The best spy books that will make you paranoid—with good reason

Who am I?

I played semi-professional baseball in France in 1986. If your baseball career has brought you to France, you should be rethinking your professional aspirations. No problem, I thought. I will write. I like to write. To my dismay, publishers were not fans of novels about French baseball players. The world of espionage I became acquainted with in Europe, however….

I wrote...

Once a Spy

By Keith Thomson,

Book cover of Once a Spy

What is my book about?

When Charlie Clark takes a break from his latest losing streak at the track to bring home his Alzheimer’s-addled father, Drummond, they’re attacked by two mysterious shooters. At first, Charlie thinks his Russian “creditors” are employing aggressive collection tactics. But once Drummond effortlessly hot-wires a car, Charlie discovers that his unassuming father was actually a deep-cover CIA agent . . . and there is extremely sensitive information rattling around in his troubled mind.

Now the CIA wants to “contain” him, so the two embark on a wild chase through the labyrinthine world of national security that will force them to confront unspeakable danger, dark conspiracies, and what it means to be a father and son.

The books I picked & why

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The Puzzle Palace: A Report On NSA, America's Most Secret Agency

By James Bamford,

Book cover of The Puzzle Palace: A Report On NSA, America's Most Secret Agency

Why this book?

Truth kicks fiction’s ass, and the truth about the National Security Agency’s technological and espionage capabilities is more terrifying—or, depending on one’s perspective, cool—than any spy novel. Regardless of your perspective, it is astonishing. As a journalist, this book taught me to be daring, as Bamford is. As a novelist, it taught me the secret to writing about classified cutting-edge spy tech: you pretend you are writing sci-fi and imagine the technological possibilities a quarter of a century from now: you will not be far off from what the NSA has today.

Agents of Innocence

By David Ignatius,

Book cover of Agents of Innocence

Why this book?

Washington Post national security reporter Ignatius may not know the world of espionage better than anyone, but he writes about it better than anyone. Agents of Innocence is such a realistic and engaging depiction of the life of a CIA case officer that a copy of it is left in the room of each new arrival at Camp Peary, the CIA training facility. It’s about an idealistic young CIA officer posted to Beirut to penetrate the PLO, and, in the process, learns hard lessons, not least of which is that once human lives are at stake, idealism takes a back seat to pragmatism. Ultimately, it is a compelling story with terrific characters, and I would have rooted for them had they been accountants or fishmongers rather than spies

The Quantum Spy: A Thriller

By David Ignatius,

Book cover of The Quantum Spy: A Thriller

Why this book?

Ignatius’s most recent novel is in many respects a mashup of books no. 1 and 2 on this list: terrific storytelling and the latest spy recent tech: You’ll conclude that it’s just a matter of time until “bad actors” (spy speak for “bad guys”) can hack your brain. At the same time, you’ll enjoy the story.

The Gray Man

By Mark Greaney,

Book cover of The Gray Man

Why this book?

The story of a onetime CIA assassin who is now doing work for hire, meanwhile dodging the assassins who replaced him. While he is a killer, his personal code—for one thing, he only takes out those he considers truly evil—makes you, somehow, improbably, root for him. And the action, the twists, the turns, the writing…everything is dazzling. Greaney’s enthusiasm—no, love—for the subject matter is readily apparent. And infections. In the past ten years, in addition to ten Gray Man novels, he has also written a good half-dozen thousand-page Tom Clancy novels, among other books, in each case traveling all over the world for research, and, consequently, it is as though each novel comes with a free James Bamford book. For writers, Greaney is simply an inspiration.

CIA Improvised Sabotage Devices

By USA Government,

Book cover of CIA Improvised Sabotage Devices

Why this book?

Exploding wine bottles, guns constructed out of pipes, bullets made of teeth, aspirin explosives: If these sound like props from a B spy movie, it's because, again, truth > fiction. In the early-1970s, the Central Intelligence Agency spent a great deal of effort developing myriad weapons for sabotage. The results were this seventy-two-page illustrated manual, published in 1977 and distributed to American operatives likely to find themselves in situations requiring such improvisation. The manual is also invaluable for writers.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the CIA, espionage, and quantum computing?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the CIA, espionage, and quantum computing.

The CIA Explore 68 books about the CIA
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed, The Brotherhood of the Rose, and The Hunt for Red October if you like this list.