A look at the Espionage novels you absolutely need on your bookshelf
- Nelson: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré
This is a successful blend of popular fiction and fine English literature. The post-war world of the book is mostly bleak, but true to the times. Le Carré is a master of presenting moral ambiguities, making the reader think rather than react. This spy novel set the tone for the genre.
Alex: Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy by John le Carré
John le Carré’s 1974 masterpiece about the hunt for a Soviet mole inside MI6 is a brilliantly complex espionage story that pulls you into its tangled web the way few spy novels can. The nonlinear nature of the story, along with le Carré’s impressive attention to the fine details of tradecraft from his own experience in the British intelligence services, contributes to the feeling of getting a privileged look into a secret world.
- Nelson: From Russia, With Love by Ian Fleming
What can I say about a James Bond novel that hasn’t been said before? Well, this one is perhaps Ian Fleming’s only true Cold War espionage novel. Fleming’s novels were not bestsellers in the UK and were barely known in the US until President Kennedy praised them in a 1961 Life magazine article. When I was in college in the early 1960s, nearly every guy on campus wanted to be 007. Now they want safe spaces.
Alex: The Innocent by Ian McEwan
As far as settings for spy novels go, it doesn’t get much better than Cold War-era Berlin. The story follows a joint British/American operation to dig a tunnel into East Berlin to tap the phone lines of the Soviet High Command. McEwan’s keen ability to render the emotional complexity of human relationships serves the central love story, which is woven perfectly into the larger tapestry of early Cold War struggles. The novel is equal parts tragic, pulse-pounding, and gruesome.
- Nelson: The IPCRESS File by Len Deighton
Another Brit, and considered by many hard-core fans of the spy novel to be the third man in the genre’s triumvirate, after Le Carré and Fleming. IPCRESS features an unnamed protagonist who is cynical and untrusting of his bosses and of the whole British establishment. With friends like that, you almost don’t need Communist enemies. Or, as Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” A very good story that will illuminate the world of smoke and mirrors.
Alex: Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon
This novel, like most of Kanon’s work, is set in the tumultuous years immediately following the Second World War, and concerns itself with the reckoning that must come after conflict. This slow-burn espionage story centers on an American expat in Istanbul who had done undercover work for the Allies and takes on one final job that – of course – goes horribly wrong. The city of Istanbul is brilliantly rendered as a place of dark intrigue that escaped the physical ravages of WWII but is now an emerging battlefield in the new Cold War that is dawning.
- Nelson: Six Days of the Condor by James Grady
A somewhat offbeat, but very original plot. Condor spawned not only a blockbuster movie (“Three Days of the Condor”) but also impacted on how the real world CIA and KGB gathered intelligence. Life imitates art, and art imitates life.
Alex: The Quiet American by Graham Greene
I love stories about tragically misguided idealists, and Graham Greene’s 1955 novel is among my favorite. Set in French Indochina in the early 1950s, it follows the relationship between a cynical British journalist and a naïve undercover CIA officer. This is an anti-war story, but it is so much more than that – a vivid portrait of competing world-views, a rumination on the fine line between the personal and the political, and a startlingly prescient depiction of the folly and bloodshed that accompanied the American intervention in Vietnam.
- Nelson: The Charm School by Nelson DeMille
Picked by J.T. Ellison for inclusion into the volume titled: Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads. And who am I to argue? Rather than blow my own horn, I’ll let Ms. Ellison do that when she writes, “Nelson DeMille is an author who isn’t afraid to move readers toward great heights and dark abysses. A master of extended action sequences, he is also a beacon of intellectual stimulation through the thriller form, and an author whose work makes a lasting impression on the reader.” Well said.
Alex: The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
This 1907 novel about a plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory deals with themes of terrorism and anarchy that are hauntingly relevant today, and includes a character who wears a suicide bomb at all times. Conrad is a master of the English language – despite it not being his native tongue – and weaves a vivid, morally ambiguous story about political radicalism and the alienating forces of modernity.
Bio: Nelson DeMille is the New York Times bestselling author of twenty novels, six of which were #1 New York Times bestsellers. His novels include The Deserter, (written with Alex DeMille), The Cuban Affair, Radiant Angel, Plum Island, The Charm School, The Gold Coast, and The General’s Daughter, which was made into a major motion picture, starring John Travolta and Madeleine Stowe. He has written short stories, book reviews, and articles for magazines and newspapers. Nelson DeMille is a combat-decorated U.S. Army veteran, a member of Mensa, Poets & Writers, and the Authors Guild, and a member and past president of the Mystery Writers of America. He is also a member of the International Thriller Writers, who honored him as 2015 ThrillerMaster of the Year. He lives on Long Island with his family.
Alex DeMille is a writer, director, and film editor. He grew up on Long Island and received a BA from Yale University and an MFA in film directing from UCLA. He has won multiple awards and fellowships for his screenplays and films, including The Absence, which was named Best Film at Comic-Con in 2012. He has edited numerous commercials, shorts, and independent feature films, among them My Nephew Emmett, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 2018. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. The Deserter is his debut novel.
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