The best spy thrillers by former members of MI6

Michael Smith Author Of Ritter: No Man Dies Twice
By Michael Smith

The Books I Picked & Why

The Human Factor

By Graham Greene

Book cover of The Human Factor

Why this book?

Describing any book as the best of its kind is controversial but few writers in any genre can match one of the true literary giants of the 20th century. Greene worked for MI6 in West Africa during the Second World War before coming back to England where he worked alongside Kim Philby countering German spies based in Portugal and Spain. Elements of his sympathy for Philby, a KGB agent at the heart of MI6, are evident in The Human Factor, where MI6 officer Maurice Castle finds himself embroiled in an investigation into leaks to the KGB from within his section. The book reeks of authenticity but it is the brilliance of the writing, ramping up the tension from seemingly mundane incidents, which produces such a riveting thriller. 


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Smiley's People: A George Smiley Novel

By John Le Carré

Book cover of Smiley's People: A George Smiley Novel

Why this book?

This is also a controversial choice, given that le Carré fans are largely split between The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But for me, Smiley’s People is the true pinnacle of le Carré’s work with Smiley completely developed and totally in charge while the plot is based on a single, very credible intelligence operation that brings the Tinker Tailor trilogy to a riveting end. John le Carré studied at the University of Bern, where the key part of the operation takes place and went on to work for the British Security Service MI5 before moving into MI6 in the early sixties, based mainly in Germany, with the final denouement to this brilliant story coming memorably in a West Berlin he knew well. 


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Casino Royale

By Ian Fleming

Book cover of Casino Royale

Why this book?

OK you’ve got me! Ian Fleming was never an MI6 officer. But forget the sneers from so-called ‘experts’ that he knew nothing about how MI6 operates. Certainly, Bond’s activities have very little in common with those of his real ‘Secret Intelligence Service’ counterparts. Nevertheless, the criticism of Fleming is misplaced. He spent the Second World War as a senior aide to Admiral John Godfrey, the British Director of Naval Intelligence, and was not only in charge of liaison with MI6, he frequently worked directly with MI6 Chief Stewart Menzies, known as ‘C’ rather than James Bond’s ‘M’, although the then Chief’s real name is probably the reason why Fleming chose that letter. Casino Royale is the introduction to the Bond books which were truly brilliant and not to be missed.


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Our Man in Havana

By Graham Greene

Book cover of Our Man in Havana

Why this book?

A second Graham Greene book but no apologies! Greene split his novels between the serious, like The Human Factor, and what he called ‘entertainments.’ Our Man in Havana, a black comedy, sits very firmly in the second category with Greene drawing inspiration from Garbo and Ostro, two German agents and skilled fabricators he dealt with during the Second World War, to ridicule his former profession. The British secret service’s ‘Man in Havana’ is James Wormold, a cash-strapped vacuum cleaner salesman, who creates an entirely false network of intelligence agents. When they produce the plans for a supposed top-secret Cuban military establishment, with Wormold basing the shapes of its installations on various parts of a vacuum cleaner, it leads to a series of tragic-comedic results.


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Legacy

By Alan Judd

Book cover of Legacy

Why this book?

My selections are based on good writing and authenticity, even Fleming peppered his Bond books with elements of the real thing that no one but insiders would know, like ‘M’ writing his memos in green ink on blue notepaper. Alan Judd who served as a British army officer before joining MI6 has written a series of books about Charles Thoroughgood, a former army officer who like Judd himself ‒ his real name is Alan Petty ‒ then joined MI6. Every one of them is a gem, reeking of authenticity. A former colleague of Judd even told me that one of his books was based on a real case. He knew because he shared an office with the author at the time! Judd is by far the best of the current bunch!


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