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.
Munich by Robert Harris
History’s verdict on Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of Great Britain from May 1937 to May 1940, has been harsh—he’s seen as Adolf Hitler’s prime enabler, a weak old man whose policy of appeasement emboldened the Nazi dictator and inevitably led to war.
The accomplished and prolific novelist Robert Harris has constructed his latest historical thriller, Munich, around the infamous 1938 meeting in Bavaria’s capital city where Chamberlain, along with French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, met with Hitler and the Italian Duce Benito Mussolini and agreed to German annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland.
Munich takes place over the last four days of September, 1938, focusing on the diplomatic maneuverings of the Four Powers to address Hitler’s ultimatum about Czechoslovakia. Diplomacy is conducted in a blizzard of paperwork—speeches, memos, telegrams, dispatches, war plans. The novel follows two junior, multilingual diplomats, an Englishman, Hugh Legat, and his German friend, Paul von Hartmann, who attend the Munich conference and are called upon to translate and interpret for their superiors. (The two became close while students at Oxford in the 1920s.)
Hartmann has joined the Oster Conspiracy, a plot hatched by Hans Oster, deputy head of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) to depose Hitler should he order the invasion of Czechoslovakia and risk a wider and unpredictable conflict. Hartmann enlists a reluctant Legat to help, hoping that exposing Hitler’s true expansionist intentions (the dream of an Aryan Lebensraum reflected in secret war plans) will convince the British to scuttle any agreement. It’s a dangerous mission, with German security forces alert for subversion. To Harris’ credit, Munich is a novel filled with suspense—no easy task when the reader knows the eventual historical outcome.
The novel is deeply researched, blending fact and fiction effortlessly, and rich in period detail (a characteristic of Harris’ books). Munich captures the strong anti-war sentiment in Great Britain, France and Germany. There was a reason that cheering crowds greeted Chamberlain upon his arrival Munich—the memories of the First World War and its ten million dead were still raw. (The mindless slaughter of that conflict is depicted in all its horror in John Keegan’s magisterial The First World War; in Chapter 9, “The Breaking of Armies,” Keegan describes the gory reality for the British, Australian, and Canadian troops in the nightmarish Third Battle of Ypres.) The popular desire for peace was genuine.
Munich raises a series of provocative historical questions. Did Chamberlain concede the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia not only in hopes of “peace in our time,” but also because, as Harris suggests, he was conscious of the relative inferiority of the British army and air force compared to the German war machine? Did he seek to buy time for Great Britain to rearm? In the novel, Chamberlain laments: “The main lesson I have learned in my dealings with Hitler is that one simply can’t play poker with a gangster if one has no cards in one’s hands.” (Certainly Daladier felt he had negotiated from a position of weakness; he later commented: “If I had three or four thousand aircraft, Munich would never have happened.”)
Or did Chamberlain and Daladier squander a chance to confront Hitler? What if France and Britain had stood fast at Munich and risked war with the Axis Powers? As Winston Churchill pointed out in his brilliant speech to the House of Commons on October 5th, 1938, that faced with Allied resolution, Hitler would have paid a high price for the Sudetenland; the Wehrmacht would have confronted a determined Czechoslovak Army “which was estimated last week to require not fewer than 30 German divisions for its destruction.” And perhaps the anti-Hitler resistance, Prussian aristocrats in the German High Command, would have moved to forestall a second global conflict.
In his Commons speech, Churchill rebuked the idea of a comfortable detente with Hitler: “…there can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power, that power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force.”
Churchill understood that totalitarianism (whether in the form of Hitler’s National Socialism or Lenin and Stalin’s State Socialism) represented an existential threat to liberal democracy, one that couldn’t be ignored or bargained away. Tragically, Neville Chamberlain never fully comprehended the nature of Nazism (how it was much more than gangsterism, and how its toxic ideology transcended the traditional nation-state), and millions paid the price for his failure.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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