67 books directly related to the CIA 📚

All 67 CIA books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Book cover of Inside the Company: CIA Diary

Inside the Company: CIA Diary

By Philip Agee

Why this book?

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…

From the list:

The best books about covert ops in Latin America

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Book cover of CIA Improvised Sabotage Devices

CIA Improvised Sabotage Devices

By USA Government

Why this book?

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.
From the list:

The best spy books that will make you paranoid—with good reason

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Book cover of Merit Badge Murder

Merit Badge Murder

By Leslie Langtry

Why this book?

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.

From the list:

The best funny cozy mystery novels

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Book cover of Patriot Games

Patriot Games

By Tom Clancy

Why this book?

Fans of stories like Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games—those who savor a page-turner about an unlikely spy thrust into adversity (only to emerge the strongest and most capable of them all)—understand the draw and value of a main character who succeeds through wit and sheer perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Jack Ryan is known worldwide as the personification of this, and is one of two spy thriller characters I used as inspiration for my development of Michael Dolan, the main character in my trilogy.

From the list:

The best thrillers with complex lead characters and philosophical undercurrents

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Book cover of Transfer of Power

Transfer of Power

By Vince Flynn

Why this book?

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.

From the list:

The best thrillers with complex lead characters and philosophical undercurrents

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Book cover of Whisper

Whisper

By Tal Bauer

Why this book?

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…

From the list:

The best gay romance thriller fiction books with strong plots and stronger men

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

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

By Tom O'Neill, Dan Piepenbring

Why this book?

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…

From the list:

The best books to understand conspiracy theories

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Book cover of Secrets: The CIA's War at Home

Secrets: The CIA's War at Home

By Angus MacKenzie

Why this book?

Starting with his experience as publisher of an anti-war newspaper in the 1970s, and relying on official records released under the Freedom of Information Act, Mackenzie reveals how the CIA used undercover operatives to sabotage the dissident press and developed a system of secrecy agreements and pre-publication review boards that spread throughout the federal government in efforts to silence former intelligence agents and other would-be whistle-blowers. This brilliant book is the last work by the late Mackenzie, who dedicated his life to defending the First Amendment. He was a long-time associate of the Bay Area’s Center for Investigative Reporting, which…

From the list:

The best books on spies and radicals

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

The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms And The CIA

By Thomas Powers

Why this book?

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.

From the list:

The best books on how the USA views national security

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Book cover of American Spy

American Spy

By Lauren Wilkinson

Why this book?

This book is probably best known for making Barack Obama’s summer reading list. The story of a Black American woman working for the FBI who gets recruited by the CIA for a Cold War mission to befriend, and ultimately undermine, the revolutionary president of Burkina Faso is the type of historical fiction I love, a spy thriller based on true events and taken directly from the headlines of the 1980s. Wilkinson brilliantly weaves together a story of race, class, gender, identity, and above all patriotism and loyalty.
From the list:

The best novels set in Africa about journalists, diplomats, and spies

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Book cover of America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East

America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East

By Hugh Wilford

Why this book?

A deeply interesting dive into the world of espionage and the early days of the CIA, this accessible book by Hugh Wilford provides an excellent entry point into the exciting movements, people, and ideologies that crosscut the Middle East in the years after World War II. Focusing especially on personalities like Kim Roosevelt and Miles Copeland, this book shows why many Arabs even today suspect the CIA may be behind far more than it lets on. For American audiences, this book will provide an intriguing journey into a world that is unfamiliar to most and fascinating to all, illuminating the…

From the list:

The best books on American (mis)adventure in the Middle East

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Book cover of Pretend I'm Not Here: How I Worked with Three Newspaper Icons, One Powerful First Lady, and Still Managed to Dig Myself Out of the Washington Swamp

Pretend I'm Not Here: How I Worked with Three Newspaper Icons, One Powerful First Lady, and Still Managed to Dig Myself Out of the Washington Swamp

By Barbara Feinman Todd

Why this book?

Barbara Feinman Todd is a top-level Washington ghostwriter and journalist. In this memoir, she gives a shocking, and entertaining insight into her relationships with clients such as Hillary Clinton, as well as explaining the dynamics of political journalism at the very highest level. When she accidentally confides one of Hillary’s secrets to an editor, whose discretion she thought she could trust, her professional world is blown apart.

From the list:

The best books about ghostwriting and ghostwriters

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Book cover of The Night Watch: 25 Years of Peculiar Service

The Night Watch: 25 Years of Peculiar Service

By David Atlee Phillips

Why this book?

