-be mystery writer , goes to visit the body in the morgue. From there spans an obsession that will take Latimer across continents, painstakingly tracing the tangled web of betrayals and deceptions that the dead man left in his wake. His desire to understand the deceased killer, Dimitrios, is so consuming that he's at risk of becoming the killer’s next victim in a new, disturbing sense. Fun fact: The Mask of Dimitrios is James Bond’s vacation read of choice — he’s seen reading it on the plane in From Russia, With Love . Talk about a busman’s holiday.

The story features a vivid and fascinating supporting cast, including the magus-like Ari Shamron, a beautiful French Jewish model who is seeking retribution for her family's death in the Holocaust, and a marvelously comic down-at-the-heels London art dealer. Set these colorful and varied characters against a brilliant background of political intrigue and vengeance at the highest levels and a manhunt that covers three continents, and the result is a smart and electrically exciting global thriller.

31 . The Kill Artist by Daniel Silva

What does an art restorer have in common with a highly-skilled (and deadly) intelligence operative? You might think not much, but it turns out Gabriel Allon is pretty good at being both. Having long since given up the fast-paced world of espionage for a quiet life of paintbrushes and magnifying glasses, Allon thought he had put that all behind him. That is, until he’s called out for one final job — isn’t that always the way? His mission is to take down a terrorist who’s every bit as expert as he is, and with whom Allon shares a complex and tragic history. Throw in a glamorous model, an Israeli diplomat, and a whole bunch of paintings, and you’ve got the recipe for one of the best spy novels.

32. Diary of a Dead Man on Leave by David Downing

When Walter finds the diary of a former lodger hidden in his family home, he isn’t prepared for what he discovers within its pages. Despite his unassuming demeanour, there was more to Josef Hofmann than he had let on. He had not found his way to Walter’s German hometown five decades earlier by chance. In fact, he was on a top secret mission: to seek out the surviving members of the town’s pre-War communist party one by one, and determine where their loyalties now lay. The constant threat of discovery by the Nazi authorities makes this task a suicide mission — one that’s complicated even further when Josef’s glimpse at another possible life in the form of Walter’s family makes him question his priorities…

33. An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

Author Robert Harris has produced no fewer than thirteen bestsellers, in genres spanning historical fiction , techno-thriller, and political fiction. So it’s no real wonder that when this jack-of-all-trades turned his hand to an espionage novel, he smashed it out of the park. An Officer and a Spy is a story of intrigue and suspicion set within the ranks of the 19th century French Army. On its surface, it seems like an open and shut case: military officer Alfred Dreyfus has been accused of espionage, convicted of treason, and sentenced to life imprisonment. But Georges Picquart, a fellow soldier who witnessed Dreyfus’ dramatic fall from grace, has a sneaking suspicion that they may have got the wrong man.

34. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

A wealthy young woman disappeared from her family’s estate on a private island forty years ago. But with the scene of the crime being a family gathering, the suspect list is a little too close for comfort. After decades without any progress, her despairing uncle hires Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced former journalist, to reopen the case. His unlikely partner is Lisbeth Salander, troubled computer genius, and the eponymous girl with the dragon tattoo. As the two start digging into the estate’s history, they uncover a trove of wicked secrets. The level of detail Larsson packs into this tour-de-force of a espionage/ suspense hybrid is truly astonishing: you’ll have to crack out a family tree to follow this one.

35. American Assassin by Vince Flynn

Irene Kennedy has been keeping a close eye on Mitch Rapp. He’s a brilliant college student and all-star athlete, and she’s an up and coming CIA analyst who wants to recruit him for a top secret project. She knows that Mitch’s vengeful anger over his tragic past provides the perfect ammunition to turn him into a super-soldier. And when he agrees to undertake intensive training, he quickly shows himself to be the perfect secret weapon. Now he’s out in the field, and while his first mission goes well, he quickly realises that taking out the target is just the beginning. A globe-trotting military thriller, action movie fans will get a lot out of this one.

36 . Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

A grim crime thriller, Gorky Park is not for the faint-hearted: the novel opens with the discovery of three bodies in a Russian amusement park. Three bodies minus their fingers and faces, that is. The impossible task of identifying the victims is up to Arkady Renko. His sole clue? A pair of ice skates. This police procedural plumbs the murky depths of law enforcement corruption, a conspiracy which has spread far beyond the usual remit of Renko’s work. Will the detective follow the trail of deception til the bitter end? Or is this case simply too far above his pay grade?

37. Deadlock by Catherine Coulter

The newest release in ultra-prolific bestselling author Catherine Coulter’s FBI thriller series (the 24th installment, to be precise). Deadlock explores two parallel mysteries: one, a young woman confronting long-forgotten family secrets that have been stirred up by a psychic reading; the other, a cryptic jigsaw puzzle, sent to the agents by an anonymous observer who seems to know more than they should. Agents Savich and Sherlock, a crime fighting duo who also happen to be husband and wife, have a lot on their plate, but Coulter masterfully interweaves her various storylines in this intricately plotted novel.

38. The Ipcress File by Len Deighton

Published at the height of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, you would be forgiven for thinking The Ipcress File was a real dispatch from a British secret agent, packed as it is with meticulous detail. What starts out as a straightforward mission to find a missing biochemist erupts into an international affair after a fateful trip to a seedy nightclub. What follows is a tale of brainwashing, submarines, and nuclear weapons in this classic cold war thriller. Fun fact for the film lovers: this was one of three of Deighton’s spy thrillers which were adapted into movies starring Michael Caine — the very movies which launched Caine to stardom.

39. At Risk by Stella Rimington

If you want a realistic look into the life of a secret service agent, look no further than author Stella Rimington. After all, she was the real-life head of MI5. In her debut novel, Rimington introduces us to Liz Carlyle, an MI5 Intelligence Officer whose private life almost rivals her work in complexity. When we meet her, Carlyle is trying to track an ‘invisible’ — a native Briton with terrorist intent, whose local status means they can move unchecked through the country. Is there any hope of tracking down such a well-camouflaged killer? And is there anything Liz can do to prevent him from slipping through her fingers time and again?

40. Restless by William Boyd

Picture this: your mother sits you down one afternoon, and informs you that you know nothing about her. She’s not just your mom — she’s a brilliant Russian spy who has been living in deep cover since World War II. Oh, and she’s not done yet. She needs your help to complete one last assignment and track down the man who recruited her all those years ago. Yeah. It’s a lot. It’s no wonder Ruth is a little blindsided. But she decides to accept the task, and agrees to enter the world her mother was first immersed in four decades ago. A thoughtful thriller about motherhood and identity, William Boyd’s award-winning novel will sit with you long after you turn the last page.

Keen for even more thrills? We recommend checking out our list of the best psychological thrillers for some more hair-raising reads!

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  • Royal Society (science)
  • Pushkin House Prize
  • Walter Scott Prize
  • Arthur C Clarke Prize
  • Audie Awards

Best Spy Books

Most recommended books.

review of spy novels

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

“I think it sets the standard for all spy literature. It’s very hard to improve on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold . It’s the classic le Carré recipe of compromised individuals trying to find their way through a labyrinth of deception and self-deception” Ben Macintyre , Journalist

review of spy novels

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

“It’s a ripping yarn, it’s just so exciting. I first read it when I was about ten, and I’ve re-read it periodically since and it combines two of the things that I love most. It’s a great thriller, but it’s also brilliant about sailing. And it was written tremendously early – it was published in 1903. He really invented a new way of writing about international affairs. It was incredibly influential. It had a profound political effect because it pointed up the fears about Britain being unprepared for war with Germany” Ben Macintyre , Journalist

review of spy novels

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

“In terms of how technology is working in our modern surveillance powers, it’s a terrifyingly prophetic book in some of its implications for 21st-century human life. Orwell would deny that it was prophecy; he said it was a warning. But in fact, distinguished Orwell scholar Professor Peter Davis once made a list of all the things that Orwell got right, and it was a couple of fairly long paragraphs, and it was really rather terrifying.” D J Taylor , Biographer

We have a range of interviews on espionage and spying, with book recommendations on the subject from journalists, academics, former intelligence officers as well writers of spy novels.

The academic Michael Goodman chooses his best books on the pioneers of intelligence gathering , focusing on the early years of the CIA and Britain’s MI6. Rory Cormac discusses the history and morality of covert actions .  One of his recommendations is Keith Jeffrey’s authorised history of MI6, MI6: The history of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 .

Keith Jeffrey himself gives us his top books on the UK’s Secret Service , both history and fiction.  Ex-CIA officer, Robert Baer, offers his best books on espionage , and reflects on the ups and downs, pros and cons, of serving in the field.  Tim Weiner chooses books specifically on the US intelligence services and the journalist Edward Lucas chooses his best books on Putin and Russian history .

Veteran foreign correspondent Richard Beeston chooses his favourite books of spies, lies and foreign correspondents , focused on novels and history that deal with the mid-20 th century, including The Master Spy by Philip Knightley , a biography of the British traitor and Soviet agent, Kim Philby.

Ben Macintyre offers his best choices on spies , including The Defence of the Realm: The authorised history of MI5 by Christopher Andrew. British spy fiction writer Charles Cumming also revealed his favourite books on espionage .

Four of our interviewees recommend books by John Le Carré : Ben Macintyre and Keith Jeffrey both recommend The Spy Who Came in From the Cold , Charles Cumming picked The Constant Gardener and Robert Baer chose Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy .

Of recent books, Ben Macintyre's  The Spy and the Traitor    was chosen as one of our best nonfiction books of 2018; it's a true story that reads like a thriller. Also, A Woman of No Importance, a biography of Virginia Hall, who became the Gestapo’s most wanted Allied spy, is one of our best biographies of 2020 . With the focus on China, we have selected books on Chinese espionage.

The best books on Spies , recommended by Ben Macintyre

The best books on Spies - The Double-Cross System by J C Masterman

The Double-Cross System by J C Masterman

The best books on Spies - The Defence of the Realm by Christopher Andrew

The Defence of the Realm by Christopher Andrew

The best books on Spies - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

The British public-school system, with its hidden homosexuality and feelings of loneliness, encouraged subterfuge and led to a generation of great spy writers and spies, suggests author and journalist Ben Macintyre . He picks the best books on spies.

The British public-school system, with its hidden homosexuality and feelings of loneliness, encouraged subterfuge and led to a generation of great spy writers and spies, suggests author and journalist Ben Macintyre. He picks the best books on spies.

The Best Post-Soviet Spy Thrillers , recommended by Charles Cumming

The Best Post-Soviet Spy Thrillers - Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

The Best Post-Soviet Spy Thrillers - Remembrance Day by Henry Porter

Remembrance Day by Henry Porter

The Best Post-Soviet Spy Thrillers - Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

The Best Post-Soviet Spy Thrillers - Slow Horses by Mick Herron

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

The Best Post-Soviet Spy Thrillers - To the Lions by Holly Watt

To the Lions by Holly Watt

With the end of the Soviet Union, many thought the spy novel was dead. Within a decade, it was back, with old antagonists back in different guises and a new raft of international flashpoints to keep both fictional and real-life spies busy. Here, British spy novelist Charles Cumming , author of more than ten books, recommends five key post-Soviet spy thrillers and explains how the genre has evolved since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

With the end of the Soviet Union, many thought the spy novel was dead. Within a decade, it was back, with old antagonists back in different guises and a new raft of international flashpoints to keep both fictional and real-life spies busy. Here, British spy novelist Charles Cumming, author of more than ten books, recommends five key post-Soviet spy thrillers and explains how the genre has evolved since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The best books on The Secret Service , recommended by Keith Jeffery

The best books on The Secret Service - The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

Greek Memories by Compton Mackenzie

The best books on The Secret Service - From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

The best books on The Secret Service - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

Secret Service by Christopher Andrew

The author of the only authorized history of MI6, Keith Jeffery , tells us about the evolution of the secret intelligence services, their representation in fiction, and the man Fleming may have had in mind when he created James Bond

The author of the only authorized history of MI6, Keith Jeffery, tells us about the evolution of the secret intelligence services, their representation in fiction, and the man Fleming may have had in mind when he created James Bond

The best books on Covert Action , recommended by Rory Cormac

The best books on Covert Action - Covert Action: Central Intelligence Agency and the Limits of American Intervention in the Post-War World by Gregory Treverton

Covert Action: Central Intelligence Agency and the Limits of American Intervention in the Post-War World by Gregory Treverton

The best books on Covert Action - Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency by William J Daugherty

Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency by William J Daugherty

The best books on Covert Action - MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 by Keith Jeffery

MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 by Keith Jeffery

The best books on Covert Action - The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West by Christopher Andrew & Vasili Mitrokhin

The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West by Christopher Andrew & Vasili Mitrokhin

The best books on Covert Action - Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations by Ronen Bergman

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations by Ronen Bergman

Many of us live in democracies and believe in government transparency, but the truth is our leaders have considerable scope to engage in secret operations overseas. Rory Cormac talks us through five books on 'covert action,' and some of the countries that have embraced it as a policy tool.

Many of us live in democracies and believe in government transparency, but the truth is our leaders have considerable scope to engage in secret operations overseas. Rory Cormac talks us through five books on ‘covert action,’ and some of the countries that have embraced it as a policy tool.

The best books on Spies, Lies and Foreign Correspondents , recommended by Richard Beeston

The best books on Spies - Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

The best books on Spies - Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean

Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean

The best books on Spies - Battle for the Bundu: the First World War in East Africa by Charles Miller

Battle for the Bundu: the First World War in East Africa by Charles Miller

The best books on Spies - The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning

The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning

The best books on Spies - The Master Spy by Phillip Knightley

The Master Spy by Phillip Knightley

The former foreign correspondent takes us on a gloriously anecdotal ramble through the history of war reporting, espionage and journalistic half-truths, and recalls his encounters and friendship with "the third man" Kim Philby

The former foreign correspondent takes us on a gloriously anecdotal ramble through the history of war reporting, espionage and journalistic half-truths, and recalls his encounters and friendship with “the third man” Kim Philby

The best books on Espionage , recommended by Robert Baer

The best books on Espionage - Black Mass by John Gray

Black Mass by John Gray

The best books on Espionage - Travels into Bokhara by Alexander Burnes

Travels into Bokhara by Alexander Burnes

The best books on Espionage - The Insurrection in Mesopotamia by Aylmer Haldane

The Insurrection in Mesopotamia by Aylmer Haldane

The best books on Espionage - The Tartar Steppe by Dinno Buzzati

The Tartar Steppe by Dinno Buzzati

The best books on Espionage - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

The former CIA operative lifts the lid on the reality of spying. He says the intelligence service knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the war, but politicians and reporters didn’t listen

The best books on Putin and Russian History , recommended by Edward Lucas

The best books on Putin and Russian History - It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway by David Satter

It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway by David Satter

The best books on Putin and Russian History - Internal Colonization by Alexander Etkind

Internal Colonization by Alexander Etkind

The best books on Putin and Russian History - The Man Without a Face by Masha Gessen

The Man Without a Face by Masha Gessen

The best books on Putin and Russian History - Molotov’s Magic Lantern by Rachel Polonsky

Molotov’s Magic Lantern by Rachel Polonsky

The best books on Putin and Russian History - Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus by Oliver Bullough

Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus by Oliver Bullough

Journalist and author Edward Lucas gives an excoriating critique of Putinism and explains how Russia's amoral present is rooted in a failure to come to terms with its past.

