Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2013

The year 2013 proved to be a very good year for intelligent, well-crafted spy thrillers. (You can click on the following links for my list of 2012’s top spy thrillers and 2014’s top spy thrillers).

My picks for these top cloak-and-dagger novels published in 2013 follow.

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré

The celebrated spy novelist John le Carré (aka David John Moore Cornwell) knows both how to tell a story and how to fashion a morally ambiguous fictional world. Both of these literary skills are on full display in A Delicate Truth, which critically examines the premises and conduct of the recent GWOT (Global War on Terror) and (not surprisingly) finds it wanting.

A Delicate Truth

The novel’s English protagonist, Toby Bell, a somewhat jaded young Foreign Office functionary, becomes aware of a botched commando-style raid on a house in Gibraltar where a “high-value target,” an arms buyer linked to Islamist extremists, is supposedly present. He learns that Operation Wildlife, the rendition of this supposed terrorist, has been orchestrated by a small and unsavory rogue group that includes a CIA operative, an Anglo-American defense contractor, an American evangelical right-winger, and the overly ambitious British government minister Bell has been serving as private secretary. Deeply troubled by what he has discovered, Bell finds himself risking all to expose the cover-up of the failed, and clearly illegal, mission.

As in nearly all of his post-Cold War novels, le Carré’s villains in A Delicate Truth are greedy corporate executives, CIA officials, corrupt Brits who enable the CIA, and First Worlders who oppress Third Worlders. The problem with A Delicate Truth is that the book’s plot is driven by moral outrage at the collateral damage caused by Operation Wildlife, but Operation Wildlife is, quite frankly, small potatoes in a Drone Wars world, where the President of the United States asserts his right to execute American citizens suspected of terrorism without due process. What le Carré wants us to find shocking in the dubious programs of the Bush-Blair era (rendition, enhanced interrogation, etc.) already have been replaced by GWOT policies on steroids (targeted killings by drone, NSA surveillance programs of massive scope) that involve much greater lethality.

There’s no questioning le Carré’s mastery of the genre, and A Delicate Truth will keep you turning the pages, but missing from the novel—surprising for a writer known for his subtlety—are shades of gray, of nuance, of ambiguity. Le Carré, whose politics appear to mirror those of Tony Benn, never acknowledges the difficult choices that Western governments have to make in confronting the rise of militant Islam. How should democratic societies respond to an ideology (Wahabi Islam) that violently rejects Enlightenment ideas? How should le Carré’s beloved rural Cornwall deal with homegrown radicalism, with those who advocate replacing English common law with sharia? Blaming George W. Bush and the CIA and American foreign policy for the Boston marathon bombing or (closer to le Carré’s home) the beheading of an British soldier on a London street in broad daylight by two suspected jihadis requires ignoring reality. The indelicate truth is that radical Islamists reject secular Western values and culture and will continue to do so regardless of shifts in Western policy.

The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry

The young, never-identified-by-name American agent in Charles McCarry’s latest novel makes a rookie mistake: he falls in love with a mysterious and alluring woman, named Mei (codenamed WILDCHILD), who is apparently working for Chinese intelligence in Shanghai. Their often strange affair can be seen as a metaphor, of sorts, for the complicated and troubled relationship between the U.S. and China.

McCarry populates The Shanghai Factor with intriguing and memorable characters: an American spymaster who plays mindgames with his subordinates; a Chinese CEO who despises the barbarians of the West and exploits their greed and arrogance; a deadly assassin who makes her living as a gourmet chef; and a Park Avenue WASP who faces her fatal cancer without flinching.

In the end The Shanghai Factor transcends its genre as it reminds us of the emotional costs of love, the compulsion of passion, and the often-overlooked psychic strain of espionage. McCarry is far from sentimental as he outlines clearly the differences between East and West—cultural, political, and spiritual—and suggests we are farther from understanding each other than we like to think.

Dominion by C.J. Sansom

C.J. Sansom says he’s intrigued by the idea of alternative history. His latest novel, Dominion, imagines England in 1952 after the Nazis have won the Second World War. In this counter-factual world, instead of turning to Winston Churchill to organize a defense of Britain in 1940, the Tories instead select Lord Halifax as prime minister and he surrenders to the Germans after battlefield defeats in France.

