Who doesn’t love a good spy novel? Fast cars, seductively beautiful women, elegant charm, laser-emitting cuff links—everything any respectable man wants out of life, all from the comfort of your subway car, bedroom, bathroom, or office. We’re subjected to none of the danger, but benefit from all the thrilling action and brain-bending mystery the world of a spy has to offer.
And when the men and women who lived them write these novels, they lend a certain credibility and experience to the writing that no amount of Googling or research can. And for that, we’re grateful.
Here are 5 excellent spy novels, written by actual spies:
Ashenden: Or the British Agent
W. Somerset Maugham
Maugham is oft considered one of the pioneers of the spy genre, and for good reason. Ashenden is partly based on Maugham’s experience as a member of British Intelligence during World War I, and follows the life of Ashenden, a British playwright who is recruited into British Intelligence, and undertakes a series of dangerous missions throughout wartime Europe and Asia. A fascinating look into the world of a working spy, Ashenden is actually cited as a primary inspiration for Ian Fleming’s famous James Bond novels.
… But more on that later. Link
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John le Carre
David John Moore Cornwell was a British spy with the MI5 and MI6, and published, under the pseudonym John le Carre, some of the most revered espionage novels the world has ever known. He single-handedly created the second-most popular fictional spy character of all time, George Smiley, the central character in several of le Carre’s novels, including Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People, as well as a supporting character in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War, and The Secret Pilgrim. But Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the fifth novel in the George Smiley series, is often considered le Carre’s best (along with his sophomore piece, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). It was so good that it was made into a movie that actually doesn’t suck.
Le Carre’s work is considered required reading in the spy-mystery genres because it is well known that he based many of the characters in his novels on real people. His writing is concise and tempered, and it’s about as realistic and plausible as fictional espionage writing gets. Link
The Black Tulip: A Novel of War in Afghanistan
What happens when you mix a 30-year career with the world’s foremost intelligence agency, a razor-sharp attention to detail, and the gift of gab? Milton Bearden’s The Black Tulip. Bearden brings to the table a tenured career in the CIA and his experience working to assist the Afghans in their fight against the Soviets, and lays it all out in plain sight for readers in Black Tulip.
Set in the late 1980s and based on real events, the novel follows protagonist Alexander Fannin as he heads to Afghanistan, bankrolled by U.S. Intelligence, to support the Mujahideen fighters against the Soviets.
The novel is lauded as one of the most intricate and telling pieces of modern spy literature, and received positive reviews from critics who note that it focuses less on the wild blood and gore of war, and more on the intricacies of the diplomatic chess games played during these conflicts. It is, without a doubt, the thinking man’s spy novel. Link
Perhaps the most famous and widely read novel on this list, Ian Fleming is highly recognized as the most prominent espionage storyteller in literary history. While any of the 11 novels in his groundbreaking James Bond series are excellent reads, we’re listing Casino Royale because it was the book that introduced James Bond to the world. Fleming was a naval intelligence officer during the WWII, and was heavily involved in the planning of Operation Goldeneye, and the oversight of two of the most famous (and fucking bad ass) intelligence units in British history, 30 Assault Unit and T-Force. Link
Valerie Plame/Sarah Lovett
Following the success of her self-authored memoir, Valerie Plame, the famous CIA covert officer whose cover was intentionally blown by a Washington Post reporter, teamed up with acclaimed author Sarah Lovett to put out Blowback, the fictional account of Vanessa Pierson, a CIA covert operative hell-bent on taking down an Iranian weapons factory and figuring out who murdered her Iranian informant. Her writing is lean and to-the-point, and this fast-paced, high-speed thriller helps craft an awe-inspiring look into the world of counter-intelligence, nuclear proliferation, and international politics.
Plame’s experience as a legitimate covert spy brings credibility to the table that’s simply unattainable elsewhere, and Lovett’s snappy authorial style makes this story quite a page-turner. Plus, Pierson drinks bourbon and kicks ass all over the world.
Think James Bond, but with boobs. Link