Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2018

What are the best spy novels of 2018? Here’s a list of my top picks (as they are published). Please note that I’m partial to historical fiction about espionage that has a literary flair; the novels I’ve selected reflect that bias.

Traitor by Jonathan de Shalit


Many observers believe that Israel’s intelligence agencies—the Mossad and Shin Bet—are among the best in the world. During the Cold War, however, the KBG and GRU (Soviet military intelligence) managed to place numerous moles in key positions in the Israeli government. Among the more prominent penetration agents were Lt.-Col. Israel Bar, a military analyst; Marcus Klingberg, an expert on chemical and biological weapons; and Col. Shimon Levinson, a senior Israeli intelligence officer. Many of these agents betrayed their country on ideological grounds, with Communist sympathies trumping Zionist patriotism.

Jonathan de Shalit’s Traitor, a bestseller in Israel translated from the Hebrew by Steve Cohen, focuses on the hunt for a long-entrenched mole, code-named Cobra, in the Israeli government, an agent recruited during the Cold War. (De Shalit is the pseudonym of a former Israeli intelligence officer). Aharon Levin, former head of the Mossad, is called out of retirement and tasked with finding Cobra. Fans of Daniel Silva’s modern spy thrillers will find the recruitment and composition of Aharon’s secret team quite familiar—including two brilliant and tough female operatives. The hunt leads to Europe, Russia, and the United States, and takes on an increasingly political cast. It’s one thing to figure out who the traitor is, it’s another to publicly expose a foreign spy in the corridors of power and risk the political damage both at home and abroad.

De Shalit is at his best in exploring the reasons for Cobra’s treason, that mix of narcissism and feelings of alienation and marginalization that often motivate penetration agents. There’s an intriguing twist—Cobra believes he has been spying for the CIA, but he has been tricked into passing information to the East Germans and the Russians. The team hunting him doesn’t care about his motives: they are eager to catch him and see him face the harshest consequences. The Israelis have always taken a hard line on the question: Soviet spy Marcus Klingberg, arrested in 1982 and tried in secret, was sentenced to 20 years in prison (and served the first 10 in solitary confinement).

Traitor offers an insider’s perspective on the challenges facing Israel’s intelligence community. There’s plenty of suspense in the frantic hunt for Cobra, and an ending that reflects the hall of mirrors that often confronts those responsible for countering espionage.

Here are past lists of top spy thrillers. You can click for:

2017’s top spy thrillers

2016’s top spy thrillers

2015’s top spy thrillers

2014’s top spy thrillers

2013’s top spy thrillers

Ten classic British spy novels

Copyright © 2018 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

In search of Hemingway’s Venice

In search of Hemingway’s Venice

Ernest Hemingway’s Across the Rivers and Through the Trees, set in Venice just after the end of World War II, is a challenging novel to read, marred by an unevenness in tone as it explores themes of death and memory. It offers the best of Hemingway (clean descriptive prose, memorable characters, an eye for detail, and a powerful depiction of the horror of modern war) with the worst of Papa (macho posturing, repetitive and wooden dialogue, lame inside jokes, and maudlin philosophical musings). Yet it’s Hemingway—he has a way with words, and he knows how to craft interesting characters.

I first read the novel as a teenager, drawn in by the story of Army Colonel Richard Cantwell, a profane, hard-bitten professional soldier with a wounded leg, mangled hand, and failing heart who loves both Venice and his 19-year-old girlfriend, an Italian countess, Renata. It’s a May-December romance (Cantwell is 50), one that now raises eyebrows (and today is reserved for rock stars and Hollywood actors).

On a trip to Europe this fall, I decided to make a brief stop in Venice. As a historical novelist, I always look for traces of the past when I travel, the lasting aspects of a place. What has survived? What has been transformed? I had seen the news reports of Venetians demonstrating against “overtourism,” and I wondered how much that tidal wave of visitors had altered the floating city. (And yes, I recognize the irony of becoming part of the problem by “investigating” it.) When Across the Rivers and Through the Trees achieved bestseller status in 1950, Venice had some 150,000 residents; the city’s population has declined to some 60,000, while at the same time some 20 million tourists visit each year. There were seven massive cruise ships docked in Venice when I arrived in mid-October, and it’s estimated that their passengers contribute ten percent of the visitor flow.

During my visit, I tried to imagine what Hemingway’s Colonel Cantwell would make of today’s Venice. He would find the physical beauty of the city intact (even as the local authorities strive to save Venice from the rising sea levels caused by climate change). While the famous landmarks—the Piazza San Marco, the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the Rialto Bridge, the Baroque jewel of Santa Maria della Salute—remain unchanged, I can imagine that Cantwell would be staggered by swarms of tourists crowding the narrow streets with their backpacks and wheelie bags, stopping to take selfies or calling or texting with their ubiquitous smartphones. Many of them do not behave particularly well. I spotted a warning (posted in four languages) at the entrance to the church Chiesa di San Moisè. In English, it read: “You are in a church. You are not allowed to behave indecently.” Many of the cafes, bakeries, and shops of traditional Venice have been replaced by retail outlets selling Chanel, Hermes, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry, Victoria’s Secret and every other recognizable global fashion brand. And yes, there is a McDonald’s and Burger King on San Marco, the Venetian district that bears the brunt of the tourist tide.

