The best spy books set in Asia

Victor Robert Lee Author Of Performance Anomalies
By Victor Robert Lee

Who am I?

I write about Asia, where I have spent a chunk of my life. My non-fiction reporting has centered on Beijing's territorial ambitions, including its ongoing takeover of the South China Sea, which in a sense was prefigured by the plot of my novel Performance Anomalies. The main character, Cono 7Q, has been pecking at my brain for many years, abetted by my brushes with spooks in the underbelly of Central Asia and China. I use a pen name so my travel in certain countries can be less encumbered.


I wrote...

Performance Anomalies

By Victor Robert Lee,

Book cover of Performance Anomalies

What is my book about?

What do you do with a feral orphan spy, Cono 7Q, who is part Chinese, Russian, Brazilian, and Roma? Pit him against the greatest menace to the free world: China's Communist Party dictatorship. The conflict is framed by a trinity of women: Xiao Li, the fiery Han who as a teen was booted out by her family in Xinjiang, the western region of China, and left to earn her own survival in Kazakhstan. The Ukrainian Katerina, whose access to Kazakhstan's most powerful and ambitious minister entices the CIA to recruit her. Dimira, the steady Almaty teacher whose goodness belies her suffering and strength.

Can these three women and Cono 7Q out-maneuver the Beijing operator charged with bringing vast territories under China's thumb? Or is their real enemy betrayal, in this land of lies?

The books I picked & why

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Agent Sonya: Moscow's Most Daring Wartime Spy

By Ben Macintyre,

Book cover of Agent Sonya: Moscow's Most Daring Wartime Spy

Why this book?

Ben Macintyre obtained unique access to diaries and personal letters for this astounding story of one of the most consequential spies in history. Agent Sonya got her start as a Soviet spy in 1930s Shanghai while in her early twenties. On top of spying, she was a wizard with the high technology of her day: long-distance radio communications. On each assignment, she would assemble a high-powered radio from parts acquired at local shops (several different ones, to avoid suspicion), and in no time be transmitting all the way to Moscow. Sonya was in daily danger as she ran agents in China, Japanese-occupied Manchuria, Nazi-riddled Switzerland, and England at the close of the war, when she was the Soviet handler of Klaus Fuchs, the physicist who handed over the nuclear bomb blueprints. Through all of this Sonya was raising three children by three fathers!

Agent Sonya: Moscow's Most Daring Wartime Spy

By Ben Macintyre,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A TOP TEN SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER

Published in Paperback on 27 May

'His best book yet' The Times

'Macintyre's page-turner is a dazzling portrait of a flawed yet driven individual who risked everything (including her children) for the cause' Sunday Times

DISCOVER THE INCREDIBLE TRUE STORY OF THE SPY WHO ALMOST KILLED HITLER - FROM THE BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF THE SPY AND THE TRAITOR

Ursula Kuczynski Burton was a spymaster, saboteur, bomb-maker and secret agent. Codenamed 'Agent Sonya', her story has never been told - until now.

Born to a German Jewish family, as Ursula grew, so did the Nazis'…


An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin's Master Agent

By Owen Matthews,

Book cover of An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin's Master Agent

Why this book?

Soviet master spy Richard Sorge's high-level infiltration of the Japanese government and German embassy in Tokyo during WW2 enabled him to warn Stalin that Hitler was going to invade Russia (ignored) and that Japan would not invade Siberia (believed). The latter intel allowed Stalin to call his Eastern army to reinforce Moscow and reverse Hitler's march. As remarkable as these feats of espionage were, perhaps Sorge's greatest achievement originated years earlier in Shanghai, where he captivated and recruited Ursula Kuczynski (who became Agent Sonya) to spy for the Soviets, which ultimately brought them The Bomb. Sorge had a penchant for drunken high-speed motorcycle rides across Tokyo and almost killed himself. In the end, the Kempetai took care of that; he was unmasked and hanged in Sugamo Prison in 1944, abandoned by the Soviets.

