The 10 top espionage novels reviewed on this site

A Coffin for Dimitrios is one of my 10 top espionage novels reviewed.

Over the past ten years, I’ve read and reviewed more than 100 espionage novels (not counting a great many more I never finished). My 10 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 10 titles a score of @@@@@ (5 out of 5) on its review. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

Below the list of my 10 favorites, you’ll find reviews of the full list of top espionage novels I’ve reviewed with ratings of at least @@@@ (4 out of 5). 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, 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.

This post was updated on April 13, 2021.

10 top espionage novels

Image of spies in action, a possible scene from one of the top espionage novels reviewed here.
This image bears little resemblance to the practice of espionage today, but it makes for compelling fiction. Image:
A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler – 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—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. Read the review.

The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming – 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. Read the review.

The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett – 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.

Kingdom of Shadows (Night Soldiers #6) by Alan Furst – 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. Read the review.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene—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. Read the review.

The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins – A classic espionage thriller that’s well worth rereading

Any list of the best espionage novels of all times must include Jack Higgins’ World War II caper story, The Eagle Has Landed. Published in 1975, this classic of the genre has sold more than 50 million copies. I read the book shortly after it was first published and turned back to it again to compare my memory of the book with the reality—and with contemporary entries in the field. Read the review.

Siro by David Ignatius – 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. Read the review.

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon – 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. Read the review.

Red Sparrow (Red Sparrow Trilogy #1) by Jason Matthews – 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.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen – 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. Read the review.

All the top 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

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

Espionage thrillers from Joseph Finder

The Eye of the NeedleThe 40th anniversary edition of Ken Follett’s classic WWII spy novel

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

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

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

The Strivers’ Row Spy (Renaissance #1) by Jason Overstreet—African-American history comes to life in this engaging spy novel

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

The William Catesby novels by Edward Wilson

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