Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2014

The news of late has included Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA digital espionage, Senator Diane Feinstein’s public quarrel with the CIA over its alleged spying on Senate staffers, and cloak-and-dagger operations in Crimea and the Ukraine (ordered by former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin). Can spy novelists craft fiction in 2014 that’s as intriguing and surprising as reality? Thankfully for those of us who enjoy the genre, some of those writing spy thrillers today are up to the challenge.

My picks for these top espionage novels published in 2014 include some contemporary tales as well as spy fiction with a historical flavor (which I find more appealing as a reader than techno-thrillers).

(Click for my list of 2013’s top spy thrillers and 2012’s top spy thrillers ).

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

The protagonist of Midnight in Europe, Cristián Ferrat, joins the line of urbane, charming, and quietly courageous heroes imagined by Alan Furst in his historical spy fiction. Ferrat, a Spaniard living in Paris and working for an American law firm, is enjoying the good life when the Spanish Civil war erupts in 1936. He’s recruited by the Republican government to help in procuring arms for its hard-pressed army, a difficult task because of the arms embargo on Spain observed by France, England, and the United States (but not by Germany and Italy, who eagerly supplied weapons to the Nationalists).

Midnight in Europe

Ferrat is no ideologue—he tells the head of security at the Spanish Embassy that he believes in parliamentary democracy and is an anti-fascist, but that he doesn’t spend much time on politics. Since the Spanish Civil War involved a bitter and primal struggle between Nationalists on the right and Loyalists on the left, it’s an interesting choice by Furst to make his main character relatively apolitical. Ferrat is at heart a romantic sophisticate—a magnet for women—but not a passionate man; he will support the Republic as best he can, but he isn’t ready to blindly sacrifice his career, or his family, for the Loyalist cause.

Ferrat teams up with a well-connected operator named Max de Lyon who knows the shady world of arms trading. Soon, they’re off to Berlin, Warsaw, Rumania, and Greece as they try to scrounge up anti-aircraft ammunition that they can ship to the Republicans in Spain. Ferrat and de Lyon must outwit Nationalist and German intelligence officers on their trail, and somehow pry loose the needed munitions from the Soviets.

Furst’s beautifully crafted prose is on full display in Midnight in Europe, and the novel is a delight to read. Once again, Furst offers a sobering portrait of the realities of European life in the 1930s as the Western democracies belatedly began to realize the existential threat that Adolf Hitler’s resurgent Germany posed.

A Colder War by Charles Cumming

The dissolution of the Soviet Union may have ended the Cold War, but as Charles Cumming highlights in A Colder War, the adversarial relationship between Russian and Western intelligence agencies persists. Since Cumming’s novel was published in England in spring 2014, the tension between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the U.S. and European Union has risen, dramatically.

A Colder War

This resurgent conflict makes it easier, in one sense, to craft a popular spy thriller, but it also challenges an author—especially an English one—to move beyond John le Carré’s now worn-out trope of Oxbridge MI6 spies searching for Russian moles while sneering at the vulgarity of their American “cousins” in the CIA. Cumming only partially succeeds in escaping these cliches—the confrontations between MI6 and the CIA in his novel seem more urgent and dramatic than those with the SVR—but he does cleverly draw on current geopolitical events (including the civil war in Syria) to give his book a more up-to-the-moment feel.

Cumming’s hero from 2012’s A Foreign Country, Thomas Kell, returns from bureaucratic limbo to investigate the suspicious death of a senior British agent in Istanbul, just as a series of recruited MI6 operatives are blown. Is there a connection between the agent’s death in a plane crash in Greece, and leaks of top secret information? Kell doggedly pursues the truth, in Turkey, the Ukraine, and in London, and Cumming knows how to keep the reader turning the page. I did find myself wondering whether MI6 had the money for the elaborate human and electronic surveillance portrayed in the novel (Britain has slashed its military and intelligence budgets over the last decade), but that’s a minor quibble. To his credit, Cumming is willing to explore his characters’ emotional lives, an element too often missing in today’s spy thrillers.

