The best ever spy books?

I have a list of books about spying and espionage in general that I thought I’d share with you.

I got it, almost wholesale, from the always excellent Jeremy Duns, himself a writer of, amongst other things, books about spying and espionage. In some of his other Tweets, he has listed other books, but this is from the list I first wrote down. If I’ve made errors, please don’t be too hard on me, I know nothing about the majority of these books – and several of the authors – and it took a hell of a long time to put it together. Lord, have mercy!

I’ve included cover images (wherever possible) of the versions I will attempt to get my hands on. Also, a quick summary of what the book is about. If you click on the cover, you’ll go to a page where you can order the book. Once again, I’m not making any money off this, it’s just for interest and, hopefully, our reading pleasure.

Here’s the list, in no particular order, in full:

kim-rudyard-kipling-copyKim – Rudyard Kipling
An epic rendition of the imperial experience in India, and perhaps his (Rudyard Kipling) greatest long work. Kim, orphaned son of an Irish soldier and a poor white mother, and the lama, an old ascetic priest, are on a quest. Kim was born and raised in India and plays with the slum children as he lives on the streets, but he is white, a sahib, and wants to play the “Great Game of Imperialism”; while the priest must find redemption from the Wheel of Things. Kim celebrates their friendship and their journeys in a beautiful but hostile environment, capturing the opulence of the exotic landscape and the uneasy presence of the British Raj.

the-riddle-of-the-sands-erskine-childersThe Riddle of the SandsErskine Childers
Loosely based on the author’s own experiences, “The Riddle of the Sands” takes readers back to the early days of the twentieth century, when Britain shared a tense rivalry with the Kaiser’s Germany. Tempted by the idea of duck shooting, Carruthers is lured by his friend Davies into a yachting expedition in the Baltic, only to discover that the itinerary involves more than killing fowl. Soon they’re on a wild journey of intrigue, meeting danger at every turn, and ultimately unraveling Germany’s secret plans to invade England. Tautly written and full of unexpected twists, this is a timeless work of espionage fiction.

the-secret-agent-joseph-conradThe Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad
‘The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket.’
Set in an Edwardian London underworld of terrorist bombers, spies, grotesques and fanatics, Conrad’s dark, unsettling masterpiece asks if we ever really know others, or ourselves.




the-thirty-nine-steps-john-buchanThe Thirty Nine StepsJohn Buchan
Adventurer Richard Hannay has just returned from South Africa and is thoroughly bored with his London life – until a spy is murdered in his flat, just days after having warned Hannay of an assassination plot that could plunge Britain into a war with Germany. An obvious suspect for the police and an easy target for the killers, Hannay picks up the trail left by the assassins, fleeing to Scotland, where he must use all his wits to stay one step ahead of the game – and warn the government before it is too late.


ashendenAshendenSomerset Maugham
A celebrated writer by the time the war broke out in 1914, Somerset Maugham was dispatched by the Secret Service to Lucerne – under the guise of completing a play. An assignment whose danger and drama appealed both to his sense of romance and of the ridiculous. The stories collected in Ashenden are rooted in Maugham’s own experiences as an agent, reflecting the ruthlessness and brutality of espionage, its intrigue and treachery, as well as absurdity.


journey-into-fear-eric-amblerJourney Into FearEric Ambler
It is 1940 and Mr Graham, a quietly-spoken engineer and arms expert, has just finished high-level talks with the Turkish government. And now somebody wants him dead. The previous night three shots were fired at him as he stepped into his hotel room, so, terrified, he escapes in secret on a passenger steamer from Istanbul. As he journeys home – alongside, among others, an entrancing French dancer, an unkempt trader, a mysterious German doctor and a small, brutal man in a crumpled suit – he enters a nightmarish world where friend and foe are indistinguishable. Graham can try to run, but he may not be able to hide for much longer!

assignment-in-brittany-helen-macinnesAssignment in BrittanyHelen Macinnes
She seems to have had a wash and brush up, cover-wise.
He stared at the unfamiliar watch on his wrist. Three hours ago he had stood on English soil. Three hours ago he had been Martin Hearne, British Intelligence agent. Now he was in Nazi-occupied Brittany, posing as Bertrand Corlay. Hearne looked down at the faded uniform which had been Corlay’s felt for the papers in the inside pocket. He was ready. From now on he was one step away from death…


our-man-in-havana-graham-greneOur Man In HavanaGraham Greene
Wormold is a vacuum cleaner salesman in a city of power cuts. His adolescent daughter spends his money with a skill that amazes him, so when a mysterious Englishman offers him an extra income he’s tempted. In return all he has to do is carry out a little espionage and file a few reports. But when his fake reports start coming true, things suddenly get more complicated and Havana becomes a threatening place.