Journalist and author Edward Lucas gives an excoriating critique of Putinism and explains how Russia’s amoral present is rooted in a failure to come to terms with its past.

The best books on The US Intelligence Services , recommended by Tim Weiner

The best books on The US Intelligence Services - The Art of War by Sun Zi (also written in English as Sun Tzu)

The Art of War by Sun Zi (also written in English as Sun Tzu)

The best books on The US Intelligence Services - The Invisible Government by David Wise and Thomas B Ross

The Invisible Government by David Wise and Thomas B Ross

The best books on The US Intelligence Services - From the Shadows by Robert M Gates

From the Shadows by Robert M Gates

The best books on The US Intelligence Services - The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman

The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman

The best books on The US Intelligence Services - Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

The job of the intelligence services is to understand others and help leaders act more wisely, says the author of a new history of the FBI. There’s a balance to be struck between liberty and security but when the CIA and FBI do not harmonise their intelligence missions, people die.

The best books on Cybersecurity , recommended by Misha Glenny

The best books on Cybersecurity - Cyber War by Richard A Clarke and Robert Knake

Cyber War by Richard A Clarke and Robert Knake

The best books on Cybersecurity - The Future of the Internet by Jonathan Zittrain

The Future of the Internet by Jonathan Zittrain

The best books on Cybersecurity - The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov

The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov

The best books on Cybersecurity - Fatal System Error by Joseph Menn

Fatal System Error by Joseph Menn

The best books on Cybersecurity - Kingpin by Kevin Poulsen

Kingpin by Kevin Poulsen

There's an unseen, mostly unacknowledged cyber war going on. British journalist Misha Glenny , author of Dark Market, tells us who's involved, how far it spreads and what could happen if we let it continue unchecked. He picks the best books to get a better handle on cybersecurity.

There’s an unseen, mostly unacknowledged cyber war going on. British journalist Misha Glenny, author of Dark Market, tells us who’s involved, how far it spreads and what could happen if we let it continue unchecked. He picks the best books to get a better handle on cybersecurity.

The best books on Espionage , recommended by Charles Cumming

The best books on Espionage - The Perfect English Spy by Tom Bower

The Perfect English Spy by Tom Bower

The best books on Espionage - Their Trade is Treachery by Chapman Pincher

Their Trade is Treachery by Chapman Pincher

The best books on Espionage - A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

The best books on Espionage - The Constant Gardener by John le Carré

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré

The best books on Espionage - sex, lies and videotape by Steven Soderbergh

sex, lies and videotape by Steven Soderbergh

Leading British spy writer Charles Cumming found his vocation at 25 after he was approached by MI6. He says that experience, brief but interesting, was crying out to be dramatised

The best books on Global Security , recommended by Chris Abbott

The best books on Global Security - Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-First Century by Paul Rogers

Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-First Century by Paul Rogers

The best books on Global Security - Blair's Wars by John Kampfner

Blair's Wars by John Kampfner

The best books on Global Security - All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer

All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer

The best books on Global Security - Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam by Jason Burke

Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam by Jason Burke

The best books on Global Security - Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Global security consultant says sending armed forces into another country based on purely moral, gut feelings of good and evil is a dangerous policy-making premise. He chooses books on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Al Qaeda

The Best Cyber Security Books , recommended by Josephine Wolff

The Best Cyber Security Books - Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime-from Global Epidemic to Your Front Door by Brian Krebs

Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime-from Global Epidemic to Your Front Door by Brian Krebs

The Best Cyber Security Books - Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon by Kim Zetter

Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon by Kim Zetter

The Best Cyber Security Books - Worm: The First Digital World War by Mark Bowden

Worm: The First Digital World War by Mark Bowden

The Best Cyber Security Books - Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War by Fred Kaplan

Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War by Fred Kaplan

The Best Cyber Security Books - Bytes, Bombs, and Spies: The Strategic Dimensions of Offensive Cyber Operations by Amy Zegart & Herbert Lin

Bytes, Bombs, and Spies: The Strategic Dimensions of Offensive Cyber Operations by Amy Zegart & Herbert Lin

Not all important subjects make good reading, but cyber security is an exception: not only do we all need to know about and take responsibility for it, but it also generates nonfiction books worthy of John le Carré. Cyber security and policy expert Josephine Wolff , author of You'll see this message when it is too late , recommends the best cyber security books.

Not all important subjects make good reading, but cyber security is an exception: not only do we all need to know about and take responsibility for it, but it also generates nonfiction books worthy of John le Carré. Cyber security and policy expert Josephine Wolff, author of You’ll see this message when it is too late , recommends the best cyber security books.

The best books on Pioneers of Intelligence Gathering , recommended by Michael Goodman

The best books on Pioneers of Intelligence Gathering - The Very Best Men by Evan Thomas

The Very Best Men by Evan Thomas

The best books on Pioneers of Intelligence Gathering - Wilderness of Mirrors by David C Martin

Wilderness of Mirrors by David C Martin

The best books on Pioneers of Intelligence Gathering - Flawed Patriot by Bayard Stockton

Flawed Patriot by Bayard Stockton

The best books on Pioneers of Intelligence Gathering - Most Secret War by R V Jones

Most Secret War by R V Jones

The best books on Pioneers of Intelligence Gathering - The Quest for C by Alan Judd

The Quest for C by Alan Judd

The senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, chooses books on the real pioneers of British and American espionage – flawed men who saved lives and made a difference.

We ask experts to recommend the five best books in their subject and explain their selection in an interview.

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Is Mick Herron the Best Spy Novelist of His Generation?

By Jill Lepore

Portrait of Mick Herron with his head in the room alongside a smaller version of him sitting in a chair.

Mick Herron is a broad-shouldered Englishman with close-cropped black hair, lightly salted, and fine and long-fingered hands, like a pianist’s or a safecracker’s. He wears wire-rimmed glasses, and he is shy and flushes easily, pink as a peony. He does not drive a car and he does not own a smartphone, and, in the softly carpeted apartment in Oxford where, wearing woollen slippers, he writes spy novels—the best in a generation, by some estimations, and irrefutably the funniest—he does not have Wi-Fi. He used to be a copy editor. He has never been a secret agent, except insofar as all writers are spies and maybe, lately, so is everyone else.

Spy fiction got good and going in the years before the First World War, and took flight afterward. In 1927, W. Somerset Maugham wrote “Ashenden: or, The British Agent,” about a writer who is recruited into British intelligence by a handler called R. During the war, Maugham had been a spook; he was recruited after “Of Human Bondage” came out. Writers make good joes (as Herron might say): they’re keen observers, and they tend to know languages. (Maugham had French and German.) “If you do well you’ll get no thanks,” R. tells Ashenden, “and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help.” Editors say the same thing to writers.

Maugham’s best-known successors—Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and John le Carré—were spies, too. Greene worked for M.I.6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence service; Fleming for Naval Intelligence; and le Carré for both M.I.6 and M.I.5, Britain’s security service. Like le Carré, whose wordcraft about spycraft included “mole,” “spook,” and “Moscow rules,” Herron’s got his own lingo, about “the hub” and “dogs” and “tiger teams” and “milkmen.” But Herron, as he himself might put it, has never been to joe country and lives nowhere near Spook Street.

For the longest stretch of Herron’s professional life, he worked in London in the legal department of an employment-issues research firm, copy-editing journal articles, handbooks, and case reports about employment discrimination and wrongful termination. Nights, he wrote detective fiction, and even got some published, but no one bought it. Then he had a breakthrough. “People say write what you know,” Herron says. “So I wrote about people who are failures.” Bob Cratchitting away at job-discrimination case reports, Herron came up with the idea of Slough House, a place where M.I.5 puts bad spies out to pasture. “Sack the useless, and they took you to tribunal for discriminating against useless people,” one character explains. “So the Service bunged the useless into some godforsaken annex and threw paperwork at them, an administrative harassment intended to make them hand in their cards. They called them slow horses. The screw-ups. The losers.” James Bond they are not.

The Slough House novels have been adapted as an Apple TV+ series called, like the first of those novels, “Slow Horses.” It’s slick and sleek and as star-studded as a summer sky. The first season came out last spring, and the second begins this month. Mick Jagger, a Mick Herron fan, recorded its bluesy theme song, “Strange Game.” Kristin Scott Thomas stars as Diana Taverner, Second Desk at M.I.5, with Jonathan Pryce as her long-retired predecessor, David Cartwright, whose grandson River Cartwright, played by the Scottish actor Jack Lowden, is a slow horse trying to kick over the traces. The cast is headed by the inimitable Gary Oldman, as Jackson Lamb. Lamb is an old joe who’s straight out of Dickens, if Dickens had ever invented a character who used the word “twat” all the time.

Even before John le Carré died, nearly two years ago, people had started calling Mick Herron his heir, which is, as publicists say, very selling, but also something of a burden. Herron suspects that le Carré would find his work facetious. Still, that’s not to say there aren’t similarities. A decade ago, Oldman was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of le Carré’s George Smiley in an adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Oldman says Jackson Lamb is Smiley if everything had gone wrong, although, arguably, everything has.

“Tonight at ten, chaos on all fronts for Liz Truss ,” the BBC announced the night I boarded a red-eye to London. “ITV News at Ten” summed up the day’s high jinks in Westminster a little more colorfully: “The deputy chief whip was reported to have left the scene saying, ‘I’m absolutely F-ing furious, I just don’t F-ing care anymore,’ before he resigned, along with the chief whip. But we’ve just been told they have now officially unresigned. The home secretary has, however, definitely gone.” On Channel 4, one presenter was heard off camera calling a fervent Brexiteer a “cunt.” Welcome to Jackson Lamb’s Britain.

I took a bus from Heathrow to Oxford, a city of sandcastles. Herron and his partner, Jo Howard, picked me up by the side of the road in her black Volvo. I was two hours late. It was raining.

“I’m so sorry we’ve missed the morning,” I said, climbing into the back seat: black, white topstitching.

“Not to worry,” Howard said, pulling into traffic as zippy-fast as a taxi-driver.

“We’ll pop over to the house for a bit and then head out?” Herron asked, looking back at me, wonderingly, black bushy eyebrows raised, a pair of commas. I’d barged in on what was meant to be a weekend getaway to the Malvern Hills with Howard’s two grown daughters. They had graciously agreed to let me tag along as far as a book event in Herefordshire, after which Herron and I would take a train back to Oxford, and then he’d turn around and train back out to meet Howard for what was left of the weekend. Howard downshifted for power, weaved left, weaved right, leaned into a turn on rain-soaked streets. She has corn-silk-yellow hair, pale, delicate features, and, faintly, freckles, and she drives, I decided, not like a taxi-driver but like a cop on a cop show circa 1972. Maybe Michael Douglas in “The Streets of San Francisco.”

Herron and Howard live in a brick row house with two white-socked tortoiseshell tabby cats so handsome they could be cat-food models. Howard is an executive-search consultant—O.K., a headhunter—for the publishing industry. It’s her house. The walls are lined with shelves jammed with hardcover books, alphabetized. Herron moved in during the pandemic. “Boris Johnson said no one could go out,” Howard explained. “So Mick said, ‘I guess I’d better move in.’ ” He kept his flat, though, a ten-minute walk away, and he writes there every weekday, padding around the carpet as soundlessly as Hercule Poirot.

“I’ll make some coffee,” Howard announced, and set about clanking away in the kitchen.

In a sitting room that opens out to a magical back garden, Herron and I sat down each to a sofa, one red, one off-white, like valentines. The cats have their own door, a tunnel through the wall and out to the garden, where they pounce on mice scurrying between potted geraniums and glower at squirrels scrabbling up the clematis that’s strangling a slatted wooden fence. Herron was wearing a black button-up shirt over a gray tee, and jeans, and had swapped out black sneakers for slippers at the door. A lot of people had told me that, notwithstanding his denials, Herron must at some point have been a spy. I wasn’t seeing it, but he’s for sure more of a listener than a talker, and he’d be excellent undercover, a man on tiptoe, cat-footed.

Herron was born in Newcastle, one of six children of an optician and a nursery-school teacher. He read whatever he could get his hands on when he was a kid, climbing the shelves from Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald to Agatha Christie and Dick Francis, and then to Dickens, Austen, and John O’Hara.

“I was addicted to narrative,” he said, pouring out a cup of coffee. “Especially short stories—mainlining.” He went to Oxford, studied English, got a job in a library, and wrote poetry. Then his verse dried up. He decided to try crime fiction. He read everything. “I was attracted by the idea of there being scaffolding.” He liked the structure, like a sonnet, or a sonata.

One of the cats appeared out of nowhere. Through the tunnel? There was much talk of the kittens, their kittenish ways.

“Fair description of a weekend is me sitting around talking about the kittens,” Herron said.

“I’ll just run up to finish packing,” Howard called, dashing up the stairs.

He’d written reams of pages only to destroy them. “My early narrators were fairly hapless, useless men,” he recalled. Then he came up with Sarah Tucker, a bored and frustrated out-of-work lawyer living in South Oxford, ambivalent about having children and married to a creep. When a house on Sarah’s street blows up and everyone blames a faulty gas line, she decides to investigate, aided, eventually, by a take-no-prisoners private eye named Zoë Boehm, who runs a detective agency with her hapless and useless but exquisitely sweet husband, Joe Silvermann. “I introduced Joe in order to kill him,” Herron said, guiltily.

With le Carré, if you read him, you have to figure: here is a man who both hated and feared women. Not Herron, whose detective novels are very convincingly narrated by women. In his first book, “Down Cemetery Road” (2003), the action begins at a dinner party. Sarah’s rotten husband has brought home annoying guests from work. Finally, they leave, and she’s left to clean up:

He’d cancel his subscription to the Guardian before using the phrase Women’s Work, but he’d justify not helping her nevertheless. Hard day at the office; long journey back; had to stand all the way from Paddington. . . . And underneath that, no matter what kind of day he’d had, no matter what she’d said to whoever, there’d be that nasty little jingle that she heard all the time these days, although he’d yet to say it aloud: — It’s not as if you do anything else. Is it, Sarah ?

“It’s the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written,” Herron said. A house on his street blew up. And he was Sarah: clever, curious, and painfully thwarted.