Warburg in Rome by James Carroll

While James Carroll’s book has one of the less catchy titles for a thriller—it’s Warburg in Rome, not Bond in Rome—it’s nonetheless a challenging and intriguing read. In the novel, Carroll addresses the role of the Roman Catholic Church in shielding Croatian fascists and German Nazis after World World II and shepherding them to Argentina (the infamous “ratline”). Carroll, an accomplished novelist and historian (and a former Catholic priest), infuses Warburg in Rome with a righteous indignation that challenges the preconceptions of the reader in ways that few novels in the genre do.

Warburg in Rome begins as the war in Italy is winding down and it focuses on two Americans, David Warburg, a Treasury Department official sent to help with the growing refugee crisis, and Kevin Deane, a New York priest close to Archbishop Francis Spellman. Warburg hopes to rescue as many Jews as he can from Hitler’s Final Solution in Italy and Hungary and other parts of the collapsing Nazi empire. Shocked and disillusioned by the hostility and indifference he encounters, Warburg increasingly sees the Vatican, and elements of American intelligence, as more interested in developing allies—whatever their crimes during the war—for the upcoming struggle with Stalin in Central Europe than in addressing the plight of Jews.

While Warburg in Rome is structured along the lines of a traditional thriller, Carroll highlights the disturbing history of this postwar period through a series of extended verbal clashes between Warburg and Deane over the Church’s complicity in assisting Nazi murderers and the nature of anti-Semitism. We learn more of this disturbing story as we meet some of his other characters—the alluring Marguerite d’Erasmo, a Red Cross official; Jocko Lionni, an Italian-Jewish resistance fighter; a young German priest, Father Lehmann, who assists the Nazis; and an anti-Semitic American intelligence agent, Peter Mates. The extended dialogue involving these characters slows the pace of the book, which some action-oriented readers may not like, but it provides a deeper historical context and offers a convincing and devastating indictment of those upper-echelon Church officials who so willingly harbored the fugitive war criminals of the Third Reich.

Jack of Spies by David Downing

David Downing, the creator of the John Russell series of thrillers set in Nazi Germany, has ventured into the intrigue surrounding the start of World War One in his latest novel, Jack of Spies. His latest protagonist, Scotsman Jack McColl works for the Royal Navy Intelligence Service and has been tasked with sussing out whatever mischief the Germans are plotting in various corners of the globe.

Jack of Spies

It’s a brave choice by Downing to focus on the Great Game just prior to the outbreak of the war—he enters territory well-explored by John Buchan and Erskine Childers and unlike those early 20th-century authors, he can’t assume that his readers will automatically root against “the Huns.”

Downing’s solution: Jack McColl, his hero, acknowledges that the Brits are far from perfect, and is quite sympathetic to the independence movements in India and Ireland, but sees the Germans under the Kaiser as even more flawed. His romantic interest is a spirited Irish-American feminist journalist who sides with the underdog. Jack of Spies takes us to China, San Francisco, New York, Paterson, NJ (site of the famous millworkers strike), Ireland, Scotland, England, and Mexico. While the novel might have benefited from fewer locales, the historical context is fascinating. I’ll confess I didn’t know about the battle of Veracruz in 1914, where American Marines fought the forces of Mexican dictatorl Victoriano Huerta. (And I also didn’t know Woodrow
Wilson had demanded that Huerta salute the American flag!)

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

In The Cairo Affair, Olen Steinhauer combines elements of the whodunit and the spy novel, adds in some international intrigue, and produces an entertaining page-turner that, at a deeper level, considers the nature of betrayal, personal and political.

The Cairo Affair

Intelligence agencies need those willing to betray, to cast aside old loyalties, to become double agents or moles. Beyond its practical uses, betrayal can be thrilling, a means to settle old scores, a way to add excitement to life. One character in The Cairo Affair quotes the French demimonde writer Jean Genet: “Anyone who hasn’t experienced the ecstasy of betrayal knows nothing of ecstasy at all.” Steinhauer’s exploration of this theme is what elevates this novel well above its procedural surface.

Steinhauer’s novels are driven by intricate plots, and The Cairo Affair is no exception. Set primarily in Egypt during the Libyan civil war of 2011, the action begins with the sudden gangland-style assassination of an American diplomat, Emmett Kohl, in Budapest and follows his widow, Sophie, as she tries to discover why he has been killed.

