Daniel Craig as James Bond
The 16 best spy novels by real-life spies
We all love reading spy novels, but sometimes we cringe at how they stretch credibility. The solution: read spy novels written by real-life spies. Here are 16 can’t-miss stories by men and women with first-hand knowledge of spycraft.
In Bearden's 1980s-set novel "The Black Tulip," real-life CIA chief William Casey recruits a Russian-born American to guide Afghanistan's mujahideen against the Soviets. Writes Publishers Weekly: "Bearden soft-pedals the horrors of the war and concentrates on the stringpullers from both sides as KGB and CIA field agents dodge each other and their own hierarchies as they maneuver Afghan and Russian pawns to win the game."
The Guardian recently wrote that Richard Hannay, the protagonist of 1915's "The Thirty-Nine Steps," is "an appealing antihero, both cool and brave, but also 'pretty well disgusted with life' who, caught up in a high-octane international drama, has the resource, intelligence and daring to thwart a naked foreign attempt to drag Britain into war." Since its debut, the novel has never been out of print.
Buckley and President Reagan (AP)
William F. Buckley, Jr.
Critics complained that the hero of Buckley's spy novels, Blackford Oakes, was too perfect to be believable. Buckley, the revered conservative pundit who had a brief stint with the CIA right after college, offered no apologies. In Buckley's first novel, 1976's "Saving the Queen," Oakes saves the beautiful young queen of England -- and beds her too.
"A Corpse in the Koryo," published in 2006, finds North Korea's Inspector O desperate to solve a strange series of kidnappings and murders. Publishers Weekly compared it favorably to Martin Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park." The Washington Post called it "a crackling good mystery, filled with unusual characters involved in a complex plot that keeps you guessing to the end."
Gerard De Villiers
OK, De Villiers was never a professional spy, but as a Tunisia-based newspaper reporter in the 1950s, he delivered messages for a French intelligence officer. Close enough. “The man could not write,” the Wall Street Journal pointed out after De Villiers’ 2013 death, but his 200 novels frequently anticipated real-world events (and always featured gymnastic, often brutal sex). Which novel was his best? Let’s go with the first one, 1965’s “S.A.S in Istanbul.”
James Bond, in mourning for his dead wife, is spinning out of control in "You Only Live Twice," the 11th 007 novel. The great secret agent heads to Japan in a last-ditch effort to save his career. At first, the culture clash throws him, but he finds his footing when he decides to exact revenge on the villainous Blofeld. It's an unusually mature effort from Ian Fleming -- and the last novel published in his lifetime.
Greene was supposedly so unhappy with 1939's Spanish Civil War-inspired "The Confidential Agent" that he wanted it published under a pseudonym. The New York Times, however, enthused that the "story unfolds in breathless excitement, mystery that ranges from the macabre to the apparently trivial, suspense that is laden with tragedy, surprise with a gift of hope."
Hammett's time with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency included labor espionage that led to his quitting the outfit in disgust. The Continental Op, the narrator of "Red Harvest," tries to track down whoever killed his client while also cleaning up a town riven by labor violence. It's a classic that transcends its genre.
The 2010 novel "Intelligence" follows CIA counterterrorism analyst Maddie James as she tries to upend an al-Qaida operation. Hasler, who worked at the CIA for 21 years, says "writing this novel was one way I had of dealing with all of the anger I had left over from (the 9/11) period."
The Associated Press
E. Howard Hunt
The former CIA man best known for his role in the Watergate scandal wanted to be the next Ian Fleming. He comes closest in 1965’s “Hazardous Duty,” originally written under the pseudonym David St. John. In it, our hero, Peter Ward, encounters two 007-worthy sexpot killers -- and pulls off a burglary that portends the botched break-in at the DNC offices. “We become lawless in a struggle for the rule of law,” Ward says.
The Associated Press
John le Carre
"The question of which is le Carré's best book remains in play," David Denby wrote in The New Yorker last year. "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" has its vocal adherents. So does "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." Denby -- following Philip Roth's lead -- votes for "A Perfect Spy," a 1986 novel in which aging British intelligence officer Magnus Pym holes up in a safe house with paper and pen in an effort to go rogue -- "to tell it straight . . . word for word the truth."
The 2013 novel "Red Sparrow" has a standard-issue plot: inexperienced CIA officer Nathaniel Nash and beautiful Russian spy Dominika Egorova try desperately to hoodwink and outsmart one another and, of course, end up falling into bed together. But Matthews offers us more than expected. "His former foes in Moscow will be choking on their blinis when they read how much has been revealed about their tradecraft," the New York Times wrote.
W. Somerset Maugham
"In my youth I was always taught that you should take a woman by the waist and a bottle by the neck," says Ashenden, the title character of Maugham's 1928 collection of loosely linked spy stories. Good advice, to be sure. But the fictional Ashenden -- like his creator a secret agent during World War I -- soon learns that spying isn't all adventure all the time, describing his work "as orderly and monotonous as a city clerk's."
The former CIA officer's novels "are smashingly effective thrillers, but they also have an air of uncertainty that borders at times on the mystical," The Wall Street Journal insists. The best of them could be 1974's "The Tears of Autumn," a JFK assassination conspiracy tale that will strike you as only too plausible.
The Associated Press
The CIA officer who was famously exposed by the Bush White House found success with a memoir, and so she inevitably moved on to spy fiction. Library Journal calls her debut novel, "Blowback," co-authored by Sarah Lovett, a "tightly wound, vigorously deployed thriller echoing the real-life stories and CIA agents and their enemies."
The Associated Press
"At Risk," the first novel by the former head of Britain's MI5, follows a British operative trying to stop a terrorist attack. The Guardian called Rimingston's memoirs "tedious," but found that in her fiction "she is jolly good on magic mushrooms and the art of making bombs out of silly putty."
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