The Other 170 must-read spy authors by Tim Shipman.
Let’s just call this project the Top 300 spy writers. As promised, I’ve now augmented the main list of 125 best spy writers I have enjoyed with what follows: more than 170 new spy writers who should be read…
To add to the main list of 125, here are some authors I’ve just read or forgot about when compiling the list
James Wolff – I read and hugely enjoyed How to Betray Your Country and I’ll be trying Beside the Syrian Sea in due course. An emerging talent who is worth a Top 100 slot.
NEW WILD CARD SPY WRITERS
I’d now like to add these wild cards:
Berkeley Mather – I’ve just read The Pass Beyond Kashmir. Mike Ripley swears that he’s better than Maclean as an adventure writer. I need to read more, including The Achilles Affair, but first impressions are highly favourable and suggest he is worth at least a top 70 spot and he could end up much higher.
Alan Judd – Author of six books over three decades featuring Charles Thoroughgood. The first, Breed of Heroes (1981) is not a spy book but a highly praised account of soldiering in Northern Ireland, but Judd brought his lead character back 20 years later as a spy in Legacy. Based on my limited reading, I would put him in the Top 90 already but he may well be better than that. Mick Herron recently told me he’s a fan of Judd.
Frank O’Neill – Another I enjoyed but just plain forgot when I was compiling the list. Agents of Sympathy (1985) was good enough for a place in the Top 100. I’ve now added his other thriller, The Secret Country (1987), to my TBR pile.
Clyde Allison – Jeff Gelb very kindly helped me get my hands on three reprinted copies of the sagas of 0008, a sexy and satirical take on spying. There are 20 novels featuring the character Trevor Anderson, which author William Knoles published under the Allison pseudonym. For Your Sighs Only begins with our hero skiing naked down a mountain shooting at the similarly bare buttocks of lady agents from the enemy. This was raunchy and rambunctious fun which is not for the faint hearted. I’d currently put him somewhere in the Top 120, but Jeff Gelb (Phoenis Station) has him in his Top 10 and swears that he is a satirist of note.
Richard Condon – I don’t know whether it quite counts as a spy novel but The Manchurian Candidate (1959) is obviously a brilliant piece of work and one of the great conspiracy novels ever written and, if we’re counting it, is enough to make him Top 60 on its own.
Henry Bromell – His Little America (2001), which tackles a son uncovering his CIA agent father’s role in the espionage intrigues of a lost Middle East Kingdom, is a cracking read and puts him around the 100 mark.
Aaron Latham – Another I forgot is Latham’s Orchids for Mother (1977), which tells of the near psychopathic CIA rivalry between a chief of covert operations and Francis Xavier Kimball, the director of counter-intelligence, known as “Mother” and modelled on James Jesus Angleton. Another for the top 120.
THE ALSO MUST READ SPY AUTHOR LIST
Now on to those spy writers that I have not read, but who should be in any spy fan’s list of authors to try. I have ordered them by when they started their careers, or when the vast majority of their work was done and in each decade I have ranked them in rough order of interest/importance.
I have drawn heavily on Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide by Donald McCormick and Katy Fisher, which is a must-have reference book for all Spybrarian’s shelves and David Stafford’s The Silent Game: The Real World of Imaginary Spies, which is an enjoyable read about the history of spy thrillers and how their changing mores relate to the times in which they were written. The British Spy Novel by John Atkins was also helpful.
I haven’t included every author mentioned in these books, but have tried to mention those who had substantial output, those who are also rated highly by Randall Masteller and/or Mike Ripley author of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang the Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed, who have probably read more thrillers than anyone else in the English-speaking world; Edgar and dagger winners and those who wrote books which have special interest in the history of the spy novel, even if their output was limited.
THE EARLY YEARS
Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911) are seminal works in the genre.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – There are a few Sherlock Holmes stories with espionage content that Spybrarians should seek out: The Bruce-Partington Plans (1908), in which Holmes solves a problem which has baffled the secret service; The Naval Treaty (1894); and A Scandal in Bohemia (1894). The first is in Allen Dulles’s volume Great Spy Stories From Fiction, the other two in The Adventure of the Speckled Band and Other Stories.
G. K. Chesterton – The creator of the Father Brown detective series also wrote The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), described by CIA man Miles Copeland as “the best spy book ever written”.
Baroness Orczy – The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) is a secret agent, a man of disguises and guile, rescuing aristos from the guillotine. A Spy for Napoleon (1934) is even more of an espionage tale.
James Fenimore Cooper – The Spy (1821), set during the Revolutionary war, may be the first work of spy fiction, though he is better known for The Last of the Mohicans.
