The best nonfiction books about turncoat American spies

The Books I Picked & Why

Wild Rose: The True Story of a Civil War Spy

By Ann Blackman

Book cover of Wild Rose: The True Story of a Civil War Spy

Why this book?

Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to think of spies as cloak-and-dagger types driving Jaguars and carrying machine pistols and exploding gadgets. But spying really is the second-oldest profession. Ann Blackman’s beautifully told narrative of Washington socialite Rose O’Neal Greenhow, who became a highly successful Confederate spy during the Civil War, is a good reminder that a smart, deceptive human – female or male – can change the course of wars.


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The Falcon and the Snowman: A True Story of Friendship and Espionage

By Robert Lindsey

Book cover of The Falcon and the Snowman: A True Story of Friendship and Espionage

Why this book?

This book is an Edgar-winning masterwork of narrative nonfiction, a blistering account of Cold War espionage committed by a pair of twentysomethings in Southern California. Christopher Boyce, who had access to CIA files while working for the defense contractor TRW, secretly copied files and gave them to his friend Andrew Daulton Lee, who sold them to Soviet officials in Mexico City. The United States disrupted the plot and sent Boyce and Lee to prison. 

My publisher sent author Robert Lindsey an advance copy of my book, who wrote such a flattering blurb about it that I felt the need to thank him. We met in Carmel, California, where Lindsey signed my copy of The Falcon and the Snowman. Coincidentally, I later got to know Chris Boyce as I wrote stories about him in The Oregonian after his release from prison.


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Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames

By Pete Earley

Book cover of Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames

Why this book?

Pete Earley, one of America’s best spy writers, authored two excellent books on espionage: Confessions of a Spy and Family of Spies: Inside the John Walker Spy Ring. But for my money, the Ames book is the better of them because Earley – one helluva reporter – talked his way into a long series of exclusive interviews with the disgraced CIA officer.

Ames, who betrayed to Moscow the identities of Russian spies secretly working for the U.S. (causing at least 10 of them to be killed), gave Earley more than 50 hours of his time behind bars. He did not race to print with the story (as other authors had), but interviewed Ames’s Russian handlers and the brilliant CIA team that identified him as the mole in its midst.


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The Spy Who Got Away

By David Wise

Book cover of The Spy Who Got Away

Why this book?

David Wise became the first Western journalist to interview former CIA officer Edward Lee Howard, who defected to Moscow on the KGB’s dime. Wise penned a slew of excellent nonfiction spy books before his death in 2018, but I believe his keen-eyed narrative skills and vivid portrait of Cold War espionage make The Spy Who Got Away his best in show.

Wise recounts Howard’s career in the CIA, which fired him in 1983 for alleged drug abuse, and the FBI’s subsequent investigation of his illegal ties to the KGB. But his story takes a cool, cinematic turn as he describes the way Howard slipped FBI surveillance – propping up a dummy in the front passenger seat of a speeding 1979 Oldsmobile – and jumping out of the car to escape to Moscow.


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The Bureau and the Mole: The Unmasking of Robert Philip Hanssen, the Most Dangerous Double Agent in FBI History

By David A Vise

Book cover of The Bureau and the Mole: The Unmasking of Robert Philip Hanssen, the Most Dangerous Double Agent in FBI History

Why this book?

This is a solemn, unflinching portal into the creepy, complicated life of former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who picked his nation’s pockets of secrets from 1979 to 2001 and sold them to the KGB and SVR in Washington, D.C. 

Vise’s book achieves a novelistic feel because he has a brilliant eye for the telling detail. For example, he could have just written that Hanssen’s wife Bonnie worried that he failed to make it home for Sunday supper on February 18, 2001 (the day of his arrest). But Vise builds dramatic tension, noting that Hanssen was always on time, that Bonnie phoned his cell phone (it was dead), served one of her specialties (Moroccan beef over rice), and prayed he had not died of a heart attack (because he suffered arrhythmia).


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