a-taste-for-deathA Taste for Death – Peter O’Donnell
While pearl-diving in Panama, Willie Garvin rescues a blind girl from hired killers. It seems she has rare and secret talents that a crime syndicate, led by the antithesis, Gabriel, would kill to obtain. Meanwhile in London, Modesty meets a man, Simon Delicata, with a taste for death and with such unnatural strength as to be a freak. When the link between Gabriel and Delicata becomes clear, Modesty and Willie realise what they are up against and that it’s too late, for they are being held captive, deep in the Sahara with the zombies of Mus. The blind girl’s uncanny gift is being used to unravel a two thousand-year-old secret, of Domitian Mus, a tribune of Rome. A secret worth millions.

seventeen-moments-of-springSeventeen Moments of SpringYulian Semyonov
A truly dreadful cover, but the one you’re going to havre to try and ignore if you want to read this one. Not available everywhere, so I’ve linked to Amazon. Also a TV series (in Russia?), as far as I can see.
The nightmare of fascism is something we would all rather forget, yet the horrors of the last war and the men who combated the evils of fascism must never be forgotten. Those heroes whose exploits for various reasons were unknown until recently must also be accorded their rightful place in history.
Yulian Semyonov’s new novel Seventeen Moments of Spring brings us the largely documentary story of one of those heroes, Maxim Isaev, alias SS Standartenfuhrer Stirlitz, known as Justas to those in charge of Soviet Intelligence. He has access to top military and political secrets and ejoyed the confidence of Schellenberg, Martin Bormann and Himmler.
The action of the novel is set in 1945, by which time Maxim Isaev has behind him many years’ experience of harrowing intelligence work, involving a constant gamble with death. He is almost at the end of his tether, and is planning to leave the fray after successfully completing a mission from Center when he goes back into the enemy’s lair once again, ready to face risks greater than ever, knowing that there he can best serve his people…
In answer to countless readers’ questions as to whether Maxim Isaev was a fictitious character Semyonov replies: “No, this particular Soviet agent combines traits of several heroic men now living, to whom I should like to express my gratitude for their brave, noble and inspiring lives…”

other-paths-to-glory-anthony-priceOther Paths to GloryAnthony Price
Can the past unlock the secrets of the present…? Anthony Price’s most celebrated novel – winner of the CWA GOLD DAGGER. Paul Mitchell spends his days researching WWI; his quiet life in the library can hardly be in greater contrast to the carnage he studies. Until, that is, the present catches up with him in the shape of Dr Audley of the MOD. Why does Audley want to know what really happened during the battle for Hameau Ridge on the Somme in 1916? The answer is complex and dangerous…


los-alamos-joseph-kanonLos AlamosJoseph Kanon
There does seem to be a different version, without the one word reviews and the hideous banner.
Los Alamos Near the end of World War II in Los Alamos, a town set in the shimmering New Mexico desert, an international team of scientists led by Robert Oppenheimer gathered together to build the world’s most dangerous weapon–the atomic bomb. Author Joseph Kanon has crafted an ingenious and utterly absorbing thriller, a tale of espionage and love set against the most important undercover government project.


the-company-robert-littellThe CompanyRobert Littell
Another one that’s as rare as rocking-horse shit. I can’t find it available to order, but I haven’t looked on eBay as yet.
This critically acclaimed blockbuster from internationally renowned novelist Robert Littell seamlessly weaves together history and fiction to create a multigenerational, wickedly nostalgic saga of the CIA known as “the Company” to insiders. Racing across a landscape spanning the legendary Berlin Base of the ’50s, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Bay of Pigs, Afghanistan, and the Gorbachev putsch, The Company tells the thrilling story of agents imprisoned in double lives, fighting an amoral, elusive, formidable enemy and each other in an internecine battle within the Company itself. A brilliant, stunningly conceived epic thriller, The Company confirms Littell’s place among the genre’s elite.”

