We can’t resist a dip into the mysterious world of the spy thriller. With secrets, lies, conspiracies and undercover plots abound, these books span the national and the international, blending the personal and the political and showing how they are inextricably linked.
From the classic to the contemporary, here are some of the best spy thrillers around.
1. Need to know by Karen Cleveland
What would you do if you found out that your entire life, including your husband, your children, and your career, might be part of an orchestrated effort on the part of the Russian government to infiltrate the CIA? Vivian Miller, a dedicated agent within the Company, is about to face that dilemma.
She has developed a system to identify Russian operatives who control sleeper agents in the U.S., those seemingly normal people who live among us in plain sight, much like the Jennings family team in the TV series The Americans. Call me paranoid, she says, or just call me a CIA counterintelligence analyst. While accessing the computer of a suspected Russian handler, Vivian opens a folder named Friends, and what she finds there will change everything. Between alternating waves of panic and resolve, her patriotism and devotion are put to the test when she realizes that she has placed the Agency, her family, and herself in immediate danger. This is a compelling debut about a timely issue Russian threats to our security loom large in every news cycle from a writer with a background in CIA counterterrorism. Perfect for fans of Shari Lapena’s thrillers and Chris Pavone’s The Expats, and for just about everyone who loves the thrill of finding themselves in a book that can’t be put down.
2. The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
Lara Prescott’s lush, romantic tale of love, literature, and spycraft takes us into the CIA’s bizarre plot to draw Russians away from communism and towards the West through spreading Boris Pasternak’s love story of the Russian Revolution, Dr. Zhivago, throughout the USSR.
Prescott’s splits her scintillating debut between the travails of Pasternak’s mistress and the CIA intrigues of the women tasked with smuggling copies of the incendiary novel to its intended audience.
3. The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
Graham Greene he’s not. Not even John le CarrÉ or Geoffrey Household. But Ken Follett is here with that particularly British tone of controlled, leisurely tension–you’ll feel it on the very first page–that can transform a not-very-original spy plot into a sly gavotte that has you holding your breath as the dancers slowly come together.
The familiar D-Day gimmick: only one man can ruin the secrecy of the Normandy landing–a top German undercover agent known as “The Needle ” because of his deadly stiletto. But Follett immediately declares his independence from clichés, by luring us over to The Needle’s point of view, forcing us to admire his ingenuity (even as he murders a harmless landlady and then his own confederate); by making three-dimensional fellows of the British Intelligence men who must catch The Needle before he makes contact with a German submarine: and by dropping in the apparently extraneous story of a young, unhappy man and wife who’ve been living on an empty North Sea island ever since the husband lost his legs in a honeymoon car accident. Ah, but of course, we know that this couple will be linked to The Needle , and it’s with satisfaction that we watch the spy being washed up, half dead, on that island in his attempt to reach a German ship.
4. Provisionally Yours by Antanas Sileikas,
This one wins for best use of horseradish in a spy novel. When a former soldier fresh from the Russian Civil War finds himself uniquely qualified to head the new Lithuanian state’s fledgling intelligence agency, he’s quickly embroiled in dangerous intrigue with the American diplomat and his glamorous Lithuanian wife.
With equal parts glam, grit, and gallows humor, this one is not to be missed (especially for those who enjoy stories of scrappy little states facing up against bullies far and wide).
5. The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon
Kanon is besotted with the complexities of the long aftermath of WWII. His latest, The Accomplice, takes us on a Nazi hunter’s last quest—an old man spots a Nazi doctor who never came to justice, and sends his CIA-employed nephew to Buenos Aires to bring the doctor to justice.
When Kanon’s CIA protagonist arrives in Argentina, he plans to infiltrate the German ex-pat community through seducing the war criminal’s daughter, herself an ambiguous figure who represents the torn allegiances of post-war Germany.