Rudyard Kipling – Kim (1901) is not a spy novel in the modern sense but his boy hero engages in spying. Another must to understand the evolution of the genre.
Edgar Allan Poe – His detective C Auguste Dupin has a few brushes with espionage, notably in The Purloined Letter (1845), in which a minister is suspected of stealing a top secret document. The Gold Bug (1843) is “one of the best stories yet written about ciphers and codes” the Connoisseur's Guide informs us.
Sax Rohmer – British intelligence agent Denis Nayland Smith battles the evil crime lord Fu Manchu in 13 books between 1913 and 1959. Troublesome racism seems the hurdle to clear before sampling.
W. Somerset Maugham – How have I not read Ashenden (1928)? For shame. It’s the first book that tried to represent intelligence as it is, with the boredom and cynicism rather than heroics to the fore. An absolute cornerstone of the genre.
Compton Mackenzie – The man behind Whisky Galore and Monarch of the Glen also served with the intelligence services in the First World War. His experiences informed two thrillers: Extremes Meet (1928) which was rather overshadowed by Ashenden, which came out the same year; and The Three Couriers (1929). But when Mackenzie wrote his memoirs he was sued under the official secrets act. He got his own back by writing a brutally cutting satire on the agencies, Water on the Brain (1933), which was then required reading by Russian spooks in London.
Valentine Williams – A journalist who won the Military Cross on the Western Front in the First World War, he was recuperating from being blown sky high by a shell when John Buchan suggested he write a thriller. What followed was a series of spy thrillers about German villain, Dr Adolph Grundt, known as Clubfoot (1918-44). Rudyard Kipling, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Kim Philby were all fans and Mansfield Cumming, the first ‘C’, became a friend and even appeared in his books. Williams moved to the Riviera to live on his royalties and became chums with E. Philipps Oppenheim. At the outbreak of the Second World War he joined SIS, vetting (evidently with mixed success) both Philby and Malcolm Muggeridge.
Alexander Wilson – Between 1928 and 1940 Wilson wrote a series of nine thrillers about spy chief Sir Leonard Wallace, who was closely based on Mansfield Cumming, the first head of MI6. At the end of the 1930s, using the name Michael Chesney, Wilson published a trilogy about Callaghan, a head of military intelligence.
A.E.W. Mason – Contemporary of Maugham and Buchan (who said that he admired Mason most of his rivals), he also served in intelligence. Penned several spy thrillers, but is best known for Fire Over England (1936), a tale of Elizabethan espionage, and The Four Feathers (1902).
Sapper – Herman Cyril McNeile created private operative ‘Bulldog’ Drummond. He was mostly an amateur detective but his opponents were often the international Bolshevik conspiracy, which gives them the feel of early spy novels.
Sydney Horler – Wrote more than 100 novels, many of them featuring freelance intelligence operative ‘Tiger’ Standish, a rival to Bulldog Drummond. Spy history completists might try The Grim Game (1936) or The Spy, but he’s not as highly thought of as Buchan, Williams, Mason or McNeile.
Dennis Wheatley – wrote a series of wartime espionage pot boilers about Gregory Sallust (1936-64) and the Roger Brook series set during the French revolutionary period (1947-74)
John Creasey – A staggeringly prolific (600 novels under 28 pseudonyms) and talented crime writer, who founded the Crime Writers Association in the UK. Creasey turned his attention to spy fiction as the Second World War approached. He wrote multiple series, including a long running one about Department Z (1932-57), a domestic espionage outfit. As Gordon Ashe, starting in 1938, he created Patrick Dawlish, who parachutes into occupied Europe to organise anti-Nazi resistance but was still going in 1976. A third series, Dr Palfrey (1942-79), was the leader of a secret service working for all the Western allies. The CWA dagger for best first book was named after him.
Francis Van Wyck Mason – An early American spy writer, he wrote 31 thrillers featuring Captain Hugh North of military intelligence between 1930 and 1968, evolving from wartime thrillers into the Cold War and ending up in the space age with The Deadly Orbit Mission (1968).
J.C. Masterman – An interesting footnote book, Masterman’s spy novel An Oxford Tragedy (1933) is credited with helping him get the real life job for which he is best known, running the XX Committee which exposed and turned German spies in Britain during the Second World War.
John P. Marquand – Winner of a Pulitzer prize for one of his literary works, Marquand called his series of eight books featuring Japanese secret agent Mr Moto (1937-39) “my literary disgrace”. Nonetheless they were hugely popular and spawned a series of films. The whole thing came to a juddering halt after the Pearl Harbor attack. Two further books followed but not until 1957 and 1965.
