There is something intrinsic to the British novel-writing tradition of a good espionage story. From its beginnings in the early twentieth century with Rudyard Kipling and Erskine Childers through to the thoroughly contemporary likes of Mick Herron and Charles Cumming, there is apparently no shortage of gripping, witty and brilliantly executed spy tales, all of which continue to fascinate us with their combination of cloak-and-dagger mystery, larger-than-life protagonists and antagonists and twist-laden storylines.
Everyone, of course, thinks of James Bond when it comes to spy stories, and it would be churlish to omit his adventures from a selection like this. But there are many more distinctly unglamorous spooks and joes whose tales are worth a read. Here are eight of the very best, dealing with everything from a serial killer in Stalinist Russia to a famous plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, but all executed with verve.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré
The recent death of John le Carré, for many the acknowledged master of the espionage genre, was enormously sad, but it at least had the minor consolation of reminding his readers of his greatness. This lies not least in his famous ‘Karla’ trilogy, which pits his gentlemanly, reserved spymaster George Smiley against the mysterious head of the ‘Moscow Centre’, le Carré’s version of the KGB. All three novels are well worth reading but it is the first that remains the most iconic, thanks in no small part to the excellent TV and film adaptations, starring Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman respectively. As it follows Smiley in his tortuous investigations to find a traitor at the heart of MI5, here called ‘the Circus’, it remains the classiest, most gripping of spy novels.
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
Ian Fleming’s super-spy James Bond is equally famous from the film franchise, but many of them have drifted a long way away from his conception of an ice-cold secret agent whose martinis and Savile Row suits cannot conceal the viciousness and brutishness underneath the charming exterior. The exception to the rule was the excellent 2006 adaptation of Fleming’s first Bond novel, in which Daniel Craig came as close as anyone has to the original conception of 007 as someone who makes mistakes and remains all too human in his pursuit of the dastardly Le Chiffre at a baccarat tournament in northern France. With one of Fleming’s most cynical twists and a dark, gritty tone of Cold War paranoia, this is still a classic of the genre.
The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan
There is an altogether different tradition in British espionage writing, and that is the almost parodic ‘great game’ of dastardly villains, secret societies and hairs-breadth escapes from unspeakable danger. John Buchan’s magnificent 1915 novel is about as peerless an example of this kind as one could hope to imagine. Following the exploits of the adventurer Richard Hannay, pursued across Britain by mysterious foreign agents and aided and abetted by everyone from local innkeepers to politicians as he tries to uncover the mystery of what the titular steps represent, it represents the quintessence of Edwardian derring-do, and proved to be an enormous comfort to homesick soldiers in the trenches, who took solace from Buchan’s evocation of a country very much worth fighting for.
Slow Horses by Mick Herron
I haven’t enjoyed a contemporary series of spy novels as much as Mick Herron’s magnificent ‘Slough House’ books in years. What makes them so enjoyable is that Herron, unlike some of the other authors here, does not have any especially privileged insight into the world of contemporary espionage, but instead uses large amounts of black humour to make his universe a compelling and unusual one to spend time in. In the titular Slough House are the so-called ‘slow horses’, MI5 agents who have transgressed in some way and have been punished by being consigned to soul-destroying desk duty, under the obese, flatulent and caustic superspy Jackson Lamb. It is not spoiling anything to reveal that these particular slow horses are not quite destined for the knacker’s yard yet, and Herron takes enormous delight in detailing their (mis)adventures with brio and wit.
Restless by William Boyd
As I write, William Boyd’s 2006 novel has been chosen by none other than the Duchess of Cornwall to be one of her ‘Reading Room’ picks. It isn’t hard to see why. For a writer who has frequently touched on issues of espionage throughout his work, Restless is perhaps the purest distillation of this great author’s themes and ideas into the dramatic story of a young woman discovering that her mother was recruited as a spy in WWII, and the consequences of her actions decades later. It deservedly won the Costa Prize for fiction and proves, as if proof was necessary, that Boyd is the peerless exemplar of someone who can combine themes of serious literary weight - the fallibility of memory, and whether we can ever really truly know those around us, even our own family – with page-turning, endlessly gripping drama.
The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
Is The Day of the Jackal really a spy novel, or an assassin novel? Either way, there can be little doubt that this is one of the greatest adventure stories of the 20th century, with the iconic storyline of a brilliant, ruthless assassin known only as ‘the Jackal’, who is tasked with an apparently impossible mission: to kill the President of France, Charles de Gaulle. The narrative moves between the attempts of the French secret service to attempt to uncover the plot against de Gaulle’s life and, most compellingly, the exploits of the Jackal as, in exchange for a vast amount of money, he coldly plots his mission, killing anyone who crosses his path along the way. Forsyth’s excellent book began what has become one of the great thriller-writing careers, and has been adapted twice: once very well (with Edward Fox) and once badly (with Richard Gere and Bruce Willis).
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
In Stalinist Russia, there can be no crime. So how do you deal with the emergence of a serial killer on the loose? The author Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel combines both the usual elements of a procedural thriller in the way that his protagonist Leo is compelled to track down a murderer who protocol dictates cannot exist with the creeping paranoia of a time in which everyone is routinely encouraged to inform on one another and to betray one’s neighbour for crimes real or imagined. This level of paranoia extends even to one’s own family, and Smith beautifully evokes a world in which whatever individual evils are being committed by a dastardly killer are dwarfed by the everyday horrors perpetuated by the state, where a wrong word or an incorrect glance can result in imprisonment, or worse, making this the rare novel in which every character, to a greater or lesser degree, is either spy, spied upon or, often, both.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Along with John le Carré, Graham Greene is the acknowledged 20th century master of the spy novel, and there have been perpetual rumours about to what extent his grim, antiheroic depictions of the world of espionage were based on his own experience. If you want to read a humorous treatment of the genre, Our Man in Havana is Greene at his funniest, but The Quiet American, which revolves around a cynical middle-aged British journalist in Vietnam who forms a friendship with a young CIA agent, represents a full immersion in that morally compromised Greene-land that the author specialised in. Published in 1955, it prefigured the full horror of the Vietnam war, but in the titular ‘quiet American’, no reader could be left in any doubt of the way in which the Cold War would be fought - viciously, secretly and with maximum damage.