On July 7, 2005, as Herron was on his way to work, four suicide bombers set off bombs in London, three on subways and one on a bus. He got off the train at Paddington and was trying to get on the tube when he heard a mysterious sound, a muffled thump. Even before people knew what was going on, he said, “it was like the strange light you get before a storm.” The bombings helped persuade him to turn from detective fiction to spy fiction: bigger canvas, higher stakes.

He poured more coffee. He eyed the kittens. “I’m extremely aware that I’m not competent to write about global issues,” he said. “But one of the things I took from 7/7 is that you don’t have to be an expert to be implicated. We’re all implicated.”

He wrote a bridge novel, called “Reconstruction,” about a siege at a day-care center in South Oxford, which leads the local police to call in antiterrorist agents from M.I.5, including Bad Sam Chapman. (“That was just a name. He wasn’t that bad.”) Herron found that he enjoyed writing about spies. He liked le Carré’s term for them: “joes.”

Two women drinking coffee and sitting on park bench.

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In 2008, he began writing “Slow Horses,” a ticking-clock political thriller in which white nationalists calling themselves the Sons of Albion kidnap a British Muslim standup comic and live-stream an announcement that they intend to cut off his head in forty-eight hours. The only M.I.5 agents who appear able to stop them are led by Jackson Lamb, a disgusting, lumpy, vulgar, chain-smoking Rabelaisian wreck of a man. “He’d been said to resemble Timothy Spall, with worse teeth,” Herron writes. ( Kirkus once referred to him as “Flatulent Jackson Lamb,” but, truly, that’s not the half of it.) Herron’s Oxford mysteries had sold poorly in the United Kingdom and barely at all in the United States. His U.K. publisher, Constable & Robinson, was known for its village mysteries. It had not the least idea what to do with “Slow Horses.” And no one believed that white nationalists were anything to worry about.

The rain pelted the stone patio. Upstairs, Howard wrestled suitcases.

Herron read le Carré as a kid, and the slow-horses books are riddled with nods to the master. In le Carré’s novel “Smiley’s People,” there’s a slovenly, foul-mouthed taxi-driver named J. Lamb. Le Carré’s real name was David Cornwell, and David Cartwright might as well be le Carré himself. His grandson River calls him, affectionately, the O.B., the old bastard. He tells another joe about the books the O.B. used to read to him:

“Conrad, Greene, Somerset Maugham.” “Ashenden.” “You get the picture. For my twelfth birthday he bought me le Carré’s collected works. I can still remember what he said about them.” They’re made up. But that doesn’t mean they’re not true .

“Have you ever met him?” I asked Herron, as Howard came down the stairs.

“I was in the same room with him once,” he offered. At a party.

“And you didn’t go say hello?”

He shook his head.

“Le Carré?” Howard piped up. “I’ve met him.” She’d been trying very hard to stay away, but it was nearly time to leave. “I sat next to him once, twice, at book events,” she said. “Oh, and I’ve got . . .” She crossed the room, pulled “The Night Manager” off a shelf, and flipped to the title page, signed “For Jo, from John le Carré,” and then opened her copy of “The Tailor of Panama,” inscribed “For Jo, really, with all good wishes, from David—really.” The old bastard.

Spy fiction flourished during the Cold War, but that war is over, and Mick Herron is a civilian, so far as anyone knows, writing about espionage in the age of terror: domestic surveillance, homeland security, CCTV, and taking your shoes off to get on an airplane. Le Carré wrote about Moscow rules; Herron added London rules. Moscow rules: watch your back. London rules: cover your ass. The Slough House books are haunted by the Cold War. Lamb is a service legend; at some point, he went undercover in Berlin, and there are veiled hints that he was captured and tortured by the Stasi. He has a mysterious history with the whip-smart Molly Doran, M.I.5’s archivist, who’s in a wheelchair: her legs got blown off. Lamb, differently damaged, came home, Herron writes, “in that blissful break when the world seemed a safer place, between the end of the Cold War and about ten minutes later.”

Le Carré’s George Smiley embodied the Cold War-era decline of the British Empire—upright and betrayed, his disposition of quiet, keep-calm-and-carry-on forbearance a proxy for Britain itself. “Lamb’s position is: I’ve had enough of this, so you can all fuck off,” Herron says. Lamb is Britain in the age of Brexit: angry, embarrassed, and coming apart at the seams.

Herron cleared away the coffee crockery and came back from the kitchen with a handful of treats for the kittens. “Don’t worry,” he whispered to them, kneeling down. “We’ll be back soon.”

Howard rounded up jackets and car keys. Then she remembered one last thing, and switched on the television to set up Netflix for the cat-sitter. The BBC blinked on: a young, shaken reporter stood outside 10 Downing Street. The Prime Minister was about to make an announcement. We sat back down on the sofas, gripped.

“Oi!” Jackson Lamb might have growled from his office on the top floor of Slough House, fishing a cigarette out of one pocket and a lighter out of another. “Tory Spice is on the telly!”

When Truss, at the age of forty-seven, became Prime Minister, The Economist predicted that she’d have “roughly the shelf-life of a lettuce,” and a tabloid started a contest, live-streaming a head of iceberg and asking which would last longer. “You knew where you stood with the lettuce,” Herron said.

Truss stepped up to the lectern and resigned, becoming the shortest-lived Prime Minister in British history. “Supermarket salad is crowned winner,” the Guardian reported later that day. Herron stood up, sighed, and turned off the set.

“I’m a radical feminist, as you know,” Lamb might have said, stubbing out his cigarette. “But the hot flashes always get these old girls in the end.”

The road from Oxford to Ledbury is lined by drystone walls and black-faced sheep. For the longest time, Howard’s car slogged along behind a sluggish gray truck with a single word painted on the back, in red: “Horses.” Howard thumped at the steering wheel, frustrated. “Slow horses,” Herron said, delighted.

Jackson Lamb loves all manner of wordplay. “It’s the only thing he takes pleasure in,” Herron tells me. In one scene, Lamb meets Molly Doran in a church and makes a fuss, moaning and groaning as he settles, wearily, into a pew. Doran turns her wheelchair around to face him:

“Limbs giving you trouble?” she asked, with a hint of sarcasm. “You don’t know the half of it.” He paused. “I said—” “I get it.” “Because you’ve only got half the—” “I get it.”

Lamb owes as much to P. G. Wodehouse as he does to le Carré; he’s got something of the extremity of Gussie Fink-Nottle, Stilton Cheesewright, and Lord Emsworth. The Wall Street Journal compared Herron to Evelyn Waugh. Herron also pays his dues to Dickens, referring, at one point, to Lamb’s secretary, Catherine Standish, as Miss Havisham. Or consider this:

It’s said of Churchill that he’d catnap in an armchair with a teacup in his hand, and when he dropped off the noise of the cup hitting the floor would wake him. He claimed this was all the rest he needed. Jackson Lamb was much the same, the difference being he used a shot glass rather than a teacup and didn’t wake when it fell. Catherine would sometimes find him in the morning, sprawled on his chair like a misplaced squid, the air smelling like water from a vase of week-old flowers.

To play Lamb, Gary Oldman told me, “all I’ve had to do is follow the signposts.” But it’s a brilliant, unmissable performance. He loves playing Lamb. “Me walking around with my greasy hair and my crumpled overcoat,” he said, laughing. “It’s delicious.” He sees Smiley and Lamb as connected: “They’re both disgusted, and they both want to walk away. But they’re addicted, addicted to this life.”

Slough House is bleaker than Bleak House. Also, as readers are told, “Slough House is not in Slough, nor is it a house.” It’s just so far from everything else that it might as well be in Slough. It is, in fact, in London, on Aldersgate Street, next to a Chinese takeout and near the Barbican tube station. (Herron used to walk down Aldersgate on his way to work.) You can find it on Google Maps. “Equally as important as Holmes 221b Baker St. and platform 9¾ at King’s Cross,” an online review read.

“A double yolker!” Herron and Howard shouted out as we passed a pub.

“Two yellow cars,” Herron explained.

Yellow car is a game the slow horses play when they’re very, very bored. You see a yellow car and you say, “Yellow car.” Unless, apparently, you see two.

Slough House / slow horses: that’s just plain wordplay. But to see only the wordplay in Herron’s writing is to miss the lyricism: “The owl flew screaming from the barn, its wingtips bright with flame. For a moment, silhouetted against the blank sky, it was a dying angel, scorched by its own divinity, and then it was just a sooty husk, dropping like an anvil into the nearby trees.” And to focus on the horsing around is to miss the terror. Diana Taverner—“Lady Di,” behind her back—is as fierce and cunning as le Carré’s Karla. She “wore her authority as she might an ermine gown: it kept her warm, and people noticed it.” In one scene, a staffer tells her that an enemy agent has just been assassinated, on her orders:

She took the tablet he offered, read the message on its screen, and smiled. “ Smiert spionam ,” she said. “ . . . Ma’am?” “Ian Fleming,” said Diana Taverner. “Means ‘Death to spies.’ ” And then, because he still looked blank, said, “Google it.”

Early on, when Boris Johnson was still the mayor of London, Herron often drew his characters from life:

Fluffy-haired and youthful at forty-eight, and with a vocabulary peppered with archaic expostulations—Balderdash! Tommy-rot!! Oh my giddy aunt!!!—Peter Judd had long established himself as the unthreatening face of the old-school right, popular enough with the GBP [Great British Public], which thought him an amiable idiot, to make a second living outside Parliament as a rent-a-quote-media-whore-cum-quiz-show-panel-favourite, and to get away with minor peccadilloes like dicking his kids’ nanny, robbing the taxman blind, and giving his party leader conniptions with off-script flourishes.

As the years have rolled by, Herron hasn’t lacked for material.

“I’ve gotten some angry letters from people who accused me of having disdain for Trump,” Herron said. “I think that’s a misreading. I was going for contempt.”

“There’s a Donald Trump Junior?” Lamb asks, incredulous. “And just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse.”

In Ledbury, a half-timbered medieval market town in Herefordshire, Herron and Howard and I checked into the Feathers Hotel, built around 1565 on the post route from Cheltenham to Aberystwyth. In a lobby with antlers on the walls and overstuffed upholstered furniture, we met the writers Sarah Hilary and Andrew Taylor, along with Taylor’s wife, Caroline. We were all going to have a quick dinner before heading to a discussion about crime writing, part of a series called “Ledburied.”

We walked a few doors down to a posh Italian restaurant. The sun set as we pondered the menu.

“Wine?” Hilary asked, effervescent and organized.

“No wine,” Taylor said. “We have to keep our heads.”

It turns out that crime writers like Italian, especially risotto. Mostly, though, the talk was of agents and editors. When Herron first drafted “Slow Horses,” he planned to blow up Slough House. (He kills off characters all the time: “It’s not a thriller if it’s not thrilling.”) But then he decided he might want to stay a little longer in that house and reimagined the ending. The book came out in 2010; a couple of years later, he finished a sequel, “Dead Lions.” This winter, it’s Season 2 of the Apple series. At the time, however, he couldn’t find a publisher in his own country.

He recalled, “One publisher asked, ‘What even is this? Is it a thriller or is it a comedy?’ Also, no one wanted to publish a sequel when they hadn’t published the first book.” Herron figured, O.K., I guess I’ll never be a full-time writer. But then Juliet Grames, who runs the crime imprint at Soho, an independent American publisher, came along. “I read ‘Dead Lions’ and I said, ‘We have to publish this,’ ” Grames told me. Soho bought the rights to “Slow Horses,” too, but, she says, “we could not get people to listen to us about this guy.” Then, in the U.K., Mark Richards, an editor at the distinguished press John Murray, happened to pick up a copy of “Slow Horses” at the Liverpool Street railway station. Richards’s colleagues see him as the “furniture restorer,” because he can look at an unloved, threadbare sofa and spot its quality. He bought the rights to the first two Slough House books. Not long afterward, Britons voted for Brexit and Americans elected Trump. Suddenly, Peter Judd and the Sons of Albion didn’t seem so far-fetched. The Daily Telegraph dubbed “Slow Horses” one of the best spy novels ever written.

The risotto arrived. “P. D. James,” Hilary began, “once showed up to a book event only to find the bookstore closed and on the locked door a sign reading—”

“Event cancelled for lack of interest,” Herron finished.

“And that wasn’t even at the start of her career,” Taylor put in.

To be a writer of genre fiction is to belong to something akin to an honorable medieval guild. Taylor’s newest book, “The Royal Secret,” is the latest in his series of best-selling thrillers set in seventeenth-century London. When Herron was saddled with being called spy fiction’s “best-kept secret,” Taylor wrote a review in which he said that Herron writes like Raymond Chandler, except better. Both Herron and Taylor blurbed Hilary’s spooky novel “Fragile.” Herron called it “a dark river.”

“Hey, I have my new book jacket!” Hilary remembered. She pulled out her phone to show us the spare and beautiful cover of “Blackthorn.” “They made it into two words,” she said. Everyone agreed that had been the right decision, design-wise.

“Don’t you people ever talk about bloody axes and fingerprints and serial killers?” I asked, disappointed.

“Once, someone collapsed while I was giving a reading,” Herron offered. “Or, no, that happened twice.” Fainted. “Or maybe he was asleep?” No one had died, though.

Hilary put down her fork. “People say it, but it’s true. Crime writers get all their gruesomeness out on the page. In person, they’re the nicest people.”

Real estate agent shows couple house made out of a giant pumpkin.

“It’s the romance writers you have to look out for,” Herron said. “Blood on the carpet, those people.”

After dinner, I followed them down a dark, cobbled alley and into Burgage Hall, a packed space noisy with clatter and gossip and smelling of woodsmoke and damp wool. Stacks of books were piled on folding tables where wine and juice had been poured into plastic cups. A lectern had been pushed to a corner. Old men unbuttoned their coats and doffed their caps; old women settled on seats. You could hear the squelch of muck boots and the chattering of knitting needles. “Secrets and Spies” was the evening’s theme. It might have been a garden-club meeting.

In the morning, Howard headed out to go hiking in the Malvern Hills, and Herron and I boarded a train to Oxford. We sat at a laminated table, face to face, watching rain streak the windows as we sped through the sodden countryside. “See It, Say It, Sorted,” the signs above every door read, flashing green pixels.

In the age of terror, everyone’s on the lookout, on trains, buses, and airplanes—not just under surveillance but conducting it. If you see something, say something . Lamb complains, “It’s like everyone’s a fucking spy.”

I’d listened to each of Herron’s novels as audiobooks, performed by wonderfully versatile actors, with AirPods in my ears. I’d felt like a secret agent, eavesdropping. (Julia Franklin, who recorded the Oxford series, and Gerard Doyle and Seán Barrett, who recorded the Jackson Lamb books, all told me they had to stop reading for laughing.) Reading Herron, or listening to him, is like riding on a carrousel and switching animals every time it goes around. You’re in one person’s head, and then you’re in someone else’s, except, unnervingly, you’re hardly ever in Lamb’s. He’s a cipher, forever undercover.