Bernard Newman – Wrote 128 spy novels, the first of which was a huge hit and called simply Spy (1935). It features a secret agent penetrating German high command at the end of the First World War to undermine morale, leading to the psychological collapse of Gen von Ludendorff. Newman got his information from Sir Basil Liddell Hart.
Manning Coles – Pseudonym of two English writers, Adelaide Manning, who did most of the writing, and Cyril Coles, who served with British intelligence during both world wars, who provided plots and characters based on his experience. Together they created the 26 part Tommy Hambledon series (1940-63), one of the key missing links between the world of Buchan and Ambler and that of Fleming and Cory.
Upton Sinclair – recommended by Paul Vidich, Sinclair wrote an 11 book saga between 1940 and 1953 covering the period from the 1920s until the 1950s. His main character was Lanny Budd who appears, Zelig-like at most major events as FDR’s intelligence adviser. He’s also one of only two spy writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for his third book in the series, Dragon’s Teeth. The whole thing is 7,000 pages, so if you like it there’s a lot to like.
Peter Cheyney – Detective writer who sold 1.5m copies a year during the 1940s, his best work is considered by many critics to be the ‘Dark’ series of spy novels about a British counterintelligence unit operating against Nazi agents. Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide says the first two, Dark Duet (1942) and The Stars are Dark (1943) are the best.
Jean Bruce – Prolific French author who wrote 91 novels about secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, aka OSS 117, France’s answer to James Bond. After his death in a car crash in 1963, his wife wrote another 143 books and then their son and daughter published another 24. Any clue on where to start would be helpful…
Pierre Boulle – The French literary novelist who created Bridge Over the River Kwai and Monkey Planet aka Planet of the Apes, wrote two novels of wartime espionage which were drawn to my attention by Mike Ripley. The first was William Harding aka Spy Converted (1950), Mike says the better one was the second, For a Noble Cause.
Stephen Marlowe – Between 1955 and 1968, Marlowe wrote 21 adventures of private investigator Chester Drum, in which he crosses paths with spies of both sides. Drum Beat Berlin (1964) is one of the more highly regarded. As Matthew Bradford says: “I like the Drumbeat series, but as quick, fun shoot-em-ups with little art or credible tradecraft. (I will say, though, that DRUMBEAT BERLIN may have the best spy cover of all time!)” He may not be wrong.
Christopher Landon – The author of the hit war novel Ice Cold in Alex also dabbled with espionage. A Flag in the City (1953) is “an excellent debut spy novel set in Iran,” according to Mike Ripley. The Mirror Room (1960) is set in Berlin just before the wall went up.
Maurice Edelman – A Labour MP who wrote decent political thrillers (Who Goes Home, The Minister, The Prime Minister’s Daughter) also dabbled with espionage in A Dream of Treason (1955), in which a Foreign Office man is encouraged to leak certain information and then finds himself in the firing line; and A Call on Kuprin (1960), which is based on the defection of atomic scientist Peter Kapitza.
Harry Hossent – Author of six books on British agent Max Heald between 1958 and 1967. “Unpretentious” and “quite good” say the critics in a blaze of middling praise. Spies Die at Dawn (1958) is the first. Decent title.
Martha Albrand – Her first novel in English, No Surrender (1943) was a tale of the Dutch underground and was picked for a spy omnibus by thriller connoisseur Howard Haycraft. Espionage novels were scattered through her career during the 1950s and 1960s. A Door Fell Shut (1966) concerns a concert in East Berlin which becomes cover for a defection.
Anthony Lejeune – Wrote a trilogy of espionage thrillers about Adam Gifford, a crime reporter who works with the security services: Dangerous (1959), Duel in the Shadows (1962), The Dark Trade (1965). Featured by both Ripley and Masteller.
James Leasor – Some say the Dr. Jason Love thrillers (1964-92) are the best of the 1960s Bond imitators. I’ve just blind bought them all as first editions. I hope Craggs and Co are right
Noel Behn – The Kremlin Letter (1966) is renowned as a brilliant and brutal book and is another favourite of Jeremy Duns.
James Eastwood – His trilogy about the sizzling Hungarian-American MI6 spy Anna Zordan (1965-69), which begins with The Chinese Visitor, sounds right up my strasse.
Derek Marlowe – A Dandy in Aspic (1966), in which a double agent is ordered to hunt down himself, is hailed as a one hit wonder classic, though Marlowe returned to something like espionage with Echoes of Celandine (1970) featuring a hitman on his last job. It was filmed as The Disappearance starring Donald Sutherland.
