The best spy books set in Asia

Victor Robert Lee Author Of Performance Anomalies
By Victor Robert Lee

The Books I Picked & Why

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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