Today, on the salary of a colonel, Cantwell would be priced out of his familiar haunts. His favorite hotel, the Gritti Palace, offers rooms at 900 euros a night; a Longhi club sandwich in the terrace restaurant runs 30 euros. While Cantwell could have the white-jacketed barman at Harry’s Bar mix a Montgomery (a dry Martini made with a 15:1 gin to vermouth proportion), he would find his favorite drink very pricey. And he might not be able to run a tab, for the Cipriani family no longer has ownership of Harry’s.

There’s some irony in the fact that today’s prosperous Venice is a product of the peace won by the fictional Colonel Cantwell and the real-life American and Allied soldiers who defeated Germany and Italy in the Second World War. Venetians have not had to worry about invaders since 1945, shielded by the West’s resolve in defending Europe from the Soviet threat.

An imagined Venice

Of course, Hemingway’s Venice never existed. The novelist’s world is created, fabricated, reflecting experience and imagination. Hemingway drew upon his time in the city in the late 1940s: he was a famous writer with money to burn and a crush on Adriana Ivancich, a teenager whose family was of local nobility. He modeled the character of Renata on her: “Then she came into the room, shining in her youth and tall striding beauty and the carelessness the wind had made of her hair. She had pale, almost olive-colored skin, a profile that could break your, or anyone else’s heart, and her dark hair, of an alive texture, hung down over her shoulders.” When Ivancich read the novel, she didn’t like it (reacting to its artificiality). She told Hemingway that a nice girl from a good family in Venice would never spend the day drinking or joining her lover in a hotel room.

In some ways, the novel is surprisingly insular. Hemingway largely ignores, or trivializes, Italian collusion with the Germans during the war. He never confronts head on the devastating impact of Fascism on Venice’s small Jewish community. (That collaboration is addressed in Joseph Kanon’s 2005 novel Alibi which doesn’t shrink from exploring the ugliness of the war years in Venice.)

Before its publication, Hemingway believed Across the River was the best novel he had written, and he was unprepared for the savagely negative reviews from New York literary circles. E.B. White contributed a clever parody for the The New Yorker, “Across the Street and Into the Grill.” Critic Maxwell Geismar wrote in the Saturday Review of Literature: “It is not only Hemingway’s worst novel; it is a synthesis of everything that is bad in his previous work and it throws a doubtful light on the future.” The novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler was more sympathetic in his assessment, writing to a friend: “Do they sense that the old wolf has been wounded and that this is a good time to bring him down?” Chandler added: “…he was not trying to write a masterpiece but in a character not too unlike his own trying to sum up the attitude of a man who is finished and knows it, and is bitter and angry about it.”

Geismar’s prediction about Hemingway’s future proved wrong—just two years later the publication of The Old Man and the Sea cemented Hemingway’s literary reputation, won him the Pulitzer Prize, and was cited by Nobel Committee when it awarded Hemingway the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. The old wolf had something left.

Copyright © 2017 by Jefferson Flanders

Spies in the Kremlin

This piece appeared on History News Network as: Review of Eva Dillon’s “Spies in the Family: An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, and the Friendship That Helped End the Cold War”

We have learned since the end of the Cold War that the West had well-placed spies in the Kremlin, and that those double agents provided timely intelligence about Soviet aims and intentions. It’s impossible to gauge their full impact in hastening the fall of the Communist regime, but it’s clear that these inside sources helped policymakers in London, Paris, and Washington in assessing the thinking of the Politburo and other Soviet leaders.

A new memoir/history by Eva Dillon, Spies in the Family, offers a fascinating and deeply sympathetic account of perhaps the most important of the Kremlin spies, Dmitri Polyakov, code name TOPHAT, who was the third major GRU (military intelligence) officer to pass vital information to the CIA. All three were discovered. Polyakov lasted the longest; the other two—Pyotr Popov and Oleg Penkovsky—were betrayed, it is believed, by British mole George Blake (who is in his 90s, living in exile in Moscow).

Popov, a lieutenant colonel in the GRU, was the CIA’s first in-place source in the Soviet hierarchy. He approached an American diplomat in Vienna in 1953 and offered his services as a spy, motivated in part by anger over the harsh treatment of Russian peasants, including his own family. Popov passed along information about Soviet nuclear submarines and missile technology and alerted the CIA that the GRU had classified technical information about the U-2 spy plane. He was exposed and executed in 1960.

Penkovsky is perhaps the best known of Soviet double agents. He played a role in both the Berlin Crisis in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year. Penkovsky passed technical information about the Soviet nuclear missiles sent to Cuba that helped steer the Kennedy Administration away from a military response. As the CIA has noted: “Because of Penkovksy, Kennedy knew that he had three days before the Soviet missiles were fully functional to negotiate a diplomatic solution. For this reason, Penkovsky is credited with altering the course of the Cold War.” Also betrayed, Penkovsky was tried publicly and executed in May of 1963.

