Five Favourite: Spy Novels

Thomas Waugh

A new spy novelist has picked titles that have inspired him.
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In honour of Aspects of History launching its new podcast, Spymasters, I was asked to recommend five spy novels. I wouldn’t say these are my definitive five favourite spy novels, as I could wake up tomorrow and recommend five others, but I hope that the choices give readers an entry into the genre and the authors featured.

Congratulations to Antonia Senior too on launch of @spymasterspod

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, by John le Carré.

To quote Schopenhauer, “Talent hits a target that no one else can hit. Genius hits a target that no one else can see.” The Spy Who Came In From The Cold changed everything, for le Carré and the genre (to find out more about how much the novel was a game changer, I would urge you to read Adam Sisman’s John le Carré: The Biography). Spies could now seen as, to quote the book’s protagonist, Alec Lemas, as “a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists, and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”

I’ve read the novel multiple times and I find something new on each visit. The book not only has something to say on the nature of the Cold War and its participants, but The Spy Who Came In From The Cold carries lessons for authors in how to write – in regards to plot, pace, character and how to set-up and execute an ending. The book’s mood may be described as bleak, but it is all the more enlightening for it.

I could have picked a number of le Carré novels to feature on this list – including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Russia House and The Tailor of Panama – but The Spy Who Came In From The Cold remains the author’s lodestar, for readers and spy novelists alike. As long as publishers do not allow any sensitivity readers to get their hands on the novel, people will be rightly devouring this book and other works by its author for decades to come.

Thunderball, by Ian Fleming.

As much as I’ve enjoyed the humour and escapism of the Bond films over the years, I cannot say I am a huge fan of the Bond novels. I read them. I tried to like them. I wanted to like them. But, as much as it may seem like heresy to say so, the novels have not survived the test of time. I’ve met plenty of other writers who, in whispered corners, would be similarly heretical. And it’s not because the books may be seen as politically incorrect by some nowadays. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons why they should be read.

For the best of Fleming’s Bond novels though I would recommend you read Thunderball. Unlike many of the other Bond outings, the movie remains largely faithful to the book. The stakes are high, with the plot involving SPECTRE and a weapon of mass destruction. The setting is exotic. The Bond villain and Bond girl are memorable. Bond has a swagger and hardness about him in Thunderball that Connery adroitly captured onscreen. It’s possible to be a hero and a bastard at the same time. In terms of structure and tone one can see how Thunderball – and other Bond books – has served as a forerunner for today’s thriller writers.

The Human Factor, by Graham Greene.

I could have just as easily picked Our Man In Havana, I suppose. Both novels contain sympathetic protagonists, black humour (sometimes so dark it’s difficult to see) and they paint a picture of an intelligence community that can be somewhat inept, as well as iniquitous.

I’ve never read the novel as a quasi-defence of Kim Philby, partly because Philby is so indefensible. The novel stands on its own, part satire, part thriller, part all too human drama. The Human Factor provides a wonderful window into England at the time, as well as the world of espionage. There is tragedy, tradecraft and Maltesers. As well as possessing a decent but doomed hero in the form of Maurice Castle, The Human Factor also possesses one of the best cast list of secondary characters in a Greene novel, including John Daintry, Brigadier Tomlinson and Doctor Percival.

Greene is never shy about killing off his characters, but if only he would have given stay of execution for Buller. The film adaptation, penned by Tom Stoppard, is worth checking out too – and not only for the stella cast.

Brandenburg, by Henry Porter.

Porter has now written a number of engaging and informed spy thrillers, but Brandenburg stands out for the brooding atmosphere it creates (through the author’s research and the quality of the writing). Set in Berlin, during the fall of the Berlin Wall, the book lifts the iron curtain on the power and the perniciousness of the Stasi.

As well as featuring Robert Harland – a rare, decent and likeable spy (who serves as the protagonist in many of Porter’s titles), the novel is of interest as it features a young Vladimir Putin, who served as an intelligence officer in Germany at the time.

Anyone who has visited Berlin, or wants to visit Berlin, should read this book.

Defectors, by Joseph Kanon.

Joseph Kanon is a master of pace and structure. He takes a paragraph, where others may take pages, to conjure up a character and location. He has the ability to pick out the right period detail and sift what resonates from his research.

I read Defectors in just a few sittings. For all of the author’s ability to produce twists and turns and get under the skin of spies he never forgets the human drama at the heart of each story. This time involving the relationship between two brothers – it’s own cold war.

As with other great spy novelist, Kanon has absorbed the traditions of the likes of Eric Ambler, Len Deighton and le Carré – but then added his own voice and style.

I’m very much looking forward to reading the author’s forthcoming novel, Shanghai.

Thomas Waugh is the author of the acclaimed spy novels Duty Calls and Eastern Approaches.