Dominion

Sansom paints an imaginative portrait of Europe under Hitler’s thumb—there’s continuing conflict between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union but Moscow has fallen and Stalin has been executed, replaced by Marshall Zhukov and Nikita Khrushchev. In the United States, the newly elected president, Adlai Stevenson, is hostile to the Nazis unlike his isolationist predecessors. German Jewish refugees in Britain have been forcibly repatriated to the camps in Germany and there are rumors that British Jews, already forced to wear the yellow Star of David, are next.

Against this backdrop, Sansom has written a traditional spy thriller with plenty of action and skullduggery. Part of the fun in reading Dominion is how he inserts real-life historical figures into the inverted reality he has created. Some, however, have failed to see the humor: Enoch Powell’s widow was infuriated that the Tory politician was portrayed as part of the pro-Nazi British puppet government in the novel.

Sansom’s protagonist, a British civil servant, David Fitzgerald, has joined a Resistance cell connected to Churchill, who has gone into hiding, and becomes involved in a desperate effort to keep atomic secrets out of the hands of the Germans. That twist in the plot seemed shaky on factual grounds: is it likely that the Nazi scientists who invented the V-1 and V-2 rockets, jet fighters, and other advanced military technology would have failed to build an atomic bomb independently after more than a decade of experimentation?

Dominion, while often imaginative and well-written, doesn’t rise to the level of Sansom’s Winter in Madrid and that’s primarily because much of the suspense in the book is undercut by a somewhat predictable ending which is telegraphed well before the close of the book. Yet Dominion is still an entertaining and enjoyable summer read (a best-seller in Britain!).

(My review of Sansom’s novel Winter in Madrid can be found here.)

A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr

In A Man Without Breath, Bernie Gunther, a former Berlin cop and the hero of Philip Kerr’s noir novels, delves into the horrors committed in the Bloodlands, the area in Eastern Europe contested by the Nazis and Soviets during World War II. In the spring of 1943, Gunther is tasked with producing evidence that Stalin has ordered the execution of the Polish officer corps at Katyn Forest. At the same time, Gunther must solve a series of grisly murders of German soldiers. He recognizes the absurdity of police work under a criminal regime, and yet he strives to do the right thing, expose the guilty, and bring about a measure of justice.

A Man Without Breath is the ninth novel featuring Gunther, who is a master of snappy comebacks. His willingness to openly mock Nazi pretensions is amusing, but fantastical: it’s hard to imagine Gunther could hurl his veiled insults at German military and political leaders and still survive. Yet he’s a charming rogue and we know his copper’s heart is in the right place.

Masaryk Station by David Downing

Masaryk Station

David Downing titled his previous five John Russell novels with the names of Berlin train stations (the books in the series are titled Zoo Station, Silesian Station, Stettin Station, Potsdam Station, and Lehrter Station). For Masaryk Station, the final novel in the series, Downing turned to Prague’s train station named after the famed Czech nationalist leader Thomas Masaryk (whose son, Jan, the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, died under suspicious circumstances in 1948—it’s probable that he was thrown out of a second-story Prague window by a Soviet agent).

Downing brings an end to his series with an intelligently plotted and thoughtful novel. Set in 1948, Masaryk Station finds Russell, an Anglo-American journalist who has been forced to work for both the CIA and KGB, traveling throughout Eastern Europe on various clandestine missions as the Cold War begins to heat up. In the end Downing invents an intriguing scenario whereby Russell can safely bid farewell to his days as a double (if not triple) agent.


Copyright © 2013 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Click to purchase the critically-acclaimed First Trumpet Cold War thrillers by Jefferson Flanders: Herald Square, The North Building, and The Hill of Three Borders.


Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2012

It was a good year for literary spy thrillers. The six novels briefly reviewed below are, in my estimation, the best of 2012.

My list skews to the historical. I’m not a big fan of modern techno-thrillers where gadgets dominate and where the human factor gets lost. (Come to think of it, that’s one of the problems with the focus of US intelligence today). So there are some bestsellers in the genre that don’t appear on this list.

Three of the authors highlighted are American (Kanon, Furst, Littell) and three English (Downing, Smith, and Cumming). They are all accomplished storytellers who strive not only for historical accuracy but also to illuminate and examine the moral ambiguities inherent in spying.

With that said, here are my picks:

Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon

Istanbul Passage

Kanon is a master at the background research that helps him capture the small details that make his books so believable. Istanbul Passage offers an intriguing look at the spy games played in Turkey’s ancient city after the Second World War. Kanon spins a tale that involves a part-time American spy, Leon Bauer, who is drawn into protecting a Romanian operative and Nazi collaborator who may also be a war criminal but has intelligence that Washington wants. There’s a subplot involving Mossad operatives seeking to run Jewish refugees past the British blockade of Palestine that adds to the intrigue. Kanon touches upon the conflict between accountability and expediency that surfaced in his 2001 bestseller, The Good German. All told, an absorbing read.