Eva Dillon’s subject, Dmitri Polyakov, considered himself a Russian patriot who in practice subscribed to the 17th century dramatist Pierre Corneille’s belief that “treachery is noble when aimed at tyranny.” Dismayed by Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s bellicosity, he began spying for the FBI and CIA in 1961 and avoided exposure until 1988. (Popov lasted six years; Penkovsky, only two). Polyakov achieved the rank of general, becoming the West’s highest-placed spy. Eva Dillon’s father, Paul, a CIA officer and an Irish Catholic marine from Boston, was one of Polyakov’s handlers and developed a strong bond with him.


As Polyakov rose in the GRU, he “had access to the highest level of Soviet war planning, strategy, and military philosophy. He knew the specifics of worldwide GRU operations. He knew the identities of GRU agents and their modi operandi.” His courage can’t be underestimated. To spy in the Soviet Union, a totalitarian society, required nerves of steel, with the danger of exposure real and constant. In Spies in the Family, Dillon captures this tension, and the moral dilemma Polyakov faced—he felt compelled to continue spying, even as he knew it placed his family (and their future) at grave risk. Dillon interviewed Polyakov’s son, whose career as a diplomat ended after his father’s arrest, and who moved to the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union, his career prospects tainted.

In the end, Polyakov was compromised by the CIA’s Aldrich Ames, a mole who betrayed numerous Western agents. When arrested, Polyakov told his interrogators that he saw himself as a “social democrat,” one who saw the Scandinavian countries as a model for Russia. Despite Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, Polyakov’s justification for his spying fell on deaf ears. Earlier, Polykov had turned down an offer of asylum from the CIA, explaining, “I am not doing this for you. I am doing this for my country. I was born a Russian, and I will die a Russian.” His words came true: he was tried, convicted, and executed, all in secret.

Polyakov must have had few illusions about how his countrymen would view him, even those who welcomed the fall of the regime. And yet he persisted, driven by his own sense of duty and an old-fashioned patriotism. As James Woolsey of the CIA later noted: “What General Polyakov did for the West didn’t just help us win the Cold War, it kept the Cold War from becoming hot. Polyakov’s role was invaluable, and it was one that he played until the end—in his own words—for his country.”

As U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller and several Congressional committees investigate Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election, it’s logical to ask what the CIA and/or MI6 might know from inside sources in Moscow. Are there “social democrats” in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle who reject his strongman approach and regard cooperating with the West as a patriotic duty? These sources might offer concrete information about the extent of Russian meddling, and possible collusion with Trump associates, well beyond the gossip, rumors, and conjecture of the dossier compiled by ex-MI6 officer Christopher Steele.

Another intriguing question: can the current Administration be trusted with the names of any highly-placed Russians passing information? The fear of a leak, or inadvertent disclosure by an erratic President not known for his self-control or caution, is real. The fate of some of Putin’s critics (journalists murdered; opposition leaders assassinated; former cronies dying under mysterious circumstances) suggests the potentially dire consequences of exposure (no less, perhaps, than those faced by General Polyakov.) Putin is, after all, a creature of the KGB.

If history is any guide, there are covert Western intelligence sources in Moscow. (If there are not, then the CIA is not doing its job.) How to shield them, and yet fully explore what they can tell us about the extent of Russian hacking and disinformation campaigns, is a pressing challenge for the leaders of the intelligence community. Before too long we may learn what they know, and what it means for the health of our democratic institutions and the rule of law in our country.

Jefferson Flanders is an independent journalist and author. His trilogy of novels, The First Trumpet, is set during the early Cold War.

Copyright © 2017 by Jefferson Flanders

Berlin Spy Stories

This essay first appeared in the Mystery Tribune

Spy novelists have long been drawn to Berlin’s dark and violent past, and its mix of seamy counterculture and shadowy intrigue. That should come as no surprise: Germany’s rulers prosecuted, and lost, two world wars, and after 1945 the country occupied the frontlines of the Cold War. With these conflicts came heightened covert activity—false flag operations, code breaking, sabotage, and spying by all sides.

As the capital of Germany, Berlin served as the center of political and military power for both the Kaiser and Hitler. During the Nazi years, numerous intelligence agencies (Gestapo, SD, Abwehr) competed for influence with the Führer, while at the same time Germany’s adversaries sought to place moles in the inner councils of Hitler’s regime. After the war, occupied Berlin became a place where East and West intersected, a unique Treffpunkt (meeting point), a cloak-and-dagger venue for the Western Allies and the Soviets. The city swarmed with agents. By the late 1950s, the U.S. had 15 separate intelligence outfits at work in the city, and the KGB had taken up residence at a massive complex at Karlshorst in East Berlin. Both sides recruited sources, placed penetration agents, and, when it was deemed necessary, took more “direct action,” including abductions and assassinations. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev called Berlin a “swampland of espionage.” Before the Wall went up in 1961, agents and informants could cross sector borders without too much trouble.

