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:
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