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In Celebration of le Carré: A Selection of Great Espionage Novels

Posted on 29th July 2020 by Mark Skinner

A new book from literature's greatest spymaster, John le Carré, is always a major event and so we thought that we would mark the publication of Agent Running in the Field by compiling a list of seminal espionage novels. From the genre's pioneers and trailblazers to modern exponents of the form, these twenty great titles are suffused with shadowy, smoke-filled subterfuge and high stakes games of national security.  

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that John le Carré is the laureate, doyen and grand master of the espionage novel. Over a period of nearly sixty years he has produced a body of work astonishing in its consistency and dazzling in its scope. From the chill dread of Berlin checkpoints to the oppressive heat of Nairobi, the novelist formerly known as David Cornwell has mapped out the vagaries of the human heart and intellect through a series of compelling plotlines and flawed, rounded characters. In George Smiley he created the archetype of the closed, taciturn British spook; perceptive and insightful yet awkward and aloof. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold he cast the Cold War thriller in his own inimitable image.  And in A Perfect Spy he crafted a modern masterpiece that Philip Roth praised as ‘the best English novel since the war.’

Le Carré’s 25th novel, Agent Running in the Field, reveals an author still at the top of his game. With typically forensic power, the great spymaster turns his attention to today’s febrile political climate and bitterly polarised society in a story resounding with the intrigue, suspense and authenticity that we have come to expect from this former Security Service operative. 

To celebrate this momentous publishing event we have compiled a list of great spy novels, past and present. There is shadowy glamour and gritty realism, unflinching intensity and rich comic irony, double agents and deadly moles. These books have all cracked the code when it comes to delivering quality espionage fiction.  

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Herron’s flinty and sardonic spy series has reinvigorated the modern espionage novel, combining the realism of le Carre with a very singular brand of black comedy. Slow Horses is our introduction to Jackson Lamb and the hapless inhabitants of Slough House, a haven for washed-up spooks with something to prove.
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The James Bond novel which is most redolent of the shadowy espionage of the Cold War, Fleming’s fifth outing for 007 is one of the very best. Mixing escapist action in exotic locales with a complex plot involving cipher machines, double cross and, naturally, a beautiful female spy, From Russia With Love is vintage Bond from start to finish.
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A mature and penetrating examination of the Cold War and how the machinations of superpowers and shadowy elites impact on everyday lives, Exposure is as finely wrought as anything Helen Dunmore has written. Secrets and suspicions inveigle their way into a typical domestic relationship with profound and shocking consequences.
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Deighton’s first outing for world-weary agent Bernard Samson broke new ground for the espionage novel, with its wry, mordant and resolutely unglamorous glance at the security services. Proving that British Intelligence is as rife with internal politics as external, Berlin Game spins a story of disillusion and betrayal that rings irresistibly true to this day.

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Eschewing the contrived glamour of many espionage thrillers, Our Friends in Berlin is a gripping character study of ordinary people rendered exceptional by the drama of war. As the enthralling plot unfolds with clockwork precision, wartime Berlin’s shadow world of double agents and doomed romance is brought spectacularly to life.
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One of the great spy thrillers of the twentieth century and a benchmark for much of what came after, Buchan’s breakneck dash up the British Isles takes in mistaken identity, fifth columnists and deliciously obscure code words. Comfortingly old fashioned yet still tremendously exciting, The Thirty Nine Steps is the perfect ripping yarn to curl up in an armchair with.
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A literary thriller about the forbidden thrill of literature, Prescott’s astonishing debut sees a duo of CIA typists attempt to smuggle Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago back into Soviet Russia. Wholly original and brilliantly realised, The Secrets We Kept hymns the subversive power of great prose whilst ratcheting up the tension with masterly technique.
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Perfectly capturing a decadent, exotic Cuba pre-Castro, Our Man in Havana is a mercilessly ironic satire of spying that finds a vacuum cleaner salesman passing on confected intelligence to the British. As sprightly as any of Greene’s ‘entertainments’ this is a delightful corrective to all po-faced spy thrillers that take themselves too seriously.
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Loosely based on the real-life case of Melita Norwood, Rooney’s jaw-dropping story of double agents and Cold War intrigue shines a light into the psychological motivations and vulnerabilities of those who choose to betray their country. An espionage novel that places the human element front and centre of a compellingly plotted tale.
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Ludlum’s most famous novel and the high-octane thriller that kick-started a successful movie franchise, The Bourne Identity fizzes with expertly constructed action, tantalising mystery and edge-of-the-seat suspense. A man with no memory, a pack of redoubtable assassins and a code that leads to a fortune; the backdrop to a modern classic of popular thriller writing.
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The shadow of the Second World War looms ominously over this atmospheric thriller that dissects the nature of ideological loyalty and the devastating mistakes of the past. Couched in sparse, direct prose and replete with a wounded, hard-boiled aura, Leaving Berlin is a powerful tale of deadly power plays between East and West.
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A cracking yarn of maritime derring-do, Childers’ novel is also the father of the modern spy novel. With characteristic Edwardian pluck and resolve two amateur sailors foil a German plot to invade the British Isles, and The Riddle of the Sands unfolds its narrative of danger and heroism with pace and charm.
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Oscillating between the present day and the Nazi occupied France of World War II, Manda Scott’s elegantly twisting espionage thriller probes the scars left by the legacy of the Resistance and the desperate lengths people will go to keep old secrets buried for good.
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A daring exercise in subverting reader expectations, Forsyth’s speculative thriller about the potential assassination of de Gaulle continues to set pulses racing. With a narrative like a tightly coiled spring and a structure that piles on the tension with every chapter, The Day of the Jackal is a master-class in sustained suspense.
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A dazzling literary thriller and insightful character study from the author of Any Human Heart, Restless explores both the wartime adventures and peacetime intrigues of Russian émigré Eva Delectorskaya. Written with typical subtlety and nuance by Boyd, this is a spellbinding meditation on buried secrets and identities, and a top notch spy story to boot.
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Skilfully combining a searching examination of European corruption with a pulsating quest to uncover the eponymous enigma, The Mask of Dimitrios is the finest of Ambler’s seminal inter-war espionage thrillers. A cast of perfectly delineated grotesques glide through an addictive storyline saturated in moral ambiguity and faded glamour.
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A scintillating story of resourceful amateur spies up against the might of the Nazi machine, Above Suspicion is the best of Helen MacInnes’ woefully underrated espionage thrillers. Featuring strong female characters and clockwork plotting, this is perfect reading for fans of Len Deighton and John le Carré.

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The ultimate ‘man-on-the-run’ story, Rogue Male’s account of a would-be assassin desperately trying to stay alive is so raw and full-blooded you can practically taste the blood and sweat pouring off the page. Punchy, pacy and brutal, Household’s masterpiece is an enduringly muscular thrill-ride.
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An irresistible reimagining of the notorious Cambridge Spies scandal, The Trinity Six sees a Cold War academic on the trail of the sixth member of the traitorous ring. Intelligently written and tightly plotted, Cumming’s thrilling novel takes us into the dark heart of a Europe lethally divided.
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Possibly the quintessential example of an espionage novel transcending genre boundaries to establish itself as a matchless literary classic, A Perfect Spy is a simply staggering achievement. Interrogating the notion of the archetypal secret agent, le Carre builds an intricate and multi-faceted portrayal of a man of seemingly limitless talent dogged by the hurt and insecurity of a dark past.
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Comments

Gordon Phillips

No Alan Furst? I appreciate it’s subjective but it’s a big omission considering he can write the pants off of many in your list. View more

Gordon Phillips
14th October 2019
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