The best books about the CIA

11 authors have picked their favorite books about the CIA and why they recommend each book.

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The Man Who Kept the Secrets

By Thomas Powers,

Book cover of The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms And The CIA

This is a great book about former CIA Director Richard Helms and the agency he directed.  Helms was the quintessential CIA man, and Powers tells the story of his 30-year career in spying in this beautifully written book, which somehow captures both Helms’ elusiveness and his essence.


Who am I?

John Marks is co-author of The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, a New York Times best-seller in hard-cover and paperback. He has written for the Washington Post, New York Times, Playboy, Foreign Policy, and Rolling Stone. He was the founder and long-time President of Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest peacebuilding organization that was nominated for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.


I wrote...

The Search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control: The Secret History of the Behavioral Sciences

By John D. Marks,

Book cover of The Search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control: The Secret History of the Behavioral Sciences

What is my book about?

A "Manchurian Candidate" would be an unwitting assassin brainwashed and programmed to kill. In this award-winning book, I document in highly readable terms the explosive story of MKULTRA, the CIA's highly secret program of experiments in mind control.  I worked from thousands of pages of CIA documents as well as extensive interviews and research in the behavioral science to produce a book that, in the words of the late Senator Edward Kennedy "accomplished what two Senate committees could not."

Inside the Company

By Philip Agee,

Book cover of Inside the Company: CIA Diary

Long before Edward Snowden there was Phillip Agee. A former CIA officer, Agee turned whistleblower, publishing this unauthorized account of his life undercover and exposing many of the “Company’s” operations in the process. Agee worked for the CIA in Ecuador, Uruguay, and Mexico. He claimed the turning point came in Uruguay where he listened to the beating of a political prisoner (whose name he had provided to the police) while the police chief turned up the volume of a soccer game on the radio. His matter-of-fact diary included a controversial appendix of agent and officer names and cryptonyms. Incensed at the endangerment of its assets, the CIA sued and pursued Agee, who fled the country and spent the rest of his life denouncing the tactics of his former employer.


Who am I?

I’m always delighted when a reader asks, “Did you work for the CIA?” It tells me I achieved the verisimilitude I was striving for in Under a False Flag. I’m also proud that my novel has been included in a university-level Latin American history curriculum. That tells me I got the history right. No aspect of modern history is more intriguing or controversial than the role covert action played, for better or worse, in the Cold War. With the exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which took us to the brink of nuclear disaster, the Cold War in Latin America was mostly fought in the shadows with markedly ambivalent achievements.


I wrote...

Under a False Flag

By Tom Gething,

Book cover of Under a False Flag

What is my book about?

October 1972. Will Porter joins the CIA’s secret war against Chile’s Marxist president, Salvador Allende. Working undercover, Will’s job is to manage the dirty money being used to disrupt the Chilean economy and to fund the growing opposition. A budding friendship with university student Ernesto Manning and his freethinking sister Gabriela complicates Will’s job and threatens to blow his cover. In a turbulent world of deceivers and deceived, Will must choose between friendship and betrayal, truth and lies, love and duty. Based on historical events, this compelling novel brings to life a tragic moment that changed the course of a nation.

CIA Improvised Sabotage Devices

By USA Government,

Book cover of CIA Improvised Sabotage Devices

Exploding wine bottles, guns constructed out of pipes, bullets made of teeth, aspirin explosives: If these sound like props from a B spy movie, it's because, again, truth > fiction. In the early-1970s, the Central Intelligence Agency spent a great deal of effort developing myriad weapons for sabotage. The results were this seventy-two-page illustrated manual, published in 1977 and distributed to American operatives likely to find themselves in situations requiring such improvisation. The manual is also invaluable for writers.

Who am I?

I played semi-professional baseball in France in 1986. If your baseball career has brought you to France, you should be rethinking your professional aspirations. No problem, I thought. I will write. I like to write. To my dismay, publishers were not fans of novels about French baseball players. The world of espionage I became acquainted with in Europe, however….

I wrote...

Once a Spy

By Keith Thomson,

Book cover of Once a Spy

What is my book about?

