The spy novel offers something of an escape. We’ve all secretly dreamed of waking up, shrugging on a tailor made suit and taking our classic car for a spin to a rendezvous with our handler, to be sent on another exciting, 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 implausible amounts for a professional spy and quipping incessantly, here are some of the best alternative spy novels to get your fix of spy excitement.
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)
Over a century old, and Buchan’s adventure novel still passes muster. The first of five novels featuring an all-action hero with a stiff upper lip, Richard Hannay, this is unpredictable, exciting fare – and will keep you guessing until the last page.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre (1974)
Considered the archetypal spy novel by many, Le Carre – real name David Cornwell’s 1974 work follows the endeavours of wiley George Smiley to uncover 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 by Graham Greene (1955)
A novel depicting French colonialism being uprooted in Vietnam may not sound like the most thrilling you’ve ever heard, 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, there is action balanced with considered philosophy – and the book is all the better for it.
The Day of the Jackal by 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 remains so to this day. Of course, the 1973 film adaptation starring the suave Edward Fox did nothing to help with the stories success…
The Bourne Identity by 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 by Tom Clancy (1984)
Tom Clancy’s debut novel remains his best. Introducing Jack Ryan, the CIA analyst throw into the field, it one again 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 to bring the appeal of classic espionage into modern-day storytelling is impressive to say the least.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907)
Switching to the other end of the spy spectrum, Joseph Conrad sets his 1907 novel in 1886, and deals with a Russian spy in London. If that sounds so out-of-time that it’s hard to relate to, you’d be right at times, but overall this is an arresting tale of terrorism against the Greenwich Observatory – and is afforded more weight in the current climate.
The IPCRESS File by 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 State atomic weapons test and an extended sequence in Lebanon – and makes use of spy novel trope to be employed for years to come: that of the nameless protagonist.
The Travelers by Chris Pavone (2016)
A more recent addition, but one worthy of the list, The Travelers by Chris Pavone sees travel writer Will Rhodes is 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.
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