Every passenger who traipsed past us on the train, wetly squeezing down the aisle, was noted by Herron, absently, as if he were tucking them away in a catalogue of humanity. His slow horses come in every type, and they got kicked out of the service for every imaginable screwup. River Cartwright failed a training exercise. Min Harper left a disk labelled “Top Secret” on a train. Louisa Guy lost a gun seller she was tailing. Marcus Longridge, who is Black, is a gambler; and Shirley Dander, of ambiguous sexuality (don’t ask her), is a coke addict. Roderick Ho, a computer whiz played on the Apple series by Christopher Chung, got sent to Slough House because he’s a twit.

Ho is himself a kind of writer, an inventor of fictional worlds; it amazes him that he can “build a man from links and screenshots, launch him into the world like a paper boat, and he’d just keep sailing.” Herron loves Ho, the spy writer lost in a world of his own invention. “There may come a point where I have to let him grow up a bit,” he admitted, “but then I’d probably have to kill him.”

The office banter is brutal: “While Louisa Guy has been known to speculate that Ho occupies a place somewhere on the right of the autism spectrum, Min Harper has habitually responded that he’s also way out there on the git index.” When Longridge insults Peter Judd and Dander warns him that he’s using hate speech, Longridge snaps, “Of course it’s hate speech. I fucking hate him.”

“I’ve had readers who assume I’m waging a war against political correctness,” Herron said, plainly exasperated. “I am not. I’m absolutely all for treating one another decently. I don’t think Lamb’s waging that war, either.” Lamb’s playing with words and taking the piss:

“I let others do the spade work.” He glanced at Marcus. “Just a phrase. Let’s not involve the thought police.” “We’d need a SWAT team,” Marcus muttered.

Lamb’s also trying to get the people who work for him to quit, because he’s worried about them getting killed. Most of what he does is done to save them. When a bad actor sneaks into Molly Doran’s Records Department and she orders him out and he says he doesn’t “take instructions from a crip,” Lamb finds the guy, breaks both of his legs, and asks him, “Who’s the crip now?”

Herron’s phone rang. It was Howard, calling to make sure we’d caught the train, and asking Herron if he could pick up some sneakers she’d forgotten at the house.

“Yes, yes,” Herron said. “Bye, sweetheart.” And to me: “It’s too wet to go walking. She’s gone to the shops.” We stared out at the slashing rain.

Herron also loves writing Catherine Standish, to whom he’s given the most fully developed backstory—a disordered and drunken past, fatally tied to Lamb’s own darkest deeds. “She’s more aware than any of the others how very badly her life could have gone,” Herron said. “I have that sense about my own life.”

In 2017, after the books began to take off, Herron quit his day job. Not long afterward, he went to a sales-and-marketing meeting at John Murray. The name of the series had been changed from the Slough House mysteries to the Jackson Lamb Thrillers. He was shown posters, ads, and merchandise, down to drink coasters printed with Lambisms: “ When am I not full of joie de fucking vivre ?”

“You do realize,” Herron told the execs slowly, “that in the book I’m writing right now I kill him off?”

Silence. Fidgeting. More silence. “You’re having us on, yeah?”

Splashing through flooded tracks, the train spluttered to a halt at Charlbury, a whistle-stop town on the edge of the Cotswolds about twenty minutes from Oxford. A few passengers got on, umbrellas trailing them like tails. The doors closed. The train sat still as stone, rain pattering, wind rattling. Eventually, over the speaker system the conductor said something that no one could understand for the static, leaving everyone as mystified as slow horses stuck on the underground. “Signalling problems,” a character muses in the third of the Slough House books. “These were often caused by heat, when they weren’t caused by cold, or by things being wet, or dry.”

People started mumbling, grumbling, texting. Ten minutes in, the conductor’s voice came back—hollering now—to announce that the brakes were stuck and that it would take at least an hour to get them unstuck. Brexit budget cuts?

Herron and I trudged out of the train and into the rain. The one-room station was closed. There were no buses into town, or anywhere. No Ubers, no Lyfts. No taxi stand. In slickers, we huddled under the station’s overhanging roof with half a dozen other stranded passengers, including a rosy-cheeked young man and his father, wearing long woollen coats. They’d travelled from Worcestershire, and the son, who couldn’t have been much more than twenty, was on his way to London for a job interview, his first.

“You’ll get there,” Herron assured him. “What’s the job?”

“Fund accountancy.”

“Oh, right. Not to worry. It’s not far. You’ll be fine.”

The job candidate nodded gratefully. Everyone tried calling taxi companies, using cell phones like road flares. No one answered. The rain picked up, and then the wind. It grew, suddenly, quite cold. We were late, we were soaked, and now we were freezing.

“When we get into Oxford,” Herron told me, “I’ve arranged for you to be mugged. Then the food poisoning will kick in around four.”

At last, a taxi pulled up. Two women dressed in fur coats and high boots emerged from the train, dry as toast, and climbed inside. Herron and the aspiring fund accountant’s father dashed out into the rain and begged them to take one more passenger. The son squeezed into the back seat. Herron rapped the car window. “Good luck,” he said. “You’ll be great.”

He ran back under the station roof, shivering.

Moscow rules: watch your back. London rules: cover your ass. Slough House rules: everywhere is joe country. Herron rubbed his hands for warmth and tried to wipe the raindrops from his glasses. My notebook was drenched. I asked him why he avoids writing from inside Jackson Lamb’s head, and he said, “Because I don’t want to break him.” The rain fell like a veil. ♦

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For a Hungry Book Critic, Every Word Is a Feast

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The 20 best spy novels of all time

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The 20 best spy novels ever written: The Secret Agent, Jason Bourne and James Bond

From ‘Kim’ to Deighton, le Carré and the modern giants, Jake Kerridge picks the twenty greatest spy novels of all time

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Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901)

Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901)

“Here begins the Great Game,” declares Mahbub Ali when he recruits the young Kimball O’Hara, a happily independent teenage orphan, into the British Secret Service in 1890s India. Ali meant the battle between Britain and Russia for supremacy in Asia; he wasn’t to know that Kim would mark the inauguration of another Great Game – the tradition of espionage-as-entertainment. Aside from its vast influence on later spy fiction, Kipling’s magical novel certainly played a part in the personal mythology of Harold “Kim” Philby, whose extraordinary career would shape the spy novel’s development in the second half of the century.

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Credit: John Collier 

Source: Hi-Story / Alamy

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903)

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903)

Childers, a clerk in the House of Commons and a hero of the Boer War, wrote his only novel as a warning. He wanted the political establishment to realise that Britain lay in greater danger of invasion from Germany than from her old enemy, France. “There is no sensation, only what is meant to be convincing fact,” he declared. At first glacially paced, and always heavier on sailing detail than action, the plot concerns two friends who unmask a fiendish traitor as they cruise their converted lifeboat along the Frisian coast.

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The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907)

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907)

This is a book that demands to be read twice in quick succession: once, quickly, to find out what happens; then again, more slowly, to luxuriate in Conrad’s incomparable sentences. (Most subsequent spy writers were perhaps wise to keep their prose fairly functional.) The agent of the title is the seedy porn shop owner Verloc, who is ordered by a foreign power to blow up Greenwich Observatory, although, in a le Carré-ish twist, the purpose of this terrorist outrage is to frame a group of anarchists. Its ending may be the saddest and most savagely ironical of any in fiction.

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Credit: Graeme Hunter

Source: World Productions

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Enter Richard Hannay, ramrod-backed hero on the run, falsely accused of murder, while himself in pursuit of a master of disguise who wants to steal vital British defence secrets. There was nothing kinky about Buchan – when made a peer, he took the title Baron Tweedsmuir – so if you want a blonde in handcuffs, watch the Hitchcock film. The original novel is an almost entirely woman-free zone, although in its sequels Sir Richard does marry the equally plucky Mary, a nurse and fellow agent. Slightly dim, Hannay still makes a surprisingly effective spy, although he does break his cover whenever he feels like giving a foreigner a good thrashing. Buchan’s novels are easy to patronise, but extremely difficult to better.

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Ashenden, or the British Agent by W Somerset Maugham (1928)

Ashenden, or the British Agent by W Somerset Maugham (1928)

This collection of stories drew closely on Maugham’s own experiences as an intelligence officer in Europe during the First World War. Half of the original draft allegedly had to be burnt after Winston Churchill declared that it would be in breach of the Official Secrets Act. Maugham broke new ground in conveying the drudgery of spying, for all its periodic excitements. John le Carré declared him “the first person to write about espionage in a mood of disenchantment and almost prosaic reality”. The mood was too much for Goebbels, who denounced the book for its typically British cynicism.

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Credit: George Konig

Source: Rex

Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler (1940)Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler (1940)

Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler (1940)

The hero is Graham, an English engineer vital to the successful rearmament of the Turkish Navy. On the voyage home from Istanbul, he tries to work out which of his fellow passengers must be the Nazi agent trying to assassinate him. Like most Ambler protagonists, Graham is hopelessly ill-suited to being a spy; but, thanks to the assistance of an unexpectedly decent socialist, he comes good. Ambler was the first writer to use the spy novel as a vehicle for left-of-centre sympathies, but he was not remotely po-faced about it: in this novel, the obligatory nice Lefty admits that he only became a socialist to annoy his wife.

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Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes (1942)

Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes (1942)

MacInnes, who wrote more than 20 spy novels, would probably advise any budding espionage writers looking for fieldwork that the next best thing is to marry a spy. Her husband, Gilbert Highet, was an agent for MI6 as well as an eminent Oxford classicist. This, her second novel, concerns a British intelligence officer who tries to spy on Nazis in Brittany by impersonating a French local for whom he happens to be a dead ringer. MacInnes pulls off this difficult literary conceit, making you believe that the interloper can really fool his doppelganger’s mother, fiancée and mistress. So authentic was the novel’s depiction of espionage behind enemy lines that it was used to train real-life Allied spies.

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Credit: Bettman

From Russia, with Love Ian Fleming (1957)

From Russia, with Love by Ian Fleming (1957)

The fifth and best Bond novel. You wouldn’t know it from watching Robert Shaw and Sean Connery in the film but when Red Grant tries to shoot Bond on board the Orient Express, our hero stops the bullet with a handy copy of an Eric Ambler novel. It could be read as a metaphor for the way Fleming scuttled the gritty reality that Ambler had brought into the genre. But for all his books’ absurdities, Fleming has many fine qualities. As Ambler himself put it, “Critics rarely remark on how well written the James Bond stories are. I suppose that with a man as civilised and amusing as Mr Fleming, good writing is taken for granted.”

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Source: Film Stills

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (1958)

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (1958)

Greene made his reputation in the Thirties with thrillers noted for the sort of grimness that is usually described as “realistic”, but this later book, written after he had actually worked for British Intelligence, suggests he came to feel that a spirit of irreverent farce was more fitting. Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana, reluctantly agrees to spy for the British to fund the extravagances of his daughter Milly (who, in an unmistakably Greene-ish touch, complains that she’ll lose her faith if she doesn’t get the gifts she’s prayed for) and ends up inventing reports when he can’t find anything out. Castro complained that it dealt with Batista’s Cuba too frivolously, but it’s really British Intelligence that’s being sent up something rotten.

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Credit: Moviestore

Source: Alamy

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré (1963)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré (1963)

When the young David Cornwell, an intelligence officer working for MI6, published his pseudonymous third novel, it was hailed as the first work of fiction to present the business of espionage as it really was. Le Carré himself would say that this was precisely what the book didn’t do. As he once told me: “My service passed it, on the grounds it was not reflective of the truth, and gave away no secrets.” It is better regarded as a great feat of imagination. Although le Carré has written many fine novels in the ensuing half-century, he has never quite recaptured anything as thrillingly transgressive as the cynicism of his anti-hero Leamas, who describes the rest of the Secret Service as “people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives”.

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A Taste for Death by Peter O’Donnell (1969)

A Taste for Death by Peter O’Donnell (1969)

Definitely not to be confused with the P D James novel of the same name, this is instead the highlight of a series of novels about Miss Modesty Blaise, underworld-boss turned freelance enforcer, employed by Sir Gerald Tarrant of the British Secret Service. Modesty, who began life in a comic strip that ran in the Evening Standard for 38 years, is often described as a female Bond but is in fact a much more interesting character inspired by a young Balkan refugee O’Donnell met while serving in Persia in the war. A Taste for Death takes Modesty and her sidekick Willie to Panama and Algeria, with a finale in an abandoned fort in the Sahara. Progressive readers will be glad to hear that, in this one, Modesty doesn’t resort to her favourite trick: distracting baddies by taking off her top.

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Seventeen Moments of Spring by Yulian Semyonov (1969)

Seventeen Moments of Spring by Yulian Semyonov (1969)

It seems only fair to pick a novel from the other side of the Iron Curtain, but Seventeen Moments of Spring is far from a token inclusion. It’s one of the most suspenseful thrillers ever written. Semyonov composed it at the instigation of Yuri Andropov, the KGB chief who was on a mission to redeem the dismal reputation of the Soviet intelligence services. It’s set in the final weeks of the Second World War when Russian agent Maxim Isaev, disguised as a Nazi official, is trying to prevent a peace deal between the Germans and the Americans. The book spawned one of the Soviet Union’s most popular television series in the Seventies, and Isaev has become a folk hero in Russia. Propaganda at its most entertaining.

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Other Paths to Glory by Anthony Price (1974)

Other Paths to Glory by Anthony Price (1974)

Price’s novel is about connecting the dots between two types of warfare. Somebody is murdering survivors of the Battle of the Somme as well as the historians who have been talking to them; the crimes are somehow connected with a summit between nuclear powers. Our hero, the reluctant but brilliant spy David Audley, unravels a plot convoluted even by Price’s standards. The dialogue is superbly comic and there is a wonderful sense of history as an almost living thing, and of the nobility of historians who feel obliged to seek out the truth, no matter how unpalatable.

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The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (1980)

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (1980)

In the Seventies, Ludlum suffered briefly from what may have been the most profitable bout of amnesia in history. It inspired him to create the character of Jason Bourne, a man with no memory but outstanding survival skills, which become very useful as he traverses the globe to find out not only who he is but also why both the CIA and someone called Carlos the Jackal want to kill him. Despite Ludlum’s dogged refusal to lapse into plausibility, any niggling critical doubts the reader may have will be crushed by the sheer power of his storytelling. The Matt Damon films do this and its two sequels justice, but beware novels written under Ludlum’s name since his death.