When Charlie Clark takes a break from his latest losing streak at the track to bring home his Alzheimer’s-addled father, Drummond, they’re attacked by two mysterious shooters. At first, Charlie thinks his Russian “creditors” are employing aggressive collection tactics. But once Drummond effortlessly hot-wires a car, Charlie discovers that his unassuming father was actually a deep-cover CIA agent . . . and there is extremely sensitive information rattling around in his troubled mind.

Now the CIA wants to “contain” him, so the two embark on a wild chase through the labyrinthine world of national security that will force them to confront unspeakable danger, dark conspiracies, and what it means to be a father and son.

Behind the Mystery

By Laurie Roberts,

Book cover of Behind the Mystery

Here is a rare treat: a chance to see inside the homes and workplaces of seventeen great American authors and hear them questioned about their beginnings as writers and their work habits. It’s both a picture book and a series of dialogues. I have been fortunate enough to know and visit several of them personally - Sue Grafton, Evan Hunter, Sara Paretsky, and Donald Westlake - and it’s a joy to see and hear them again explaining their ways of writing a mystery. You soon realize how many different approaches are possible.   


Who am I?

My introduction to mystery writing was a competition for a first crime novel. I was lucky enough to win with Wobble to Death, about a Victorian long-distance race. When I went to collect the prize, I was startled to be asked if I was already at work on the next one. The publishers Macmillan had started a crime list and were looking for a career writer. I knew practically nothing about the genre and had to give myself a crash course. How I needed the support of books like these! After five years, I had the confidence to give up the day job and have made my living from mystery writing for almost fifty years. 


I wrote...

The Last Detective

By Peter Lovesey,

Book cover of The Last Detective

What is my book about?

Originally intended as a one-off book, this won the Anthony Award for best novel at the Bouchercon and generated a series of twenty mystery novels that I am still writing. Diamond of the Bath police is a good man and a smart detective, but he creates havoc around him and drives his team to despair. Fortunately, the women in his life know how to keep this maverick functioning. Here he investigates a body found floating in a lake and his investigation of her last hours leads him into Jane Austen territory and university infighting, with disastrous personal consequences for Diamond.

Merit Badge Murder

By Leslie Langtry,

Book cover of Merit Badge Murder

The murder and the laughs in this mystery begin on page one—which is no mean feat. Retired CIA agent Merry Wrath is now leading an Iowa girl scout troop. A murdered Al Qaeda operative tangled in the ropes course puts her back on the case again… and with her old and very attractive handler. Add in a handsome detective, and the sparks and laughs are flying in this good-natured and well-plotted romp.


Who am I?

I’ve been addicted to reading and writing mystery novels since I picked up my first Nancy Drew. But in addition to a good puzzle, I also love a good laugh and grew up watching classic screwball comedies. I’ve written a dozen funny cozy mysteries now with more in the works. I hope you enjoy the books on this list as much as I have!


I wrote...

Big Shot: A Small Town Cozy Mystery

By Kirsten Weiss,

Book cover of Big Shot: A Small Town Cozy Mystery

What is my book about?

Hi. I’m Alice. The number one secret to my success as a bodyguard? Staying under the radar. But when a public disaster blew up my career and my reputation, my perfect, solo life took a hard left turn to small-town Nowhere, Nevada. And to bodies. Lots of dead bodies…

Patriot Games

By Tom Clancy,

Book cover of Patriot Games

In the fight against the War on Terror, many Americans have long forgotten the war that never stopped raging against an enemy that is better funded than many of our governmental organizations, is not bound by any laws or treaties, has a virtually unlimited supply of money, weapons, and soldiers, and is located just south of our borders. 

Patriot Games is an oldie but goody, a fictional novel that sheds light on the realistic way in which our War on Drugs encompasses Special Operations troops working hand in hand with intelligence agencies and law enforcement. I have friends who have fought directly in these drug wars, and who have told me the enemy had all of their names and personal information before they even landed south of the border for their deployments. The War on Drugs is savage and is still raging very close to home, yet we rarely hear…


Who am I?

