Over the past eight years, I’ve read and reviewed more than 80 espionage novels. My 16 favorites are listed below. Though my preliminary list included multiple titles by three authors (Alex Berenson, Charles Cumming, and Ross Thomas), I’ve limited myself to a single title from every writer. I gave every one of these ten titles a score of @@@@ or @@@@@ (4 or 5 out of 5) on its review. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.
Alex Berenson is a former New York Times reporter whose novels are distinguished by deep research as well as a convincing mix of character development and plotting. In Twelve Days, Berenson’s hero, John Wells, formerly of the Special Forces and the CIA, rushes to head off a U.S. war with Iran. The novel drips with suspense.
In A Single Spy, we follow Alexsi’s life from 1932, when he was an abused child in an Azeri village, to 1943, as a double agent working for the Soviets within the Abwehr. The action rockets from Azerbaijan to the Iran to the USSR to Germany, then to Switzerland and Turkey en route back to Iran. Christie paints a convincing picture of every location where he sets his story, and he steadily builds suspense toward a climax full of surprises.
Few episodes in the history of espionage have attracted so much attention as the betrayal of the Trinity Five, the five former Cambridge University scholars who turned to Communism in the 1930s, became spies for the USSR, and defected in the years following World War II. Charles Cumming skillfully posits a sixth man in the conspiracy in The Trinity Six.
Young Adam Cassidy works in a low-level job at the huge high-tech firm Wyatt Technologies. When he decides to game the system and transfer company funds to pay for a retirement party for a man in the shipping department, his troubles begin. Big troubles. Trapped by the company’s CEO, he is blackmailed into getting hired at a competing firm to steal information about a breakthrough technology.
The Night Soldiers series is the collection of Alan Furst’s loosely connected espionage novels set in Europe in the years leading up to and during World War II. In Kingdom of Shadows, the sixth book in the series, a young Hungarian aristocrat living in Paris in 1936 takes on a dangerous mission to Budapest at the behest of his uncle, a Hungarian diplomat.
A young English aristocrat becomes embroiled in a complex international plot when he sets out to investigate the mysterious death of his father following World War I. The Ways of the World is one of the more than two dozen thrillers Robert Goddard has written. His novels usually have an historical element and settings in provincial English towns and cities, and many plot twists. All that’s certainly the case in The Ways of the World.
Can the CIA really be as clumsy and ineffectual as Susan Hasler portrays it in Intelligence? The dysfunctional agency she dramatizes is a bureaucracy tied up in knots, some of them of its own making, some handed down from a White House bent on pursuing its own aggressive strategy regardless of whether it’s justified by the facts. Granted, the CIA Hasler paints is that of the George W. Bush Administration, five years after 9/11. And we all know what that was like.
In a television series, the denizens of Mick Herron’s Slough House series would be known as an ensemble cast. From one episode (or book) to the next, the same characters keep appearing, playing their expected roles. Typically, on TV, none of these characters leaves the scene. But Slough House is not like that. Characters die. The ensemble cast mutates from book to book. And that’s a good thing, since it keeps readers guessing.
The Eagle Has Landed has sold more than 50 million copies, but it’s just one of the more than 80 thrillers Jack Higgins has written. His work has been translated into 55 languages. This iconic thriller, set in wartime England, dramatizes a Nazi plot to assassinate Winston Churchill. The tale is told from the perspective of the German soldiers sent to kill the wartime Prime Minister.
Washington Post columnist and editor David Ignatius has covered wars, diplomacy, and the intelligence community in a long journalistic career. His reporting infuses the ten suspense and espionage novels he has written over the past thirty years. The Increment, published in 2009, dramatizes the hysteria in the Bush Administration about Iran’s program to build nuclear weapons.
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. 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.
On the cover of A Delicate Truth, Gibraltar looms like the vast bulk of reality weighing down on the idealism and sense of duty that preoccupy the novel’s protagonist, as they do in so many of the works of John Le Carré. The subject of this story is a shady joint UK-US anti-terrorism operation in Gibraltar. The caper is executed under cover of darkness by a combined force of handpicked British Special Forces and mercenaries in the employ of a mysterious American defense contractor. It all sounds unlikely—but so does much else that is happening in this unlikely world of ours! In any case, it’s a lot of fun to read.
In The Travelers, Chris Pavone weaves a tale so baffling that you’re likely to be shocked again and again as the truth at the heart of the story gradually floats to the surface. Pavone’s subject matter is espionage. The scene shifts rapidly and frequently from New York City to Mendoza, Argentina; Falls Church, Virginia; Paris; Capri; Istanbul; and other spots around the globe, including the Spanish Pyrenees and rural Iceland. The suspense is intoxicating.
Dame Stella Rimington retired in 1996 as Director General of MI5, Britain’s counter-intelligence service, the only woman ever to have served in the post. Her first novel, At Risk, introduces her alter ego, MI5 officer Liz Carlyle. In At Risk, Carlyle is tasked with thwarting a terrorist who is about to enter the country—an invisible capable of blending perfectly into English society. The terrorist’s identity, and his or her intentions, are unknown. Not only does Rimington know how the counterespionage business works, she’s able to describe it with great skill — and create a great deal of suspense in the process. At Risk is an espionage thriller that fulfills its promise.
Set late in the 1960s, The Singapore Wink features two retired Hollywood stuntmen, a disheveled veteran FBI agent, an aristocratic classic car salesman, the head of Singapore’s part-time security service, a greedy left-wing Singapore politician and his “Dragon Lady” daughter, plus several assorted mobsters. Together, they make for a very fine mess. Ross Thomas died more than twenty years ago at the age of 69, leaving behind a much-praised body of work that included twenty-five novels about political corruption, crime, and espionage as well as two nonfiction books.
The action unfolds in the closing weeks of 1958, as the Cuban Revolution is heading toward its climax on New Year’s Day, 1959. Traveling under cover as a travel writer for Holiday magazine, retired CIA officer George Mueller circulates through Havana with a freelance photographer in tow. Mueller’s assignment is to discover what Toby Graham is doing in Cuba. Graham is the “good assassin” of the novel’s title. He is a veteran officer of the CIA with a violent past and a troubled mind. Among many other assignments, Graham had helped engineer the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, the elected socialist president of Guatemala.