The best books about intelligence agencies

16 authors have picked their favorite books about intelligence agency and why they recommend each book.

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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…

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Book cover of Traitors Among Us

Traitors Among Us

By Stuart A. Herrington,

Why this book?

No book I know of does a better job of illustrating the “art” of counterintelligence than Colonel Herrington’s account of two major counterintelligence cases he oversaw: Clyde Lee Conrad and James Hall, two spies who definitely needed catching. I am in awe of the professionalism, creativity, and doggedness shown by Stu and his team of CI specialists in these lengthy and complex investigations. Every tool of good counterintelligence is on display here, especially analysis, surveillance, and double agentry.

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Book cover of The Secrets of Mary Bowser

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

By Lois Leveen,

Why this book?

Lois Leveen uses a mixture of fact and well-researched speculation to bring Mary Bowser, a largely unknown Civil War hero, to the page. Free and educated in the North, Mary Bowser returned to slavery to spy on the Confederacy in the household of Jefferson Davis. This much, at least, is known about the woman. Leveen imagines Bowser’s early life, braids in national history, and leaves us breathless with wonder at the courage and audacity required to complete the assignment Bowser accepted.

I love novels that pick up where the historical record ends, especially novels that do so lovingly and with…

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The best historical novels about badass 19th century American women

Book cover of Mossad: The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service

Mossad: The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service

By Michael Bar-Zohar, Nissim Mishal,

Why this book?

Again, research is everything when it comes to creating a believable series, and while this book focuses solely on Israel, and its clandestine battles with its many enemies, it still manages to capture the overall tone of international intrigue, and the wars fought in the shadows by unknown warriors. Accordingly, it served as a template for the adventures of my characters.

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The best spy/detective books with strong female characters

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.

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Book cover of KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev

KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev

By Oleg Gordievsky, Christopher Andrew,

Why this book?

A deeply revealing insight into the mysterious world of the Soviet secret service written as a collaboration between a top Cambridge historian and a senior KGB officer who was a double agent working for the British MI6. It tells us not only what the KGB got up to but, equally important, how the senior KGB leaders thought. It opens up the paranoia at the top of the Soviet system.

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Book cover of Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS

Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS

By Elizabeth P McIntosh,

Why this book?

McIntosh takes a fresh approach to espionage, putting aside the trench coats and Mata Haris for the real "Code-room Mata Hari" and other little-known heroines of the war. A veteran of CIA and OSS operations herself, McIntosh knows what she's writing about, and draws from more than 100 interviews with other women operatives. She portrays several dozen here, including the China escapades of Julia McWilliams (known today as Julia Child). It also features the Musac project, with broadcasts targeted at Wehrmacht troops with fake German news and music sung by agent Marlene Dietrichn designed to infiltrate their sympathies.

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Book cover of Mi6

Mi6

By Stephen Dorril,

Why this book?

Unlike the official history of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), better known as MI6, by Keith Jeffery, this book is written without the censorship of the Service presenting the facts as the author, a journalist and academic, considers fit and proper to show. Very well written and covering a considerable period of time with many secret operations, it is a very good book which The Guardian described as ‘A remarkable achievement and an encyclopaedic post-war history which any student of the secret world should read.’

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Book cover of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5

The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5

By Christopher Andrew,

Why this book?

The official history of MI5 similarly provides the first authorised account of another secret organisation. The book provides a far-reaching account of clandestine activities since its nascent beginnings as part of the Secret Service Bureau in 1909, and across a period of 100 years. It offers a rare insight into some of the eyebrow-raising operations in counter-espionage, as well as an administrative overview, for an intelligence agency that is responsible for Britain’s security at home. It gives the first inside account from it archives, from Bolshevik threats and Communist subversive activities in the 1920s in Britain to Hitler’s spies in…

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Book cover of Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control

Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control

By Stephen Kinzer,

Why this book?

The historical accounts of the rise and reign of chemist Sidney Gottlieb seem like deep YouTube conspiracy theory. How could a trusted government official, a scientist, be drugging unwitting subjects, civilians, even his own coworkers? This is one of the most bizarre and important tales from American cold war history.

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