David Atlee Phillips played such a major role in covert ops in Latin America I had to make sure he appeared in my novel. After a long and successful CIA career, Phillips wrote this memoir of undercover derring-do. It reads like recruiting propaganda for the agency but what fascinated me was his frankness about the missions he ran and the methods he used. He was publisher of an English-language newspaper in Chile when the CIA recruited him in 1950. A natural storyteller, Phillips describes his undercover shenanigans in Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Brazil. By the 1970s he…

From the list:

The best books about covert ops in Latin America

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Book cover of Love and Let Die

Love and Let Die

By Blake Lexi

Why this book?

I adore the extended Masters and Mercenaries family, and Ian Taggart’s cynical wisecracks keep doubling me over in laughter. And laughter is so important. Life is serious and can be hard, I love it when a book takes me away for a while and make me feel. Lexi Blake’s books, especially for her Masters and Mercenaries series, make me feel a lot!

Again, this is book five in a series, you will want to read in order. However, since this is Ian’s and Charlotte’s story this is my pick as favorite!

From the list:

The best romance books to fire up your eReader, heat your cheeks, and set your body on flames

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Book cover of Typhoon: A Novel

Typhoon: A Novel

By Charles Cumming

Why this book?

When Charles Cumming published Typhoon in 2009, China's Xinjiang province was a festering wound for the Chinese Communist Party, with the local Uyghur population sporadically resisting subjugation by their Han overlords. Now it is a full-blown police-state with mass Uyghur detention camps that amount to genocide, according to many human rights groups. Cumming shrewdly chose Xinjiang tensions as the spark for a rogue CIA scheme to destabilize the Beijing regime. Knowing what is currently happening in Xinjiang, it is hard for me now to re-read the novel with the same sense of nostalgia for the authentically rendered places in the…

From the list:

The best spy books set in Asia

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Book cover of Six Days of the Condor

Six Days of the Condor

By James Grady

Why this book?

For me, this story is a lively reminder of the necessity of adaptability. Our mastery of life is essentially on-the-job training, an education that never ends.

In this espionage thriller, a man comes back from lunch to find everyone in his office murdered. Realizing that he is also a target, he goes on the run. But it’s not enough to escape. If he wants to survive, he needs to understand what’s happening. He must pursue his pursuers.

But he is completely out of his element here. His job was to read books all day. He has no experience being an…

From the list:

The best novels about people taking risky action outside of their realm

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Book cover of The Spook Who Sat by the Door

The Spook Who Sat by the Door

By Sam Greenlee

Why this book?

In the late ’60s, Dan Freeman, a Black token hire at the CIA shares spy-craft with Black revolutionaries. The book may claim to be a satire, but it demands to be taken seriously. The historical implications of the novel are obvious; there are plenty of exhilarating thrills, and the writing bops with a jazz-like cool. The mystery, however, is subterranean and internal. Freeman has perfected many masks to survive in America, to infiltrate the CIA, and to earn the respect of revolutionaries. The amazing thing is that there is so much suspense in discovering which identity will truly take hold.

From the list:

The best thrillers and mysteries inhabited by history

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Book cover of The Puzzle Palace: A Report On NSA, America's Most Secret Agency

The Puzzle Palace: A Report On NSA, America's Most Secret Agency

By James Bamford

Why this book?

Truth kicks fiction’s ass, and the truth about the National Security Agency’s technological and espionage capabilities is more terrifying—or, depending on one’s perspective, cool—than any spy novel. Regardless of your perspective, it is astonishing. As a journalist, this book taught me to be daring, as Bamford is. As a novelist, it taught me the secret to writing about classified cutting-edge spy tech: you pretend you are writing sci-fi and imagine the technological possibilities a quarter of a century from now: you will not be far off from what the NSA has today.

From the list:

The best spy books that will make you paranoid—with good reason

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Book cover of The Gray Man

The Gray Man

By Mark Greaney

Why this book?

The story of a onetime CIA assassin who is now doing work for hire, meanwhile dodging the assassins who replaced him. While he is a killer, his personal code—for one thing, he only takes out those he considers truly evil—makes you, somehow, improbably, root for him. And the action, the twists, the turns, the writing…everything is dazzling. Greaney’s enthusiasm—no, love—for the subject matter is readily apparent. And infections. In the past ten years, in addition to ten Gray Man novels, he has also written a good half-dozen thousand-page Tom Clancy novels, among other books, in each case traveling all over…

From the list:

The best spy books that will make you paranoid—with good reason

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Book cover of Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames

Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames

By Pete Earley

Why this book?

Pete Earley, one of America’s best spy writers, authored two excellent books on espionage: Confessions of a Spy and Family of Spies: Inside the John Walker Spy Ring. But for my money, the Ames book is the better of them because Earley – one helluva reporter – talked his way into a long series of exclusive interviews with the disgraced CIA officer.