I’m a former Green Beret and combat veteran of OIF (Iraq), OEF (Afghanistan), and OEF-TS (North Africa). These experiences have given me insights into things that most people never get to see or even hear about, as well as first-hand knowledge of the men who make up the Special Operations community and what drives them. After leaving Special Forces I have written three published Special Operations-focused books, both fiction and non-fiction, which has led to a life of studying everything there is to know about Special Operations, the intelligence behind wars, and the history of both.


I wrote...

The Pact

By Robert Patrick Lewis,

Book cover of The Pact

What is my book about?

Hailed as "Red Dawn with a modern Special Operations twist," "so realistic and plausible that it's terrifying," an "on the edge of your seat thriller that will have you looking in your rearview mirror for enemy troops," The Pact takes readers on a work of military fiction influenced by real world events seen lining up in the eyes of a former Green Beret combat veteran. If all of America’s enemies were to join forces to attack our homeland, what would a team of former Special Operations soldiers do in response? Read The Pact Trilogy to find out.

Transfer of Power

By Vince Flynn,

Book cover of Transfer of Power

It was Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series that, for me, was the most fun to read. As I described the action and adventure of Madsen’s Searching for Eden, so would I describe the same for Transfer of Power and subsequent Rapp stories. This #1 New York Times bestselling series was #1 for a reason—uncompromised action and edge-of-your-seat writing throughout. It was Flynn’s style of writing that gave me the best ideas about how to write my own thrillers. If you love spy novels, do not pass this one up.


Who am I?

I began reading spy and political thrillers at a young age—I was captivated by the thrill and mysteriousness of the clandestine world. I would go on to earn my Master’s in International Affairs, learning French and German along the way. I was a combat pilot and flew all over the globe. At the Pentagon, I regularly liaised with foreign diplomats to create and improve international cooperation and security. I then became a diplomat myself, working for the Defense Intelligence Agency. It was my time with the DIA and working at U.S. embassies in Europe and Africa that was the inspirational capstone for writing Devolution and The Devolution Trilogy.


I wrote...

Devolution: Book One of The Devolution Trilogy

By John Casey,

Book cover of Devolution: Book One of The Devolution Trilogy

What is my book about?

Michael Dolan is a stoic perfectionist and former special operations pilot working a staff job at the Pentagon. After accepting an improbable CIA request to help prevent impending terrorist attacks in Europe, Dolan finds that of the demons he must prevail against, the most terrible are those from within…

When I first conceptualized the trilogy, I wanted to create a storyline where the depth and complexity of Dolan were as compelling and important as the plot. The series has everything readers of the spy thriller genre crave: action, suspense, and mystery. What makes it so unique and captivating, however, is the evolution of Dolan’s dark and labyrinthine psychological struggle as he navigates the challenges of his top-secret missions while confronting the tragedy of his past.

Whisper

By Tal Bauer,

Book cover of Whisper

This book changed my perception about what a romance book could be. I have never been so swept away by a single narrative and never been so haunted. It inspired me and broke me. The story is long and complex. It’s about a young CIA operative who joins the Agency just before 9/11 and how that one event shaped his life for years to come. It’s a fascinating fictionalised insight into LGBTQ rights in the military during this period, the horrors of the war, the consequences, the personal narratives, and the terrible implications of the wilder political landscape on those who have to fight. It’s full of love, romance, heartbreak, action, violence, torment, and ultimately, salvation. It’s the kind of book which teaches you to see the world through different lenses. One of the most extraordinary gay romance political thrillers I’ve read.


Who am I?

This is a list for those who love a tough guy with a soft heart. If you crave a story with passion, heat, and that zing of a good thriller, then this is the list for you. I love a romance wrapped around a strong plot. I need a book to stimulate my mind and give my old heart its “Aw, shucks,” moment. I’ve been fascinated by those who serve and the long-term effects it has on mental health. These books tackle the effects of PTSD, trauma, and its consequences. I believe the romance genre, when done well, is one of the best for examining this darkness.


I wrote...

Fortune's Soldier: Shadow Ops Alpha

By Sarah Luddington,

Book cover of Fortune's Soldier: Shadow Ops Alpha

What is my book about?

