The best spy thrillers for readers of literary fiction

Who am I?

I’m a reader and writer of thrillers, especially espionage, but I also love literary fiction, including contemporary writers like Kazuo Ishiguro, Mohsin Hamid, and Amor Towles. And I enjoy reading classic writers including Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka. So, when it comes to reading thrillers, I gravitate towards those that are very well written, with precise prose and evocative imagery. This is my crossover list of the best five spy thrillers for readers of literary fiction. If you’re a literary reader interested in dabbling in a bit of espionage, these five books would be a great place to start.  

I wrote...

Citizen Orlov

By Jonathan Payne,

Book cover of Citizen Orlov

What is my book about?

Journey to an unnamed mountainous country in central Europe at the end of the Great War. Enter Citizen Orlov, an unassuming fishmonger who answers a telephone call meant for a secret agent and stumbles into a hidden world of espionage and secrecy. Recruited by the Ministry of Security, he is sent on assignment to safeguard the king. But Orlov soon discovers that his ministry handler, the alluring Agent Zelle, is planning not to protect the king but to assassinate him. Caught in a web of plot and counterplot, confusing loyalties, and explosive betrayals, Orlov finds himself on trial for murder.

Apple Books calls Citizen Orlov "the most fun spy thriller we've read in ages." 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission

The books I picked & why

The Thirty-Nine Steps

By John Buchan,

Book cover of The Thirty-Nine Steps

Why did I love this book?

Buchan’s 1915 masterpiece is the first spy thriller I read and the start of my long-term love affair with espionage fiction.

It’s the blueprint for many of the great 20th-century spy thrillers and our first introduction to the dashing Richard Hannay. An adventure that moves at breathtaking pace, Hannay has just returned to London from Africa when he meets a shady American who warns him of a political assassination plot.

Soon, the American is dead and Hannay is racing across England and Scotland in fear of his life and searching for the mysterious thirty-nine steps that hold the key to the mystery. Spy fiction has rarely been as much fun as this.   

By John Buchan,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Thirty-Nine Steps as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Richard Hannay has just returned to England after years in South Africa and is thoroughly bored with his life in London. But then a murder is committed in his flat, just days after a chance encounter with an American who had told him about an assassination plot which could have dire international consequences. An obvious suspect for the police and an easy target for the killers, Hannay goes on the run in his native Scotland where he will need all his courage and ingenuity to stay one step ahead of his pursuers.

The Day of the Jackal

By Frederick Forsyth,

Book cover of The Day of the Jackal

Why did I love this book?

My personal pick not just for the best espionage thriller but for the best thriller period.

Forsyth’s spare, efficient prose is a joy to read and a masterclass in how to keep readers hanging on every word.

In this tale of a shadowy assassin sent to murder the French president, we learn everything we need to know about the Jackal not via clunky exposition or flashbacks but by the precise way he assembles his rifle.

In parallel with the assassin’s meticulous preparations, we see the French security services desperately striving to intercept him before it’s too late. This is the book that made me want to write thrillers. 

By Frederick Forsyth,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Day of the Jackal as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Day of the Jackal is the electrifying story of the struggle to catch a killer before it's too late.

It is 1963 and an anonymous Englishman has been hired by the Operations Chief of the O.A.S. to murder General De Gaulle. A failed attempt in the previous year means the target will be nearly impossible to get to. But this latest plot involves a lethal weapon: an assassin of legendary talent.

Known only as The Jackal, this remorseless and deadly killer must be stopped, but how do you track a man who exists in name alone?

Six Days of the Condor

By James Grady,

Book cover of Six Days of the Condor

Why did I love this book?

This spot very nearly went to the great John le Carre, perhaps his brilliant The Little Drummer Girl.

Grady’s debut is not as complex or as dense as le Carre, but it holds a special place in my heart, partly because of its back story.

Grady was a young congressional staffer in my adopted hometown of Washington, DC when he dreamed up a covert CIA unit whose role is to monitor foreign intelligence operations by scouring books and magazines from around the world.

When the novel was adapted into the movie Three Days of the Condor, it was seen by KGB generals who—assuming it was based on truth—set up a similar unit of their own. Amazing but true.

By James Grady,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Six Days of the Condor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'From the bottom of the stairwell Malcolm could only see that the room appeared to be empty. Mrs Russell wasn't at her desk. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that Dr. Lappe's door was partially open. There was a peculiar odour in the room . Malcolm tossed the sandwich bags on top of Walter's desk and slowly mounted the stairs.

'He found the sources of the odour. As usual, Mrs Russell had been standing behind her desk when they entered. The blast from the machine gun in the mailman's pouch had knocked her almost as far back…

Our Man in Havana

By Graham Greene,

Book cover of Our Man in Havana

Why did I love this book?

Perhaps the closest ancestor of my own work, and probably the most famous of Greene’s ‘entertainments’, Our Man in Havana is a dark comedy in which Greene satirizes his former employer, MI6, via the exploits of a struggling vacuum cleaner salesman called James Wormold.

Desperate for money, Wormold agrees to be an informant for British intelligence, but finds it’s easier to invent his reports rather than going to the trouble of finding actual intelligence. Among other deceits, he sends drawings of fake military installations based on vacuum cleaner parts.

He lands in hot water when real life becomes entangled with the fake intelligence. Dark, strange, and very funny, it’s essential reading for fans of espionage.  

By Graham Greene,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Our Man in Havana as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

MI6’s man in Havana is Wormold, a former vacuum-cleaner salesman turned reluctant secret agent out of economic necessity. To keep his job, he files bogus reports based on Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and dreams up military installations from vacuum-cleaner designs. Then his stories start coming disturbingly true…
First published in 1959 against the backdrop of the Cold War, Our Man in Havana remains one of Graham Greene’s most widely read novels. It is an espionage thriller, a penetrating character study, and a political satire of government intelligence that still resonates today. This Penguin Classics edition features an introduction by…

The Kill Artist

By Daniel Silva,

Book cover of The Kill Artist

Why did I love this book?

Silva’s novels about Gabriel Allon—a reluctant Israeli secret agent posing as an Italian art restorer—are my current favorite read and a serious contender for the best spy thrillers by a contemporary writer.

Each of the novels in the series works as a separate episode; in this case, Allon is lured into action to track down a Palestinian assassin.

But Allon is brought to life by recurring themes across the series, including the fact that his traumatized wife is permanently assigned to a psychiatric hospital by the car bomb that killed their son.

Silva’s meticulous writing and ingenious mixing of historical fact and fiction will appeal to literary readers. 

By Daniel Silva,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Kill Artist as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Wily old Israeli intelligence chief recalls former agents in order to eliminate top Palestinian terrorist. One agent is now an art restorer, the other a fashion model. Ten years before on a mission to destroy the Arab Black September group they were briefly lovers. Now their pasts and their enemies come back to haunt them, as the terrorist murders ambassadors in Paris and Holland. Will the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks be his next target? And what motivates the terrorist? Is it politics, or is it possibly personal? Set mainly in London, but with forays into Paris, Amsterdam, the Middle East and…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in satire, France, and the Middle East?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about satire, France, and the Middle East.

Satire Explore 125 books about satire
France Explore 776 books about France
The Middle East Explore 163 books about the Middle East

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Winter King, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Night Soldiers if you like this list.