Ames, who betrayed to Moscow the identities of Russian spies secretly working for the U.S. (causing at least 10 of them to be killed), gave Earley more than 50 hours of his time behind bars. He did…

From the list:

The best nonfiction books about turncoat American spies

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Book cover of The Spy Who Got Away

The Spy Who Got Away

By David Wise

Why this book?

David Wise became the first Western journalist to interview former CIA officer Edward Lee Howard, who defected to Moscow on the KGB’s dime. Wise penned a slew of excellent nonfiction spy books before his death in 2018, but I believe his keen-eyed narrative skills and vivid portrait of Cold War espionage make The Spy Who Got Away his best in show.

Wise recounts Howard’s career in the CIA, which fired him in 1983 for alleged drug abuse, and the FBI’s subsequent investigation of his illegal ties to the KGB. But his story takes a cool, cinematic turn as he describes…

From the list:

The best nonfiction books about turncoat American spies

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Book cover of Red Sparrow: A Novel Volume 1

Red Sparrow: A Novel Volume 1

By Jason Matthews

Why this book?

Talented and clever, Dominika is compelled to become a Sparrow and use her body to serve Mother Russia. Justifiably angry, she becomes a double agent for the CIA—and in the process, finds love. Red Sparrow is an excellent example of the Lady Spy genre and Cold War espionage from the Russian side of things. More importantly, it highlights a woman’s struggle to matter in a world that doesn’t care about anything more than her gender. Red Sparrow served as a guide for creating Ms. Adelaide DeMarcy. Like Dominika, she is a talented agent and a formidable fighter but lives in…

From the list:

The best spy/detective books with strong female characters

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Book cover of The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax

By Dorothy Gilman

Why this book?

Mrs. Pollifax had a busy life until her children became adults and moved into their own lives. So she tried community work and joined a gardening club but when those became totally boring Mrs. Pollifax decided to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a spy. The minute she wangled an introduction from her Congress Member to a liaison at the CIA, I practically stood and saluted. And when she talked her way into a small assignment, which turned out to be quite complicated indeed, well, I was on the Mrs. Pollifax train and in the next thirteen books we traveled…

From the list:

The best cozy mysteries featuring sleuths of a certain age

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Book cover of The Brotherhood of the Rose

The Brotherhood of the Rose

By David Morrell

Why this book?

On one level, this novel is about Chris and Saul, two orphans raised by Eliot, a CIA operative, to become world-class assassins. After an international incident, Eliot decides Chris and Saul must be eliminated. Solid and engaging on that level, of course. But on a deeper level, it’s about two young men who trust their “father,” the one person who ever cared about them, only to feel the sting of his betrayal rock them to their core. The emotion makes the action matter. Everything is personal. The accurate tradecraft, killer action, and depth of character all combine to make this…

From the list:

The best non-fantasy novels for fantasy readers

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Book cover of Irreparable Harm: A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took on the CIA in an Epic Battle Over Free Speech

Irreparable Harm: A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took on the CIA in an Epic Battle Over Free Speech

By Frank Snepp

Why this book?

CIA officer Frank Snepp was one of the last American officials to leave Vietnam in 1975. But when he published a damning critique of the U.S. war effort in a book (A Decent Interval), it ignited a controversy that was widely covered in the press and led all the way to the Supreme Court. Snepp was charged with causing 'irreparable harm' to national security and ordered to surrender all profits from the publication. His account of the events around the court case are of course subjective but nonetheless speaks to a central paradox around the first amendment: freedom…

From the list:

The best books on U.S. national security culture and the exposure of secrets

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Book cover of Who Paid the Piper? : CIA and the Cultural Cold War

Who Paid the Piper? : CIA and the Cultural Cold War

By Frances Stonor Saunders

Why this book?

This may be over 20 years old but it is still the best account of the CIA’s massive interventions in culture and politics across the world and domestically in the Cold War. Detailed research and authoritatively written. The full story of the CIA’s intervention in the UK is still not fully told, with its covert operations in the Labour Party and we still do not know who the 50 British journalists were who were paid salaries by the CIA.

James Oliver and I covered the UK’s Information Research Department’s (IRD) mirror operation from 1947-1977 in Britain’s Secret Propaganda War. What…

From the list:

The best books on the madness of the Cold War

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Book cover of Tree of Smoke

Tree of Smoke

By Denis Johnson

Why this book?

Even if you did not “live” through the Vietnam War and its domino-effect cultural disasters, this book will penetrate your consciousness as “tragic and uncannily familiar” (Michiko Kakutani). William “Skip” Sands is ostensibly a CIA officer engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong. From the moment Skip lands “in country,” we are sucked into a vortex of violence, sardonic humor, camaraderie that’s six degrees from pathology, and paranoia -- all told through the lens of a singularly hallucinogenic yet gorgeous and poetic prose style that forced me from time to time to put the book down so I would avoid…

From the list:

The best massive modern/contemporary novels that create their own worlds

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Book cover of Air America

Air America

By Christopher Robbins

Why this book?