As several narrators tell the story—Sophie Kohl, CIA agent Stan Bertolli, American security contractor John Calhoun, and Egyptian intelligence officer Omar Halawi—it becomes clear that Kohl’s murder has something to do with a CIA-created covert operation called Stumbler. WikiLeaks has revealed some aspects of Stumbler—a clever touch by Steinhauer—but its true goal, to advance American commercial interests in the region by controlling the Libyan uprising, has been hidden. Sophie travels to Cairo, but her search to uncover the truth is complicated by her own troubled past. It is Halawi, a man of old-fashioned morality, who puts together the puzzle pieces and, in the end, allows Sophie to decide what sort of justice she will pursue.

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

Robert Harris is known for getting the details right in his historical fiction—as can be seen in his novels Enigma and Pompeii and even in his best-selling (and counterfactual) Fatherland which imagines a triumphant and believable Third Reich in 1964 as Adolf Hitler approaches his 75th birthday.

An Officer and a Spy

In An Officer and a Spy, Harris takes on the controversial Drefyus Affair and succeeds in crafting an intriguing thriller—quite a feat since many readers will know the resolution of this scandal which roiled French society at the turn of the century.

Harris breathes life into all of the major figures in the case: Captain Alfred Dreyfus, unjustly accused of passing secrets to the Germans, convicted, and sentenced to an inhumane imprisonment on Devil’s Island; Colonel Georges Picquart, the principled head of French counter-espionage who realizes the real traitor is a dodgy major by the name of Ferdinand Walsin Esterházy; the scheming Minister of War, General Auguste Mercier, who has his eyes on higher political office; the courageous journalist Émile Zola who defends Dreyfus, highlights the antisemitism and corrupt military justice involved, and the case an international cause celebre.

While Colonel Picquart is the hero of the novel, Harris doesn’t shy away from portraying his flaws. Picquart shares the prejudices of the French officer class of his time: he doesn’t particularly care for Jews, he’s disdainful of homosexuals, and he has little use for calculating politicians or meddling journalists. But Picquart, an idealist, also believes in the time-honored military virtues of honor and integrity. His stubborn commitment to finding the truth leads him to risk his career, and his personal happiness, as he pursues justice for Dreyfus.

Harris fuses elements of the spy novel, detective story, and courtroom drama in An Officer and a Spy. It’s an entertaining retelling of a pivotal episode in the history of Third Republic France, one that helped shape French politics for much of the 20th century.

American Romantic by Ward Just

A case could be made that American Romantic doesn’t belong on this list of spy novels. There aren’t any traditional spies in the book, and Ward Just doesn’t rely on any of the tried-and-true (and overused) plots commonly found in thrillers. But Harry Sanders, an American diplomat and the American romantic of Just’s title, does become involved in a secret mission in Vietnam that alters his life and his career in profound ways. American Romantic considers the role secrecy plays in organizations, in families, and in marriages, and thus, I would argue, deserves attention by any reader intrigued by the covert and clandestine—personal and political.

American Romantic

There are echoes of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn in the early chapters of Just’s novel—we are introduced to Americans, Innocents Abroad, baffled by a culture and people whose outlook is so different, so opaque, that the tragic and violent conflict in Indochina that followed should have come as no surprise.

There’s more to American Romantic than a consideration of how the United States dealt with the demands of imperium after winning World War II. Just doesn’t neglect the personal lives of his characters. Sanders has a brief affair with a German woman in Vietnam and never quite resolves his feelings for her. He must deal with small and large tragedies in his marriage. After diplomatic postings in Asia, Africa, and Europe, Sanders becomes a permanent expat, retiring to France and not his native New England—a telling statement about his progressive detachment from his own countrymen and culture.

There’s an elegiac tone to the novel—the postwar optimism and certainty of purpose of American elites was sorely tested as the Cold War progressed. American Romantic reflects that reality. In Washington’s corridors of power, America’s rightful place in the world seemed clear in 1945—what it should be today is not as obvious.

(Click for my list of 2013’s top spy thrillers and 2012’s top spy thrillers ).

Copyright © 2014 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 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.


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 and other online booksellers.