The best British spy novels

Tom Greer Author Of An Expendable Spy
By Tom Greer

The Books I Picked & Why

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

By John Le Carré

Book cover of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Why this book?

Le Carré’s name has become synonymous with the spy genre, and it was this book that propelled him to international stardom. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the third of Le Carré’s spy novels and takes place against the backdrop of the Cold War, not long after the raising of the Berlin Wall.

Alec Leamas, an MI6 field operative in Berlin, is called back to London, apparently in disgrace, but actually to complete one final mission. Control (Head of MI6) asks him to go undercover one last time to convince the East Germans that he is a defector in order to set in place a plan aimed at bringing down one of the leaders of their secret security service.

Graham Green (himself, like myself, a sometime writer of spy fiction) considered The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to be the greatest spy novel ever written. Praise indeed!

This was the first Le Carré novel I ever read, and in my opinion, he’s never written anything better, and that’s really saying something. The quality of the writing is up there with that of any writer you care to name. This is the very antithesis of James Bond and has authenticity stamped on every page. The main character, Alec Leamas is just as well drawn as George Smiley, a bitter, disappointed failure of a man who is an unknowing pawn in the game between East and West. The writing is bleak and gritty, exactly like the events and time the book portrays.


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The Ipcress File

By Len Deighton

Book cover of The Ipcress File

Why this book?

Published at the height of the Cold War, this classic cold war thriller firmly puts Len Deighton at the top of British Spy fiction writers along with the likes of John Le Carré. Deighton’s first novel revolves around a British working-class spy, called Harry Palmer - and made Michael Caine an international star.

The novel is narrated in the first person, revolves around an apparently straightforward mission to find a missing British biochemist before becoming a story about brainwashing and a mole at the heart of the British Secret Service.

For the quality of the writing, this is the very antithesis of the James Bond escapism, with a down at heel working-class spy as the main character and sparse, gritty writing to match.


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The Innocent

By Ian McEwan

Book cover of The Innocent

Why this book?

Set in Cold War Berlin, The Innocent is the story of a British post office engineer who becomes embroiled in a secret operation to help the Western Allies tap into Soviet phone lines.

In West Berlin Leonard Marnham, assigned to a British-American surveillance team, is the innocent of the book title, an ordinary man who uses this secret work he’s been given to escape the boredom of his everyday life. Operation Gold is a scheme created jointly by the CIA and MI6 and involves digging a tunnel from West to East Berlin so they can listen in to the KGB’s secret messages back to Moscow.

Leonard becomes a crucial part of the surveillance team, while at the same time finding romance with a young German woman called Maria. However, because of one particular incident one evening Leonard has to decide exactly how much innocence he's willing to give up for love.

McEwan is known more as a writer of literary fiction, and that is demonstrated perfectly in this excursion of his into the spy genre. The story is intricately plotted with layers of complexity normally missing from the run-of-the-mill spy novel.


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A Colder War

By Charles Cumming

Book cover of A Colder War

Why this book?

Charles Cumming is often cited as a worthy successor to John le Carré, and anyone who enjoys the work of the Doyen of British spy fiction should enjoy this particular example of his work; my favourite book from Cumming.

Thomas Kell (like my agent Jack Tate in my novel) is a disgraced MI6 agent who longs to come back in from the cold from where he’s been banished. When MI6’s top spy in Turkey is killed in what looks like a car accident Kell grabs his chance for professional redemption when his masters at MI6 feel he might be the only agent who can be safely be trusted to investigate what actually happened…and why.

Many spy fiction writers have been cited as successors to John le Carré but Charles Cumming is about the only one I’d agree this might be true about. The quality of the writing is first class, but also the story here is very much a page-turner. This book was my introduction to the work of this writer and because of the quality of the writing in this book of his, I’ve gone on to discover and read his other novels.


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The Quiet American

By Graham Greene

Book cover of The Quiet American

Why this book?

British journalist Thomas Fowler is living in Saigon and covering the conflict in Vietnam between the French colonial occupying power and the Viet Kong Communists. One day he meets Alden Pyle, an American intelligence operative attached to the American Embassy and the Quiet American of the story. While Fowler is a cynic, Pyle, who is new to Vietnam, is an idealist who wants to turn the country into an Asian version of American democracy.

Fowler acts as the story’s narrator, and the novel starts with Fowler discovering that the American has been murdered with the later chapters going back and forth examining the train of events that led to Pyle’s death.

Greene’s novel remains one of the true classics of the spy genre. Quality shows, and writers don’t come much better than Greene. The writing here is exquisite and all the normal Greene traits, Catholic guilt, layer upon layer of complexity, and an imperfect main character are included in the story, which places it well beyond the normal spy fiction potboiler and into the realms of literary fiction.


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