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Credit: Jasin Boland

Source: Universal Pictures / AP

Berlin Game by Len Deighton (1983)

Berlin Game by Len Deighton (1983)

Fleming made spy fiction globally popular, but it took Deighton in the Sixties with novels such as The IPCRESS File to make it hip. His finest work, though, came later, in the Eighties, with this trilogy (completed by Mexico Set and London Match) about the disillusioned SIS agent Bernard Samson. Less exuberant than his early books but more subtle, Berlin Game is a terrific feat of plotting that out-le-Carrés le Carré in its sardonic portrait of Secret Service office politics. Tarantino (who had Max Cherry read a copy in Jackie Brown) should hurry up and film it, like he said he would.

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Credit: David Rose

Los Alamos by Joseph Kanon (1997)

Los Alamos by Joseph Kanon (1997)

The best spy novels used to play on their readers’ concerns about contemporary events. In the past couple of decades, however, the boom in historical fiction has brought a proliferation of faux-period pieces in the espionage genre. Alan Furst, William Boyd and Robert Harris have all written fine examples, but none of them quite beats Kanon. This, his first novel, is set in 1945, when intelligence officer Michael Connolly is dispatched to the officially non-existent Los Alamos to investigate whether the murder of a Manhattan Project security officer is just a crime of passion or has something to do with a leak.

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The Company by Robert Littell (2002)

The Company by Robert Littell (2002)

Spanning 45 years in 900 pages, Littell’s behemoth manages to do everything that Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost attempted, but it’s a lot more reader-friendly. The Company tells the story of four CIA spies who encounter everybody from Kim Philby and the Kennedy brothers to Reagan, Putin and eventually a Bin Laden-esque villain in Afghanistan (presciently, as Little wrote it before 9/11). Littell lacks le Carré’s moral ambiguity (one character repudiates that famous “cowboys and Indians” passage), but he is the closest thing to an American equivalent.

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Decoded by Mai Jia (2002)

Decoded by Mai Jia (2002)

A literary superstar in China, Mai Jia’s multi-million-selling novels draw on his past in the Chinese security services. Decoded is the tale of an autistic genius who becomes a brilliant codebreaker. Readers expecting constant thrills and spills or Imitation Game-style sentimentalisation of a troubled savant’s life will be disappointed. Decoded is riddling, dreamlike and digressive, in the manner of classical Chinese fiction, but you end up wanting to decipher its mysteries as fervently as its protagonist tackles his codes.

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Fever and Spear by Javier Marías (2002)

Fever and Spear by Javier Marías (2002)

Marías, perhaps Spain’s greatest living novelist, began his career as a translator, and most of his novels still centre on translators: “people who are renouncing their own voices”. The same might be said of spies, and the parallels have preoccupied Marías in his great Your Face Tomorrow trilogy. This, the first volume, introduces Deza, a Spanish translator employed by a mysterious offshoot of MI6 that analyses people’s faces and mannerisms for clues about what they might do next. Vicious violence unfolds with mesmerising, Proustian slowness.

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Slow Horses by Mick Herron (2010)

Slow Horses by Mick Herron (2010)

This is the first volume of what I hope will become a long series set in Slough House, a sort of Siberia-on-Thames to which MI6 workers who have blotted their copybooks – for being alcoholic, sleeping with the wrong person or leaving secret files on the Tube – are exiled to do donkey work. The disgraced spies trade acidulous put-downs – each topped by their monstrous bully of a boss, Jackson Lamb – as they try to redeem their reputations. A useful corrective in the era of television’s superheroic Spooks, Herron’s superb novels suggest that the most important secret spies are hiding is that they’re really just like us.

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Why John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the ultimate spy novel

review of spy novels

As it turns 60, Adam Scovell celebrates the gritty power of this tale of a disillusioned British agent who's the opposite of James Bond, which was rooted in Le Carré's own experiences in espionage.

Espionage has a split personality in British culture. On the one hand, it's seen as a glamorous, adventurous spectacle, a vision emerging largely from author Ian Fleming and his most famous creation, James Bond, who first appeared in the 1953 novel Casino Royale. On the other, it is something far less alluring; a grittier yet bureaucratic world found in novels by the likes of Graham Greene and Len Deighton, films like Anthony Asquith's Orders to Kill (1958), and television series such as James Mitchell's Callan (1967-72) and Ian Mackintosh's The Sandbaggers (1978-80).

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One British author tilted the image of espionage in this moodier direction more than any other. British writer John Le Carré arguably had as much impact on the perception of spying as Fleming, but with a depiction of it that was quieter and closer to the bone. While Le Carré did this over an astonishing 50-year career and more than two dozen novels, it's his third novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that cemented this vision effectively, resulting in one of the great examples of post-war British fiction, spy or otherwise. Sixty years on from its publication in September 1963, the novel still retains its power.

Getty Images John le Carré in the mid-1960s, by which point he had given up his career in real-life espionage and become a writer full-time (Credit: Getty Images)

Set against the backdrop of a divided, post-war Berlin, the novel tells the story of disillusioned British agent Alec Leamas. Leamas has failed in his mission as head of the West Berlin office of the British Secret Service, and after witnessing the murder of his last undercover operative, Riemick, as he tries to cross the border, he returns to Britain, and requests leave. However, the mysterious Control, the head of "The Circus" – Le Carré's fictional nickname for MI6, based on its offices' setting in London's Cambridge Circus – offers him one last mission before retirement.

Leamas is to purportedly defect to East Germany in order to sow disinformation regarding enemy party member Hans-Dieter Mundt, the man responsible for Riemick’s murder. But, as with all espionage, nothing is what it seems, and, as the mission becomes complicated by Leamas' cover story, namely his relationship with British Communist Party secretary Liz Gold, tension mounts as to whether he will complete it – or if he is really even meant to.

Amidst the ideological battleground of the Cold War, The Spy transcended the conventional espionage thriller, revealing the raw, gritty reality of field operations undertaken during the period of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and smuggled microdots. However, Le Carré was less interested in merely dramatising the various nuts and bolts of basic tradecraft – though he certainly did so in more detail than any other writer at the time – and was more concerned with questioning the very act of spying itself, emphasising the amoral techniques used in the invisible battle between East and West intelligence services.

How it manages to be so authentic

Le Carré's background as a real-life intelligence worker could be felt in the authenticity of his work, especially The Spy, as well as in its decidedly pessimistic tone. Born David Cornwell, Le Carré served in British intelligence from the late 1940s, when, for his National Service, he was stationed in the Austrian city of Graz; with his expertise in German, he helped to interrogate defectors from East Germany.

He then returned to study at Oxford, where he became an informer for MI5 on Communist student groups, before joining the agency full time when he left. And it was when working in the dirty world of phone-tapping and break-ins that he began writing – under a pseudonym, as was a service requirement.

He transferred to MI6 in 1960 and became attached to the embassy in Bonn. The Spy was the last novel he published before he was, like many, compromised by double agent Kim Philby's infamous 1963 betrayal of his fellow British secret service officers. Philby revealed their covers to the KGB, ending le Carré's intelligence career for good.

However, even without Philby breaking his cover, the chances are that Le Carré would have been found out anyway. Reviewers of The Spy, in particular those from the other side of the Iron Curtain, had cottoned on that the author was likely a genuine intelligence worker. Le Carré, in typical troublemaker fashion, had copies of the book smuggled to countries in the Eastern Bloc, being curious as to how it would be received. Their largely favourable reviews made him a little uneasy, while some saw the obvious reality behind the fiction. Russian critic V Voinov was the earliest to suggest in his review of The Spy for the Moscow-based arts paper Literaturnaya Gazeta that its accuracy could only have been achieved by someone with a history inside the intelligence world.

Alamy Richard Burton and Claire Bloom in the 1965 film adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which stood in contrast to the James Bond films (Credit: Alamy)

Of course, the almost mundane level of detail in the book meant those after more Bond-ish spectacles may have been left wanting. The Times review of the period, for example, bemoaned that there was "too much description and not enough action". Most reviews, however, were positive and even the previous sage of espionage fiction Graham Greene admitted it was "the best spy story I have ever read".

The firsthand knowledge, grim atmosphere, and complex morality all lent the novel an air of realism, making it stand apart from the imaginative exploits of other spy fiction. It was truly a turning point for the genre, building on groundwork laid by Deighton and Greene novels such as The Ipcress File (1962) and Our Man in Havana (1958), but pushing the boundaries with regards to the credibility of its narrative and melancholy of its tone.

Why it's really about loneliness

Equally refreshing is the fact that le Carré's protagonists are not the dashing heroes of typical spy narratives; instead, they grapple with ethical dilemmas, are haunted by personal sacrifices, and left run down and poverty-stricken by the relentless psychological toll of their work. Leamas is genuinely one of British fiction's most hopeless and pessimistic characters.

This is best evidenced by the fact that Richard Burton was cast as the character in Martin Ritt's 1965 film adaptation of the book. Whereas the concurrent 007 on screen was smooth, panther-like Sean Connery, in his early 30s, Leamas was middle-aged, with the toll his work had taken written on Burton's worn face, the result of the actor's hell-raising lifestyle and drinking. Indeed, the choice of Burton proved a stroke of brilliance in the casting.     

"The story of The Spy was really a story of loneliness…" Le Carré suggested in a 1974 interview. Through the stark narrative, readers are exposed to the duplicitous nature of Cold War power struggles, where allegiances shift, and trust is a rare commodity. For Le Carré, loneliness and spying go hand in hand, simply because no one can be trusted.

The Spy was Le Carré's third novel after Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962). Both of those books preceding it were an unusual mixture of spy novel and crime thriller, though leant more toward the latter than the former, in spite of introducing one of fiction's most popular and enigmatic spooks, George Smiley. He is undoubtedly Le Carré's most popular character, due to the Karla trilogy of novels: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley's People (1979).

The character also conjures visions of actor Alec Guinness thanks to two celebrated BBC adaptations in 1979 and 1982. Though The Spy is still essentially a Smiley novel, his presence is that of a ghostly ringmaster, seen and mentioned only a handful of times. Whereas Le Carré's Smiley-heavy novels show the narratives more explicitly from his perspective, The Spy more accurately reflects Smiley's place in wider society; unseen, quietly manipulative, playing long games behind the scenes that no one individual pawn can understand.

"The novel's merit, then – or its offence, depending where you stood – was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible," said le Carré. His endeavour to play it straight did not endear him to his MI6 peers any more than to the enemy. In his 2016 memoir The Pigeon Tunnel, he recalled one dinner party, only a few years after The Spy's publication, during which a former colleague cornered him and gave him a piece of his mind: "'You bastard, Cornwell,' a middle-aged MI6 officer, once my colleague, yells down the room at me as a bunch of Washington insiders gather for a diplomatic reception hosted by the British Ambassador," he wrote. "'You utter bastard.' He wasn't expecting to meet me, but now he has done he's glad of the opportunity to tell me what he thinks of me for insulting the honour of the Service…". The mirror le Carré held up to the service may have made former colleagues wince, but it certainly made for great fiction. 

Alamy Alec Guinness as le Carré's most famous spy George Smiley; Smiley makes only  a shadowy appearance in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Credit: Alamy)

Yet, underneath the brutally accurate portrayal of what spying involved, The Spy is really a novel about a lasting, even defiant humanism in the face of battling ideologies, all told through pitch-perfect characterisation. It's the whole point of le Carré's work in the Cold War period: no one comes out clean from espionage work, even those who defy their Whitehall, Washington or Kremlin overlords when their conscience finally begins to itch. It's the likely reality that so annoyed his former colleagues, and the novel is all the better for unflinchingly addressing questions around the ethics of espionage.

As The Spy celebrates its 60th anniversary, it resonates as powerfully today as it did in the midst of the Cold War, especially as old divisions reappear and global crises follow one after another. The novel's credibility is key to the enduring power of le Carré's storytelling, even if its overall truth is an uncomfortable one to accept. As he wrote in the book, "Intelligence work has one moral law – it is justified by results". What really is the price of public safety? Le Carré was too great and mature a writer to offer up any easy or comforting answers.  

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review of spy novels

Espionage Book Recommendations From a Former CIA Spy

Brittany butler on spy reads and how they hold up to actual intelligence work..

When you work at the CIA, you’re taught that everything you do is a secret. You need to be invisible. But when I sit down to read a spy novel, it’s difficult to divorce my experiences from what I’m reading. I’ve had some courageous former CIA colleagues tackle both fiction and nonfiction and I’ve been impressed. But what I find fascinating is when authors manage to capture the true essence of espionage after having never worked in intelligence. Below is by no means a comprehensive list of spy thrillers and nonfiction works. It is a sampling of the spy books that I’ve picked up over the years and my thoughts on how they hold up against real spy work.

review of spy novels

The Kill Artist by Daniel Silva

There is a reason why Silva is truly one of the greats. He nails the world of espionage on his first try, providing context and clarity to the complex Arab-Israeli war that is generations in the making. He provides a cast of highly entertaining characters to help you navigate this world (my favorite is Julian, the art dealer!). The only drawback is that he paints the woman in the stereotypical role that most men who write spy novels do—a sexual plaything who uses sex to get to the terrorist. While I enjoyed my first ride with Gabriel Allon, I’m excited to see how Silva’s female characters evolve in his books over the course of his series.

review of spy novels

Red Widow by former CIA officer, Alma Katsu

Katsu delivers a first-rate novel using two intelligent female spies to deliver an accurate picture of the world of espionage. As a former CIA targeter, I appreciated her attention to the tricky case officer-asset relationship and the moral dilemmas that develop while running assets. The fact that the book is set in Russia’s division is an added bonus, especially with the Russia-Ukrainian war unfolding. Readers will get an insider look into what’s happening behind the scenes at the CIA with one of America’s longtime foes.

review of spy novels

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

They don’t call Follet the true master of storytelling for nothing. I found myself completely immersed in this spy tale as Lucy (the housewife), Faber (the German spy), and Bloggs (a professor turned MI5 agent) navigate the end of WWII. ⁠Originally published in 1978, I cannot think of a more relevant or poignant spy novel that has been written since.⁠ I finished this book in one week because I could NOT put it down and found myself mourning for the characters and wanting to be drawn back into their tale even after I finished the last page.⁠ The best part of this novel is that the heroine was a woman and a mother—a literary work that was truly before its time. Now I’m onto Follett’s latest spy thriller.

review of spy novels

The Nightingal e by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah tells the story of two sisters, Isabelle and Vianne in France during World War II and their struggle to survive and resist the German occupation of France. This is absolutely one of my favorite spy novels ever because it exposes female heroics in war. These two women were unbelievably brave and reading what they went through made my heart hurt, especially after knowing that women during this time got little to no credit for their wartime contributions. Men got the credit while women fought in the shadows, and it is still this way.

review of spy novels

Red Sparrow by former CIA officer, Jason Matthews

One of the first things you learn when you attend the CIA’s training facility, the Farm, is how to conduct a Surveillance Detection Route (SDR). Matthews teaches you about this in the beginning chapters of his spy thriller set in Russia in the present day through his male protagonist, Nate, a CIA officer.