Luke Sinclair, a Special Forces Operative, is finished with his career in an elite British black ops department. As tough as it had been, Luke loved his job and his partner, Sam Locke, who had once been a US Navy SEAL. Then their world fell apart.

Until their old commanding officer, Elizabeth Brant, recalls them to London. Forced together again to transport the one person able to finish breaking them. A terrorist who destroyed their lives and their love. From the deserts of Syria, the men chase a nuclear bomb and a weaponised virus through Armenia and into Russia, finding so much more than revenge on the way.

The Company

By Robert Littell,

Book cover of The Company: A Novel of the CIA

As I mentioned before, I am a history buff. This book traces the cold war and the CIA through the lives of three wonderful characters. A loyal agent, a Russian spy, and a mole in American intelligence are all done in a way that puts you in their shoes from the Cold War’s start through the demise of the Soviet Union. Littell keeps you on the edge of your seat while teaching you what actually happened. A must-read for spy aficionados.

Who am I?

As a child, I devoured historical works. In fact, the city librarian told my mother when I reached my teens. that I had read every book in the Children’s section on the Civil War and they recommended I get adult privileges. In my teenage years, I developed a taste for spy novels thanks to Ian Fleming. However, as I matured, I became drawn to the less gadgety stories in the genre like the books I recommend here and write myself. I have no unique expertise in the area beside a desire to learn more about the field so my own work will inform as well as entertain. 


I wrote...

Pact with the Devil

By Richard Powell,

Book cover of Pact with the Devil

What is my book about?

In the Second World War’s last days, Captain James Ross commands a rifle company, while Justine Rothstein leads a band of partisans hunting Nazis. They join forces to liberate a Nazi death camp in Austria. Once they succeed, each go their separate ways. With the Second World War drawing to a close, a second conflict between superpowers emerges. 

In this climate, Justine and Ross meet again at the Nuremberg war crimes commission. Justine searches desperately for her family deported by the Nazis and Ross investigates the Holocaust’s perpetrators. Together, they uncover a plot to supply a Nazi superweapon to the Russians—a bomber that can deliver a nuclear weapon from space. Despite this peril, Justine and Ross strive to expose this conspiracy. 

Chaos

By Tom O'Neill, Dan Piepenbring,

Book cover of Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties

In 1999, Tom O’Neill was hired to provide a retrospective magazine story on Charles Manson and the Southern California murder rampage that made him and his followers famous. O’Neill never completed the story because what he found seemed to exceed the conventional wisdom that Manson was a lone Svengali who let loose the violent madness of 1960s youth culture. Instead, Chaos explains, O’Neill came to suspect a much deeper conspiracy in which Manson served merely as a pawn in the direction history has taken (or was pulled).

The book can ramble a bit and, as O’Neill concedes, he cannot offer proof of the perfidious plot that slips just outside his grasp. But Chaos reveals a smart, sympathetic, and insightful protagonist who becomes obsessed with conspiracy.


Who am I?

I’m a law professor who, among other things, writes about the culture and law of secrecy. I’ve written two books: Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, the second edition of which was published in 2008, and The Transparency Fix: Secrets, Leaks, and Uncontrollable Government Information (2017). I hold a J.D. from Yale Law School and a Ph.D. from the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I teach at the University of Florida.


I wrote...

Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture

By Mark Fenster,

Book cover of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture

What is my book about?

Most academic and intellectual commentary has asserted that conspiracy theories constitute a dysfunctional, extremist vein on the margins of a well-designed U.S. political bloodstream. That thesis cannot fully explain either conspiracy theories or “normal” politics, and it ultimately limits our understanding of the pervasive role that conspiracy theories play in U.S. culture and politics. The Trump era and its aftermath more clearly showed what was visible even before our troubling present: we are all, to a varying degree, conspiracy theorists.

As I argue in Conspiracy Theories, the fear of conspiracy isn’t new. From the Revolutionary period through the Cold War, major American political figures and the American public have been obsessed to varying degrees by hidden enemies from outside and within. High, middlebrow, and low culture have carried this obsession into films, novels, television shows, comic books, and games. My book helps us understand conspiracy theory’s longstanding place at America’s cultural and political core.

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