The Best Spy Novels

My Selection: Best Spy Novels

If you are looking for great spy novels, then I’ve compiled my list here as a guide for you. My starting point is with the author – in this genre, some authors just have to be represented.

Then, there are spy novels which focus on different aspects of spycraft. For example – the recruitment and running of an agent or the details of the craft itself. Others may focus on the battle between the spymasters themselves, or technology. Some may be very cerebral in nature – such as John Le Carré’s character Smiley pitting his wits against Karla over three thrillers. Others may focus on the different approaches to intelligence gathering.

In the latter case, a good example is the battle against the Taliban and Al Quaeda. It is well known in intel circles that in the decades leading up to the Twin Towers attack, the US put the bulk of its Middle East efforts into ‘elint’ – electronic intelligence gathering, neglecting the humint aspects. This had been spotlighted when, during the Gulf War, they realised that their satellites had been fooled by ranks of plywood tanks which Saddam had deployed.

In contrast, the UK excelled at humint (though Britain had a long history of involvement in the Middle East, with long standing networks to rely on) – perhaps because it didn’t have the budgets and technology to deploy and manage huge nets of satellites. When the crunch came with asymmetric warfare, the satellites and listening posts were of limited value and the US’s humint assets had to be built up,painstakingly.

Finally, there are those spy novels which develop their story around specific events in history such as the Berlin Airlift or the conflict in Northern Ireland.

So, here’s my list of favourite spy novels. It is a reading list and not ranked (that would be impossible for me):

  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (John Le Carré)
  • The Ipcress File (Len Deighton)
  • The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (John Le Carré)
  • Harry’s Game (Gerald Seymour)
  • The Devil’s Alternative (Frederick Forsyth)
  • Spies of the Balkans (Alan Furst)
  • Berlin Game (Len Deighton)
  • Restless (William Boyd)
  • From Russia With Love (Ian Fleming)
  • Riddle of the Sands (Erskine Childers)
  • The Thirty Nine Steps (John Buchan)

The last two on the list helped define the modern spy novels genre. There are thrillers such as ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ which others might include on the list, but I don’t consider to be a spy novel in the classic sense.

Others might include ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ by G.K Chesterton. It is a story about spying and secret agents, but not in the typical sense, generally being categorised as a metaphysical thriller.

A Note On Some Authors

Both Fleming and Le Carré had worked with British intelligence services – SIS/MI6 and their background adds a special frisson to their writing, whilst Deighton spent his National Service time as  photographer for the RAF Special Investigations Branch.