Beyond the clandestine, Germany’s largest city has offered an intriguing, and sometimes contradictory, backdrop for fiction. Berlin has been a cosmopolitan home for artists, writers, painters, actors, and the “decadent” demimonde for more than a hundred years—think the “anything goes” atmosphere of Cabaret during the 1920s and 30s, or the free-spirited city of bohemians, drop-outs, permanent students, and punk-rockers that David Bowie and Iggy Pop inhabited in the 1970s. There’s always been a gritty Berlin underworld, filled with petty thieves, pimps, prostitutes, con men, and crime bosses. Berliners have proved remarkably resilient. They’ve endured Allied bombing raids, the brutal Soviet pillage of the city in 1945, the Berlin Airlift, the erection of the Wall, and the years as a divided and (for West Berliners) isolated place.

Berlin’s spies

John le Carré, a master of the espionage genre, began his breakthrough 1963 bestseller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold with a fatal encounter at a Berlin checkpoint, and ended it with a desperate escape attempt at the Wall. In the character of Alex Leamas, a jaded MI6 veteran, Le Carré offered readers a more realistic and nuanced alternative to James Bond, Ian Fleming’s dashing super-spy. Graham Greene praised the novel as the best spy story he had ever read, and JB Priestley said it possessed “an atmosphere of chilly hell.” The screen version of the book, directed by Martin Ritt, starred Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, and introduced the general public to Le Carré’s bleak vision of the twilight struggle between the liberal democracies and the Soviet bloc.

Le Carré wrote later that Berlin in the 1960s was “a paradigm of human folly and historical paradox.” Stationed at the British Embassy in Bonn, he had “watched the Wall’s progress from barbed wire to breeze block; I watched the ramparts of the Cold War going up on the still-warm ashes of the hot one.” (Le Carré has had a life-long interest in Germany and its literature and culture; he has set many of his other thrillers there including A Small Town in Germany, The Looking Glass War, and A Most Wanted Man.)

Other spy novelists have mined the rich material in Berlin’s troubled history, producing numerous thrillers, including series by Len Deighton (ten Bernard Samson novels), John Lawton (two Joe Wilderness books), and, most notably, David Downing (six John Russell novels) and Philip Kerr, with his critically-acclaimed Bernie Gunther series.

In Downing’s first Berlin novel, Zoo Station, we meet John Russell, an Anglo-American expat journalist of leftist political tendencies who has been living quietly in Berlin for more than a decade. It’s 1939, and Hitler is threatening war with Poland. Russell wants to stay in Germany; he has a glamorous girlfriend, an actress named Effi Koenen, and a young son, Paul, from a failed marriage. As the Third Reich moves toward outright conflict, Russell draws the attention of the Soviet, German, and British intelligence agencies, who all see him as a potentially valuable operative. To protect his family, Russell begins to cooperate with various and sundry spymasters, reluctantly compromising himself in the process.

In the five novels that follow (the Train Station series), Russell struggles in his role as amateur spy, caught in the very dangerous game of “playing the ends against the middle,” as Germany careens into war. While he despises the Nazis, Russell has little choice but to work with the Abwehr (while also running errands for the NKVD, MI6, and American military intelligence). When he can, Russell tries to help Jewish friends and acquaintances escape the roundup in Berlin, the beginning of the Final Solution, but there are limits to what he can accomplish—the Gestapo is a watchful and ever-present threat. Downing’s novels brilliantly capture the fear and paranoia of life in a dictatorship, and they illustrate the moral conflicts that confront average men and women face in a society that has abandoned the rule of law. Downing paints a harrowing portrait of the impact of the Nazi regime on Berlin and the brutal consequences of German militarism, the devastation of the city by Allied bombing and by the rampaging Red Army.

The prolific Philip Kerr offers an equally dark vision in his Berlin Noir trilogy (March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem), which he had extended into another nine (and counting) Bernie Gunther novels. Kerr’s Germany is run by uniformed criminals with swastikas on their armbands, arrogant men driven not only by a warped racist ideology but also by greed, lust, and corruption. While Kerr’s work is categorized as crime fiction, his novels bridge several genres— they’re a compelling mashup of police procedural, murder mystery, and spy thriller. His plots typically follow the thriller outline established by John Buchan in The 39 Steps: take an ordinary man, give him a difficult and dangerous mystery to solve with a pressing deadline, and then have him chased by shadowy enemies.

Kerr’s brash, wise-cracking Everyman hero Bernie Gunther is a veteran of the Berlin police department from the Weimar years. He’s a survivor, willing to work for the Nazi elite in solving politically-sensitive crimes even as he recognizes the absurdity of traditional police work when civilized moral boundaries have been erased. Gunther has a stubborn sense of right and wrong, and when confronted with evil, he’s not above settling scores and seeking rough justice. The series, which spans the 1930s, the Second World War, and the early Cold War, illuminates a violent and tragic period of human history.

