The best spy books set in Latin America

The Books I Picked & Why

Our Man in Havana

By Graham Greene

Book cover of Our Man in Havana

Why this book?

Set in 1950s Havana, Our Man in Havana is a satirical novel about vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, who is recruited by MI6 as a spy. Needing the money and without a clue on how to run agents, he begins fabricating his intelligence reports using names from the local country club and complex diagrams from his latest vacuum cleaner. All seems well until his made up reports start coming true. 

As one of Greene’s “entertainments” this prescient book perfectly captures the beginning of the Cold War and the cluelessness and desperation with which the world’s powers vied for influence and control in the developing world. It showcased the silliness of the spy game and willingness of decision-makers to believe only what they wanted to hear which, taking events in the early 21st Century into account, remains relevant today. 

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The Feast of the Goat

By Mario Vargas Llosa, Edith Grossman

Book cover of The Feast of the Goat

Why this book?

Nobel Prize-Winning Vargas Llosa’s novel tells the story of the assassination and downfall of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, alias El Jefe. Told through various narrative streams while flipping backwards and forwards in the timeline, Vargas Llosa weaves history, politics, and the brutal repression of Trujillo and his feared Military Intelligence Service into a compelling story.  

While not solely a spy novel, this book reveals the role that military “caudillos” with their repressive internal intelligence services have played throughout Latin America, especially during the second half of the 20th Century as the region was caught between Washington and Moscow during the Cold War. Similar stories could be told in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and other countries in the region. 

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Missionary Stew

By Ross Thomas

Book cover of Missionary Stew

Why this book?

Critically underrated and largely unknown but described by up-and-coming writer Stephen King (in 1983) as “the Jane Austen of the political espionage story,” Ross Thomas was rumoured to have been an ex-spook himself. For those that haven’t read him, the best way I can describe his writing is: hilarious, clever, cynical, and like Elmore Leonard had a baby with Graham Greene.

Missionary Stew sees political fundraiser, Draper Haere, and “almost-Pulitzer winning” journalist, Morgan Citron, wrapped up in a caper involving the CIA, cocaine traffickers, Latin American generals, and corrupt US officials, all trying to fund a coup in a fictional Central American country. A storyline that might sound like it’s based on a true story—the Iran-Contra Affair. The only hitch is Missionary Stew was published in 1983 while Iran-Contra first came to light in 1985. Prophetic or insider knowledge?    

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Castro's Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, The CIA, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

By Brian Latell

Book cover of Castro's Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, The CIA, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

Why this book?

Intelligence expert, professor, and former National Intelligence Officer for Latin America, Dr. Brian Latell, offers insight into Cuban Intelligence and their—largely—successful infiltration of the US security apparatus. Based on interviews with high-level defectors, the book delves into Castro’s mindset with assassination plots and uncover operations emanating from both sides of the Florida Straits as well as a behind-the-scenes look at some key events of the Cold War.

It’s very interesting to learn more about Castro’s mindset beyond the news headlines and how he managed to maintain power after the revolution. However, the real bombshell is an anecdote given by a former Cuban radio operator during the 1960s. I won’t give anything away, but it certainly adds fodder to the JFK assassination, giving one something to think about without falling into a deluge of conspiracy theories. Compelling reading from a true expert in the area.

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The Tailor of Panama

By John Le Carré

Book cover of The Tailor of Panama

Why this book?

Set in Panama or “Casablanca without heroes” as le Carré himself coined it, Harry Pendel is a tailor to Panama’s powerful, which makes him the perfect agent. When approached by an amoral MI6 spy, he decides to pass on information in exchange for much-needed cash. Only he doesn’t have anything of note to pass on and decides to weave a web of lies instead, much of which begins to come true. 

From the modern king of the spy novel and in the vein of Greene’s Our Man in Havana, a more light-hearted, satirical novel and although one of the author's lesser-known novels, an enjoyable read. Also a half-decent movie with Pierce Bronson and Geoffrey Rush.  

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