The best tales of spies and intrigue

Stephen Holgate Author Of Tangier
By Stephen Holgate

Who am I?

I've always loved spy stories. The best offer complex characters, exotic locales, suspense, and stakes higher than any detective story. I got to know quite a few CIA types during my foreign service career. Some became good friends. I never asked them about their work, but once or twice passed a tidbit their way. Once, the local KGB got the notion I was with the CIA or was somehow prone to persuasion. They were all over me for weeks, making me extremely uncomfortable. The station chief held my hand throughout. So, while I can’t claim a lot of personal knowledge, I’ve had a touch. Here’s my list of favorite spy stories.

I wrote...

Tangier

By Stephen Holgate,

Book cover of Tangier

What is my book about?

A tale of danger, betrayal, and redemption, Tangier tells parallel stories set fifty years apart, one a mystery, the other a spy story. In the first, Christopher Chaffee, a disgraced Washington power-broker, travels down the narrow lanes and twisted souls of Tangier’s ancient medina in search of the father he has never known, a man he had for decades believed died in a Vichy prison in 1944. Now he has discovered his father might still be alive and living in Tangier. In the second thread, his father, Rene Laurent, fights to maintain his soul—and his life—in the snake pit of espionage that is wartime Tangier. These two stories slowly intertwine as Chaffee unwraps the mystery of his father’s fate.

The books I picked & why

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The Secret Lovers: A Paul Christopher Novel

By Charles McCarry,

Book cover of The Secret Lovers: A Paul Christopher Novel

Why this book?

Almost criminally neglected, McCarry is the greatest American espionage writer. After serving for ten years as an elite deep-cover agent for the CIA, no one could better write of the “long, twilight struggle” of the Cold War. McCarry doesn’t write thrillers, but spare, character-driven stories about spies and the morally treacherous world in which they work. The Secret Lovers is an absorbing tale of betrayal and a relentless, perilous search for truth. McCarry’s masterpiece.


Night Soldiers

By Alan Furst,

Book cover of Night Soldiers

Why this book?

Alan Furst has long mined a rich vein of espionage stories centered in France and Central Europe under the shadow of Adolph Hitler. Unlike the weary cynics of John Le Carre and other authors, Furst’s spies are doomed idealists trying to stop an avalanche. Night Soldiers carries the claustrophobic menace of a vampire story and the sweep of an epic as we follow its protagonist across Europe before and during the great struggle. A great introduction to Furst’s work.


Funeral in Berlin

By Len Deighton,

Book cover of Funeral in Berlin

Why this book?

Though Deighton has gone on to write several hugely popular and better-known spy stories, none of them beats Funeral In Berlin for sheer fun. Narrated by its nameless, smart-ass protagonist, who works for an obscure and underfunded British intelligence agency, the book has all the Cold War suspense, plot twists, and dubious characters you could wish for. Swiftly paced and told with great irreverent humor, it’s terrific entertainment.


The Innocent

By Ian McEwan,

Book cover of The Innocent

Why this book?

Though not thought of as an espionage writer, McEwan uncorks a fine, suspenseful novel based on two true stories of Cold War intrigue. Set in mid-1950s Berlin, it speaks, as the title implies, of a loss of innocence, both professionally and personally, of a British engineer caught up in a dangerous web of uncertain loyalties and unexpected violence. (Why are the best espionage novels set in WWII or the Cold War? Most spying is done now through satellites and electronic eavesdropping. It’s hard to write a good book with a satellite as the main character.)


Thunderball

By Ian Fleming,

Book cover of Thunderball

Why this book?

I have to mention either John Le Carre or Ian Fleming. I’ll go for guilty pleasure over great mastery. I haven’t read this since I was a kid. But I loved it back then. The Bond of the books is more realistic and complex than the cartoon character of the movies but, don’t worry, this isn’t a tale of gritty realism. A lot of fun and a great way to dispose of a few hours of excess reality.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in intelligence agency, the Cold War, and romantic love?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal, I Worked Alone: Diary of a Double Agent in World War II Europe, and The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 if you like this list.