From 1965 onwards, the USA, conducted a covert anti-communist war in Laos. While the CIA created a clandestine hilltribe army, the air support for these troops was provided by Air America, ostensibly a private airline that was owned by the agency. Small spotter planes flew to 100s of airstrips across Laos to distribute troops, aid and weapons while collecting vast amounts of opium grown by the mercenaries the US had hired, later refined into heroin and sold to US troops fighting in Vietnam. Robbins’ book, which is somewhat revisionist, nonetheless brilliantly tracks the history of the airline from its beginnings…

From the list:

The best books about Laos and the CIA's covert war there

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Book cover of Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception

Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception

By Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, Susan Carnicero

Why this book?

Is it possible to detect deception? Can you really tell if someone’s lying just by looking at their body language? If so, what are the cues? When I was writing Duped, I decided to take a class with the authors, who were former CIA agents. I learned a ton. 

From the list:

The best books about secrets, lies, deception and double lives

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Book cover of The Quantum Spy: A Thriller

The Quantum Spy: A Thriller

By David Ignatius

Why this book?

Ignatius’s most recent novel is in many respects a mashup of books no. 1 and 2 on this list: terrific storytelling and the latest spy recent tech: You’ll conclude that it’s just a matter of time until “bad actors” (spy speak for “bad guys”) can hack your brain. At the same time, you’ll enjoy the story.

From the list:

The best spy books that will make you paranoid—with good reason

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Book cover of Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton - CIA's Master Spy Hunter

Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton - CIA's Master Spy Hunter

By Tom Mangold

Why this book?

Veteran BBC reporter Tom Mangold’s book was the most thorough and penetrating biography of James Jesus Angleton – the CIA’s legendary Cold War Counterintelligence chief. Drawing on scores of original interviews and internal intelligence records, Mangold reveals the depths of Angleton’s paranoia, alcoholism, and obsessions – and shows how these devastated both the CIA and Britain’s MI5 for more than a decade.

From the list:

The best Cold War spy books (non-fiction & fiction)

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Book cover of I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You

By Ally Carter

Why this book?

This delightful series is so much fun it rates a 'must have' on my list of girls' spy schools. The spy school is housed in a charming old mansion, complete with secret passages and hidden elevators. It is attended by carefully-selected, super-smart young women who train to become the Gallagher girls—spies extraordinaire. Naturally, there is a counterpart boys’ spy school. With a touch of romantic angst, this series does not disappoint. The girls are each distinct, memorable, and tons of fun.

From the list:

The best YA books about secret spy schools for girls

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Book cover of Molehunt: The Secret Search for Traitors That Shattered the CIA

Molehunt: The Secret Search for Traitors That Shattered the CIA

By David Wise

Why this book?

David Wise was the dean of American espionage writers, the author of more than a dozen well-regarded books about spies before his death in 2018, and Molehunt is my favorite. It tells the story of the James Angleton-inspired to hunt for a supposed mole within the CIA, an enormously damaging affair that paralyzed the agency for years. Wise’s books are so authoritative because of the unmatched sources he had in the intelligence community.
From the list:

The best and most accurate non-fiction books about Cold War espionage

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Book cover of Wilderness of Mirrors: Intrigue, Deception, and the Secrets That Destroyed Two of the Cold War's Most Important Agents

Wilderness of Mirrors: Intrigue, Deception, and the Secrets That Destroyed Two of the Cold War's Most Important Agents

By David C. Martin

Why this book?

Wilderness of Mirrors, written more than 40 years ago by Martin, the still-distinguished CBS News correspondent, remains a classic of espionage nonfiction. As the title suggests, the book captures the Byzantine world of counterintelligence during the Angleton era. Martin was the first to write knowledgeably about the Berlin Tunnel, and this book is also the first in-depth look at one of the most fascinating, important, and ultimately self-destructive officers of the first decades of the CIA, William King Harvey.

From the list:

The best and most accurate non-fiction books about Cold War espionage

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Book cover of Behind the Mystery

Behind the Mystery

By Laurie Roberts

Why this book?

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.   

From the list:

The best books that share the secrets of great mystery writing

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Book cover of The Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October

By Tom Clancy

Why this book?

In this cold-war era submarine thriller, Tom Clancy turned everything into world-imperiling stakes. He multiplied points of view so we could see the effects of events on friend and enemyhero, bystander, and villain, alike.

Clancy showed us that deeply principled men, willing to sacrifice to protect others, existed on both sides of military and espionage conflicts. That while there might be villains on both sides, there could also be heroes on both sides. A character's motivations and actions defined them, not which uniform they wore.

