The best spy thrillers ever written – and that are about more than spies

Who am I?

I never planned to be a spy thriller writer. One day an editor suggested I write genre fiction. “Pick a genre you read just for fun,” he said. For me, that was spy novels. I had some background (military intelligence, journalist in Europe, Africa, etc.) and John Le Carré had shown that spy novels could be serious fiction. An encounter in the Amazon jungle sparked my first spy thriller, Hour of the Assassins. Then came Scorpion, Homeland, and the rest. What’s the attraction? Intelligence agents lie better than most because their lives depend on it. But if you dig hard enough, you get small truths. Big ones too.


I wrote...

Blue Madagascar

By Andrew Kaplan,

Book cover of Blue Madagascar

What is my book about?

Casey Ramirez was a throwaway kid from the mean streets of Central Los Angeles. Now a Homeland Security Special Agent, the future of America may depend on what she does next.

A Presidential candidate commits suicide, and no one knows why. A mysterious man is killed during a jewel heist on the French Riviera. Intelligence agencies around the world are scrambling. U.S. Homeland Security sends Casey, the one woman who might be able to solve the secret of Blue Madagascar before it's too late. The trail will lead her on a cat-and-mouse chase across Europe. But others are interested—and they will kill to get it.

The books I picked & why

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The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

By John Le Carré,

Book cover of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Why this book?

John Le Carré is one of the reasons I became a spy thriller writer. Like Joseph Conrad who wrote great novels that happened to be set at sea, Le Carré writes literary novels set in the world of spies. Spare, authentic, intensely realistic, this book plunges you deep into the duplicitous world of spy tradecraft, reeling you in with a brilliant plot, spot-on characterizations and line after line of dialogue you’ll want to quote. The story depicts Alex Leamas, a burnt-out British agent who defects in a scheme to eliminate a powerful East German spymaster, but what it's really about are the choices we make—and the costs. This book made me realize that genre could be a tool and not a walled-in garden.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

By John Le Carré,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Our Kind of Traitor; and The Night Manager, now a television series starring Tom Hiddleston.

The 50th-anniversary edition of the bestselling novel that launched John le Carre's career worldwide

In the shadow of the newly erected Berlin Wall, Alec Leamas watches as his last agent is shot dead by East German sentries. For Leamas, the head of Berlin Station, the Cold War is over. As he faces the prospect of retirement or worse-a desk job-Control offers him a unique opportunity for revenge. Assuming the guise of an embittered…

The Mask of Dimitrios

By Eric Ambler,

Book cover of The Mask of Dimitrios

Why this book?

Eric Ambler was the first author to write with realism and authenticity about the world of spies. His work often features ordinary people who are not criminals or professional spies, but who suddenly find themselves caught up in that murky world. In this novel, while in Turkey, mystery writer Charles Latimer meets Colonel Haki, who shows him the body of a notorious criminal, Dimitrios, in the Istanbul morgue. Intrigued and sensing a story, Latimer investigates Dimitrios’ career, which will turn out to be a lot more intriguing and dangerous than anything he bargained for. Ambler’s thrillers keep you on the edge and this one, which includes a ride on the Orient Express, will have you furiously turning the pages. Dimitrios set the standard for every spy thriller that followed. 

The Mask of Dimitrios

By Eric Ambler,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Mask of Dimitrios as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


The Spies of Warsaw

By Alan Furst,

Book cover of The Spies of Warsaw

Why this book?

Reading a novel by Alan Furst is like seeing Casablanca for the first time, if it were written by Hemingway. There’s that same evocative atmosphere of people smoking cigarettes, having affairs, making sophisticated remarks, while looming over them is the war. Furst mines a narrow niche. All of his books are set in Europe either during World War Two or in the Thirties, with the war threatening. The protagonist here is Colonel Mercier, military attaché at the French embassy in Warsaw. Mercier must navigate the salons and alleyways of Warsaw against all manner of spies and German agents. The book is also an exploration of love in a desperate time through Mercier’s affair with the beautiful Anna, a Polish lawyer. It’s very good. Furst is always good. 

The Spies of Warsaw

By Alan Furst,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Spies of Warsaw as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Eye of the Needle

By Ken Follett,

Book cover of Eye of the Needle

Why this book?

No subject in history has ever been more raked over than World War Two. And the trope of hunter and prey is standard thriller fare. Yet with this book, Ken Follett reinvented the WW2 thriller. How’d he do it? First, by making his protagonist not the good guy, but the Nazi spy. Second, by writing it so compellingly, you can’t put it down. Faber, a deadly German spy codenamed “the Needle,” uncovers the biggest secret of the war: clues that will let Hitler know where the D-Day invasion will take place. Can Professor Godliman and ex-copper Bloggs stop him before he can get the information back to Germany? Brilliant adversaries equally matched makes not just for a terrific read, but every other writer, including me, jealous.

Eye of the Needle

By Ken Follett,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Eye of the Needle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The worldwide phenomenon from the bestselling author of The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, A Column of Fire, and The Evening and the Morning

His code name was "The Needle." He was a German aristocrat of extraordinary intelligence-a master spy with a legacy of violence in his blood, and the object of the most desperate manhunt in history. . . .

But his fate lay in the hands of a young and vulnerable English woman, whose loyalty, if swayed, would assure his freedom-and win the war for the Nazis. . . .


I Am Pilgrim

By Terry Hayes,

Book cover of I Am Pilgrim

Why this book?

While this novel follows a standard thriller trope of hunter and hunted, it’s like no other on this list, not being an especially realistic depiction of the spy world. So why did it make my list? The most compelling hook I’d read in years, combined with killer pacing and fascinating sleuthing detail. Here’s the setup: The body of a woman is found in a seedy New York hotel room floating face-down in a bathtub filled with sulfuric acid, impossible to identify. The protagonist, a former intelligence agent and forensic pathologist must hunt down an unknown Saudi terrorist. Is the writing on the extraordinary level of the others on this list? Perhaps not. But when it comes to suspense, it’s in a class all its own.

I Am Pilgrim

By Terry Hayes,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked I Am Pilgrim as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The astonishing story of one man's breakneck race against time to save America from oblivion.
_______________
A FATHER PUBLICLY BEHEADED. Killed in the blistering heat of a Saudi Arabian public square.
A YOUNG WOMAN DISCOVERED. All of her identifying characteristics dissolved by acid.

A SYRIAN BIOTECH EXPERT FOUND EYELESS. Dumped in a Damascus junkyard.

SMOULDERING HUMAN REMAINS. Abandoned on a remote mountainside in Afghanistan.

PILGRIM. The codename for a man who doesn't exist. A man who must return from obscurity. The only man who can uncover a flawless plot to commit an appalling crime against humanity.
_____________

'The plot twists…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in espionage, intelligence officers, and French people?

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