Although I was really surprised by how he portrayed the female intelligence officer.  The Russian intel officer, Dominika is a sexual dominatrix who masturbates with her grandmother’s hairbrush and is trained as a seductress to pry men for intelligence—the way men have been portraying female intelligence officers for generations. To Matthews credit, Russians are rumored to use female intelligence officers like this so it’s not entirely outlandish. But honestly, I expected more from Matthews who knows better. I would have loved to see him portray a female intelligence officers for how they really are—women who employ the same tools, tradecraft and intellect as their male counterparts.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

This was a raw, intimate portrayal of women in espionage that can easily be compared with what it’s like to be a female spy today. The descriptions of World War II era espionage were extremely interesting and riveting. And then to learn that it was based on real female spies!! I love that Quinn shed light on female spies who fought for France’s liberation from the Nazis. I highly suggest this book if you are interested in female centric stories and female empowerment!

review of spy novels

A Most Clever Girl  by Stephanie Thorton

Thorton does a great job talking about the skills and attributes of a female spy. She nails how important it is to be able to read body language and gauge someone’s emotions and feelings while they talk something my former CIA boss brilliantly referred to as emotional intelligence. Thorton is smart in how she describes the careful dance between gaining trust and manipulation. ⁠But I didn’t love the way the female protagonist (Elizabeth) fell in love with her Russian handler (Levin) and readily agreed to spy on behalf of the Communists in the months leading up to WWII. I often was confused, wondering why Elizabeth would be willing to betray her country. I didn’t find her love interest (Levin, her Russian handler) a loveable character, so it was difficult for me to fight for Elizabeth and understand her choices. ⁠That being said, Thorton is a great novelist, and her writing alone will have you reading until the end to find out what happens to Elizabeth and whether she must face the consequences of her life choices.

review of spy novels

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright

This was required reading before I went to do targeting work in CTC’s Pakistan-Afghanistan department in 2011. It describes the birth of al-Qa’ida and terrorists Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and how their movement led to the deadliest terrorist attacks on American soil. I would urge anyone looking to work at the CIA or other intelligence organization to pick up this book. It’s important to understand the events that led up to 9/11 so that history does not repeat itself.

review of spy novels

The Art of Intelligence by Henry Crumpton

Did you know that the CIA’s paramilitary officers were the first ones to land in Afghanistan after 9/11? In Crumpton’s book, you’ll learn about the vital role that the CIA played in leading the counterterrorism campaign against the Taliban and al-Qa’ida. I can think of no better book to read if you’re interested in learning how the CIA wages its wars today. ⁠

review of spy novels

First Casualty by Toby Harnden

Mike Spann is one of the first eight CIA officers who was the first to land in Afghanistan after 9/11, was already a hero when I arrived in CTC’s Pakistan Afghanistan division in 2011. But Harden’s tale breathed new life into the conflict that I thought I knew everything about. His account of CIA’s war against al-Qa’ida and the Taliban is well-researched and credible. After the August 2021 withdraw of American troops after a very long war, I think it’s important to understand the stories of these brave Americans that gave up so much to avenge 9/11 to ensure that it never happens again.

review of spy novels

Life Undercover by Amaryllis Fox

You’ll never get a more accurate portrayal of what life is like in the CIA as a young woman. Fox pulls back the veil on how insane it is that at 20+something years old with little to no life experience, you’re charged with meeting terrorists and arms dealers, trying to uncover the details of the next 9/11 in some of the most dangerous places on earth.⁠ Fox is daring in her memoir about what her life was like at CIA, and honestly, I’m shocked that she was able to publish this! This is well-written and exposes some of the hard truths about the moral dilemmas that modern spies are faced with. This memoir is definitely worth your time if you’ve ever had a hunch that you wanted to get involved in spy work. ⁠

review of spy novels

The Unexpected Spy by Tracey Walder

The Unexpected Spy by Tracey Walder is an unprecedented look at what it was like to work in one of the CIA’s most closely guarded programs. Walder is a true American hero who spent her weekends and holidays supporting counterterrorism efforts in the most dangerous parts of the Middle East. Her work was vital to our post-9/11 efforts to root out the Taliban and al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan. ⁠

She often spent her nights and weekends glued to a screen, watching footage of the men who trained and provided safe haven to the 9/11 hijackers. I respect this woman a great deal. She gives readers a glimpse into what spy-work is actually like and will inspire women everywhere who are interested in a career in the field. A must-read! ⁠

review of spy novels

Breaking Cover by former CIA officer (and my former boss) Michelle Rigdby Assad

If you ever were or are interested in a career at CIA, this should be required reading. You need to know what you’re getting into, and Assad does not hold back. ⁠The CIA is looking for people who are walking contradictions. They want people who are honest but can lie. They want people who have never broken the law but are willing to do so in other countries. They are looking for people who are honest but can manipulate. ⁠If you have ever wondered what the life of a spy is really like, do yourself a favor and pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed. ⁠

review of spy novels

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review of spy novels

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The 27 Best Spy Novels Ever Written To Read In Your Free Time

  • March 5, 2022

The best spy novels are the stories that keep us guessing right along with the protagonist to uncover the truth, get to the bottom of the conspiracy, and outwit and outthink the antagonist. Spy novels cover all areas of the world. A good spy novel is exciting, no matter what time it is set or how long ago it was written. From World War II to the modern-day, a good spy thriller does not let you put it down. If you are looking for a good spy story, the following books make up some of the best spy fiction in the spy thriller genre.

Best Spy Novels

Best Spy Novels

1. tinker, tailor, soldier, spy (john le carré).

Occasionally referred to as the best espionage fiction ever written, this book is near the top of most fiction lists, not just spy thrillers. Espionage thrillers are known for their layers of conspiracy, twists, lies, moles, snitches, and mys t ery . This book does those things better than most. It stands out among other espionage novels because its depth and layers were so perfectly intertwined that the average reader could not pull ahead of the protagonist.

This is the story of George Smiley, a retired spy, pulled back into the game to figure out who the mole is within the British Secret Intelligence Service. In a story all about betrayal and trust, Smiley has to suspect everyone of being the mole within Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, including those who he has known, worked with, and trusted for years.

Buy Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Here

review of spy novels

2. The Alice Network (Kate Quinn)

This story is more than a spy thriller set in the era of World War II. When Charlie (Charlotte) and her mother go overseas so that Charlie can have a secret abortion, Charlie decides to seek out her cousin she has not seen in years, who went missing.

Rose was part of the Alice Network, a group of female spies. Following clues and working with a colleague of Rose’s, Charlie quickly finds herself obsessed with learning the truth of what happened to her cousin, all while dealing with her heavy emotional issues and what she has been going through personally. This is not only a spy novel but also a piece of female fiction that depicts women as strong, tough, and determined.

review of spy novels

3. The Secret Agent (Joseph Conrad)

This novel is a classic among spy thrillers. Set in 1907, it tells the tale of a Russian spy living a quiet life in London, putting his work behind him. He is an older man who runs a small shop, and he seems completely unassuming. This could not, however, be further from the truth.

We soon find out that Adolf, our main character , is a spy working for yet another country and is an anarchist who will do anything to complete the missions he is given. A bumbling secret agent, this man is dangerous and more than capable of causing great turmoil.

This is more than a brilliant Russian spy novel. Joseph Conrad is one of those insightful spy novelists who can carefully and seamlessly weave emotion and humanity into his espionage novels, making them all the more gripping to read.

Buy The Secret Agent Here

review of spy novels

4. The Ipcress File (Len Deighton)

This is one of the most technical and detailed espionage novels to have been written. Written at the height of the Cold War, this is the story of a British secret agent looking for a missing biochemist who could spell doom for everyone.

This book is wonderful in that the authentic espionage tradecraft employed throughout can pull you right into the story and make you believe that you are reading a top-secret document rather than a novel. The secret service of Britain, the Cold War, the Soviets, submarines, nuclear warfare, you will find it all in this novel.

Buy The Ipcress File Here

review of spy novels

5. A Coffin for Dimitrios (Eric Ambler)

A classic and known as one of the best spy novels of all time, this book goes much deeper than just an espionage novel. This tells the story of Europe as it adapted to the social, environmental, and political climate of World War I and II.

It tells the story, not of a spy but a writer. Charles hears about Dimitrios, a dead master criminal, and decides to delve into the story of this legend, unknowingly putting himself in grave danger in the process. This is just as much literary history as it is a spy book.

Buy A Coffin for Dimitrios Here

review of spy novels

6. The Secrets We Kept (Lara Prescott)

This is another look at females in the spy world. During the Cold War, a pair of women work to get the novel  Doctor Zhivago  into Russia by any means necessary. The book is believed to contain the secret to ending the war. This story drives home the notion of the power of women, the power of books, and the power of determination.

Buy The Secrets We Kept Here

review of spy novels

7. American Spy (Lauren Wilkinson)

This is the story of Marie, a Black female spy who is sent in to take down communism during the Cold War. This unassuming but tenacious agent is faced with peril and difficult moral decisions. As a young agent with the FBI, she is not sure she is cut out for the job given to her, but she is determined to do her very best.

This book about an unlikely spy gives us a look at someone we do not usually think of when we think of a secret agent. A young, Black American woman is the protagonist in this rare role in the genre . This book is just as much historical fiction as a spy novel.

Buy American Spy Here

review of spy novels

8. Crisis (Frank Gardner)

When a British Intelligence officer is killed, Luke is sent into the jungles of Columbia to investigate. This is a nail-biter of a spy thriller as Luke ends up running from the cartel, finding clues that he never would have suspected, and is trying to survive long enough to finish his mission and get back home.

Buy Crisis Here

review of spy novels

9. Agent Running (John le Carré)

This is a story about how time changes people and how people deal with those changes. John le Carre perfectly describes the life of Nat, a retired agent runner who figures that his years in the game of espionage are long over. Having to come out of retirement due to a threat by Moscow, Nat has to face danger and solve the mysteries presented to him.

Buy Agent Running Here

review of spy novels

10. An Officer and a Spy (Robert Harris)

Georges is a military soldier in Paris in the late 1800s, assigned to look after a convicted spy who was exiled. The story is so great that it keeps the readers flipping the pages to see what is coming next.

Buy An Officer and a Spy Here

review of spy novels

11. The Quiet American (Graham Greene)

This is a classic Vietnam novel that depicts a British writer living in the foreign country of Vietnam and writing about his experiences. He meets a young CIA agent who has just arrived in Saigon, and they could not be more opposite of each other. The Brit, Fowler, having lived in Vietnam as long as he has, is full of pessimism and doubt, while the young CIA agent is full of hope and patriotic notions.

Buy The Quiet American Here

review of spy novels

12. The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen)

This is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and has won over a dozen other awards with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications.

A man who is well versed in the art of interrogation and torture sees the tables turned on him when the communist sympathizer is captured and exposed and put through the same sort of torture and treatment during interrogation. This is more than just the story of the situation in Vietnam.

Buy The Sympathizer Here

review of spy novels

13. SS-GB (Len Deighton)

This story features Detective Inspector Archer, and the storyline is a bit uncomfortable but could have been possible, nonetheless.

This book imagines Britain under the control of Germany at the end of World War II. Archer engages in an espionage battle in this “what if” book that hits a bit close to home.

Buy SS-GB Here

review of spy novels

14. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (John le Carre)

Based on his own experience with the British Intelligence Unit, this author recreates his professional and private life for this novel about a spy sent in as a defector to bring down the German Intelligence Unit.

This is the third book by this prolific author that has made him truly famous. His work brings international intrigue to the genre, and his writing gives you the feeling that you are just reading a nonfiction novel. His own experience and his knowledge of undercover agents, espionage, and the military lend a sense of realism to his work.

Buy The Spy Who Came in From the Cold Here

review of spy novels

15. Secret Service (Tom Bradby)

This book is more than just a spy novel—this is also a psychological thriller novel. Kate is a British agent who discovers that the Prime Minister’s life is in jeopardy, and one of the people who may be replacing him is a Russian mole.

Not sure if she should believe her inclinations, Kate is thrown into a mentality that leaves her questioning herself. She is also trying to deal with other personal issues, stretching her thin and making her wonder if she is on the right track with her wild idea that the Prime Minister is in danger.

Buy Secret Service Here

review of spy novels

16. Red Sparrow (Jason Matthews)

This is another novel written by someone with real-life experience. Retired CIA operative Jason Matthews tells the story of a ballet dancer whose career ends due to an unexpected injury. Drafted into the “Sparrow School” of Russia, she is taught to seduce enemies and get information.

She can outsmart all of her conquests until she tries to seduce Nathan Nash, a CIA operative. This agent begins to play mind games with her, and a sexy tale of betrayal and seduction follows suit. This book is part of the brilliant Red Sparrow trilogy.

Buy Red Sparrow Here

review of spy novels

17. The Hunt for the Red October (Tom Clancy)

Nearly every reader has heard of Tom Clancy and the character Jack Ryan. This was Ryan’s debut story, and this is the book that launched Tom Clancy’s career. A film was also adapted from this book featuring Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery.

This story tells the tale of an underwater chase between submarines owned by Russia and the United States. Both nations were desperately seeking possession of the Red October missile submarine, a grave matter with everything at stake as the two nations battled it out from beneath the surface of the sea.

Buy The Hunt for the Red October Here

review of spy novels

18. The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan)

This is a book that has a little bit of everything. There is action, mystery , murder, and an assassination plot. A bored Londoner gets his world quickly turned upside down when a spy enters his London home to warn him of a murder plot so big that it could cause war between England and Germany. That spy who came with a warning is dead inside the resident’s apartment just days later.

The bored tenant, Richard, was forced to navigate his next move as the reality started to sink in and allowed him to learn the truth.

Buy The Thirty-Nine Steps Here

review of spy novels

19. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)

You may think of Jason Bourne when you hear the name Matt Damon, but there would be no Jason Bourne at all if not for Robert Ludlum and his book series.

This is the odd tale of a man who has no real idea of who he is. He has got a chip implanted under his skin, and he washes up and ends up on a boat after being shot. There are apparent signs of plastic surgery that alter his appearance, and clues on a film lead him to a bank account in Zurich. This book includes all sorts of loose ends to be tied up, secret codes to understand, and the mysterious world of Jason Bourne, who is learning his identity right along with the reader.

Buy The Bourne Identity Here

review of spy novels

20. Codename Villanelle (Luke Jennings)

With the show Killing Eve based on this four-part, self-published series of novellas, this is the story of the alluring and ruthless Villanelle. Eve, another female agent, must stop her before things get too out of hand in this ruthless and twisted story of an agent and a hitwoman playing cat and mouse with each other.

Buy Codename Villanelle Here

review of spy novels

21. An Officer and a Spy (Robert Harris)

This is the tale of a French soldier accused of espionage, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. However, a fellow soldier who has witnessed things that no one else knows about is sure they have the wrong man. This is a riveting tale of the 19th-century French military working to prove his fellow soldier’s innocence.