His deep technical accuracy, combined with fast-paced adventure, caught my multiple interests, and…

From the list:

The best books about clever heroes risking everything to protect others

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Book cover of Louisiana Longshot

Louisiana Longshot

By Jana DeLeon

Why this book?

This laugh-out-loud mystery drops a CIA assassin on ice in a Louisiana town packed with quirky characters. The handsome sheriff plays the straight man against an avalanche of small-town insanity. This bestselling cozy mystery is fast-paced and witty, and the sidekicks are as hilarious as the heroine. As the first book in the Miss Fortune Mysteries, Louisiana Longshot is a great place to start. (If you’re like me, you’ll have trouble stopping at just one book in the series.)

From the list:

The best funny cozy mystery novels

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Book cover of Shift Your Mind: 9 Mental Shifts to Thrive in Preparation and Performance

Shift Your Mind: 9 Mental Shifts to Thrive in Preparation and Performance

By Brian Levenson

Why this book?

Your mindset may be the most important factor in not only your performance, but in your happiness and fulfillment as well. It creates the foundation for your attitude and your philosophy on life. Shift Your Mind is a brilliantly written, practical guide full of useful constructs to help you heighten your current perspective and greatly enhance the quality of your life, your relationships, and your performance.

From the list:

The best books about managing stress and beating burnout

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Book cover of Reporter: A Memoir

Reporter: A Memoir

By Seymour M. Hersh

Why this book?

Sy Hersh is far and away the best investigative reporter of the last 50 years. This book tells how he got the stories that became some of the biggest national security scandals of our time – from My Lai to Watergate to CIA domestic spying to Abu Ghraib. This is essential reading for anyone interested in either or both journalism or national security.

From the list:

The best books on how the USA views national security

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Book cover of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

By Steve Coll

Why this book?

The inside story of how the CIA, the Mujahadeen, and Pakistani intelligence orchestrated a civil war in Afghanistan, and sowed the seeds of Islamic militancy that would eventually lead to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Steve Coll’s history is a masterpiece of journalistic research and political storytelling. I love this book because Coll provides both the sweeping global scope of history and the minute, gritty details that bring the sights, stories, and blood of Afghanistan’s war into sharp focus for readers. For such a deep dive, the book is incredibly accessible and is a breeze to read.  As an…

From the list:

The best books on the human toll of civil war

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Book cover of A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between

A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between

By Grant Evans

Why this book?

Historian Grant Evans does a thorough and highly readable if academic job to introduce remote, mysterious, landlocked Laos, the land of a million elephants from its distant beginnings as a conglomeration of waxing and waning city-states to its French colonial era and tragic role in the Vietnam War, its current post-revolutionary stasis and persistent refusal to become a nation serving its citizens. Anyone contemplating a visit to Laos should carry this book in their luggage as it touches on almost all aspects, cultural and economic, historical, and societal of one of the last communist nations surviving today.

From the list:

The best books about Laos and the CIA's covert war there

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Book cover of Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War

Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War

By Fred Branfman

Why this book?

During the CIA’s covert war in Laos between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on the country, a planeload every 8 minutes for 9 years and makes Laos, along with Cambodia, which shared a similar fate, is the most bombed country in the world. To this day, countless people, many of them children, are maimed and killed by unexploded ordinance that remains hidden in the country’s soil. Fred Branfman, a young American stationed in Laos in the late 1960s, discovered the bombing and exposed the CIA’s covert campaign of terror.

Branfman not only…

From the list:

The best books about Laos and the CIA's covert war there

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Book cover of A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

By Lewis Sorley

Why this book?

This is the best military history of the war from mid-1968 to 1974 during the MACV command of General Abrams. It is essential for understanding the U.S. troop withdrawal period and the combat performance of the revitalized South Vietnamese Army. With his Vietnam staff service, CIA experience, and Ph.D. in history, Sorley provides a unique revisionist narrative and in-depth analysis of those critical but ignored and misinterpreted years. 

From the list:

The best books about the Vietnam War from a commando who served there

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Book cover of Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond

Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond

By Martin A. Lee, Bruce Shlain

Why this book?

A towering work that graces the shelf of any student of psychedelic cultural history. Memorable for its coverage, scholarship, and humour, Acid Dreams documents how LSD, once prized by the CIA as a chemical WMD and espionage weapon, broke free from the military-industrial enterprise and escaped the confines of psychiatric research to shape the aesthetics of sixties counterculture, paving its way to become a furnishing of modern life. While there are other notable efforts to address this material (i.e. Jay Stevens’ Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream), Acid Dreams is a wonderfully detailed social history of LSD.

As…

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The best books on psychedelics and culture

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Book cover of Castro's Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, The CIA, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

Castro's Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, The CIA, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

By Brian Latell

Why this book?

