The best books featuring world-weary agents of espionage

Julian D. Parrott Author Of Fit For Purpose
By Julian D. Parrott

Who am I?

I have loved espionage and crime thrillers—beach reads and lit fictionsince my early teens. If the plots involve ordinary people being pulled into extraordinary events with action and romance, then I’m hooked. I have studied Ian Fleming and James Bond and have taught university classes on the subject. I believe that we can learn a lot about our culture, society, and human nature from a well-written novel. I enjoy the flexibility the genre allows and I have added resonant events, history, music, and connections to my Welsh homeland in my novels.


I wrote...

Fit For Purpose

By Julian D. Parrott,

Book cover of Fit For Purpose

What is my book about?

Former soldier Tom and actress Nia are emotionally bruised by life, don’t realize how lost and lonely they are until accidentally meeting during a transatlantic flight. They are irresistibly drawn to each other embarking on a relationship, bouncing between Nia’s bohemian life in London to Tom’s quiet existence on a narrowboat on a Welsh canal. Their love burns with an intensity that surprises Tom and frightens Nia. Just as their lives appear to meld, the relationship—and their lives—are put in jeopardy when Tom’s past unwittingly pulls them into a Russian plot to assassinate Kremlin opponents. A Russian hit squad is operating in the UK and Tom and Nia find themselves fighting for survival against a ruthless Russian colonel hell-bent on revenge. 

The books I picked & why

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Casino Royale

By Ian Fleming,

Book cover of Casino Royale

Why this book?

The first James Bond novel. Obvious choice for me; I’m a huge Fleming/Bond fan and came to the original novels via the films. It was Bond that inspired me to write while on a narrowboat crossing an aqueduct on a Welsh canal thinking this scene should be in a Bond movie. Fleming’s first novel introduces us to a James Bond many wouldn’t recognize. Bond is already tired, vulnerable, and beginning to have serious professional misgivings. The novel’s plot and subplots are based on real-world knowledge Fleming picked up during WWII.

His descriptions of the casino’s glamour and the sensuous descriptions of food and drink would have brought color to the sepia-tinted lives of austerity Britain still navigating past bomb sites and dealing with food rationing when the book was published. There’s troubling chauvinism but there are twists and turns a plenty and a resolution that should garner some sympathy for a physically and emotional battered Bond. I don’t think it’s Fleming’s best (my personal favourite would be From Russia with Love) but to understand Bond you have to read Casino Royale.

Casino Royale

By Ian Fleming,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the novel that introduced James Bond to the world, Ian Fleming’s agent 007 is dispatched to a French casino in Royale-les-Eaux. His mission? Bankrupt a ruthless Russian agent who’s been on a bad luck streak at the baccarat table.

One of SMERSH’s most deadly operatives, the man known only as “Le Chiffre,” has been a prime target of the British Secret Service for years. If Bond can wipe out his bankroll, Le Chiffre will likely be “retired” by his paymasters in Moscow. But what if the cards won’t cooperate? After a brutal night at the gaming tables, Bond soon…


Slow Horses

By Mick Herron,

Book cover of Slow Horses

Why this book?

Incredibly well written, refreshing the genre. How do you bring originality to the saturated genre of spy thrillers? Herron does this by developing a conceit based on a simple idea of ‘what do you do with your failed spies’?’ Then, he adds incredible visceral characters, all with damaged personalities and egos, not uncommon in the work of espionage, but he does so in an engagingly refreshing manner. He takes the familiar genre tropes and turns them on their head. The plot is complex and is a slow burn but worth the wait. Yet, at the end of the day, it’s the personalities that make Slow Horses and the other 6 books in the series pop and snarl. Herron writes with poetic detail, a canny eye, and with a biting humor. He can drop an unexpected zinger at the end of a sentence or he can craft three pages of description and dialog all leading up to a punchline. He is such a good writer he makes the absurd feel realistic. As a writer, Herron not only intimidates but also inspires, he is that good.

Slow Horses

By Mick Herron,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Slow Horses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*Now a major TV series starring Gary Oldman*

'To have been lucky enough to play Smiley in one's career; and now go and play Jackson Lamb in Mick Herron's novels - the heir, in a way, to le Carre - is a terrific thing' Gary Oldman

Slough House is the outpost where disgraced spies are banished to see out the rest of their derailed careers. Known as the 'slow horses' these misfits have committed crimes of drugs and drunkenness, lechery and failure, politics and betrayal while on duty.

