Best War Novels of Intrigue
While the clash of swords and the roar of cannons are impossible to disregard, the skullduggery that precedes and underlies human conflict is often even more absorbing and attractive to fiction writers. The plotting, frequently violent, that surrounds the creation of key alliances and the securing of resources, the efforts to learn the other side’s plans and capabilities, the desire to deceive, and the often-tormented personalities involved are all memorably depicted in the following works.
The French and Indian War
Bone Rattler, Eye of the Raven, and Original Death, by Eliot Pattison
Three books in a series (soon to be four). A young Scot who has been transported as a prisoner to North America and then escapes his indenture, attempts to build a new life. Along with his mentor and companion, an aged and wise Native American, the protagonist finds himself dragged instead into the brutal intrigues that accompanied the three-sided French and Indian War.
The Great Game (aka The Tournament of Shadows)
Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
During most of the nineteenth century, the Raj (the British government in India) and the Russian czar conducted a monumental struggle to gain control of Afghanistan and other portions of Central Asia. This conflict involved both open (often proxy) warfare and extensive deal-making and betrayal. Kim is the story of a young Irish orphan who willingly thrusts himself into the mayhem. Although considered by some a children’s book—and by others as unsuitable for children—Kim provides a spirited introduction to the intrigue of the times, not to mention to the varied cultures involved.
World War I
The Riddle of the Sands, by Robert Erskine Childers
One of the earliest, if not the earliest, modern spy novel describes the successful efforts of two young Englishmen to counter a German plan to invade Britain prior to World War I.
World War II
A Small Death in Lisbon, by Robert Wilson
An, at times, gut-wrenching account of an utterly ruthless German operative’s efforts to ensure that Germany gets most or all of Portugal’s output of tungsten ore, a strategic mineral, before and during World War II.
Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst
One of eight books in Furst’s low-keyed but intense Night Soldiers series. Each of these books describes the off-battlefield actions and intrigues of a variety of different Europeans before and during the war.
Eye of the Needle, by Ken Follett
While preparing for the invasion of France in 1944, the Western Allies managed to fool the Germans into believing that they would invade well north of their true target, Normandy. They did this, in part, by creating a fictitious invasion force in Britain. Eye of the Needle tells the story of a German spy who discovers the deception and struggles to alert his superiors to it.
The Cold War
The Bernard Samson books, by Len Deighton
A series of ten books (three trilogies and one standalone) that depict the fears, pains, betrayal, and frustrations of British spy Bernard Samson. The plots and action are absorbing, the settings , and Samson is a very sympathetic character who is taken advantage of by both sides. Most of Samson’s superiors, however, are depicted as self-deceiving fools at best.
The Manchurian Candidate, by Richard Condon
The story of an American soldier who is captured in Korea and brainwashed by the Chinese to become a sleeper agent programmed to kill on command. Years later, he is commanded to kill a prominent American politician in order to trigger a coup d’état.
Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene
The adventures of a British vacuum cleaner salesman in pre-Castro Havana who is recruited by a misguided British agent and goes on to create an imaginary spy network. Good, at times humorous, reading although in no way complimentary to the spy establishment.
The Looking Glass War and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John le Carré
Two of le Carré’s many Cold War spy thrillers, all of which combine interesting and sympathetic characters with physical and emotional tension, a heavy dose of psychology, and considerable skepticism about the vision, wisdom, and honor of many of the powerful participants in the espionage business.
The Ugly American, by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer
A saga set in a nation not unlike Vietnam. The inability of various American officials to relate to other cultures prevents them from establishing and maintaining the alliances and relationships through which so much death and destruction might have been avoided.
William S. Schaill’s new novel, Death of a Siren, a maritime mystery set in the Galápagos Islands just before World War II, is out now from Academy Chicago Publishers, an imprint of Chicago Review Press. Schaill visited the islands in the 1960s while serving in the US Navy as a lieutenant, and today he lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.