Intelligence expert, professor, and former National Intelligence Officer for Latin America, Dr. Brian Latell, offers insight into Cuban Intelligence and their—largely—successful infiltration of the US security apparatus. Based on interviews with high-level defectors, the book delves into Castro’s mindset with assassination plots and uncover operations emanating from both sides of the Florida Straits as well as a behind-the-scenes look at some key events of the Cold War.

It’s very interesting to learn more about Castro’s mindset beyond the news headlines and how he managed to maintain power after the revolution. However, the real bombshell is an anecdote given by a…

From the list:

The best spy books set in Latin America

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Book cover of The Spy's Son: The True Story of the Highest-Ranking CIA Officer Ever Convicted of Espionage and the Son He Trained to Spy for Russia

The Spy's Son: The True Story of the Highest-Ranking CIA Officer Ever Convicted of Espionage and the Son He Trained to Spy for Russia

By Bryan Denson

Why this book?

This case makes me very angry. As a former CIA officer myself, I felt deeply the malignancy of this betrayal from within. I was riveted by Denson’s account of how Howard James Nicholson, a CIA clandestine service colleague, let his personal problems and amorality get the better of him. Selling out to the Russians was certainly not the right answer for him, nor was dragging his son into spying. Denson has written a compelling counterintelligence treatise.

From the list:

The best books on counterintelligence

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Book cover of Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

By Philip E. Tetlock, Dan Gardner

Why this book?

Philip Tetlock is a top psychologist and political scientist who studies, among other things, effective decision-making and forecasting in highly volatile environments. This book describes a research project he has been leading with the CIA (yes, that CIA), called the Good Judgement Project, to identify the best forecasters in the world today, and offers insights into how we all might be better able to make accurate decisions of our lives and our world. This is superb science and offers practical insights into how we can all better navigate the increasing complexity of our time.

From the list:

The best books on navigating seemingly impossible conflicts

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Book cover of In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

By Alexander McCall Smith

Why this book?

Fiction is an excellent source of inspiration for leaders. This book is a prime example. The book is part of a series of books on the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” in Botswana. The proprietor, Precious Ramotswe, uses a combination of wisdom, intelligence, and humor to solve crimes. Like leaders and entrepreneurs everywhere, she must handle a variety of challenges using limited resources. A special treat in reading these books is learning about daily life in Botswana. 

From the list:

The best books on leadership that don’t have “leadership” in the title

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Book cover of Shutter Island

Shutter Island

By Dennis Lehane

Why this book?

Where do you site a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, with a reputation for controversial research and experimental techniques? A far-flung island, of course. US marshal Teddy Daniels has barely landed on Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a beautiful, enigmatic murderer, before he starts to question everything he is being told. Is someone trying to drive him insane? As a killer hurricane traps Teddy on the island, we start to share his fears. Who is lying to us? Quite possibly, everyone, Teddy included. I adore unreliable narrators and this is gothic psychological horror writing at…

From the list:

The best spine-tingling thrillers set on remote islands

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Book cover of Miguel Marmol

Miguel Marmol

By Roque Dalton, Richard Schaaf, Kathleen Ross

Why this book?

Dalton was a wonderful poet and radical activist tragically executed by his Salvadorean comrades in 1975 when they erroneously believed him to be working for the CIA. The Salvadorean left has a poor record in devouring its own in bouts of paranoia that attended the civil war of the 1980s. Marmol, who survived deep into old age, was a ringleader of an uprising in 1932 that briefly promised a peasant overthrow of a state controlled by an oligarchy of a dozen families. The uprising was repressed with such force that the military was able to retain political power for the…

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The best books on Central American history and politics

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Book cover of The End of Mr. Y

The End of Mr. Y

By Scarlett Thomas

Why this book?

At no point while reading The End of Mr. Y did I know where Scarlett Thomas was taking me, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. The main character, graduate student Ariel Manto, discovers a rare cursed book that seems to lead to another world. Or, at least, that is the story on the surface. Beneath the surface, Thomas has mashed together big and weird questions of philosophy and science. The End of Mr. Y is like the older, aloof sister of Jason Pargin’s John Dies at the End (which I also thoroughly enjoyed).

From the list:

The best portal fantasy novels that will take you to hidden worlds

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Book cover of Marita: The Spy Who Loved Castro

Marita: The Spy Who Loved Castro

By Marita Lorenz

Why this book?

This is an incredible story about the young Marita Lorenz who falls in love with Fidel Castro one month after the Cuban Revolution and then gets persuaded by the CIA to try and assassinate him. Marita Lorenz was a spy for the CIA, had a child with at least one Latin American dictator and several lovers among the New York Mafia. That much we know, but it’s up to you if you believe her take on the JFK assassination. As she puts it herself at the beginning of the book: “I have been a woman in a man’s world. I…

From the list:

The best books on real conspiracies

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Book cover of Warrior: Frank Sturgis---The Cia's #1 Assassin-Spy, Who Nearly Killed Castro But Was Ambushed by Watergate

Warrior: Frank Sturgis---The Cia's #1 Assassin-Spy, Who Nearly Killed Castro But Was Ambushed by Watergate

By Jim Hunt, Bob Risch

Why this book?

