The best spy books by real life spies

James E. Mack Author Of Asset Seven
By James E. Mack

Who am I?

I spent over two decades on the front lines of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, working for many organisations and agencies around the globe. Having survived shootings, bombings, double agents, and kidnap attempts, I now prefer to write about such things rather than experience them! I grew up reading spy thrillers from the likes of Gerald Seymour and Frederick Forsyth and retain a passion for the genre. And there’s nothing better than reading a new novel, getting lost in the plot, and appreciating the realism or authenticity the author brings to the story. I hope you enjoy the books I’ve recommended that were written by real-life spies.

I wrote...

Asset Seven

By James E. Mack,

Book cover of Asset Seven

What is my book about?

A CIA Asset in Iran is running, bringing out vital Intel. His Handler triggers the exfil plan and with a team of Delta Force operators, deploys to the Iran/Iraq border for the extraction of the Asset. But the Asset is being hunted, and the hunters are getting closer. For the Quds Force General in charge, the hunt is personal; his entire operation compromised if the traitor makes it to his CIA Handlers. But the General has allies that he can reach out to. Allies who hate the Americans even more than he hates the traitor. Russian allies...

As the elite forces race against time and each other to get to the Asset first, the Zagros mountains become the front line in a deadly cat-and-mouse game for the ultimate prize: Asset Seven.

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The books I picked & why

Damascus Station

By David McCloskey,

Book cover of Damascus Station

Why did I love this book?

There are several reasons that I really enjoyed this book but first and foremost for me, it was the Tradecraft: How one actually conducts ‘spying’ activities.

McCloskey brings authenticity and realism to the table, drawing upon his time with the CIA in the Middle East. For anyone who has worked in the area, McCloskey’s depictions are instantly recognisable.

While the plot and characters are very believable, the narrative is thrilling and engaging and absolutely absorbed me into the streets and alleys of Damascus.

By David McCloskey,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Damascus Station as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

CIA case officer Sam Joseph is dispatched to Paris to recruit Syrian Palace official Mariam Haddad. The two fall into a forbidden relationship, which supercharges Haddad's recruitment and creates unspeakable danger when they enter Damascus to find the man responsible for the disappearance of an American spy.

But the cat and mouse chase for the killer soon leads to a trail of high-profile assassinations and the discovery of a dark secret at the heart of the Syrian regime, bringing the pair under the all-seeing eyes of Assad's spy catcher, Ali Hassan, and his brother Rustum, the head of the feared…

The Handler

By M. P. Woodward,

Book cover of The Handler

Why did I love this book?

Another experienced intelligence officer, M.P. Woodward has created a terrific cast of characters for his series that begins with The Handler.

Once again, there’s a healthy dose of authenticity drawn from Woodward’s background that helps drive the plot forward.

A CIA operative, Meredith Morris-Dale, is assigned to extract an Iranian nuclear scientist with vital intelligence. The scientist, however, will only agree to the extraction if Meredith's ex-husband and former disgraced CIA paramilitary, John, carries out the operation.

Throw in internal CIA politics, Russian and Iranian spies, and the strained relationship of the divorced couple now working together and you have a terrific plot that races along.

By M. P. Woodward,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A disgraced former CIA operative must go back in the field with only his ex-wife as his handler in this electrifying thriller from a former intelligence officer.

Meredith Morris-Dale is a CIA case officer and a damn good one...even if this last mission did go terribly wrong. Now she has been summoned back to Langley where she expects to be fired. Instead, she is met by the Deputy Director with stunning news. 

A single well-placed CIA mole in Iran’s uranium enrichment program has kept the terrorist nation from building a bomb by sabotaging the performance of their covert centrifuge arrays.…

The Night Manager

By John le Carré,

Book cover of The Night Manager

Why did I love this book?

Of course, this list would have to contain at least one book by the undisputed master of the genre.

Le Carre has written many great espionage novels but to me, The Night Manager remains my firm favourite.

I think the plot of hapless chap thrown into the world of illegal arms trafficking, intelligence agencies, and ruthless organisations grabbed me from the start.

But, as with all Le Carre, there is much more depth to our main character, Johnathan Pine and he has a past of his own to contend with.

All in all, a terrific mix of great characters negotiating the shadowy world of government agencies and illegal arms traffickers.

By John le Carré,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Night Manager as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Night Manager, an ex-soldier helps British Intelligence penetrate the secret world of ruthless arms dealers.

At the start of it all, Jonathan Pine is merely the night manager at a luxury hotel. But when a single attempt to pass on information to the British authorities - about an international businessman at the hotel with suspicious dealings - backfires terribly, and people close to Pine begin to die, he commits himself to a battle against powerful forces he cannot begin to imagine.

In a chilling tale of corrupt intelligence agencies, billion-dollar price tags and the truth of the brutal…

Need to Know

By Karen Cleveland,

Book cover of Need to Know

Why did I love this book?

You’re a CIA analyst, well respected and regarded by your employer, married for ten years and a mother of four children.

At work one day, you are directed to hack a Russian criminal’s computer. It’s not an easy task but you eventually succeed and are stunned to find details and photographs of 5 deep-cover Russian spies living in America looking back at you. One of which is your husband.

This is a great start to a novel that races along with our main character thrown into a maelstrom of lies, loyalty, and impossible choices.

Brilliant stuff.

By Karen Cleveland,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Married for ten years. Four children. She thought she knew her husband better than anyone.
She was wrong.

'Heart-poundingly suspenseful and heart-wrenchingly insightful' J.P.Delaney, author of The Girl Before

'This compulsive, clever thriller will have you reading long into the night' Red


You get to work. Make a coffee. Turn on your computer.

Your task: break into a Russian criminal's laptop and find proof that he's concealing five deep-cover agents - seemingly normal people living in plain sight.

You're in. Five faces stare back at you.

One of them is your husband.


'An immensely satisfying story with serpentine…

Red Sparrow

By Jason Matthews,

Book cover of Red Sparrow

Why did I love this book?

A great thriller that introduces us to the ‘Sparrow School’ – a Russian training centre where attractive women are taught how to deploy their feminine charms to compromise western intelligence operations.

Matthews’ CIA background comes to the fore in the Tradecraft and Asset-handling passages that, while exciting and thrilling, are also realistic.

Complex characters and nefarious double-dealing are the order of the day in this brilliant novel that kicks off The Red Sparrow trilogy.

By Jason Matthews,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Red Sparrow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE MAJOR MOTION PICTURE starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton and Jeremy Irons.

Dominika Egorov, former prima ballerina, is sucked into the heart of Putin's Russia, the country she loved, as the twists and turns of a betrayal and counter-betrayal unravel.

American Nate Nash, idealistic and ambitious, handles the double agent, codenamed MARBLE, considered one of CIA's biggest assets. He needs to keep his identity secret for as long as the mole can keep supplying golden information.

Will Dominika be able to unmask MARBLE, or will the mission see her faith destroyed in the country she has always passionately defended?


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