The best nonfiction books about turncoat American spies

Why am I passionate about this?

I knew nothing about spies – except that James Bond preferred his martinis shaken, not stirred – until 2009, when federal agents hauled Jim and Nathan Nicholson into the federal courthouse I covered as an investigative reporter for The Oregonian newspaper. Since then, I’ve taken a deep dive into the real world of spies and spy catchers, producing The Spy’s Son and writing another cool spy case into Newsweek magazine. Now I’m hooked. But with apologies to 007, I prefer my martinis stirred. 

I wrote...

Book cover of The Spy's Son: The True Story of the Highest-Ranking CIA Officer Ever Convicted of Espionage and the Son He Trained to Spy for Russia

What is my book about?

The Spy’s Son chronicles the crimes of Jim Nicholson, a CIA officer who orchestrated two plots to sell U.S. secrets to Russia.

The first of those plots began in Malaysia in 1994, when Jim found himself in a pinch for money. He secretly turned to Russia’s foreign spy service (the SVR). The Russians paid the globetrotting spy $300,000 before the FBI arrested him in 1996, and he was sentenced to 23 years in prison. In 2006, Jim renewed his clandestine meetings with the SVR with the help of his son Nathan, who smuggled his messages out of the prison visiting room. But FBI agents caught onto that plot, too, and their investigation turned Nathan into the central figure in a somber, painful story of love, family, and betrayal.

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The books I picked & why

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

Bryan Denson Why did I love 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.

By Ann Blackman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Wild Rose as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For sheer bravado and style, no woman in the North or South rivaled the Civil War heroine Rose O’Neale Greenhow. Fearless spy for the Confederacy, glittering Washington hostess, legendary beauty and lover, Rose Greenhow risked everything for the cause she valued more than life itself. In this superb portrait, biographer Ann Blackman tells the surprising true story of a unique woman in history.

“I am a Southern woman, born with revolutionary blood in my veins,” Rose once declared–and that fiery spirit would plunge her into the center of power and the thick of adventure. Born into a slave-holding family, Rose…

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

Bryan Denson Why did I love 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.

By Robert Lindsey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Falcon and the Snowman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This fascinating account of how two young Americans turned traitor during the Cold War is an “absolutely smashing real-life spy story” (The New York Times Book Review).

At the height of the Cold War, some of the nation’s most precious secrets passed through a CIA contractor in Southern California. Only a handful of employees were cleared to handle the intelligence that came through the Black Vault. One of them was Christopher John Boyce, a hard-partying genius with a sky-high IQ, a passion for falconry, and little love for his country. Security at the Vault was so lax, Boyce couldn’t help…

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

Bryan Denson Why did I love 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.

By Pete Earley,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The story of the CIA officer who was arrested in 1994 for the most serious betrayal in the history of the CIA. Ames' 20 years spying for the KGB resulted in the deaths of ten US agents and the stalling of military projects. Ames enjoyed an exotic lifestyle, while those he betrayed were tortured.

Book cover of The Spy Who Got Away

Bryan Denson Why did I love 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.

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

Bryan Denson Why did I love 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).

By David A Vise,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Bureau and the Mole as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Called "a first-rate spy story" (Entertainment Weekly), The Bureau and the Mole is the sensational New York Times best-seller that tells the inside story of FBI counterintelligence agent Robert Philip Hanssen, a seemingly all-American boy who would become the perfect traitor, jeopardizing America's national security for over twenty years by selling top-secret information to the Russians. Drawing from a wide variety of sources in the FBI, the Justice Department, the White House, and the intelligence community, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David A. Vise tells the story of how Hanssen employed the very sources and methods his own nation had entrusted to…

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Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

Book cover of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

Gabrielle Robinson Author Of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Retired english professor

Gabrielle's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Gabrielle found her grandfather’s diaries after her mother’s death, only to discover that he had been a Nazi. Born in Berlin in 1942, she and her mother fled the city in 1945, but Api, the one surviving male member of her family, stayed behind to work as a doctor in a city 90% destroyed.

Gabrielle retraces Api’s steps in the Berlin of the 21st century, torn between her love for the man who gave her the happiest years of her childhood and trying to come to terms with his Nazi membership, German guilt, and political responsibility.

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

What is this book about?

"This is not a book I will forget any time soon."
Story Circle Book Reviews

Moving and provocative, Api's Berlin Diaries offers a personal perspective on the fall of Berlin 1945 and the far-reaching aftershocks of the Third Reich.

After her mother's death, Robinson was thrilled to find her beloved grandfather's war diaries-only to discover that he had been a Nazi.

The award-winning memoir shows Api, a doctor in Berlin, desperately trying to help the wounded in cellars without water or light. He himself was reduced to anxiety and despair, the daily diary his main refuge. As Robinson retraces Api's…

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