The spy novel, in all its secretive, surreptitious glory, offers something of an escape. We’ve all secretly dreamed of waking up, buttoning up a tailor-made suit and taking our classic car to a rendezvous with our handler — doubtless to be sent on another intoxicating, clandestine mission. And, while these desires for espionage are, by and large, fuelled today by film and television — think Mission: Impossible, Kingsman and The Americans — many have their origins in the pages of books.
So, if you’re tired of Ian Fleming’s indomitable 007 sleeping around, drinking implausibly and quipping incessantly, here are some of the best spy novels to get your fix of escapist espionage.
The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan (1915)
Over a century old, Buchan’s adventure novel still passes muster. The first of five novels featuring Richard Hannay — an all-action hero with a stiff upper lip — this is unpredictable, exciting fare, and will keep you guessing until the final page.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carre (1974)
Considered the archetypal spy novel by many, Le Carré — real name David Cornwell — penned perhaps his most famous work in 1974. It follows the endeavours of wiley George Smiley as he uncovers a Soviet mole in the British Secret Service. Grounded, relatively action-less and an education in the human psyche, this is slow-going, but worth every page.
The Quiet American, Graham Greene (1955)
A novel depicting French colonialism being uprooted in Vietnam may not sound the most thrilling — but, in the hands of English literary giant Graham Greene, anything is possible. Featuring British journalism, undercover CIA agents, illegitimate marriage and a light smattering of car bombs, expect action balanced with considered philosophy.
The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth (1971)
Telling the tale of a professional assassin tasked by a French dissident organisation to kill the President of France — Forsyth’s novel was met with praise when it was first published, and is still celebrated today. Of course, the 1973 film adaptation starring the suave Edward Fox did nothing but help with the story’s success…
The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum (1980)
We all know Matt Damon’s award-winning portrayal of Ludlum’s most famous character, but how many of us have read the novels? If not, you’ll be glad to know that these tales of amnesia, backstabbing and action are just as thrilling on the page — and that Eric Van Lustbader has added to the cannon, with an additional 11 Bourne books available to read.
The Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy (1984)
Tom Clancy’s debut novel remains his best. Introducing Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst thrown into the field, it tackles Soviet themes and the adventures of a group of US Navy officers taking possession of a nuclear submarine. It’s thrilling fare, and Clancy’s talent for bringing the appeal of classic espionage into modern-day storytelling makes for a rollicking read.
The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad (1907)
At the other end of the spy spectrum, Joseph Conrad set his 1907 novel in 1886, and tasked it with telling the tale of a Russian spy in London. It’s a book that, at times, feels too dated to be arresting, but the story of terrorism — an attack on the Greenwich Observatory — makes it seem oddly prescient.
The IPCRESS File, Len Deighton (1962)
Len Deighton’s first spy novel, like Tom Clancy’s, is also his best. More famous for the Michael Caine-fronted film spun from its pages, this original novel involves Cold War brainwashing, a United States atomic weapons test and an extended sequence in Lebanon — while also making use of a yet-to-be-popular spy novel trope: that of the nameless protagonist.
The Travelers, Chris Pavone (2016)
A more recent addition to the genre, but one worthy of this list. The Travelers by Chris Pavone follows travel writer Will Rhodes as he heads on assignment for Travelers magazine in the wine region of Argentina – when a beautiful woman makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Drawn into a tangled web of international intrigue — like so many thriller protagonists before him — this is a standout in a modern world of throwaway poolside paperbacks.