Buy An Officer And A Spy Here

review of spy novels

22. Secret Asset (Stella Rimington)

A book that is part of a series, this book continues the story of Liz Carlyle, a British agent who has to figure out how to take down a terrorist plot. Complete with a sleeper spy mole that she is charged with finding and identifying, this is a harrowing tale that will keep the reader on the edge of their seats.

Buy Secret Asset Here

review of spy novels

23. High Crimes (Joseph Finder)

Also technically a legal thriller, this novel by Joseph Finder, High Crimes, criminal defense attorney Claire is used to winning and dominating a courtroom. She has a good life with her family and is happy. Then her husband is arrested for murder and other crimes that she cannot believe her husband could have committed.

Determined to clear his name and keep him out of prison, Claire sets out to prove his innocence and gets more than she bargained for. She learns that she has no idea who her husband is. It seems that the man she thought she knew and the man she loved had a double life, complete with a different name and a different look.

In this novel, Claire struggles to figure out where the truth lies and tries to figure out if her entire marriage and the family that she created with this man were based on lies.

Buy High Crimes Here

review of spy novels

24. Casino Royale (Ian Fleming)

Bond. James Bond. Daniel Craig played the sexy, smooth, and always sophisticated 007-agent in the film adaptation of this book by Ian Fleming.

An organization made up of Soviet murderers is the obvious suspect in this book, and Bond has only one chance to take them on and get them out of the game and derail their plans. A card game is a basis on which Bond must outmaneuver these criminals. It is a dangerous task and mission, but nothing that the classic Bond cannot handle. Or is it?

Buy Casino Royale Here

review of spy novels

25. I am Pilgrim (Terry Hayes)

This is the story of a retired agent who wrote the book on forensic investigation and retired and lived in anonymity, not sharing his new identity or location with anyone.

When Ben Bradley, a New York detective, needs his help, he reads the retired agent’s book and locates him using its advice. With no choice but to help the former head of a spy unit for the United States, he must solve the murder of a woman found in a hotel room.

Pilgrim and Bradley must work together to solve the crime using the techniques he developed, leaving Pilgrim with questions and personal doubts about whether he can ever walk away from his work.

Buy I Am Pilgrim Here

review of spy novels

26. The Sandpit (Nicholas Shakespeare)

John Dyer and his little boy come back to England after a covert operation in Brazil—with a secret that is so big, it could change or destroy the world. John finds himself looking over his shoulder everywhere he goes, even upon returning home with his child.

However, his paranoia proves effective when he learns that there are people right there in his native country who are trailing him to know his secret. They will stop at nothing to obtain John Dyer’s information, and Dyer will stop at nothing to protect his son and his secret.

This novel is a nail-biting adventure from start to finish and will have most readers wanting to continue to turn the page right on through to the last page. In other words, you will not be able to put this book down.

Buy The Sandpit Here

review of spy novels

27. The Couple Next Door (Karen Cleveland)

This is a suspenseful and thrilling story told by Karen Cleveland, a former analyst for the CIA. She blends her knowledge as an analyst with her creativity as a writer to pen this dramatic and intriguing story that packs a punch.

Vivian is a CIA analyst (just like the author) tasked with finding Russian sleeper agents living in the United States. After she nails one operative and seizes the computer of this Russian operative, she can now access more names, which leads her to an entire network of far more sleeper agents than she could have imagined.

Best Spy Novels

The real trouble occurs when Vivian finds out that her husband’s name is on that list of sleeper agents. Things become personal and quite dangerous as Vivian tries to uncover the truth that threatens to take everything she cares about away from her. She is now faced with the reality that she might lose not only the job she worked so hard for but her children and husband.

This novel marries spy fiction with drama in a way that works perfectly. It will have you wondering while reading what you might do in Vivian’s shoes, finding out that your spouse is an enemy. It may have you wondering how well you know your husband or wife, or anyone at all.

Buy The Couple Next Door Here

review of spy novels

1 thought on “The 27 Best Spy Novels Ever Written To Read In Your Free Time”

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Nice choices but what happened to The Cooler? A terrifically underrated book based on fact (The Cooler actually existed in Scotland during ww2). And how about the ‘Calan’ series of books by James Mitchell. Wonderfully spare and taught writing similar to George’s Simenons ‘ Maigret’? Some may think them second rate but think again.

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First published February 12, 2019

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Crime & Mystery

The Best Crime Novels of 2023

Our columnist picks the year’s best.

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review of spy novels

By Sarah Weinman

When I made this list, I kept discovering ways in which these books were in conversation with one another. The protagonists of my two favorite mystery series debuts seemed like they could work well together, albeit warily. Several books explored the crimes of serial murderers and gave greater voice to those harmed.

Noir, particularly the American variety, still endures as a potent lens on contemporary society. And whether the tone is dark or light, crime fiction as a whole still has the power to move scores of readers.

Give me the latest novel by a new American crime-writing master.

I’m envious of anyone who’s just discovering S.A. Cosby — he’s one of crime fiction’s biggest talents, skilled at merging the darkest human behavior with robust and indelible characters. ALL THE SINNERS BLEED (Flatiron, 338 pp., $27.99) stars Titus Crown, the first-ever Black sheriff of rural Charon County, Va., whose investigation of one murder leads to the discovery of other killings.

“Small towns are like the people who populate them,” Cosby writes. “They are both full of secrets. Secrets of the flesh, secrets of blood. Hidden oaths and whispered promises that turn to lies just as quick as milk spoils under a hot summer sun.”

I already read all of S.A. Cosby’s novels, and I want more noir — the darker, the better.

EVERYBODY KNOWS (Mulholland Books, 373 pp., $28), by Jordan Harper, will not restore anyone’s faith in humanity. This tale of a crisis manager’s journey of the soul is as bleak as Hollywood noir gets, skewering redemption narratives, romance and idealism. Every sentence sings with heartache.

There’s a little more hope in Eli Cranor’s OZARK DOGS (Soho Crime, 312 pp., $26.95), but just like his acclaimed debut, “Don’t Know Tough,” it dwells in the murky recesses of rural Arkansas, where people often commit acts of violence out of desperation. What spurs that violence this time is a blood feud between the Fitzjurls — the Vietnam War veteran Jeremiah and his granddaughter Joanna, whom he’s raised after her father was imprisoned for murder — and the Ledfords, unrepentant white supremacists out for revenge. Cranor doesn’t hide the horror or the emotional wreckage, but he also never resorts to gratuitous descriptions.

Introduce me to some series characters I’ll love immediately.

I like to think that after wary first impressions, Sister Holiday, whom we first meet in Margot Douaihy’s SCORCHED GRACE (Gillian Flynn Books, 310 pp., $27.95), and Glory Broussard, who takes her first bow in Danielle Arceneaux’s GLORY BE (Pegasus Crime, 257 pp., $26.95), would find common crime-solving ground. Holiday’s a queer, tattooed nun in New Orleans, trying to re-establish equilibrium after blowing up her life in Brooklyn, a task complicated by a dead body discovered where she lives and teaches.

Glory, living in Lafayette, La., loves her daughter, the Red Hat Society and taking other people’s bets on Sunday mornings instead of attending church. What she doesn’t love is being written off, especially when her best friend dies in suspicious circumstances. Both authors have great fun interrogating the detective form, and both are bringing out new installments next year. I’m all in.

I can’t resist reading serial-killer thrillers.

Some authors have begun reimagining serial-killer narratives by focusing on the perspectives and lives of the actual victims, who are most often women and girls, instead of the murderers. It’s a welcome trend. Danya Kukafka’s “Notes on an Execution” — my favorite novel last year — did it brilliantly, and Clémence Michallon’s debut, THE QUIET TENANT (Knopf, 303 pp., $28), tackles similar terrain. We’re privy to the rich inner lives of the women and girls orbiting a handsome, charming and seemingly empathetic upstate New York widower, including his teenage daughter, a newfound love interest and the woman he keeps chained to a radiator.

The Norwegian writer Victoria Kielland, splendidly translated by Damion Searls, takes a different tack with MY MEN (Astra House, 194 pp., $25), her literary examination of the woman who would become the notorious serial murderer Belle Gunness. Kielland plumbs Belle’s inner life through jaggedly rhythmic prose, where what should be obvious is sometimes opaque and what’s often shrouded — female rage — takes center stage.

American writers are well and good, but I still can’t get enough of the Scandinavians.

I was so bowled over by Christoffer Carlsson’s BLAZE ME A SUN (Hogarth, 435 pp., $28) that I declared it “the first great crime novel of 2023” almost a year ago — and I still, enthusiastically, stand by that statement. The Swedish writer’s novel, evocatively translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, connects the personal and the political (it’s initially set in the aftermath of Prime Minister Olof Palme’s 1986 assassination, still unsolved today) in ways that feel deeply human and thrilling. The murdered individuals emerge as full characters, not mere sketches, and the sense of loss that permeates the novel is a devastating reminder that closure is often anything but.

REYKJAVIK (Minotaur, 384 pp., $28) , a collaboration between the Icelandic mystery writer Ragnar Jonasson and Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the country’s current prime minister, coversv territory similar to “Blaze Me a Sun” — a vanished girl, a connection to major political events, a stop-and-start investigation that begins in the 1950s and continues decades later. The tone and style are much more stripped-down, though, emphasizing the whodunit aspect in a way that produces unexpected surprises.

You keep raving about those Thursday Murder Club books. Does the newest one measure up?

I didn’t review THE LAST DEVIL TO DIE (Pamela Dorman Books, 368 pp., $29) in my column because I’d already lavished so much praise on the prior two installments, about a quartet of senior citizens turned detectives. But it’s the best Murder Club book yet, as well as the last one we’ll see for a while — Richard Osman has said he’s taking a hiatus from Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Ibrahim to begin a new series.

One scene in particular — I’ve been calling it “the letter scene” — floored me with its moving portrayal of cognitive decline. It is a poignant complement to both the fair-play mystery plot and the characters’ lively humor.

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Nora Roberts, a titan of the romance world, discussed how she redefined a genre that was all too easy to dismiss .

With millions of books sold and a TV adaptation starring Gary Oldman, Mick Herron, the author of the “Slow Horses” series, has yet to wrap his head around his success .

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Do you want to be a better reader?   Here’s some helpful advice to show you how to get the most out of your literary endeavor .

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Gary Oldman had 'free rein' in spy thriller 'Slow Horses' — now back for Season 3

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Elizabeth Blair

review of spy novels

In Apple TV+'s Slow Horses , Gary Oldman plays Jackson Lamb, the slovenly, brilliant spy who's in charge of a group of failed British spies. The series is based on Mick Herron's Slough House novels. Herron says Lamb might not have "a heart of gold" but he does have "a moral code." Apple TV+ hide caption

In Apple TV+'s Slow Horses , Gary Oldman plays Jackson Lamb, the slovenly, brilliant spy who's in charge of a group of failed British spies. The series is based on Mick Herron's Slough House novels. Herron says Lamb might not have "a heart of gold" but he does have "a moral code."

The hapless spies and their boorish leader are back.

The third season of the Apple TV+ drama Slow Horses, based on Mick Herron's Slough House novels , debuts Nov. 29.

Gary Oldman plays Jackson Lamb, the comically unpleasant leader of a gang of dejected British spies. He smokes and drinks on the job, needs a shower, eats junk and has flatulence issues, which he seems to use strategically.

Lamb's band of spooks became Slow Horses, as they're called, after messing up their careers in a variety of mishaps, including botching a surveillance operation and leaving a top secret file on a train. They've messed up good and Lamb never lets them forget it.

"Working with you has been the lowest point in a disappointing career," he tells them in a supposed pep talk.

"Despicable characters are more interesting to write about than kind, humane characters," says Herron.

Lamb "has a lot of unpleasant habits, very poor personal hygiene and a tendency to be as rude as he possibly can to his subordinates," Herron explains, "What we don't know is how much of this he actually means."

review of spy novels

Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), right, and MI5's second in command Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) are formidable adversaries who constantly try to outplay each other. Apple TV+ hide caption

Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), right, and MI5's second in command Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) are formidable adversaries who constantly try to outplay each other.

Oldman is a 'constant wonder'

Herron says Gary Oldman called him before they started shooting the first season, which debuted in the spring of 2022.

"He wanted to talk about what I could tell him about Lamb that wasn't in the books," Herron recalls. "And the fact is ... anything that's not in the books hasn't happened as far as I'm concerned. So Gary in many ways had free rein to add his own bits of history to the character.

"He likes to know what a character has in his fridge. He likes to know where characters went to school and what sort of childhood they had. And I've never written about any of that sort of thing. But Gary thinks about it when he's delivering his performance, and it's all part of the perfectly rounded spectacle that he brings to the screen."

review of spy novels

Rosalind Eleazar and Christopher Chung play spies in Apple TV+'s Slow Horses . Apple TV+ hide caption

Rosalind Eleazar and Christopher Chung play spies in Apple TV+'s Slow Horses .

"He's a constant wonder to me," says Slow Horses writer and executive producer Will Smith of Gary Oldman.

Smith says Herron's take on the spy genre is refreshing — and a natural for TV — because his characters are so believable.

"People struggling with kind of relatable issues everyone goes through: divorce, grief, feeling they're not in the right place in their careers. They hate their boss," says Smith.

Critics have raved about Slow Horses . The first two seasons were so successful, Apple TV+ ordered two more.

'Surrounded by losers, misfits and boozers'

Another high-profile fan of the books is Mick Jagger who co-wrote the theme song. "I really enjoyed creating the theme track for Slow Horses with Daniel Pemberton," Jagger writes on Instagram. "I've read a lot of the books and was familiar with some of the more dark and unsavoury characters and knew the direction I wanted to take it...hope you enjoy it!"

Mick Jagger is among the many fans of Mick Herron's Slough House novels. The Rolling Stone's singer co-wrote and performs the theme song for the Apple TV+ series.

Season 3 is based on Real Tigers , Herron's third novel in the Slough House series. The villains are different but Lamb and his spies are still very much the underdogs.

"Fiction is full of heroes," says Herron. "I'm not averse to adding to their number but with Lamb, I'm more interested in his failings than I am in his virtues."

Lamb isn't all bluster. Herron adds that he might not have "a heart of gold" but he "does have a moral code."

review of spy novels

"Fiction is full of heroes," says Herron. "I'm not averse to adding to their number but with Lamb, I'm more interested in his failings than I am in his virtues." Apple TV+ hide caption

This story was edited for audio and digital by Rose Friedman.

'Slow Horses' offers a gleefully corrosive vision of British intelligence

'Slow Horses' offers a gleefully corrosive vision of British intelligence

In 'Slow Horses,' spies get put out to pasture

Pop Culture Happy Hour

In 'slow horses,' spies get put out to pasture.

