The Reading Life: Espionage Fiction

Of late, I’ve been thinking about genre fiction. Specifically, how I don’t think I read all that much of it, until I look back at my reading log (you keep one too, don’t you) and notice that there is rather more historical fiction and detective fiction — and sometimes historical detective fiction — than I first thought.

And, espionage. Spy novels. Here are a few of my favorites, in roughly chronological order.

The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Robert Erskine Childers

While there are earlier examples of the genre, it’s with The Riddle of the Sands that espionage fiction first assumes its modern form. A minor British official and a friend take a yachting holiday in the Frisian Islands and discover the base for a German invasion of England. They are nearly caught, but escape and foil the invasion plan. It’s not a complicated plot or even very subtle, but if you like espionage fiction, it’s not a bad idea to see where it started.

The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by John Buchan

The Thirty-Nine Steps is more thriller than spy novel, but there’s still a good deal of espionage and spies just seem to come out of the woodwork. Richard Hannay is a stiff-upper-lip, action-oriented sort of spy who, besides being one of Bond’s direct antecedents, discovers a plot to assassinate the Greek prime minister in order betray British military secrets in the run up to the First World War. He gets into — and out of — all manner of scrapes and foils the plot and preserves the secrets.

This novel has been adapted for film no fewer than three times; I prefer Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version.

Ashendon (1928) by W. Somerset Maugham

I’m not sure whether I love Ashendon because it’s a spy novel, or because it was written by Maugham (who never wrote a great book or a bad book, but did write any number of really fine ones). Ashendon is a set of loosely linked stories, all featuring the playwright Ashendon who is recruited as a spy and proceeds to have adventures throughout Europe. It’s said that the Ashendon stories are based in part on Maugham’s own experience as an agent during the First World War.

Some of the stories from Ashendon were adapted as the Secret Agent (1936) by Alfred Hitchcock.

Casino Royale (1953) by Ian Fleming

You’ve probably seen the film–or both of them–now you should read the book. Casino Royale is one Fleming’s best, and he was a fine writer who’s been too-often eclipsed by his own fictional creation and the Bond movies that he inspired. If it’s your sort of thing, pay particular attention to Fleming’s prose; it’s a model of clarity, energy, and economy.

The Quest for Karla (1974-1979) by John le Carré

In my mind, these are the greatest of all espionage novels written by the master of the genre. The Quest for Karla is three novels: Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People. George Smiley is perhaps the most unromantic, workaday spy that you are likely to find, but also the most subtle, the most profound, and ultimately, the most ruthless. It’s the height of the Cold War and Smiley must deal with Russian spies, moles in his own organization, and Britain’s place in limbo between the superpowers. He wins some, loses some, and eventually — with infinite subtlety and with the careful application of pressure — takes down not only a high-level mole in the British Secret Service but also his Russian arch-rival, Karla.

After you’ve read the books (in order, mind you), watch the excellent television adaptation starring Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley.

Harlot’s Ghost (1991) by Norman Mailer

That’s right — Norman Mailer wrote a spy novel, or more precisely, a novel about the CIA. Mailer seems to be both perversely attracted and repulsed by the CIA. The story is the fictional autobiography of Harry Hubbard, which tells the story of his work for the CIA, and which eventually morphs from a recounted story to the story of the novel itself. This novel is perhaps the best and worst of Mailer, and also some of the best and worst of the genre itself. Still worth reading though, as the narration and the story carry a bizarre compulsion to be read.

Night Soldiers (1988-2010) by Alan Furst

There are now eleven loosely related — both in cast, geography, and time frame — novels in Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers series. These set of interwoven espionage-thrillers traverses Europe from one end to another during the Second World War. They are action-packed, fast-paced, and filled with memorable characters on both sides — sometimes quite literally on both sides, or on no side — of the war. They also include the best restaurant in espionage fiction — the Brassierie Heiniger, in Paris and where I first read of of my favorite dishes: choucroute. While it’s possible to read them out of order, it’s still probably best to start with Night Soldiers and go from there.

What’s your favorite spy novel? Leave us a comment and let us know.

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About Amanda K

Amanda K holds a master's degree in Library and Information Studies. She's a housewife, a Planned Parenthood volunteer, a sewist, and an aspiring gourmet home cook. View all posts by Amanda K

5 responses to “The Reading Life: Espionage Fiction

  • James Loranger

    You omit too many classics:
    Joseph Conrad,
    The Secret Agent

    Eric Ambler:
    A Coffin for Dimitrios, Background to Danger, Journey into Fear, Cause for Alarm

    John Le Carre
    The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Looking Glass War

    Len Deighton:
    The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, Game Set & Match Trilogy

    Adam Hall:
    The Quiller Memorandum

    Elliot West
    The Night is a Time for Listening

    Jack D. Hunter
    The Expendable Spy, One of Us Works for Them

    Anthony Burgess
    Tremor of Intent

    and Finally

    Graham Greene
    Stamboul Train (Orient Express), The Ministry of Fear, Our Man in Havana, The Honorary Consul, The Human Factor

    Of these, Ambler is the Master of between the wars intrigue (Furst acknowledges his debt to him) Deighton introduced the nameless agent who became Harry Palmer when played by Michael Caine in films, and Conrad, Burgess, and Greene elevate the form to high literary art.

  • Steve Wagner

    Of course I do. Posts like this are meant to be tantalizing, not exhaustive.

    Except for Conrad; I omitted him on purpose.

  • James Loranger

    Fair enough; I still think A Cofin for Dimitrios is too fine an espionage novel to be omitted. Also, I take exception with the Karla trilogy being presented as the best of Le Carre. The novels are all funereal in their pacing, and Smiley, while certainly unromantic, is a rather conventionally heroic figure. The Smiley who appears in Spy Who Came in From the Cold, along with Leamas, the titular hero, is far more compelling. Stiil, isn’t it fun to argue books in this fashion, rather than prattle about comic book movies and marginally talented pop singers?

  • Steve Wagner

    I omitted A Coffin for Demetrios largely because I haven’t read it in something like 15 years and couldn’t remember it well enough to write coherently about it.

    As for your point about the Karla trilogy, I find the funerality of the pacing to be part of its power — the whole feeling very many small, seemingly unimportant facts and actions add up to something of moment, when put together by someone as patient and subtle as Smiley.

    True — I’d much rather argue about books than most anything else.

  • Thomas Evans

    Actually, I would put the whole Smiley series in your list, though I certainly understand why you haven’t. While there are consistancy problems if you read them as a whole, they do give a great feeling for Cold War Espionage and are particularly interesting if you finish them off with The Secret Pilgrim, which closes them off quite nicely.

    As a fan of LeCaree, you might want to consider Church’s Inspector O series (assuming you haven’t already). The best I’ve come across in modern (aka post-cold war) espionage fiction.

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