decoded-mai-jiaDecodedMai Jia
‘One genius trying to work out what another genius has done – it results in the most appalling carnage …’ The world only makes sense to Rong Jinzhen through numbers. As an orphaned child he counts the ants on the ground and writes calculations on wrapping paper. But as this fragile, isolated boy grows up, his mathematical genius is recognized by the secret services. Recruited as a codebreaker to crack the notorious ‘Purple’ cipher, he begins to unravel …


your-face-tomorrowYour Face Tomorrow. Fever and SpearJavier Marias
A remarkable ‘novel in parts’, set in the murky world of surveillance and espionage. Fever and Spear is the first volume. Recently divorced, Jacques Deza moves from Madrid to London in order to distance himself from his ex-wife and children. There he picks up old friendships from his Oxford University days, particularly Sir Peter Wheeler, retired don and semi-retired spy. It is at an Oxford party of Wheeler’s that Jacques is approached by the enigmatic Bertram Tupra. Tupra believes that Jacques has a talent: he is one of those people who sees more clearly than others, who can guess from someone’s face today what they will become tomorrow. His services would be of use to a mysterious group whose aims are unstated but whose day-to-day activities involve the careful observation of people’s character and the prediction of their future behaviour. The ‘group’ may be part of MI6, though Jacques will find no reference to it in any book; he will be called up to report on all types of people from politicians and celebrities, to ordinary citizens applying for bank loans. As Deza is drawn deeper into this twilight world of observation, Marias shows how trust and betrayal characterise all human relationships. How do we read people, and how far can the stories they tell about themselves be trusted when, by its very nature, all language betrays? Moving from the intimacy of Jacques’ marriage to the deadly betrayals of the Spanish Civil War, Your Face Tomorrow is an extraordinary meditation on our ability to know our fellow human beings, and to save ourselves from fever and pain.

slow-horses-mick-herronSlow HorsesMick Heron
You don’t stop being a spook just because you’re no longer in the game.
Banished to Slough House from the ranks of achievers at Regent’s Park for various crimes of drugs and drunkenness, lechery and failure, politics and betrayal, Jackson Lamb’s misfit crew of highly trained joes don’t run ops, they push paper.
But not one of them joined the Intelligence Service to be a ‘slow horse’.
A boy is kidnapped and held hostage. His beheading is scheduled for live broadcast on the net.
And whatever the instructions of the Service, the slow horses aren’t going to just sit quiet and watch . . .

the-private-sector-joseph-honeThe Private SectorJoseph Hone
Another dreadful cover, I’m afraid. There are previous versions, but they’re as bad. Again, Amazon is your best bet.
With The Private Sector (1971) Joseph Hone introduced readers to British intelligence officer Peter Marlow, who would be the protagonist of three further novels – all now reissued in Faber Finds.
Cairo, May 1967: Marlow is sent from London to find his friend and fellow spy Henry Edwards, who has vanished. In the course of this fool’s errand he also finds his former wife, Bridget, now deeply entangled with Edwards. Marlow moves easily between British and Egyptian intelligence branches, attaching allegiance to neither – until he becomes the unwitting victim of a failed plot to topple Nasser.

the-human-factor-graham-greeneThe Human FactorGraham Greene
A leak is traced to a small sub-section of SIS, sparking off the inevitable security checks, tensions and suspicions. The sort of atmosphere, perhaps, where mistakes could be made? For Maurice Castle, it is the end of the line anyway, and time for him to retire to live peacefully with his African wife, Sarah. To the lonely, isolated, neurotic world of the Secret Service, Graham Greene brings his brilliance and perception, laying bare a machine that sometimes overlooks the subtle and secret motivations that impel us.


the-tiger-lifeThe Tiger, LifeSarah Gainham
That really is the best I can do as regards a cover image for this one. You can get it on Amazon and Abe Books, but they don’t seem to have a cover for it. I can’t (readily) find a synopsis for the book, apart from a mention in Jeremy Duns’ Twitter feed and in the Independent’s obituary.
Gainham’s last novel, The Tiger, Life, was published in 1983; an autobiography in all but name, its 400 pages were largely impenetrable except for the closest of her friends and the most devoted of her fans.


death-of-a-citizen-donald-hamiltonDeath of a CitizenDonald Hamilton
Also looks like his books have had a modern makeover. The ‘novel’ bit on the front, would suggest this is a US version. And yes, I thought ‘Matt Helm’ was the writer at first…
Matt Helm, one-time special agent for the American government during the Second World War, has left behind his violent past to raise a family in Santa Fe, New Mexico. When a former colleague turns rogue and kidnaps his daughter, Helm is forced to return to his former life as a deadly and relentless assassin.