Sam Greenlee – African American writer Greenlee was rejected by 38 US publishers before he found a small British firm willing to promote his book, The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1969). It is about the first black CIA officer, who continually faces prejudice and quits to use his training to organise resistance to white supremacy. A bona fide one hit wonder, it’s one of the most sought after and expensive first editions in spy fiction.
Frank McAuliffe – It is a moot point if a series of three books (1965-71) of short stories about a freelance assassin are really espionage. However, both Mike Ripley, who made them all Top Notch Thrillers (Of All the Bloody Cheek, Rather a Vicious Gentleman, For Murder I Charge More), and Randall Masteller, who gives the exploits of Augustus Mandrell an A grade, suggest this is a cannot miss series for Spybrarians. Book three won the Edgar for best paperback original. A fourth, full length novel, Shoot the President Are You Mad? was belatedly published in 1975. They’re supposed to be well written, funny and exciting. Count me in.
Michael Underwood – His five book series on barrister and reluctant agent Martin Ainsworth features two spy novels – The Unprofessional Spy (1964) and The Shadow Game (1969) set in Cold War Berlin and a third, Reward for a Defector (1973), which entwines espionage themes with the London legal scene.
Charles W. Thayer – Checkpoint (1964), which has a lot of fans, was his only novel, but his non fiction books about serving as a US diplomat in Moscow (Bear in the Caviar and Hands Across the Caviar) will also appeal to Spybrarians. Thayer was brother in law of Chip Bohlen, who was a key aide to FDR at Yalta. He was forced out of the foreign service by McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade.
Brian Cleeve – Anglo-Irish author from the 60s spy boom, his offerings include a four part series centred on his violent counterintelligence operative Sean Ryan. The first is Counterspy aka Vote X for Treason (1964), then its Dark Blood Dark Terror and The Judas Goat aka Vice Isn’t Private, which is loosely based on the Profumo scandal, the cover of which promises a “savage and sadistic novel of sexual corruption and high treason”, which sounds like fun. The final part is Violent Death of a Bitter Englishman.
Donald Westlake – The legendary crime writer penned a spoof espionage novel, Spy in the Ointment (1966), and, more importantly, wrote Forever and a Death, a novel based on his treatment for a James Bond film which was sadly never made. The book was published posthumously in 2017 by the Hard Case Crime imprint.
Desmond Skirrow – Author of a trilogy of raunchy sixties books in the Bond boom, starting with It Won’t Get You Anywhere (1966) and continuing with I was Following This Girl (1967) and I’m Trying to Give it Up (1968). The titles give you a flavour of the content, which may be ‘of its time’.
Richard Llewellyn – Best known for his literary creation How Green Was My Valley, Llewellyn penned two espionage thrillers, The End of the Rug (1968) and But We Didn’t Get the Fox (1970).
Nick Carter – A series of 254 books (1964-90) written by multiple authors to cash in on the Bond phenomenon, they are known as Nick Carter or Killmaster. Carter works for the intelligence agency AXE. Another favourite of Jeff Gelb, our resident expert on spy-fi pulp fiction.
Manning O'Brine – Author of four gritty spyish thrillers – Crambo, Mills, No Earth for Foxes, and Pale Moon Rising. Mills (1969), which Jeremy Duns named on a list of five great forgotten thrillers, is based on a character obsessed, as O'Brine himself was, with tracking down and killing Nazi war criminals. The jacket of No Earth for Foxes boasts one of the best biographical lines on any novel: “He killed his first Nazi in Heidelberg in 1937 and his last one in Madagascar in 1950.”
Simon Harvester – Wrote three different series, much the best of it is his 12 part series on British intelligence agent Dorian Silk (1961-76). Each book has the word “road” in the title. Critics praise his prose, his pacing and his spycraft.
Duncan MacNeil – Pseudonym of Philip McCutchan, who wrote two series in his own name and then a 22 part series as MacNeil (1960-89) about Commander Esmonde Shaw of defence intelligence, where he battled Soviet agents and terrorists. Randall Masteller grades them A-
Bill S. Ballinger – In just two years in 1965-6, he turned out six thrillers featuring Joaquin Hawks, codename “Swinger”, one of the first series to explore espionage in South East Asia. Randall Masteller gives them an A-
John Blackburn – Compared by one critic to John Buchan and Geoffrey Household in style and John Creasey in plot, Blackburn wrote nine books about spy chief Charles Kirk between 1958 and 1972. Randall Masteller gives them a B+
Gavin Black – Wrote 13 books (1960-79) about businessman and amateur spy Paul Harris. These are distinguished by being set in exotic Far East locales, which the author brings effectively to life, the critics say. Suddenly at Singapore comes first.