My first pick was the story of Marita Lorenz who tried to kill Fidel Castro. This book is the story of the man who gave her that assignment. Frank Sturgis struggled side-by-side with Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution only to turn against him when he realized that Castro had become a communist. Then Sturgis joined forces with the American Mafia as well as with the CIA. He made several attempts to assassinate Castro during several decades as well as carried out assignments for the Mafia and the CIA in the US, Latin America, Europe, and Africa. We know he…

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The best books on real conspiracies

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Book cover of Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World's Best Writers

Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World's Best Writers

By Joel Whitney

Why this book?

Whitney gives a literary coda to World War II cloak-and-dagger, showing how its nests of spies and agencies pivoted and metastasised in the years afterward into the Cold War. The CIA took up where the OSS left off. Where Graham Greene and Kim Philby had run the haunts of Lisbon, then-young writers George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen were cajoled to produce cultural propaganda in Paris and start the Paris Review. The CIA's literary operations continued into the 1960s when it launched a whispering campaign to prevent Pablo Neruda from receiving a Nobel prize, and launched Mundo Nuevo to engage Spanish-language…

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The best books on spies and espionage in WW2

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Book cover of Chief of Station, Congo: Fighting the Cold War in a Hot Zone

Chief of Station, Congo: Fighting the Cold War in a Hot Zone

By Larry Devlin

Why this book?

There are different kinds of adventure. Safe to say the life of a CIA operative in raw, post-colonial Africa, who is charged with countering his Cold War rival the Soviet Union, must have been unique. Devlin portrays himself as a free-wheeling rogue playing fast and loose with the law (such as it was in 1960s Congo), and even with the life of murdered independence Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. It makes for exciting reading, even if not all of it is completely true.
From the list:

The best books about African adventures

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Book cover of A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam

A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam

By Norman Lewis

Why this book?

This classic travel book, first published in 1951, is said to have inspired Graham Greene to travel to Vietnam and to write The Quiet American, the greatest piece of fiction on white men in Southeast Asia. It is also a charming and charmed eyewitness account of the dying days of the French colonial occupation of Indochina which makes A Dragon Apparent a document so much of its time that readers might it find quaint, patronizing, and perhaps a little racist. The locals don’t come away very well but neither does the author who barely speaks to them. That said,…

From the list:

The best books about Laos and the CIA's covert war there

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Book cover of Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala

Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala

By Stephen Schlesinger, Stephen Kinzer

Why this book?

This riveting account of the CIA’s first large-scale covert operation in Latin America opened my eyes to what can happen when business interests outweigh political ideals. In 1954 the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz, proposed agrarian land reforms to benefit the poor indigenous population of the country. United Fruit Company, which owned most of the land under threat of expropriation, used its influence with the Eisenhower administration to raise a red flag. Literally. Grossly exaggerating the specter of Soviet meddling, CIA Director Allen Dulles authorized a false-flag operation to remove Árbenz. Read this book to see how things…

From the list:

The best books about covert ops in Latin America

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Book cover of Agents of Innocence

Agents of Innocence

By David Ignatius

Why this book?

Washington Post national security reporter Ignatius may not know the world of espionage better than anyone, but he writes about it better than anyone. Agents of Innocence is such a realistic and engaging depiction of the life of a CIA case officer that a copy of it is left in the room of each new arrival at Camp Peary, the CIA training facility. It’s about an idealistic young CIA officer posted to Beirut to penetrate the PLO, and, in the process, learns hard lessons, not least of which is that once human lives are at stake, idealism takes a back…

From the list:

The best spy books that will make you paranoid—with good reason

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Book cover of Strangeworlds Travel Agency: Volume 1

Strangeworlds Travel Agency: Volume 1

By L.D. Lapinski

Why this book?

L.D. Lapinski’s incredible Strangeworlds series will definitely sweep you into another world – into as many other worlds as you can count! Step into your suitcase and go on a journey to somewhere beyond imagining with Lapinski’s amazing cast of characters. When Flick stumbles into a dusty old shop and meets a young man named Jonathan Mercator, it’s the beginning of a life-changing adventure – across the multiverse – for them both.

From the list:

The best middle grade books to sweep you into another world

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Book cover of Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed

Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed

By Sandra Grimes, Jeanne Vertefeuille

Why this book?