the-9th-directiveThe 9th DirectiveAdam Hall
I do, vaguely, remember a TV series of this name. Didn’t pay it much attention though.
Clearly, you could get away with people being known as ‘The Person’ in books back then.
Quiller, known only by his codename, is the British government’s #1 intelligence agent. Darkly exotic Bangkok is center stage for a master assassin’s plan. The target: a visitor so important he is only called “The Person”. As the clock ticks away in the final hours, Quiller becomes the bait to stop the killer.

a-coffin-for-dimitrios-eric-amblerA Coffin for DimitriosEric Ambler
Another god-awful cover, I’m afraid. Maybe Penguin will get on the case as with the other of his on the list.
The classic story of an ordinary man seemingly out of his depth, this is Ambler’s most widely acclaimed novel.
A chance encounter with a Turkish colonel leads Charles Latimer, the author of a handful of successful mysteries, into a world of sinister political and criminal maneuvers. At first merely curious to reconstruct the career of the notorious Dimitrios, whose body has been identified in an Istanbul morgue, Latimer soon finds himself caught up in a shadowy web of assassination, espionage, drugs, and treachery that spans the Balkans.

istanbul-passage-joseph-kanonIstanbul PassageJoseph Kanon
How do you do the right thing when there are only bad choices to be made?
A neutral capital straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul survived WW2 as a magnet for refugees and spies, trafficking in secrets and lies rather than soldiers. Expatriate American businessman Leon Bauer was drawn into this shadow world, doing undercover odd jobs and courier runs in support of the Allied war effort. Now as the espionage community begins to pack up and an apprehensive city prepares for the grim realities of postwar life, Leon is given one last routine assignment. But when the job goes fatally wrong – an exchange of gunfire, a body left in the street, and a potential war criminal in his hands – Leon is plunged into a nightmarish tangle of intrigue, shifting loyalties and moral uncertainty.
Rich with atmosphere and period detail, Istanbul Passageis the story of a man swept up in the dawn of the Cold War, of an unexpected love affair, and of a city as deceptive as the calm surface waters of the Bosphorus that divides it.

agent-in-place-helen-macinnesAgent in PlaceHelen Macinnes
Chuck Kelso is an idealist. When he steals a top-secret NATO memorandum, he only intends to leak it to the press; but it is soon in the hands of a Russian agent, a man who has spent nine years quietly working himself into the fabric of Washington society. Within hours it has reached the KGB, and the CIA s top man in Moscow has had his cover blown. For British agent Tony Lawton, hunting down the Russian operative the agent in place is a welcome challenge. But for Chuck s brother, the journalist Tom Kelso, and his beautiful wife, Thea, the affair has unleashed a very special terror. Now the race is on to find the Russian spy before a top-level NATO conference. But why is the escaped agent behaving so strangely? Is he who he seems?”

mills-manning-obrineMillsManning O’Brine
Not a lot of details for this readily available.
A cat-and-mouse thriller in which the eponymous British agent decides to retire but then becomes quarry for agents from the Russian and America secret services – as well as his own – all of whom believe he is carrying the formula for a new form of LSD.



the-kremlin-letter-noel-behnThe Kremlin LetterNoel Behn
Lt. Cmdr. Charles Rone, a young naval intelligence officer with a sterling record, finds himself abruptly discharged from the service. Without his consent, Rone has been recruited to join a top-secret network of agents who operate independently of the US government. Led by a cynical spymaster known only as the Highwayman, the group will break any law and destroy as many innocent lives as necessary to stop the spread of communism.
 In Moscow, the Americans must make contact with a high-level mole in the Kremlin and recover a letter that could spark a nuclear war if it falls into the wrong hands. But treachery is an integral part of this shadow conflict between superpowers, and no sooner has the team arrived in the Soviet capital than the double-crossing begins. One devastating betrayal follows the next as Rone desperately tries to stay alive and out of the clutches of the KGB long enough to find out who compromised the mission.
 Inspired by author Noel Behn’s service in the US Army’s Counterintelligence Corps, The Kremlin Letter is a realistic and hard-edged tale of international intrigue that ranks with the best of John Le Carré and Len Deighton. A New York Times bestseller, it was the basis for a John Huston film starring Orson Welles and Max von Sydow.

If that’s not enough, there is a much longer list of spy fiction at the back of the excellent The Double Game, by Dan Fesperman. As far as I can tell, that list is based on the bookshelf of the fictional character’s father. The books are ‘real’ enough, though the list includes the fictional books, by the fictional protagonist…yes, me too.

*I used some details of plots and whathaveyou, from a very good looking website called Existential Ennui. Well worth a visit as they too name-check the ever wonderful Jeremy Duns as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.