The Cold War and beyond

It’s been the American author Joseph Kanon who has most evocatively explored the struggle between American and Soviet intelligence agencies in the ruins of post-war Berlin. In The Good German, his protagonist, war correspondent Jake Geismer, is shocked by the devastation as he flies over the divided city: “Below them there seemed to be no movement. Shells of houses, empty as ransacked tombs, miles and miles of them, whole pulverized stretches where there were not even walls.” When Geismer is drawn into a murder investigation which involves his pre-war lover, Lena, he learns that the line between guilt and innocence is blurred. Who should take responsibility for the horrific Nazi past, and for wartime atrocities? Who is complicit? And how is justice best served?

In Leaving Berlin, Kanon focuses on life in the Eastern sector of the city, occupied by the Soviets and watched over by the dreaded East German secret police. During the Berlin Airlift in 1949, Alex Meier, a German-Jewish author, is blackmailed by the CIA into returning to East Berlin as an agent. The novel explores the moral and psychological costs of betrayal: the German Workers Paradise is a grim, oppressive place where informing on friends and colleague has become commonplace. Meier must negotiate a vastly altered personal and professional landscape, where he can’t be sure who to trust, where the fear of the Gestapo has been replaced by fear of K-5, later known as the Stasi. As the novel ends, Meier crosses from East to West through the Brandenburg Gate, a man wounded and hardened by his experiences.

The end of the Cold War hasn’t diminished Berlin’s allure for those crafting spy stories. In 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, Jason Bourne (played by Matt Damon) meets a CIA contact in Alexanderplatz during a student demonstration; later, he’s chased through a Berlin subway station. The producers of Homeland chose the German capital as the locale for the series fifth season with storylines involving the Islamic State, a resurgent Russia, and terrorism in Europe. Novelist Olen Steinhauer’s Berlin Station television spy series focuses on modern-day CIA field agents dealing with terror plots and damaging cyber leaks. And the creative team responsible for the well-received BBC adaptation of Le Carré’s The Night Manager has announced its next project will be a limited-series remake of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

With renewed tensions between the West and Russia, and with German intelligence agencies warning about jihadists hiding in the recent flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Berlin, the city will continue to have more than its fair share of intrigue—and writers eager to tell new spy stories.

Jefferson Flanders is the author of The First Trumpet trilogy about the early Cold War. His novel An Interlude in Berlin will be published in 2018.

Copyright © 2017 by Jefferson Flanders

Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2017

It has been a banner year for spy thrillers and espionage novels, with new books from some of the masters of the genre.

Friends and Traitors by John Lawton


The British traitor Guy Burgess, one of the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring, was notorious for his drunkenness, lack of personal hygiene, and proclivity for picking up younger men in public places (when homosexual liaisons were prosecuted as a crime). Some in London’s elite circles found him witty and smart and overlooked his often crude and outrageous behavior. But the American officials who encountered Burgess in Washington in the early 1950s when he served as second secretary in the British Embassy were astonished that the British Foreign Office not only employed Burgess as a diplomat (despite his open anti-Americanism and dissolute lifestyle) but also allowed him access to confidential information. There were red faces aplenty in Whitehall when Burgess defected to the Soviet Union in 1951 along with fellow Cambridge spy Donald Maclean.

Burgess has always been a figure of fascination for British journalists and authors. Andrew Lownie’s recent biography of Burgess, Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess, suggests that he was a very effective intelligence operative, not a harmless “licensed jester” of the ruling class as he has often been characterized. The Burgess that John Lawton portrays in his latest Inspector Troy novel, Friends and Traitors, comes across as a well-connected and brilliant con man, not a master spy. Burgess finds acceptance as “one of us” by the upper class establishment—what Lawton calls “clubbable Britain”— despite his flaws. The novel—part detective story, part spy thriller—traces the friendship between Burgess and Lawton’s protagonist, Frederick Troy, a chief superintendent at Scotland Yard. Troy and Burgess share an alienation from their privileged backgrounds.

The plot of Friends and Traitors centers around Burgess’ desire to return to England from Moscow (a grim place he grew to hate). While in Vienna on vacation in 1958, Troy is approached by Burgess to help broker a possible homecoming. When an MI5 agent sent to meet with Burgess is murdered, Troy (whose father was a Russian émigré) becomes a suspect in the killing. He must clear his name and in doing so discover why powerful forces are determined to keep Burgess from returning to England. In the last third of Friends and Traitors, Lawton picks up the pace of the novel, and he keeps the reader turning pages to the very end.

A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré


When John Le Carré’s novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was published in 1963 to wide-spread acclaim, it represented a dramatic shift in tone for espionage thrillers, a clear departure from the derring-do of Ian Fleming’s rakish super agent, James Bond. Instead, Le Carré (the pen-name of David Cornwell, a former British intelligence officer) offered a darker vision, of Western intelligence agencies that skirted moral and ethical lines in their struggle against their Soviet and East Bloc adversaries. The protagonist of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Alec Leamas, is far from glamorous: an aging MI6 agent, haunted by his failures in life, inserted into East Germany on a risky mission. Both Leamas, and his hapless lover, Liz Gold, are treated as disposable chess pieces in the spy game. The novel became an international best seller and was praised by critics and authors; Graham Greene called it the best spy story he had ever read.