Sandy Grimes and Jeanne Verterfeuille were part of the CIA team that identified Aldrich Ames, perhaps the most damaging spy in the agency’s history. Not only is the book a riveting account of the detective work that went into Ames’ arrest, it provides a wealth of information about the valuable agents and operations that he betrayed, and the incalculable damage he caused, including the loss of GRU General Dmitriy Polyakov, the highest-ranking spy run by the U.S. during the Cold War.

From the list:

The best and most accurate non-fiction books about Cold War espionage

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Book cover of The Spy Who Saved the World: How a Soviet Colonel Changed the Course of the Cold War

The Spy Who Saved the World: How a Soviet Colonel Changed the Course of the Cold War

By Jerrold L. Schecter, Peter S. Deriabin

Why this book?

Schecter, a journalist, and Deriabin, a KGB officer who defected to the U.S., tell the inside story of Oleg Penkovsky, the history-changing Soviet GRU colonel who delivered critical information that helped the CIA and President John F. Kennedy avoid nuclear disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The inside account delivers fascinating details about Penkovsky’s motivations, actions, and tragic demise, as well as a gripping narration of how the CIA handled one of the Cold War’s most important intelligence operations.

From the list:

The best and most accurate non-fiction books about Cold War espionage

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Book cover of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism

See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism

By Robert Baer

Why this book?

Top CIA case officer Robert Baer takes us on missions with him to destroy terrorist networks in the Middle East. For most of the book he operates fast and furious—until he runs into a different kind of enemy—CIA political correctness, careerism, and more. His book strikes home the importance of spies with boots on the ground and how technical gizmos and doodads can’t replace that. Suspenseful and spooky, this memoir will haunt the reader long after turning the last page. 

From the list:

The best black ops memoirs

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Book cover of Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter

Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter

By Cass R. Sunstein, Reid Hastie

Why this book?

This is honestly one of the smartest books I have ever read about group thinking, negotiating in groups, and avoiding massive group mistakes—which happen around the world every day! The authors give examples from negotiating the names of new household products to understanding group polarization and how to negotiate around it. They break down numerous conflict situations involving groups and give very detailed insights into what is going wrong and what can be done to make things go well. This is a great little book for negotiators, business managers, politicians, and everyday people who want to know how to get…

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The best books for negotiating anything

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Book cover of Your Republic Is Calling You

Your Republic Is Calling You

By Young-ha Kim, Chi-Young Kim

Why this book?

Imagine for a moment that you receive an email that states the following: “Liquidate everything and return immediately.” Now imagine you are a North Korean spy who has lived in South Korea for almost twenty years, and after your handler disappeared more than a decade ago, you’ve heard nothing. Until this email. Is it real? Or has the South Korean CIA found you out and is trying to trick you? What about your wife and your daughter, both completely unaware of your true identity? Your Republic Is Calling You takes place entirely in a single day of this unfortunate spy’s…

From the list:

The best mysteries/thrillers by writers of Korean origin

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Book cover of Devolution: Book One of The Devolution Trilogy

Devolution: Book One of The Devolution Trilogy

By John Casey

Why this book?

What I especially liked about Devolution is that some spy novels portray the protagonist as a larger-than-life superhero who knows more than everyone else and is never beset by personal uncertainty and struggle. John Casey, however, has created a character in Michael Dolan who has been wounded by a past trauma, and shows his humanity. I found myself identifying with him. I have never been able to identify with seemingly invulnerable superheroes. John Wayne or 007, I am not, now will I ever be. Still, in Devolution, Michael Dolan is a man who is committed to the truth and…

From the list:

The best adventure stories which also explore the self

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Book cover of Magic in Ancient Egypt

Magic in Ancient Egypt

By Geraldine Pinch

Why this book?

Dr. Geraldine Pinch lectures Egyptology at Cambridge University and drew on a wealth of scholarly material just as the subject was beginning to be taken seriously and managed to effectively bridge the divide between ancient and modern approaches to magic.  This is the book I highly recommend to those wanting to explore the subject of Egyptian magic without getting bogged down in other disciplines; showing how its elements and influences survived in, or were taken up by later societies, right down to our own century.

From the list:

The best books for exploring Ancient Egyptian Magic

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Book cover of The Secret Lovers: A Paul Christopher Novel

The Secret Lovers: A Paul Christopher Novel

By Charles McCarry

Why this book?

Almost criminally neglected, McCarry is the greatest American espionage writer. After serving for ten years as an elite deep-cover agent for the CIA, no one could better write of the “long, twilight struggle” of the Cold War. McCarry doesn’t write thrillers, but spare, character-driven stories about spies and the morally treacherous world in which they work. The Secret Lovers is an absorbing tale of betrayal and a relentless, perilous search for truth. McCarry’s masterpiece.

From the list:

The best tales of spies and intrigue

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