Best Thriller Novels – The Spy Genre Dissected

Many of the best thrillers are so-called spy novels. What are the secrets of the best spy novels (and I don’t mean the plot)? Some novelists write for personal pleasure, but most write with the aim of generating some income. If one’s writing is mercenary, then an author has to take account of the target market, and for espionage novels that means the target readers will be relatively sophisticated and used to coping with complex plots (and indeed, that could apply to crime and mystery novels too).

Key Ingredients

The best thriller novels in the espionage genre will have some of the following ingredients cooperating to a greater or lesser extent, plus of course the essence of any well-written fiction –strong character development and a credible plot, effectively delivered in a way which engages the reader.


What are spies if not duplicitous? The whole genre is founded on cheating, stealing secrets and living double lives. The best novelists will include portrayal of the stresses which most spies experience. These include identity stress (‘who am I right now’) and cover story management (which is linked to identity).

Agent Recruitment

This can be the basis of a great story, or play no part at all. It is a courtship process,once the likely suitor has been identified, and possible motivations for being turned have been established, and even set up – for example a classical honey-trap scenario, or a financial lure. The most effective are those who spy for ideological reasons, though this is double edged for the ‘handler’, as the only lever is exposure, as opposed to withdrawal of services or cash flow with the other levers.

Running an Agent

Many novels have been written with a focus only on this aspect of espionage – the interplay between handler and spy is the process of ‘making the marriage work’ once the initial courtship has been consummated.


This aspect underlies almost every one of the topics here, and is present in all espionage novels. Dead letter boxes, disguises, communications, cutouts, losing ‘tails’ and the whole area of technology ranging from lemon juice (invisible ink) to the use of satellites. The list is endless.

The Secrets

The information which an agent communicates is not central to the best thriller novels,though interesting secrets can form the core of a good tale. Many espionage stories are built around one particular secret, but some do not need any secret at all (except, of course, the central issue of duplicity/identity).

The Organisation

CIA, KGB, SIS, DIA, FSB, SBPOK, GRU, Savak, Mossad, GUOANBU – the list of acronyms and organisations is extensive, and each (or several together) can form the basis of spy novels. This is a more difficult topic effectively to write about, because (just like the police procedure genre), it requires detailed knowledge of organisational structure and operational methods in order to portray it accurately. Yes, there is a counter argument that the detail can be invented, because the only gainsayers will be employees of those organisations, and deficiencies can be ironed out by the use of editorial consultants. The intelligence world is very shadowy, though, and finding suitable advisors (who would be in breach of secrecy laws) is not easy.

What is Reality?

The reality of a series of events is dependent on one’s particular situation and perspective. So, a skilled author will always leave questions unanswered as no-one person ever sees the full picture. Alternatively, the author will present the facts as seen from several perspectives. After all, the purpose of espionage is to obtain, verify and improve information using illicit and illegal methods and without the losing party discovering the loss or leak.

In Conclusion

The very best thriller novels will include a broad spectrum of these topics, with one, or perhaps two, explored in great depth as the core of the work. Spy novels are a difficult genre in which to write well, because they usually involve characters of high intellect. Developing those characters, their motivations, thought processes and associated plots requires a high degree of skill, and dare I say, intellect, on the part of the author. I’m working at it!