Now, five decades later, A Legacy of Spies revisits Alec Leamas’ botched mission and examines the moral choices made by the top British spymasters, including George Smiley (the hero of a series of Le Carré’s books). Le Carré has made some intriguing choices in crafting the novel, employing Peter Guillam, a supporting character in the Smiley series, to recount the story. We don’t encounter Smiley until the very end of A Legacy of Spies.

Guillam is summoned from retirement to answer questions about the Leamas affair: the British Secret Service is worried about lawsuits from family members and a possible Parliamentary inquiry. It’s an interesting conceit: what legal or moral responsibility do the victors of the Cold War have for any “collateral damage” inflicted during the cloak-and-dagger operations of the 1950s and 1960s? As Guillam is quizzed by the lawyers, we learn more about the operation and its aftermath, and the many layers of deception involved.

While A Legacy of Spies is full of wry humor and engaging dialogue (which keeps our interest), it’s not as dynamic or suspenseful as some of Le Carré’s more recent books like A Most Wanted Man, which deals with the war on terror, or The Night Manager, which explores the illicit global weapons trade. There’s some irony in that, because after the Cold War ended, there was speculation that Le Carré would struggle to find his literary way; in fact, he has found much to write about in a world confronting the challenges of ultra-nationalism, terrorism, and corporate malfeasance.

Le Carré makes a curious choice at the close of A Legacy of Spies; he has Smiley make the case for the pan-European project that British voters rejected in Brexit. While it fits with Le Carré’s public support of Remain during the referendum campaign, it doesn’t seem quite in character for Smiley. Yes, he is Le Carré’s creation, but Smiley has always struck me as the traditional English gentleman who could recite, by heart, John of Gaunt’s speech in Richard II: “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” Would he really warm to the notion of an unelected bureaucracy in Brussels setting policy for “this scepter’d isle”?

Defectors by Joseph Kanon


During the Cold War, several high-profile British Establishment figures defected to the Soviet Union, including Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and George Blake, but there were few American moles of similar prominence who fled to Moscow. Agents like Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg, and Morton Sobell denied their complicity in espionage and stayed to face prosecution (and conviction) in the United States. Two members of the Rosenberg spy ring—the relatively-obscure American scientists Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant—did make their way to Russia and held high leadership positions in the Soviet military-industrial complex. Their story is told in Steve Usdin’s masterful Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley.

In Defectors, Joseph Kanon has imagined what it might have been like if an American double agent, an Alger Hiss-like figure, a true believer in Marxism and world revolution, had decamped to the Socialist Paradise. It’s an intriguing premise, and Kanon has constructed a taut thriller around his defector, Frank Weeks, a Harvard-educated OSS veteran. Weeks had betrayed both his CIA colleagues and Latvian agents inserted behind the Iron Curtain during the early Cold War. The novel picks up his story years later, in 1961, as Weeks’s younger brother Simon, a successful New York publisher, arrives in Moscow. Simon has come to finalize the details on Frank’s about-to-be-published book, My Secret Life. (The KGB had encouraged the British defectors to write “tell-all” memoirs, largely as a propaganda exercise).

Simon is conflicted about seeing his brother, the infamous traitor. They were close during their Boston childhood, and Frank’s betrayal and defection had not only come as a surprise to Simon but also had ended his promising State Department career. Their relationship is captured perfectly in this brief back-and-forth:

”You never change. I can still read your face,” Frank said, a fond smile, the intimacy of drink.

”Yes? What’s it saying?”

”You’re worried. You don’t want to take your hand off the checker, until you’re sure. Remember how you used to do that? No move until you thought it was safe.”

Kanon deftly brings the other characters in Defectors to life: Frank’s wife, Joanna, who drinks to deal with the isolation of exile; Boris, the grim, proud KGB agent assigned to watch Frank; Pete DiAngelis, a CIA agent in Moscow who can’t hide his dislike of Frank and all he stands for; and Gareth Jones, a forlorn British defector not above informing on his fellow Westerners. While Defectors is well-plotted, never flagging, it is Kanon’s ability to illuminate the inner worlds of the people encountered in its pages that make it a novel well worth reading.

A Single Spy by William Christie


At the center of William Christie’s A Single Spy is the character of Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnov, an orphan who lives by his wits in the lawless desert of Soviet Azerbaijan and is recruited into the NKVD in 1936. The spymasters in Dzerzhinsky Square have selected Alexsi because he speaks German and they send him as a teenager to Germany as a deep penetration agent. Alexsi is a survivor, ruthless when cornered, and he successfully infiltrates the Abwehr (German military intelligence) and begins to feed Moscow vital intelligence, including Hitler’s plans for an attack on the Soviet Union (information which Alexsi’s superiors ignore).

Much of the tension in the novel revolves around Alexsi’s precarious position inside German intelligence circles and the risks he must take in communicating with his Soviet handlers. He becomes entangled in Operation Long Jump, the Nazi plot to kill Winston Churchill at the 1943 Teheran Conference of the Allied leaders. When Alexsi realizes that both German and Soviet intelligence agencies want the same outcome—the British leader eliminated—he also discovers that he has become expendable. (It’s a threatening situation perfect for a resilient and imaginative survivor to overcome.)