In this drab and mildewed office these highly trained spies don't run…


Cause for Alarm

By Eric Ambler,

Book cover of Cause for Alarm

Why this book?

I am intrigued by espionage plots that involve amateur spies and Ambler, inspired by the earlier gentleman spy genre, excelled at placing ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Ambler does this superbly in Cause with his main protagonist Nicholas Marlow, a down-on-his luck engineer, finds himself pulled into a deadly spy plot in pre-war fascist Italy. Ambler’s plotting is taut and engaging—more so given when it was written and the subject matter. Along with his rather naïve, romantic Marlow there are Fascist secret police, Nazi agents, and Soviet spies—who are actually the forces of good—(remember the time and the European situation!) Ambler’s influence on the post war espionage thriller writers is pretty clear here. Fleming even namechecks him, having Bond read Ambler’s Mask of Dimitrious (also a great book) in From Russia With Love.

Cause for Alarm

By Eric Ambler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cause for Alarm as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nicky Marlow needs a job. He’s engaged to be married and the employment market is pretty slim in Britain in 1937. So when his fiancé points out the Spartacus Machine Tool notice, he jumps at the chance. After all, he speaks Italian and he figures he’ll be able to endure Milan for a year, long enough to save some money. Soon after he arrives, however, he learns the sinister truth of his predecessor’s death and finds himself courted by two agents with dangerously different agendas. In the process, Marlow realizes it’s not so simple to just do the job he’s…

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

By Ben Macintyre,

Book cover of A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

Why this book?

A nonfiction selection. It’s an extraordinary book telling an extraordinary true tale. I found it a page-turner; Macintyre’s storytelling ability makes the book read like a classic spy thriller. It’s dramatic and insightful and cruelly entertaining, considering Kim Philby was perhaps one of the most successful Soviet spies working in the west and responsible for countless foiled MI6 and CIA missions and the deaths of hundreds of pro-western agents. Macintyre has an enviable ability to craft engaging and compelling stories with wit, charm, and panache about people who exuded wit, charm, and panache with a dangerous sideline in betrayal. The issues of friendship, loyalty, class, and betrayal make for a captivating read. I had to keep reminding myself that the story is chillingly true.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

By Ben Macintyre,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked A Spy Among Friends as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Kim Philby was the most notorious British defector and Soviet mole in history. Agent, double agent, traitor and enigma, he betrayed every secret of Allied operations to the Russians in the early years of the Cold War.

Philby's two closest friends in the intelligence world, Nicholas Elliott of MI6 and James Jesus Angleton, the CIA intelligence chief, thought they knew Philby better than anyone, and then discovered they had not known him at all. This is a story of intimate duplicity; of loyalty, trust and treachery, class and conscience; of an ideological battle waged by men with cut-glass accents and…

Solo

By Jack Higgins,

Book cover of Solo

Why this book?

Higgins is probably best known for the brilliant The Eagle Has Landed but it was Solo that inspired my love of thrillers. Solo is an unabashed, fast paced, edge-of-your-seat action thriller. The characters are engaging; Mikali a concert pianist who is an international assassin and Morgan the “amateur,” although a skilled soldier, bereaved father hell-bent on revenge. There is complicated romance, something that always adds an interesting frisson in a thriller, and exotic locales too and it’s evident that Higgins took time to develop his characters, especially Mikali. Higgins so carefully crafted his protagonists that you feel a connection and sympathy for both. Solo is just great storytelling, it made me want to attempt to write such a thriller.

Solo

By Jack Higgins,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The New York Times–bestselling author of The Eagle Has Landed delivers a pulse-pounding story of a father out for revenge against a master assassin.
 
John Mikali is known throughout the world as a brilliant concert pianist and playboy. But his true vocation is far more interesting and lucrative: He is a peerless international assassin. His music and fame give him entrée to complete his assignments all over the world without fail. He believes himself truly untouchable—until he makes one fatal mistake.
 
Col. Asa Morgan is a military man to the bone. A veteran of wars both declared and undeclared, he’s…

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