The best books from a historian's view about spies

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a modern British historian who loves to read thrillers and non-fiction histories of spies. I’ve done it all my adult life. Moreover, I’ve always been fascinated by the Russian Revolution: its early idealism, the curdling of idealism. When the daughter of Moura von Benckendorff, (R.H. Bruce Lockhart’s great love) told me about her mother and Lockhart, I realized I had an opportunity to combine my vocation and my avocation. The result is my book, The Lockhart Plot.


I wrote...

The Lockhart Plot: Love, Betrayal, Assassination and Counter-Revolution in Lenin's Russia

By Jonathan Schneer,

Book cover of The Lockhart Plot: Love, Betrayal, Assassination and Counter-Revolution in Lenin's Russia

What is my book about?

"Bruce Lockhart, debonair British secret agent, and Felix Dzerzhinsky, ruthless mastermind of the Soviet security service, face off in a deadly duel of smoke and mirrors. At stake: the fate of the Russian Revolution itself. It’s an incredible story and Jonathan Schneer tells it with panache and a razor-sharp historical sensibility. A brilliant examination that finally uncovers the mysteries of the ‘Lockhart Plot.’” - Marc Mulholland, Professor of Modern History at Oxford University.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

Jonathan Schneer Why did I love this book?

This is the best book written about the brilliant, charming, ruthless Kim Philby, the most successful spy Russia ever had in Britain. It is sympathetic but clear-eyed. It is exhaustively researched, but reads like a novel. You will be swept away, but also you may be certain it is true. Philby became a Communist spy for idealistic reasons. Eventually, however, he betrayed not only his country but even his friends. When, at last, they figured him out, he escaped to Russia and lived there as a hero to an old age. He had everything except a heart. 

By Ben Macintyre,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked A Spy Among Friends as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Kim Philby was the most notorious British defector and Soviet mole in history. Agent, double agent, traitor and enigma, he betrayed every secret of Allied operations to the Russians in the early years of the Cold War.

Philby's two closest friends in the intelligence world, Nicholas Elliott of MI6 and James Jesus Angleton, the CIA intelligence chief, thought they knew Philby better than anyone, and then discovered they had not known him at all. This is a story of intimate duplicity; of loyalty, trust and treachery, class and conscience; of an ideological battle waged by men with cut-glass accents and…


Book cover of The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case

Jonathan Schneer Why did I love this book?

I grew up believing that the US Government framed and then executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 to whip up anti-Communist hysteria. I was wrong. First of all, Julius was guilty; secondly, it was not the government that framed Ethel, but her own brother, David Greenglass. He did it to save his own skin, for he had passed documents to his brother-in-law (although they proved worthless to the Russians). Also, he wanted to save his wife, who had typed a few things for Julius. Sixty years later he came clean to Sam Roberts. This book is a revelation, an examination of the mind of a sociopath. Like Kim Philby, David Greenglass had no heart, nor pity, nor regrets. 

By Sam Roberts,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Brother as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A fresh and fast-paced study of one of the most important crimes of the twentieth century” (The Washington Post), The Brother now discloses new information revealed since the original publication in 2003—including an admission by his sons that Julius Rosenberg was indeed a Soviet spy and a confession to the author by the Rosenbergs’ co-defendant.

Sixty years after their execution in June 1953 for conspiring to steal atomic secrets, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg remain the subjects of great emotional debate and acrimony. The man whose testimony almost single-handedly convicted them was Ethel Rosenberg’s own brother, David Greenglass, who recently died.…


Book cover of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Jonathan Schneer Why did I love this book?

Probably, you know this book already, it is Le Carré’s imaginative meditation on Kim Philby. The hero of the book, George Smiley, must discover who is the mole at the top of British Intelligence, and the villain he unmasks, Bill Haydon, is like Philby: dashing, debonair, rotten. But this is much more than a retelling of the Philby story. Le Carré is the Charles Dickens of spy novels, especially in this book. If you read only one spy novel, choose this one.

By John le Carré,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of A Legacy of Spies.

The man he knew as "Control" is dead, and the young Turks who forced him out now run the Circus. But George Smiley isn't quite ready for retirement-especially when a pretty, would-be defector surfaces with a shocking accusation: a Soviet mole has penetrated the highest level of British Intelligence. Relying only on his wits and a small, loyal cadre, Smiley recognizes the hand of Karla-his Moscow Centre nemesis-and sets a trap to catch the traitor.

