There’s something about the tension and buildup of a great spy novel that works particularly well on the page. That’s not to knock the many great spy movies out there, of course, but when it comes to pacing and creating paranoia, novels have the advantage.
The following are thrilling examples of a finely calibrated espionage tale. Here are nine of the best spy novels ever written.
The Secret Agent
Most lists of the best spy novels are dominated by Cold Ware fare from Ian Fleming, John le Carré, and their peers—and, to be honest, ours is no exception. But we would be remiss if we didn’t give a shout-out to this 1907 novel from Joseph Conrad. Conrad’s spy tale is a political and espionage classic. It’s also an early example of a novel that discusses terrorism.
Soon after Ian Fleming created English superspy James Bond, the character took on a life of his own. Bond tackled increasingly wild plots in each book, while his cinematic counterpart became a silver screen icon—and slightly more sober than Fleming’s original creation. Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, is where this saga begins.
Related: 8 Spies Who Wrote About Spies
Then We Take Berlin
Meet Joe Wilderness, orphaned by World War II - and certain that this fact will allow him to operate outside of society's bounds and rules for the rest of his life. But when he gets recruited into MI6, he discovers a fast-paced life in Berlin that will force him to go to extremes to accomplish his missions. This stylish thriller is a beloved read, best for fans of Eric Ambler.
The Day of the Jackal
The Day of the Jackal uses a real-life attempt to assassinate French leader Charles de Gaulle to build a fictional plot full of intrigue and subversion. Though Forsyth initially struggled to find his book publisher, the novel quickly became a sensation when it was finally published in 1971. It remains a beloved classic all these years later.
Our Man in Havana
Greene didn’t dedicate his whole career to spy fiction, but, in many respects, his novel Our Man in Havana fits right in with the best works of career espionage writers. Perhaps that’s because, like many of the best espionage writers, Greene himself worked for a time as a spy. But there are also ways in which Greene’s novel stands out from the spy fiction crowd. That’s particularly true in of its genre: rather than write a straight thriller, Greene wrote a black comedy that poked fun at the espionage world’s credulity when it came to local informants.
The Salzburg Connection
MacInnes may be best known for her first novel, Above Suspicion, but in The Salzburg Connection, written over 20 years later, she had become an expert in espionage beyond compare. In this spy vs spy vs lawyer tale, Richard Bryant, British agent, is one of the few who knows about a secret cache of Nazi information. When he’s found dead, an American lawyer gets caught up in the quest to find the information, before it gets in the wrong hands.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
The novel that launched John le Carré’s career remains perhaps his finest work. Focusing on suspense rather than action, le Carré weaves a compelling and authentic spy story set on two sides of the Berlin wall. Smart, cynical, and memorable, this Cold War classic is an obvious choice for any list of the best spy novels.
The Bourne Identity
The Bourne Identity features one of the most beloved of thriller hooks: A highly trained man, apparently a spy, awakens to find he remembers nothing about his life. From page one, readers are invested in the mysterious story of the man who later learns he (sometimes) goes by Jason Bourne. Bourne soon finds himself running–and fighting–for his life as he encounters enemies that include the CIA and a sinister assassin known as Carlos the Jackal.
Lynds became popular thanks to a collaborative series with Robert Ludlum, Covert-One, but she had been honing her craft long before The Altman Code’s debut. Like Jason Bourne, Liz Sansborough wakes up one morning to discover that she no longer remembers her life as a CIA agent. Luckily, her lover, Gordon, is there to explain what she has forgotten. But can Gordon–or the world–be trusted? There’s an international assassin after Liz, and she’ll need to figure out whom she can trust quickly.
Jason Matthews is a modern answer to John le Carré and other iconic spies-turned writers. A former CIA operative, Matthews writes realistic but thrilling spy novels. Red Sparrow, his 2013 bestseller and winner of an Edgar Award for Best First Novel, examines the competing espionage efforts of the United States and Russia. A film adaptation starring Jennifer Lawrence recently hit theaters, so pick up the book after or (better yet) before you watch the movie.
Featured photo via cover of "Red Sparrow"