A Single Spy is reminiscent of Alan Furst’s Spies of the Balkans with its depiction of the way the NKVD trained and handled its agents, and with its deeply-researched period detail. The novel is an entertaining and historically informative read, and Christie’s ability to build suspense is impressive.

The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich

Paul Vidich’s second spy thriller, The Good Assassin, (a sequel to An Honorable Man), sends his hero, former CIA officer George Mueller, to 1958 Cuba. Mueller undertakes an informal mission to assess whether one of the Agency’s men in Havana, Toby Graham, has “gone rogue” and is secretly assisting Fidel Castro’s rebels with arms shipments.


There’s much to like in Vidich’s novel: he captures the pervasive corruption of dictator Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba, the grinding poverty, the dominance of American mobsters and corporate interests, and the fear of SIM, the brutal Cuban secret police. Then there’s sultry Havana, filled with casinos, bars, sex shows, brothels, and gawking tourists. (Vidich teases the reader with the prospect of Mueller meeting Cuba’s most famous foreign resident, Ernest “Papa” Hemingway, but the hard-drinking author remains off-stage.)

Vidich stretches the boundaries of the spy genre. He has a literary style, with longish ruminations by his characters, and he’s quite willing to drop readers into the middle of a scene and let them piece together the backstory. There are times when the novel seems unevenly paced, but The Good Assassin closes with a flourish.

On a historical note, Vidich is spot on in highlighting the covert support Castro received from some in the CIA. The conservative U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Earl E. T. Smith, later blamed the CIA and some diplomats in the State Department for enabling Castro’s victory. The Cuban Revolution had its admirers in the United States (not just Herbert Matthews of the New York Times who declared Fidel’s revolt to be “radical, democratic, and therefore anti-Communist.”) While Castro may not have started out as a Communist, by the end of the revolution, those close to him, his brother Raul and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, were determined to establish Latin America’s first Marxist-Leninist state. That they succeeded has been a tragedy for the Cuban people.

Vienna Spies by Alex Gerlis

Vienna Spies is set during the final months of World War II. It has become clear that Germany will lose the war and Austrians realize that their embrace of National Socialism will come with a heavy price. The Red Army is driving the Wehrmacht back toward the west, and it is only a matter of time before Vienna falls.


In Alex Gerlis’ taut thriller, British policy makers have become concerned that Soviet leader Josef Stalin will renege on promises made to support Austria’s post-war neutrality and independence. They decide that they need to find and protect Austria’s leading anti-Nazi politician, one Hubert Leitner, who is hiding in Vienna and who could lead a future government sympathetic to the Allies. MI6 sends two agents, Rolf Eder and Katharina Hoch, who pretend to be a Swiss married couple (he a banker from Zurich, she a nurse). At the same time, the Soviets have also dispatched an experienced NKVD field agent, Viktor Krasotkin, to locate Leitner.

Vienna Spies captures the unrelenting tension for spies living behind enemy lines. The threat of being denounced to the authorities is always present, and the Gestapo is eager to hunt down anyone resisting Nazi rule. Gerlis is aware that modern readers might be skeptical about the ability of foreign agents to survive in a hostile city filled with supporters of Hitler, and he highlights the immense difficulties of trying to establish a cell under such circumstances. (In his Author’s Note, Gerlis cites a scholarly work, The Austrian Resistance 1938-1945, and interviews with Austrian refugees from the time, to bolster his case that they were pockets of anti-Nazis in the city).

Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr’s latest thriller, Prussian Blue, features his battered hero/anti-hero Bernie Gunther, a former Berlin detective of the Weimar era, once again in peril because of his checkered past. The novel offers parallel storylines: Gunther is on the run in 1956 France, chased by the East German secret services after he has refused to assassinate a Stasi agent in England (who was his lover); he finds himself flashing back to his investigation of a murder at Berchtesgaden (Hitler’s Alpine lair, the “Eagle’s Nest”) in the late 1930s. There are twists-and-turns along the way, but the stories eventually overlap before they are resolved.


One of the more intriguing aspects of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels is their clear portrayal of the top Nazis not as rulers of a modern nation state but instead as corrupt crime family bosses, intent on amassing money and power (justifying their brutal actions by a horrific ideology). Traditional histories sometimes miss this element. Prussian Blue captures this insight, as Gunther learns during this investigation that the local Nazis in Berchtesgaden are dealing drugs and running a prostitution ring. Kerr is also clear-eyed about his protagonist: Bernie has committed crimes, done horrible things to stay alive—but his moral compass is not broken, and this native Berliner does what he can to set things right in his rough-and-ready way.

Prussian Blue draws on recent historical research suggesting that the Third Reich’s leaders and soldiers were jacked up on stimulants, particularly Pertavin, a version of methamphetamine. There is some irony in the hypocrisy of Nazis high on meth when their Führer was a strident non-smoking vegetarian (with his own secret drug habit).

