Cover image of "A Coffin for Dimitrios," one of the 15 best espionage novels reviewed here.

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 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 15 titles a score of ★★★★★ on its review. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

This post was updated on November 3, 2022.

An abundance of runners-up

Below the list of my 15 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.

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 top espionage novels reviewed here

Image of spies in action, a possible scene from one of the best espionage novels reviewed here.
This image bears little resemblance to the practice of espionage today, but it makes for compelling fiction. Image: einvestigator.com

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 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

Alex Berenson’s John Wells series

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

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

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

Espionage thrillers from Joseph Finder

Ken Follett’s classic novels of espionage

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

The historical Night Soldiers series by Alan Furst

Alex Gerlis’s outstanding wartime spy novels

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

Classic espionage novels by Jack Higgins

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

Compelling spy stories by David Ignatius

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

Joseph Kanon’s superb spy stories

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

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 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

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

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

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

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 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

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

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

Paul Vidich’s haunting historical spy novels

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

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