Top Five Secret Agent Novels

I usually don’t have much use for “Top 5” lists when it comes to books. Art is subjective and heaven knows I’m no literary authority. So don’t look at what follows as a Top 5 list; rather, look at it as a list of tales, in no particular order, that had the most lasting impact on me and, I believe, on the espionage genre.

Top Five Secret Agent Novels
  • Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love — Without question, James Bond is the most famous spy of all time. His movie exploits are only slightly more realistic than Austin Powers’s, but there’s no denying that Fleming’s protagonist shares the same rarefied literary air as Sherlock Holmes—his fame is so pervasive that it has shaped readers’—and viewers’—expectations of the genre even if they’ve never read one of the Bond books or seen any of the movies.From Russia With Love is Fleming’s fifth Bond novel, and some Bond fans rank Casino Royale higher, but the stakes in FRWL are more personal for Bond than in most of Fleming’s other books. SMERSH targets Bond personally, planning to use his disgrace and death to discredit British intelligence. It’s a fantastic Cold War novel with a first-rate plot, intriguing characters, and a cliffhanger ending that sends readers running to buy No.
  • John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — Le Carré is the only author who appears on my list twice and he sits on the opposite end of the realism spectrum from Fleming. Le Carré was a former intelligence officer until Kim Philby outed him to the KGB, thereby ending his career; but le Carré got the last word, turning Philby into Tinker’s traitor—KGB code name “Gerald”—who is hunted by the brilliant George Smiley.That said, Tinker is no thriller. In fact, it’s a tough slog to read, especially for non-Brits unfamiliar with the UK’s cultural oddities, which le Carré dissects throughout the book. He throws readers into the deep end of the espionage pool by serving up loads of accurate jargon and tradecraft, and Smiley’s investigation is painfully methodical. When the story comes together at the end, you find yourself wondering whether le Carre wasn’t putting his own revenge fantasy down on paper.
  • Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold — Publishers Weekly named le Carré’s third novel the “best spy novel of all time” in 2006. I rank Tinker higher only because the BBC’s brilliant 1979 miniseries adaptation starring Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley has ensured that Tinker has enjoyed a bigger impact on the genre.Smiley also appears in Spy as the spymaster who gives West Berlin station head Alec Leamas a mission that leaves readers guessing about who is moral and immoral, trustworthy and despicable, more effectively than any other novel I’ve ever read. The third act puts the ethical quandaries of espionage on full display in a way that leaves any right-thinking reader appalled and heartbroken.
  • Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal — Written in just 35 days, Jackal is the best “chase” book ever published. Antagonist Charles Calthrop, better known as the Jackal, is hired to kill French President Charles de Gaulle. He deploys false identities, forged documents, and customized tools and weapons at a dizzying rate as he outruns Inspector Claude Lebel, who tears through France and doesn’t spare even de Gaulle’s own staff as he tries to understand and catch his quarry. History records that de Gaulle died on November 9, 1970, from a ruptured blood vessel, so readers know the Jackal fails, but they and Lebel both learn on the final page that they never really knew Calthrop at all.
  • Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October — Many people criticize Clancy for bogging down his narratives with technical minutiae and sacrificing character development on the altar of expansive, complicated plots. Whatever your opinion, Hunt’s impact on the genre is undeniable. Discerning readers expect accurate tradecraft, technology, tactics, and geopolitics, and few authors ever get hailed as the creator of a literary sub-genre (the “techno-thriller”). Hunt set the realism bar so high that technical accuracy is now the ante that every espionage author must pay to sit at the table.

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