The Oscar-nominated feature film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is directed by…


Book cover of Slow Horses

Jonathan Schneer Why did I love this book?

But if you read two, then this should be the second. Herron is not so moody as le Carré, but he is funnier and, perhaps, more cynical. Moreover, his main characters, “slow horses,” have been demoted to “Slough House,” to keep them out of the way of their smoother colleagues in the world of secret intelligence. There is something endearing about their repeated, disastrous, attempts to climb back up the ladder. Their leader, Jackson Lamb, a character worthy of le Carré at his most Dickensian, is always having to rescue them. 

By Mick Herron,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Slow Horses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*Now a major TV series starring Gary Oldman*

'To have been lucky enough to play Smiley in one's career; and now go and play Jackson Lamb in Mick Herron's novels - the heir, in a way, to le Carre - is a terrific thing' Gary Oldman

Slough House is the outpost where disgraced spies are banished to see out the rest of their derailed careers. Known as the 'slow horses' these misfits have committed crimes of drugs and drunkenness, lechery and failure, politics and betrayal while on duty.

In this drab and mildewed office these highly trained spies don't run…


Book cover of Memoirs of a British Agent

Jonathan Schneer Why did I love this book?

And finally, this is Lockhart’s own recounting of his adventures in Russia during 1917-18. He was a liar, but the cameos he provides are brilliant, e.g. of Cheka leader, Felix Dzerzhinsky: “he never blinks, he never smiles.” Here it is, from the horse’s mouth: complete with descriptions of revolutionary Petrograd, and clandestine meetings with counter-revolutionaries, and shootouts with police, and above all, the torrid romance he conducted with alluring, mysterious Moura von Benckendorff, who may have been a spy herself. 

By R.H. Bruce Lockhart,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Memoirs of a British Agent as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This extraordinary book, which I obtained through the Folio Society, is compiled from the personal daily journals of a British diplomat and emissary who was in Russia from 1905 through 1918. He was personally acquainted with many of the principal participants in the Bolshevik Revolution, including Trotsky, whom he visitied almost daily in the early stages of that event, and even Lenin. His eye-witness accounts of many of the events surrounding the entire history of this cataclismic tranformation of Russia from a Tsarist Empire into a Soviet one is like no other. It is in the first person throughout, and…


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Cold War: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift

By Helena P. Schrader,

Book cover of Cold War: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift

Helena P. Schrader Author Of Cold Peace: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift, Part I

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I first went to Berlin after college, determined to write a novel about the German Resistance; I stayed a quarter of a century. Initially, the Berlin Airlift, something remembered with pride and affection, helped create common ground between me as an American and the Berliners. Later, I was commissioned to write a book about the Airlift and studied the topic in depth. My research included interviews with many participants including Gail Halvorsen. These encounters with eyewitnesses inspired me to write my current three-part fiction project, Bridge to Tomorrow. With Russian aggression again threatening Europe, the story of the airlift that defeated Soviet state terrorism has never been more topical. 

Helena's book list on the Russian blockade of Berlin and the Allied Airlift

What is my book about?

Stopping Russian Aggression with milk, coal, and candy bars….

Berlin is under siege. More than two million civilians will starve unless they receive food, medicine, and more by air.

USAF Captain J.B. Baronowsky and RAF Flight Lieutenant Kit Moran once risked their lives to drop high explosives on Berlin. They are about to deliver milk, flour, and children’s shoes instead. Meanwhile, two women pilots are flying an air ambulance that carries malnourished and abandoned children to freedom in the West. Until General Winter deploys on the side of Russia...

Based on historical events, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader delivers an insightful, exciting and moving tale about how former enemies became friends in the face of Russian aggression — and how close the Berlin Airlift came to failing under the assault of “General Winter.”

Cold War: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift

By Helena P. Schrader,

What is this book about?

Fighting a war with milk, coal and candy bars....

In the second book of the Bridge to Tomorrow Series, the story continues where "Cold Peace" left off.

Berlin is under siege. More than two million civilians in Hitler's former capital will starve unless they receive food, medicine and more by air.

USAF Captain J.B. Baronowsky and RAF Flight Lieutenant Kit Moran once risked their lives to drop high explosives on Berlin. They are about to deliver milk, flour and children's shoes instead. Meanwhile, two women pilots are flying an air ambulance that carries malnourished and abandoned children to freedom in…


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