For good or ill, a fair amount of what I’ve learned about espionage over the years has come from reading spy stories. A few authors are particularly diligent about research and accuracy, so most of what I’ve picked up is probably true. In fact, many of those authors are veterans of the intelligence game and should know what they write about. But, for assurance that what I read is less likely to be fictional, there’s nothing like an in-depth nonfiction treatment of the field by a credible author. Since January 2010, I’ve read more than thirty excellent nonfiction books about espionage. I recommend them highly.
This post was updated on November 23, 2022.
The most remarkable of these books are David Talbot‘s revisionist biography of Allen Dulles, The Devil’s Chessboard; Dana Priest and William Arkin’s extraordinary expose of the military-intelligence complex, Top Secret; and Max Hastings’ revisionist history of secret intelligence in World War II, The Secret War.
Each of the more than thirty titles below is linked to my review of the book. Within each section, they’re listed in alphabetical order by the authors’s last names.
Books about espionage before and during World War II
Hitler’s Spy Chief: The Wilhelm Canaris Story by Richard Bassett—The secret history of World War II
Night of the Assassins: The Untold Story of Hitler’s Plot to Kill FDR, Churchill, and Stalin by Howard Blum—The startling Nazi plot to kill FDR, Churchill, and Stalin
A Spy at the Heart of the Third Reich: The Extraordinary Story of Fritz Kolbe, America’s Most Important Spy in World War II by Lucas Delattre—The little-known tale of the top American spy in Nazi Germany
The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone—An extraordinary woman codebreaker who caught gangsters during the 1930s and Nazi spies during World War II.
The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings—A revisionist view of intelligence in World War II, questioning the value of “humint”
Agents of Influence: A British Campaign, a Canadian Spy, and the Secret Plot to Bring America into World War II by Henry Hemming—British interference in American politics in WWII
Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became World War II’s Most Highly Decorated Spy by Larry Loftis—A woman was World War II’s most highly decorated spy
The Princess Spy: The True Story of World War II Spy Aline Griffith, Countess of Romanones by Larry Loftis—The American fashion model who spied for the Allies in World War II
An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent by Owen Matthews—The greatest spy of the twentieth century?
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre—A new spin on why the Normandy Invasion succeeded
Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory, by Ben McIntyre—Finally declassified, the true story of “the man who never was”
Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy by Ben MacIntyre—The extraordinary Soviet spy who gave Stalin the bomb
Geniuses at War: Bletchley Park, Colossus, and the Dawn of the Digital Age by David A. Price—The top-secret story of the first digital computer
Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller—One remarkable man and the origins of the CIA
Books about Cold War espionage
The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War by Scott Anderson—Four CIA spies who helped set US policy in the 1940s and 50s
The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI’s Hunt for America’s Stolen Secrets by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee—Before Edward Snowden was “The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell”
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird—A true story of the PLO, Miss Universe, and the CIA
In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies by Howard Blum—How the Soviet atomic spies were caught
The Spy Who Knew Too Much: An Ex-CIA Officer’s Quest Through a Legacy of Betrayal by Howard Blum—Unmasking the mole in the CIA
The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée—How a novel helped speed the collapse of the Soviet Union
King of Spies: The Dark Reign of an American Spymaster by Blaine Harden—The shameful reality of America’s role in the Korean War
The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal, by David E. Hoffman—Spycraft as it was actually practiced in this true-life tale of Cold War espionage
Nuking the Moon: And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left on the Drawing Board by Vince Houghton—Cockamamie schemes of the CIA and the Pentagon
Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney—The CIA, the mistress, and JFK’s assassination: an astonishing but true story
The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, by Stephen Kinzer—They shaped US foreign policy for decades to come
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre—Was Kim Philby the greatest spy ever (as far as we know)?
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben MacIntyre—An extraordinary Cold War spy story a screenwriter couldn’t make up
The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton by Jefferson Morley—James Jesus Angleton, the man who nearly destroyed the CIA
Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism, by Karen M. Paget—Revealed: another sordid CIA scandal
The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot—When America’s secret government ran amok
Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War, and the Twilight of Empire by Calder Walton—British espionage as the Empire faded into history
Books about espionage since 1989
The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel, by Uri Bar-Joseph—The amazing tale of Gamal Nasser’s son-in-law, who spied for Israel for many years
Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox—Life undercover in the CIA chasing suitcase nukes
Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, by Fred Kaplan—A story that stretches over five decades
The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by Mark Mazzetti—Drones, mercenaries, and targeted murder: the new strategy of the CIA
From Warsaw With Love: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance by John Pomfret—The long-lasting alliance between Polish spies and the CIA
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin—The shocking reality behind America’s war on “terror”
Operation Shakespeare: The True Story of an Elite International Sting, by John Shiffman—How the Department of Homeland Security went abroad to capture an Iranian arms dealer
Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, by Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister—A truly amazing story about Al Qaeda, and it’s real
For further reading
You might also be interested in my post, My 20 favorite espionage novels. You may also enjoy 5 top nonfiction books about World War II (plus many runners-up).
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