Double-crosses, dead drops, global conspiracies, and desperate dashes across continents to save the world – the spy story is the perfect formula for a gripping read. Perhaps it's also the moral ambiguity of spy fiction that leaves us so shaken and stirred: a spy can get away with anything, especially murder, but you root for them just the same.
But if there's one thing we love more than a good old state-sanctioned murder, it's a good old state secret. As well as creating memorable individuals, the best spy fiction lifts the curtain on power to reveal the many shady ways in which the world – and our lives – is controlled by unseen forces.
Or maybe, really, we just want an escape. We've all dreamed of buttoning up a bullet-proof tux, throwing back a martini and trotting the globe to stop a global criminal mastermind in their tracks, just in time for tea.
So, in the spirit of saving the world before bedtime, here – from the genre-defining classics to modern espionage masterpieces – are some of the most iconic spy stories in literature.
by John le Carré (1974) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
This is the leading voice of the genre and probably the most famous spy novel of them all. It's the first in
John le Carré's acclaimed Karla Trilogy and did for espionage fiction what Lord of the Rings did for fantasy. Meet George Smiley, former spymaster brought back into the fray for One Last Job: to outfox a Soviet mole who's infiltrated the highest echelons of the British Secret Intelligence Service. It's a gripping deep dive into the human psyche and the original cat-and-mouse thriller.
by John Buchan (1915) The Thirty-Nine Steps
Just as the pin is being pulled on World War One, a stiff-upper-lipped Londoner meets an American spy with a secret too many. He invites the spy to use his flat to hide from the shadowy German spy ring that's after him. But when he returns home one night to find the spy dead, he realises he must run not only for his life, but also for the sake of British national security. What follows is an adventure story for the ages – one that set the standard for the man-on-the-run thriller that we all know so well today.
by Lauren Wilkinson (2019) American Spy
American Spy is extraordinary in many ways, not least because it makes the rare move (in spy fiction, that is) of placing a female African American intelligence agent at the heart of the action. But this Cold War espionage thriller, set between New York and West Africa, is also a terrific read – pacy, punchy and packed with social and political insight, tacking issues of race and gender in a way that few, if any, spy novels have done before.
Barack Obama was so struck by the story that he included it on his 2019 summer reading list, calling the novel “a whole lot more than just a spy thriller, wrapping together the ties of family, of love, and of country.”
by Ian Fleming (1953) Casino Royale
You can't do a spy list without a nod to everyone's favourite gentleman spy – the “double-O” agent who drinks hard and loves harder. There is no spy more iconic than "Bond, James Bond". We could have picked any of Ian Fleming's novels but this is the first, and certainly one of the best. If you're going to get into Fleming, a life-and-death game of baccarat with an international master criminal on the payroll of Soviet Russia is a good place to start.
by Baroness Orczy (1905) The Scarlet Pimpernel
The Scarlet Pimpernel is less spy than leader of a secret society of English aristocrats, dedicated to rescuing French nobility from the guillotine of revolutionary France. So a bit like if Bond mixed with Batman and swapped his fast car for a horse.
But the story was a precursor to the spy fiction genre that was soon to explode, as espionage awareness grew in the build-up to the Great War. It's an edge-of-the-seat rollercoaster of secret identities, shadowy plots, covert messages and derring-do, with one of the most dashing heroes in fiction.
by Graham Greene (1955) The Quiet American
Here is a love story and a spy story set in the chaos of 1950s Vietnam, just before the US military complex trundled in. It follows Alden Pyle, a young, wide-eyed CIA agent slung in to make sense of the war-torn country, and Thomas Fowler, a jaded and cynical British foreign correspondent who's had enough of it all. Trouble is, they've both fallen in love with the same woman. It caused a political storm in America, where many slammed
Graham Greene for his portrait of “obtuse and destructive American innocence and idealism” which, as Greene saw it, was a recipe for mass murder.
by Lara Prescott (2020) The Secrets We Kept
It only came out this year, but for my money, there's a chance this tantalising thriller could, with time, easily work its way to “iconic” status. It novelises the true story of how a pair of female CIA typists helped Russian author
Boris Pasternak and his lover smuggle back into Russia to spread anti-Soviet propaganda (the Soviets had originally banned it for being “artistically squalid, malicious work replete with hatred of Socialism”). Doctor Zhivago
The book, lauded not only for its forensic historical accuracy but for its breakneck storytelling, has become a publishing phenomenon, selling in 25 countries, with film rights optioned. Plus, it stars women – a grossly overlooked demographic in spy fiction.
by Erskine Childers (1903) The Riddle of the Sands
When Charles Carruthers accepts an invitation from a German pal to go on a yachting and duck-hunting jolly in the Frisian Islands, little does he know he's about to tumble into a daredevil investigation into a German plot for world domination. If that sounds familiar, consider when it was written.
Not only did
Erskine Childers effectively predict the threat of war with Germany, he wrote what could be considered the first proper spy novel ever penned. And it's gripping to boot, a thriller of derring-do and darstardly villains that influenced many masters of the genre, from John Buchan to John le Carré.
by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015) The Sympathizer
It's rare for a spy novel win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but that's just what Viet Thanh Nguyen did with this exploration of the Vietnam War and its legacy through the eyes of a Viet Cong spy. The spy in question is a double agent, a captain in the South Vietnamese army who moves with his general to Los Angeles to start new lives.
But what the general (a CIA stooge) doesn't know is that our hero is secretly feeding information to his spymasters in the Viet Cong back home. It's an espionage thriller, a political novel, a campus novel and a story of forbidden love rolled into one. One of the best spy novels of the century so far.
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