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‘Slow Horses’ Is Better Than Ever in Season Three

By Alan Sepinwall

Alan Sepinwall

In theory, Slow Horses should not work as an ongoing series , whether in the books by Mick Herron or the Apple TV+ show that returns for its third season today. The stories involve a group of disgraced British spies, consigned to a dingy office where they’re not meant to do any important work, but who keep stumbling into major cases, and acquit themselves well doing so. Once seems like a fine idea for a story. But two? Three? Or, in the case of the books, eight? At a certain point, wouldn’t the improbable success of the Slow Horses lead MI-5 to give them some real responsibility? Or, at least, if they wind up being this good at their work, why do they remain banished to Slough House?

Season Three adapts Herron’s novel Real Tigers , where Jackson Lamb — the filthy, flatulent, surprisingly tenacious head of Slough House, played with a hilarious lack of vanity by Gary Oldman — and his team appear to be collateral damage from a dirty piece of old MI-5 business. Jackson’s right-hand woman Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves) is kidnapped by a group demanding to see a controversial secret agency file, and it’s up to Jackson, River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), Louisa Guy (Rosalind Eleazar), Roddy Ho (Christopher Chung), Marcus Longridge (Kadiff Kirwan), and Shirley Dander (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) to figure out what the hell is going on.

Editor’s picks

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Because streaming ratings are such a black box, it’s hard to know how successful Slow Horses has been. But it’s the sort of show where, if you mention the title to someone who watches, their face will light up and they won’t stop monologuing about it for at least three minutes. If that level of passion is reflective of a larger audience, then there’s no reason the show can’t run long enough to adapt all of the books, each time allowing the Slow Horses to be just good enough to save the day, but never good enough that they can escape their particular form of professional purgatory.

The first two episodes of Slow Horses Season Three are streaming now on Apple TV+, with additional episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen all six episodes.

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Spy x Family Is A Modern Fable About Work Life Balance

Posted: December 4, 2023 | Last updated: December 4, 2023

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Spy x family is closer to work vs. family, anya struggles with class, difference, and power fantasies.

  • Spy x Family touches on modern issues such as the feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty, reflecting the anxieties many young people experience today.
  • The manga explores the impact of work on individuals' personal lives, showcasing how jobs can overshadow one's identity and isolate them from loved ones.
  • Spy x Family delves into themes of finding oneself, struggling with class disparities, and the difficulty of realizing that dreams may not live up to expectations.

Spy x Family has quickly cemented itself as one of this decade's hottest and best-reviewed anime and manga franchises, quickly amassing a gigantic fanbase keen to learn what's next for Loid, Yor, and Anya. One reason for this meteoric rise to fame is that, despite its alternative universe 1960s Cold War setting, the show touches on many modern issues. Ones that are at the forefront of many young people's minds as they navigate their day-to-day lives.

While the setting is clearly trying to evoke the feeling of cold-war Europe, several elements of this setting feel highly relevant to modern events. One is the general sense of uneasiness that hangs in the air. A recurring theme throughout the manga is that the world is constantly on the brink of war, with the truce between Westalis and Ostania looking like it might collapse at any moment. It's easy to draw parallels between this and the unease many modern young people are experiencing—even if that is due to a collapsing economy and environment rather than the dread of the Cold War. Plus, the world of Spy x Family has several clear generation gaps, as shown by the rift between Damian Desmond and his father, as they're living in vastly different worlds. Damian and his father reflect the big generation gap in the real world, where many young people feel they're being forced to live a totally different life from their parents, not getting what was promised to them when they were younger.

New Spy x Family Novel to Release Alongside Code: White Film

Spy x family's anya and becky make the cover of major fashion magazine.

One of Spy x Family's core themes is how work and the identity people take on for their job can leak into their private lives, leading to their job taking them over and isolating them from their friends, passions, and loved ones. This is a common thing many modern young people deal with, as rising costs mean they must work harder to get ahead. Plus, the rise of mass communication and smartphones means many people feel trapped in their working persona all the time. Loid and Yor are textbook examples of this, as their jobs as spies and assassins have eclipsed their private lives as the manga starts, meaning that neither knows how to switch off nor be anything other than their jobs. In fact, Loid and Yor's jobs take this idea to the extreme, as their work forces them to have two diametrically opposed and totally separate personas. Loid/Twilight and Yor/Thorn Princess have nothing in common, making them a very effective satire of this phenomenon. This is more noticeable with Loid, especially at the start of the manga when he first gets to know Anya. His internal monologue always uses the language of his job, constantly referring to his mission and calling Anya simply "the girl." It isn't until he starts to discover the joys of family life that his mental monologue softens, and the work speech gets dropped for casual, regular dialogue, showing how Loid gradually learns to switch his work persona off and live in the moment.

Yor also displays this theme several times during the manga's early chapters, with her brain jumping to murder whenever she encounters a problem. Notably, when she first meets Loid, she tells herself she could kill his wife if he has one, showing how her job has become a reflex rather than a calling. A similar thing happens after she learns that Anya is on the Eden Academy waiting list, with her mind wandering straight to murder. In this case, she has to consciously pull herself out of the daydream. Yor's mental struggles show that, like Loid, her work has totally taken over her mind. Something that is further illustrated by how often she uses her unnatural agility without thinking about it, only to become embarrassed when she realizes what she has done. But, like Loid, she softens over time, and during family moments, her body language becomes much more relaxed, and she seems less prone to suddenly using her assassin skills without thinking, showing that she is slowly becoming a more well-rounded human.

Spy x Family also constantly shows how working life can isolate and alienate people, an issue many modern people struggle with. The series highlights this issue brilliantly, as not only do Garden and WISE constantly interrupt the characters' private lives, often at the worst possible times. But the nature of these two organizations means that Yor nor Loid can avoid or escape them and their demands, making both firms act as exaggerated parodies of modern employers who constantly try to wring everything they can from their workers. This theme is the most noticeable and overt during the Cruise Adventure Arc, where viewers are shown how Yor's work physically and emotionally separates them from Anya and Loid, forcing her to constantly break away from her family to finish her mission. This theme is also shown in many other ways, as work always haunts the pair, forcing them to frequently skip events or things they want to do. This alienation is also shown through the character's skill sets. Most notably, Yor's inability to communicate with her coworkers (even not picking up that putting something gross in the boss's coffee is meant as an insult) and her inability to do basic house chores act as a symbol of how her work has stopped her from embracing her private life, leaving her only able to do what her work needs, even if that prevents her from having the skills needed for a vibrant and enjoyable personal life.

However, one thing that sets Spy x Family apart from other media that discuss this issue is how it shows how hard finding and taking ownership of yourself can be. In many series, the choice to be happy is binary, and once the characters accept their new life, all the old problems go away. However, in Spy x Family, Loid and Yor struggle when they first realize they are enjoying being a family; they go through an obvious and palpable culture shock. This is most noticeable with Loid, as the moment that his transformation starts is a traumatic flashback to his childhood, which is noticeably distressing for him. After this flashback, Loid slowly transforms from seeing Anya as a tool to someone he cares about, which leads to him slowly learning to listen to her and engage with her on her level rather than assuming he knows best. This is shown by Loid's decision to start reading Spy Wars, as not only does this show how the pair's connection has grown, but it also demonstrates that Loid has to put in the effort to learn how to communicate with Anya and understand her interests and that this change isn't a binary thing but an active process. This is also seen when Loid and Anya first enjoy Yor's cooking, as she struggles to handle her emotions as she isn't used to dealing with those feelings, conveying how uncomfortable self-actualization can be, even when it's deeply wanted.

Interestingly, Spy x Family shows this message best through Franky, who, unlike the rest of the main characters, balances his work life with his personal life. Franky is one of the few main characters to have hobbies and a life outside his work, with his various inventions proving that he spends a decent amount of time tinkering with things because it gives him pleasure. Plus, despite being a failure in love, Franky is shown to have quite a few friends and close acquaintances. This suggests that he has an active social life outside of his job, something that Loid and Yor initially lack, as both of them are distant from others at the start of the story.

Spy x Family Unveils Very Elegant Tea Set and Household Goods Collection

Anya's arc also speaks to several modern anxieties. Anya's storyline heavily focuses on class and how this can affect how comfortable people feel in their surroundings. This is highly relevant to modern audiences due to increasing global wealth and comfort disparities, making more people feel like they are on the edge of society or lack a place where they belong. At Eden Academy, Anya is thrust into the world of the upper classes, forced to quickly adapt to their standards and social rituals, which is emotionally taxing on her. Viewers often see her struggling to understand how to navigate the social environment, often making mistakes she had no way of knowing about. However, a lot of the fun comes from seeing Anya overcome these situations and find a way to come out on top despite the deck being stacked against her, making her an excellent, lovable underdog for most readers who can empathize with the idea of being on the outskirts of society.

REVIEW: Spy x Family's Season 2 Premiere is a Funny and Strong Return to an Already Amazing Series

On top of this, Anya's story heavily hinges on how hard it can be to find your place in the world, especially when you feel different. At the start, Anya, Loid, and Yor are all outcasts in some way, without a steady home or stable relationships to support them. But during the story, Anya and the others grow closer as a family and build a place for them all—one that accepts their differences and works to help alleviate the pain they cause while celebrating the good things they can bring. But Spy x Family shows how hard this is, as there are many bumps along the way, including Yor and Loid struggling to navigate relationships and communicate their needs, as seen when Yor can't handle her jealousy when Fiona enters Loid's life. Anya also flounders frequently, dealing with plenty of school stress and giving in to frustration when she can't study effectively or fit in with the other kids at her school. These bumps and setbacks make the show emotionally realistic—something that will speak to many viewers and readers who will have felt similar emotions during their lives.

This all comes together to build a second, highly relatable theme that Anya has to endure. Losing her rose-tinted glasses. Anya loves spies and is obsessed with the show Spy Wars—especially its hero, Bondman. So, when she learns that Loid is a spy, she dreams of helping him and going on adventures like her hero. Alas, Anya quickly learns that life isn't as glamorous as on TV and that being a real spy isn't exciting or fun due to the danger involved. This is something many young adults experience—learning the thing they've always wanted to do doesn't give them the joy they imagined, or the life yearned for isn't as perfect as they had dreamed. In many ways, this plotline also reflects the alienation Loid and Yor feel, showing audiences the whole timeline of losing yourself and your passions, from the moment you first realize that your dream might not be all it's cracked up to be to the moment you notice you've become trapped as a person you don't want to be.

The beauty of Spy x Family is that, despite its fantastical elements and alternative universe setting, it talks about topics poignant to modern audiences. In fact, it uses its fantasy elements to enhance these elements, allowing viewers to step back and think about things from a new direction. Through the confusing and often difficult lives of Anya, Loid, and Yor, viewers can think about their own lives and how they want to grasp happiness, cement time for themselves, or embrace their true desires, making it no surprise that the franchise has quickly become so popular with so many people.

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(Left to right) Charles, William, Kate, Meghan and Harry arriving at the Christmas Day morning church service in Sandringham in 2018.

A royal family ‘in crisis’: six claims from Omid Scobie’s book Endgame

Journalist claims Charles is angry at William upstaging him, while William thinks Harry has been ‘brainwashed’ by therapists

The latest tome on the royals has dropped, though, according to initial reviews, with none of the explosive impact of Spare, the Duke of Sussex’s unsparing memoir.

Endgame – by the Sussexes’ journalist supporter-in-chief, Omid Scobie, the co-author of Finding Freedom , on their escape from “the firm” – examines a royal family “in crisis”.

It has been described as one-sided by monarchy-loving media outlets, with one unnamed royal source reportedly saying it is “depressingly poisonous”.

Scobie, 42, has stressed in pre-publication interviews that he has not interviewed Harry and Meghan for the book, nor is he Meghan’s friend. But he told the Times: “I have mutual friends with [Meghan], and that definitely helps with getting information and breaking details.”

Here are some of its claims.

Heir apparent

The king is reportedly unnerved by the actions of Prince William. Scobie suggests William made attempts to upstage Charles, seeing him as a transitional king. Coverage of his father’s first trooping the colour was wiped from front pages after William gave a rare interview to the Times, for example, the book claims. William is cast as “hot-headed” and a “company man”. He did not consider Charles “competent enough” to adequately deal with the Duke of York situation, it claims. Charles’s reluctance is said to have “baffled” William, “who didn’t have much confidence in his father to do the right thing anyway”. Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace are reportedly “hives of competing agendas and different ideas about how to modernise”.

William’s unilateral decision to immediately distance himself from former lady-in-waiting Lady Susan Hussey after she asked Ngozi Fulani, a black charity leader, where she was “really” from, allegedly angered Buckingham Palace. A palace source is quoted saying it was “a rash … kneejerk response”. The book claims Charles was disappointed by William’s failure to involve him in his big environmental initiative, the Earth Shot prize. It also claims Charles “derived some schadenfreude” from the Cambridges’ criticised tour of the Caribbean. But, Scobie suggests, Charles was “furious” when royal aides told journalists on the journey back that lessons had been learned and discussed a “blueprint” for William’s reign, seeing it as upstaging. The decision to evict Harry and Meghan from Frogmore Cottage is described as punishment. Scobie reports that, in a phone call to Charles, Harry asked: “Don’t you want to see your grandchildren?”

Brotherly strife

William believes Harry has been “brainwashed” by an “army of therapists”, it is claimed. William also ignored texts from Harry on the day the late Queen died, meaning Harry had to charter a plane to get to Balmoral, it claims. Scobie quotes Harry telling a friend: “I’m ready to move on past it. Whether we get an apology or accountability, who knows: who really cares at this point?” The book also alleges that the Waleses allowed staff to circulate negative stories about the Sussexes.

Thankful queen

Camilla is alleged to have quietly thanked the TV presenter Piers Morgan for defending “the firm” after he called Meghan “Princess Pinocchio”. Camilla is also described by a former aide as rolling her eyes at “lefty nonsense” such as gender identity, unconscious bias and veganism.

Letters from Meghan

Harry was reportedly “gutted” when, after allegations of bullying staff were made against Meghan, the royal family stood by to watch the “dirty game play out”. Harry reportedly confronted his father and brother after Prince Philip’s funeral. Scobie writes that Charles replied: “You must understand, darling boy, the institution can’t just tell the media what to do.” Charles and Meghan exchanged letters in the wake of her interview with Oprah Winfrey, it is alleged. The alleged letters are said to reveal the identity of two people the duchess claimed in the TV interview had aired “concerns” about the colour of then-unborn Prince Archie’s skin.

Queen in training

Kate is described as “jokingly shivering” when Meghan’s name is mentioned. She is accused of being “cold if she doesn’t like someone” and ignoring Meghan’s “cries for help”. Scobie writes that Kate spent more time talking about Meghan than talking to her. The future queen is described as an “inscrutable queen in training – an institutional dream come true”.

Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s representatives have been contacted for comment.

  • Prince Harry
  • Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex

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