An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin's Master Agent

By Owen Matthews,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked An Impeccable Spy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

SHORTLISTED FOR THE PUSHKIN HOUSE PRIZE 'The most formidable spy in history' Ian Fleming 'A superb biography ... More than a hundred books have been written about him and this is undoubtedly the best' Ben Macintyre Richard Sorge was a man with two homelands. Born of a German father and a Russian mother in Baku in 1895, he moved in a world of shifting alliances and infinite possibility. A member of the angry and deluded generation who found new, radical faiths after their experiences on the battlefields of the First World War, Sorge became a fanatical communist - and the…


The Quiet American

By Graham Greene,

Book cover of The Quiet American

Why this book?

I bought my only copy of The Quiet American from a scruffy boy on a street in Hanoi in the early 90s, when the Hanoi Hilton was still a dilapidated former POW prison, not a high rise. "Pirated" would be generous-- the book was a bound stack of poorly photocopied pages. But readable, so I did. Published in 1955, it was prescient about the absurd and tragic hole that America would dig for itself in Vietnam. And again, years down the line, it was echoed by the epic folly of America in Iraq and Afghanistan. Graham Greene's all-too-real masterpiece also paints a multilayered Vietnam that remains unknowable to interloping foreigners.

The Quiet American

By Graham Greene,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked The Quiet American as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Graham Greene's classic exploration of love, innocence, and morality in Vietnam

"I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused," Graham Greene's narrator Fowler remarks of Alden Pyle, the eponymous "Quiet American" of what is perhaps the most controversial novel of his career. Pyle is the brash young idealist sent out by Washington on a mysterious mission to Saigon, where the French Army struggles against the Vietminh guerrillas.

As young Pyle's well-intentioned policies blunder into bloodshed, Fowler, a seasoned and cynical British reporter, finds it impossible to stand safely aside as an observer. But…


Typhoon: A Novel

By Charles Cumming,

Book cover of Typhoon: A Novel

Why this book?

When Charles Cumming published Typhoon in 2009, China's Xinjiang province was a festering wound for the Chinese Communist Party, with the local Uyghur population sporadically resisting subjugation by their Han overlords. Now it is a full-blown police-state with mass Uyghur detention camps that amount to genocide, according to many human rights groups. Cumming shrewdly chose Xinjiang tensions as the spark for a rogue CIA scheme to destabilize the Beijing regime. Knowing what is currently happening in Xinjiang, it is hard for me now to re-read the novel with the same sense of nostalgia for the authentically rendered places in the cities I know (or knew) well: Urumqi, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong. These gems have all been deprecated by the Party, but they are partially preserved in Cumming's meticulous prose.

Typhoon: A Novel

By Charles Cumming,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Hong Kong 1997 - only a few short months of British rule remain before the territory returns to Chinese rule. It's a febrile place. And in that claustrophobic environment of uncertainty and fear the spooks are hard at work, jostling for position and influence. So when an elderly man emerges from the seas off the New Territories, claiming to know secrets he will share only with the Governor himself, a young MI6 agent, Joe Lennox, sees an opportunity to make his reputation. But when the old man, a high-profile Chinese professor, is spirited away in the middle of the night…


A Shadow Intelligence

By Oliver Harris,

Book cover of A Shadow Intelligence

Why this book?

This novel is set in Kazakhstan, with which I have a longstanding love-hate relationship. But that's not the reason I praise the book. In 2014 The Guardian asked the espionage novelist Charles Cumming, "Has modern technology killed spy thrillers?" Oliver Harris shows us the answer is No. Deep fake videos, manipulated social media, conjured digital backstories, intentionally corrupted data sets, geotracking, wifi tricks, hacked networks-- they're all here in spades, part of the new tradecraft. They don't overwhelm the story, they feed it. Russian militias are positioning to take a bite out of snow-coated Kazakhstan-- our friends in Ukraine will be uncomfortably familiar with at least one part of this tale.

A Shadow Intelligence

By Oliver Harris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Shadow Intelligence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

AN NPR BEST BOOK OF 2020

“An absorbing, superbly written novel likely to stand as one of the best spy novels of the year.”
—Kirkus, starred review

Elliot Kane reflects the dark side of MI6. He is the instrument of an agency that puts two years and more than £100K into training recruits to steal cars, hack bank accounts, strip weapons, and employ everything from blackmail to improvised explosives in service of Crown and Country. After fifteen years overseas embroiled in events that never make the news, Kane is a ghost in his own life, assuming and shedding personalities with…


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