From Bond to Argylle: how spy fiction has evolved

Spy thrillers are more popular than ever, both on screen and in literature. These are the six books that have shaped the genre.

Tom Tivnan
Best spy thriller book covers

Spies are all around us. Not in the literal sense⁠ (although if they were very good at their jobs, how would we know?) but in books and the wider pop culture landscape.

The last 12 months have been chock-a-block with secret agent fiction bestsellers, such as Matthew Richardson’s The Scarlet Papers, Terry Hayes’ long-awaited return with The Year of the Locust and Tess Gerritsen’s recently-released The Spy Coast.

And while the world awaits the appointment of the next James Bond, there have been plenty of secret agent shenanigans on our screens. Netflix’s most-streamed show of 2023 was the conspiracy thriller The Night Agent; Amazon Prime Video’s current hit is the Mr. & Mrs. Smith remake, and out in cinemas now is director Matthew Vaughn’s meta-narrative Argylle, which sees a spy novelist get caught up in real-life intrigue.

The origins of the spy thriller

The espionage genre has a long history. It originated in America in 1812 with The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper, most famous for The Last of the Mohicans. And while there were some further dabbles in the 19th Century, the spy novel really took off in the next 100 years, with British writers such as John Buchan, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and John le Carré leading the way.

These books reflected real-life anxieties

These books reflected real-life anxieties during and around both World Wars and, particularly, the Cold War. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s many predicted the death of the espionage thriller. How could it go on if the main “baddie” was no more? But they have remained popular – and, arguably, more vital than ever.

The central struggle of the spy thriller is timeless: a lone hero works against a huge, corrupt, seemingly unbeatable organisation. Wariness over unaccountable government forces and faceless institutions is nothing new, which might explain why the best books in the field – even those written a century ago – still feel modern and contemporary.

While the overarching themes of espionage stories are mostly unchanged, however, the genre has shifted significantly over the years. The following are six titles that demonstrate the evolution of the spy novel.

Spy thrillers that define the genre

Eric Ambler was one of the greatest spy writers. Le Carré even called him “the source of all we draw on”. Someone with such an influential bibliography is not forgotten, but he is arguably underappreciated. Yet his work is ripe for a rediscovery, as his overarching themes of dirty dealings between big businesses and bad governments feel so fresh.

The Mask of Dimitrios is one of his best, starting with English crime novelist Charles Latimer travelling in Istanbul and hearing of the titular master criminal’s body being fished out of the Bosphorus. Intrigued, Charles starts looking into Dimitrios’ life to get ideas for his next book and stumbles into a dangerous conspiracy.      

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No list of espionage fiction would be complete without mentioning “Bond, James Bond,” who first appeared in this 1953 debut by former spook Ian Fleming.

Agent 007 has become one of the world’s most influential literary characters, but be honest now: have you read the books? Because if someone says “James Bond”, odds are you’ll think of Monty Norman’s theme song, Sean Connery suavely ordering his martini “shaken, not stirred” or Daniel Craig emerging from the sea in those skimpy blue swimming trunks. You probably don’t think of the Bond of Fleming’s novels. But they are fascinating, and worth a read, as Fleming’s original is colder and more callous than the movie Bond – certainly Roger Moore’s⁠ – but far more vulnerable.       

Le Carré may have name-checked Ambler as the greatest spy novelist, but most would say it’s le Carré himself. And with good reason. The former MI5 and MI6 agent⁠, who wrote his debut while working undercover at Britain’s West German embassy⁠, brought a sophisticated, morally ambiguous tone to the genre.

His George Smiley is the anti-Bond: short, bald, and overweight, with a self-effacing manner that means he is constantly underestimated. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley is brought back into service to find a mole who may be at the highest levels of British intelligence.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron (2010)

Many dissertations have probably been written on how the British spy novel over the last century reflects the decline of the UK’s status on the world stage. This is most evident in Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, where washed-out MI5 agents are sent to Slough House – a crumbling, clapped-out office near the Barbican.

Historically, spy fiction was written by men, about men and for men. That is changing.

The protagonist, Jackson Lamb, is an unhygienic, unbearably rude man. But underneath his blusters, he is deeply loyal to his team. Lamb is wonderfully played in the current Apple TV+ adaptation by Gary Oldman, who also portrayed George Smiley on film.       

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson (2019)

You may have noticed something about this list and, historically, spy fiction in general: it is mainly written by men, about men and for men. That has changed over the last 10 years or so, no doubt boosted by female-led TV hits such as Homeland and Killing Eve. Recent spy tales written by women include Kate Atkinson’s Transcriptions, Alma Katsu’s Red Widow and Charlotte Philby’s Edith and Kim.

But my standout here is Wilkinson’s complex and nuanced debut, which counts former president Barack Obama among its fans (he describes it as “a whole lot more than just a spy thriller”). It’s set in the 1980s and revolves around a young Black FBI officer who is sent to Burkina Faso to foment a coup.

Argylle by Elly Conway (2024)

And back to Argylle. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, the book is tons of fun. The movie’s conceit is that writer Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) has to go on the run because the plots of her novels predict the future. You don’t have that meta-backstory in the novel – which is a fast-paced romp that follows the titular Argylle, a sort of James Bond-cum-Jason Bourne super-spy, as he is sent to stop a Russian villain from getting his hands on old Nazi treasure.

The rumours about who actually wrote Argylle came thick and fast on the internet⁠ – Taylor Swift was one theory⁠ – but the revelation that “Conway” was in fact none other than Terry Hayes and the psychological thriller author Tammy Cohen explains why it is so entertaining.        

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