The ideas and situations that are often found in spy novels are timeless, tracing all the way back to Homer who offered listeners tales of the crafty Odysseus facing intrigue and subterfuge. There have been changes and development in the genre, leading spy novels to take two slightly different paths. One sub-genre of spy novels is cerebral and fairly realistic, while others are more action-based adventures dealing with intense chases and daring-do. In spy thrillers, readers can get lost in the world of secret agents, and occasionally super heroes, working against all odds to overcome villains. Here is a selection of twentieth century spy novels that will thrill and chill any reader no matter when they read the book.
The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service Recently Achieved by Erskine Childers was first published in 1903. It is a highly factual story about an English yachtsman who comes across a Prussian spy while sailing the Frisian Islands. He then goes back to the seas with a lubberly civil servant in order to uncover a secret plot to invade England. The fact-laden nature of this novel will appeal highly to any techno-thriller fan. The geopolitical concerns of the novel’s era, here a well-founded fear of German militarism, lend realism and credibility to the historical aspects of the novel, which are generally based on the Childers’s own experience as a sailor.
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan was originally published in 1915. In this great read readers are introduced to mining engineer Richard Hannay. This bored engineer from South Africa gets much more excitement that he could have hoped for when he accidentally uncovers a spy ring. This secret society, The Black Stone, is working to escalate world tensions to the point of war with Germany. Richard is on the move, in and out of dangerous situations as he tries to maintain his freedom and use the dangerous secrets that he has garnered to save the lives of thousands. It is a classic ‘man on the run’ scenario, which leaves Richard and readers breathless. Greenmantle and other stories continue Richard’s adventures. If you enjoy audio versions of your novels, then take a listen to Thirty-Nine Steps in full cast audio, which was released by Dover Publications.
Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler is a fantastic example of the accidental spy theme. In this tale, a Hungarian teacher with the sole intent to enjoy a quiet vacation in the south of France is accused of being a spy because of a film mix up. The mild-mannered innocent’s sole chance to save himself just might be to discover the real spies. He stumbles along with innocence and ineptness eventually discovering the true suspects. This novel has a touch of realism and humor within the story.
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming was originally published in 1953 and marks the first appearance of James Bond. This novel was the prototype of the James Bond novels, and carries a little more violence and less actual action and character development that in the novels that follow. However, the things that make James Bond a fan favorite are all there. There is champagne, caviar, a femme fatale, car chases and a nefarious villain bent on world domination. Casino Royale is a great read for fans wanting to see how it all started. Fleming wrote several more Bond novels and stories before he passed away in 1964. However, James Bond lives on in novels by Raymond Benson and John E. Gardner.
The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall is a great novel for showing readers new to the genre exactly how a spy works, decoding messages and losing tails. The story follows an operative that has become disenchanted with the business. He is revived and forced into action when he discovers that Nazi forces are beginning to rise again in Berlin. There is the possibility that an old war criminal from the death camps might be behind it all. The Quiller Memorandum is the first of nineteen spy thrillers from Hall (aka Elleston Trevor). This series of novels perfectly combines the action-laden adventures of a spy who seems to have extraordinary abilities with the psychological depth and moral ambiguity of realistic spy fiction.
The Cold War Swap by Ross Thomas is a spy novel that makes use of the buddy system. Mac McCorkle runs a bar in Berlin during the height of the Cold War with a partner. That partner is Mike Padillo, a reluctant United States special agent that often goes away on trips on special business, and Mac does not ask any questions. When Padillo asks for Mac’s help, he steps in willingly; entering a dangerous and action pack game where he does not know any of the rules. After discovering this fantastic spy thriller you will be clambering to find Thomas’s other novels in order to continue reading great spy stories with witty dialog and an amusing style.
Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth has shaped and changed the way readers and moviegoers have looked at spy fiction. This novel is partly based on historic fact, the attempts to assassinate of Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960’s. This novel is also an enthralling tale of cat and mouse between a successful assassin and a determined detective focused on foiling his plot. Forsyth uses great detail within the story, which grabs at the unsuspecting reader as a news story might, full of facts and important details. The biggest surprise is that by the end of the novel readers might find themselves rooting for someone they would not expect.
The Human Factor by Graham Greene offers a realistic look at espionage during the Cold War because the author is able to draw on his own experience as part of MI6 during World War II. The powerful story follows Maurice Castle; a double agent trying to do the right for his family his professional life brings the net closer and closer to discovering his full involvement. The story is a moving drama as well as an enthralling character study, while being far from slow, dry or boring.
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carr© is another great spy novel written by someone with first hand experience. Alec Leamas is a tired and burnt out British agent that appears to sink deep into disillusionment so that Russians will recruit him. He takes these steps and puts himself at risk in an attempt to discover who might be a British double agent. The action and plot are both fast paced with a clever pot. Character relationships and the realistic details simply put this novel over the top and make it a must read for any fan of spy novels.
There are so many great spy thrillers, new and old, that I cannot let the list end there. Some of the other greats in the spy genre that any fan or reader interested in exploring the best of the genre include; The Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry, Modesty Blaise series by Peter O’Donnell, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G. K. Chesterton, Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes, Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett, The Spy in Question by Tim Sebastian, The Innocent by Ian McEwan, and The November Man by Bill Granger to name just a few. If you have a favorite that I have forgotten, please share it in the comments so that I, and other readers, might have the additional suggestion.