The spy story is the perfect formula for a gripping read.
Reading lists

The greatest spy thrillers in literature

From John Le Carré to Ian Fleming, Baroness Orczy to Viet Thanh Nguyen, these authors' 'special skill' is to keep you on the edge of your seat...

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.

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson (2019)

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.”

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1953)

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.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)

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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