If there’s a weakness in the novel, it’s that Kerr asks the reader to suspend belief when it comes to Bernie Gunther’s colorful and often subversive verbal pyrotechnics, which are typically aimed at high-placed Nazis and other grim authority figures. The wise-cracking Bernie has “no filter” (to use a 2017 term), when expressing his views. In real life, his sarcasm, thinly-veiled political insults, and outright insubordination would have bought him a one-way ticket to a concentration camp, no matter how useful his talents as an investigator might be.

Lenin’s Roller Coaster by David Downing

It’s been 100 years since the Russian Revolution, and David Downing has chosen the world-changing events of 1917 as the backdrop for his latest Jack McColl novel, Lenin’s Roller Coaster. His globe-trotting protagonist, McColl, a British spy, holds much more progressive political views than, say, John Buchan’s resolute Tory patriot, Richard Hannay (who had little use for the infernal Huns or for the subversive Bolshies!): McColl has his doubts about British colonial policy and Whitehall’s approach to the revolutionaries seeking reform in Russia.

Lenin's Roller Coaster

As the novel opens in the winter of 1917, the Allies and Germans face a bloody stalemate in the trench warfare raging in France and Belgium. While the Czar has been deposed, the British hope to keep the Russians fighting the Kaiser on the Eastern Front. The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin wants Russia to withdraw from the war, which (along with his anti-capitalist ideology) make him persona non grata for the British and French.

McColl is sent on an undercover mission to Central Asia, ordered to stop supplies from reaching the Germans. After a series of harrowing adventures, he ends up in Moscow, where his lover, the Irish-American journalist Caitlin Hanley, has taken up residence covering the Revolution. There, London tasks McColl with a dangerous and morally-dubious mission—to assist the White Russians, the counter-revolutionaries conspiring against Lenin and his government.

Downing’s fictional account of the early days of the Russian Revolution in Lenin’s Roller Coaster is largely sympathetic, capturing the excitement and idealism of the feuding socialists and anarchists who thought they were on the brink of altering world history. They were, just not for the better—the 20th Century butcher’s bill for adopting Marx’s state socialism (Communism) approached 100 million dead. This creates a problem for Downing: readers in 2017 may find it difficult to empathize with those (like Caitlin Hanley) who fervently embraced the Bolshevik experiment with its inevitable descent into state terror. As historian Sheila Fitzpatrick noted recently in the London Review of Books, the current scholarly consensus is that: “If there is a lesson to be drawn from the Russian Revolution, it is the depressing one that revolutions usually make things worse, all the more so in Russia, where it led to Stalinism.”

In his concluding historical note, Downing acknowledges that the outcome of the “grisly Soviet experiment” makes it hard to understand “the inspiration provided by the original revolution—one that captivated millions of men and women in the interwar years and beyond…” Yet, there are disturbing echoes of that same ideological fervor in today’s challenges to liberal democracy mounted by populists of the extreme Right and Left in Europe and the United States. Radicalism is making a comeback. Sadly, the appeal of utopian solutions, whether socialist or nationalist, hasn’t died despite the sobering lessons of history.

A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming

It’s not easy to write a believable spy thriller set in the here-and-now, because these days reality (Russian hacking, the Deep State, jihadist attacks in Europe’s major cities, Wikileaks, etc.) often is stranger than fiction. Today’s headlines about real world espionage and clandestine skulduggery are hard to top. Charles Cumming’s latest novel, A Divided Spy, is very current in its concerns: Russian espionage directed against the West, and the threat ISIS-inspired violence poses to Western Europe. His protagonist, former MI6 officer Thomas Kell, returns to action, haunted by a lost love and eager to take revenge on the Russian FSB officer, Alexander Minasian, he holds responsible. When Minasian is spotted at an Egyptian resort with an older man in what appears to be a gay relationship, Kell sees an opportunity (through blackmail) to avenge the murder of Rachel Wallinger, his lover.

A Divided Spy

Resolving this plot line would be more than enough for most authors, but Cumming weaves in a further complication: a potential terror attack on British soil. A young British-Pakistani man, Shahid, has been recruited by ISIS for nefarious purposes, sent to the seaside resort of Brighton, where he blends into the community. When Kell is alerted to this jihadist plot, he must convince a skeptical MI6 establishment of the looming danger with time running out.

Cumming has researched the process by which young Muslim men in Great Britain are drawn into the sick jihadist fantasies of ISIS and this informs the novel in a powerful way. He provides a chilling portrait of Shahid, a man torn between new-found religious fervor and his upbringing in the secular West. Just as disturbing: Cumming suggests British counterintelligence is unprepared to deal with the threat of lone wolf terrorism. A Divided Spy can be read as a warning of what may lie ahead, and an implicit call for a ratcheting up of internal vetting and surveillance in the United Kingdom.

Here are past lists of top spy thrillers. You can click for:

2016’s top spy thrillers

2015’s top spy thrillers

2014’s top spy thrillers

2013’s top spy thrillers

Ten classic British spy novels

Copyright © 2017 Jefferson Flanders
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