7 Thrilling Novels About Espionage
Lauren Wilkinson, author of “American Spy,” recommends shadowy tales of undercover agents
When I began writing my novel, American Spy, I didn’t have a particular affinity for the spy genre. I’ve since come to love it — especially some of the classics, like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré and The Quiet American by Graham Greene — but this appreciation came well after the book was already underway.
My novel started with an image that popped into my mind: it was of a black female protagonist who is a typical suburban mother — or so it seems until someone tries to assassinate her. At first, I had no idea why someone would want to kill her; eventually I asked myself what if it’s because she was once a spy? And the book took off from there. Set during the Cold War in the 80s, American Spy follows Marie Mitchell, a special agent who is approached by the CIA and asked to help destabilize Thomas Sankara’s Marxist revolutionary government.
Answering that initial question, and in so doing figuring out that Marie was once a spy, I created dozens more questions for myself. Most I had no idea how to answer, so to generate ideas I’d read spy novels. My favorites tended to be the ones that resisted the conventions of a genre that has historically been dominated by straight white male authors. Most (although not all) of the books on this list do so in some way.
Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht
Part spy novel, part coming-of-age story, Vera works for the CIA — she’s an electronics expert undercover in Buenos Aires during the political tumult of the 60s. The book also details a complex backstory: Vera’s relationship with her abusive mother, and the formative relationships and experiences she has in New York as she comes to terms with her sexuality.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
In this Pulitzer prize winner, the Captain, a half-Vietnamese, half-French Communist operative, escapes the fall of Saigon. He heads to California with the General, the South Vietnamese military official that he’s been spying on. I enjoyed this book because of how resistant it is to narrating the Vietnam War entirely from the American perspective.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Okay, so this one isn’t strictly a spy novel, but I’ve included it because of what the narrator’s father is told by his grandfather when he’s on his death bed. He says “…our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction.” The protagonist puzzles over what his grandfather meant and how his words should affect his own conduct, and this motivates him throughout the novel.
Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee
Henry Park, a Korean American undercover agent working for a private intelligence agency, is grieving the death of his young son and estrangement from his wife. When his agency assigns him to go undercover to disrupt the mayoral campaign of a high-profile member of the Korean American community, he experiences a crisis of identity. I’m especially fond of spy novels that detail the spy’s family life as well as their work, so this book really resonated with me.
Restless by William Boyd
Set in the 1970s, this story introduces Ruth, a British ESL teacher with a young son. While visiting her mother, Sally, the older woman reveals that she’s actually of Russian origin, and that in her youth she worked as a British spy during World War II.
Berlin Game by Len Deighton
In the first novel in the Game, Set and Match trilogy, Bernard Samson is an MI6 agent who’s tasked with ushering Brahms Four, a highly valuable asset, out of East Germany. Meanwhile, he’s also trying to figure out who the double agent in his office is, and why his wife has been acting so strange lately. While this book does very little to resist the conventions of the genre, Samson, like almost all of the intelligence agents who resonate most with me, is burnt out and cynical about his work. I loaned my main character Samson’s defensive cynicism but gave hers an origin that’s different than burn out.
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
The first in the James Bond series, this novel details 007’s famous (and entirely implausible) assignment to bankrupt SMERSH agent Le Chiffre at a French casino. It’s a fun book, and also one of the most relentlessly sexist things I’ve ever read. I think of Marie as an anti-Bond because it’s her female relationships that have the most enduring effect on her. They define her character. So, I’ve included Fleming on this list because he managed to inspire me quite profoundly despite himself.