A fuller consideration of Istanbul Passage can be found here.

Mission to Paris by Alan Furst

Furst’s Mission to Paris marries a traditionally-plotted story of espionage with an extended celebration of the joys of living in the world’s most stylish city. His protagonist, Frederic Stahl, an American film star of Austrian origins who lived in Paris as a young man, has returned to the city in the late summer of 1938 to make a movie. When Stahl refuses to help German agents spread anti-war propaganda in France, he becomes the target of the Nazis.

Furst’s decision to have a celebrity, a well-known movie star, as the protagonist of Mission to Paris, is an interesting authorial choice. In many of his other novels Furst tells his story through down-at-heels characters (freelance journalists, exiles in Paris, a ship captain, a mid-level police official, a member of the Resistance on the run) and because they operate on the margins, there’s a natural built-in tension. Furst has to work a little harder to scare up threats to Stahl, but by book’s end he has succeeded.

A fuller consideration of Mission to Paris can be found here.

Young Philby by Robert Littell

Young Philby

Littell, author of The Company, reimagines the story of the British double agent Kim Philby, focusing on his early career. Littell chooses to have the people in Philby’s life—lovers, Moscow Center intelligence officials, his Soviet handlers in the field, his friend and fellow agent Guy Burgess—paint a picture of the most infamous spy of the 20th century. And Littell has some fun weaving in a broad cast of characters into novel: Stalin, Franco, de Gaulle, Beria, James Jesus Angleton, and Philby’s larger-than-life father St. John Philby.

Novelists and historians alike have long explored Philby’s motives for turning against his class and country and Littell offers up an inventive (and implausible) explanation for this treachery in Young Philby. I think he betrayed for less complicated reasons: Philby was a charming sociopath who found excitement in espionage and took pleasure in secretly attacking those in authority.

Lehrter Station by David Downing

Downing’s British-American journalist hero, John Russell, returns to post-war Berlin in this the fifth novel in the popular series. Russell once again is caught between multiple intelligence agencies (British, American, Russian) all trying to manipulate him to their ends and he once again finds a clever way to evade numerous and dangerous traps. Lehrter Station is a solid read, but I’d recommend starting with the first novel in the series, Zoo Station.

I’m curious to see what Downing will do when he eventually runs out of Berlin train stations: the series includes Zoo Station, Silesian Station, Stettin Station, Potsdam Station, and now Lehrter Station.

Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith

Agent 6

Tom Rob Smith’s third Leo Demidov novel, Agent 6 is largely set in the United States. A central figure in the novel is an African-American singer, Jesse Austin, who is closely modeled on Paul Robeson, the wonderfully gifted black athlete, actor, singer and Communist activist. Like Robeson, Austin is revered in the Soviet Union. Like Robeson, Austin’s career stalls as the Cold War heats up. But unlike Robeson, Austin has none of the flaws or imperfections that his real-life counterpart had, and this makes the book less interesting. It’s a shame, because the tragic story of Paul Robeson, and the Faustian bargain with the Stalinist Devil that he struck could have inspired Smith to fashion a more rounded and interesting character.

Agent 6 is, nonetheless, entertaining and well-crafted and features an interesting detour to Afghanistan during the Russian occupation. I do find it ironic that Smith—so sure-footed in his portrayal of Soviet life in the 1950s in his first two novels, Child 44 and The Secret Speech—struggles with depicting America in the early 1960s.

A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming

The only thriller on this list that is set in the present, A Foreign Country begins with the “find the missing person” premise. Former British secret service operative Thomas Kell is asked to locate Amelia Levene, an MI6 executive scheduled to assume command of the Service, who has vanished while on leave in France. Kell’s checkered past includes an episode involving “enhanced interrogation,” and while Cumming often slides into a reflexive anti-Americanism (channeling John le Carré) he acknowledges that a Kantian prohibition on torture of terrorists would also have moral consequences. Kell shuttles between France, Tunisia, and England as he tries to unravel a complicated plot aimed at Levene where the villains turn up to be part of the home side.


For Top Spy Thrillers of 2013 click here.

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Click to purchase The North Building, the new Cold War thriller by Jefferson Flanders. You can also find his critically-acclaimed Herald Square at Amazon.com and other online booksellers.