Dorothy Gilman – Starting in 1966, she wrote 14 books in 34 years starring 60-something widow Mrs Pollifax, one of the CIA’s least likely agents imaginable. Randall Masteller, rather brilliantly, describes them as “Murder She Wrote meets I Spy”. A TV series and two films followed (with Angela Lansbury no less in the title role in the 1999 incarnation). Gilman was named a Grand Master at the Edgar awards in 2000.
Philip Atlee – There are 23 books featuring Joe Gall, a counter-espionage man for the “agency”. Critics say the better ones are comparable to the Jonas Wilde Eliminator books by Andrew York.
Michael Avallone – Another pulp writer who churned out the books. His private eye Ed Noon began as a hard boiled detective but between 1967 and 1972 he became a personal spy for the president (eg. the wonderfully named Assassins Don’t Die in Bed from 1968). By then he was also writing The Man from U.NC.L.E. books and the first few in the Nick Carter/Killmaster series.
Michael Kurland – Won the Edgar for A Plague of Spies (1969), which depicts world weary spy Peter Carthage sent to infiltrate a team of international assassins. The Last President (1980) concerns a CIA agent and OSS veteran becoming embroiled in a coup against Richard Nixon.
Mickey Spillane – The hard boiled crime writing legend’s Mike Hammer takes on a communist spy ring in The Girl Hunters (1962), but Spillane also cashed in on the Bond boom with his creation Tiger Mann, who stars in a four book series (1964-66) which starts with Day of the Guns.
Edward Weismiller – His sole espionage novel, The Serpent Sleeping (1962) uses the author’s wartime experiences working with turned Nazi agents to good effect. The Connossieur’s Guide calls it “one of the most important in the genre” such is its insight into the psychology and handling of a turned agent.
Kurt Vonnegut – Another great novelist who did a spy novel. Mother Night (1962) features an American spy in wartime Germany who plays his cover role of a virulent Nazi so effectively that it begins to change him.
Anthony Burgess – The author of A Clockwork Orange and other classics wrote a spy novel, Tremor of Intent (1966) which sees an ageing SIS man try to get an old friend who has defected to Russia to return. The blurb on GoodReads is quite something: “This morality tale of a Secret Service gone mad features sex, gluttony, violence, treachery, and religion…A rare combination of the deadly serious and the absurd, the lofty and the lusty.”
Julian MacLaren-Ross – One of the great enfant terribles of British letters, MacLaren-Ross wrote one acclaimed thriller which has espionage elements, The Doomsday Book (1961)
Andrei Gulyashki – For Bond collectors, the holy grail is to find the English translation paperback of Avakoum Zahov vs. 07 (1960) in which the Bulgarian author got his own back for the entire Eastern bloc as the communist secret agent outwits the British spy, unnamed after a legal threat from the Fleming estate. Expect to pay £300 if you can find even a tattered copy. Gulyashki actually wrote several others in the Zahov series but, as far as I’m aware, they haven’t been translated.
Christopher Cerf and Michael K. Frith – This duo wrote Alligator (1962), the first great Bond spoof, which was published by National Lampoon and then suppressed by the Fleming estate. Ian Fleming, who hated it, even wrote in his will that Cerf and Frith were banned from writing anything to do with Bond.
Sol Weinstein – His quartet of “Israel Bond” books (1965-68) featuring Agent Oy-Oy-Seven: Loxfinger, Matzohball In the Secret Service of His Majesty the Queen, and You Only Live Until You Die are seen as a high point of Bond spoofery by many.
Leon Uris – Made his name in the 1950s with Exodus. My favourite of his is Mila 18, a stirring account of the uprising in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in 1944. But with Topaz (1966), Uris moved into spy terrain with this account of the Golitsyn affair and the run up to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
James Aldridge – Former war correspondent whose spy thriller The Statesman’s Game (1966) is “firmly in the Le Carre tradition” according to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The same character, Rupert Royce, appears in The Captive in the Land (1962), but Mike Ripley calls that a “Cold War adventure thriller”.
William Ash – Reputed to be the model for Virgil Hilts, the Steve Macqueen character in the Great Escape, Ash wrote two thrillers about Kyle Brandeis, the editor of a failing literary magazine who becomes embroiled in espionage: Ride a Paper Tiger (1968), Take-Off (1969).
John Michael Brett – Pen name of Miles Tripp, he wrote a spy trilogy about “Man About Danger” Hugo Baron, who works for DIECAST, a sort of anti-SPECTRE, which believes in “peace through violence”. Diecast (1964) was followed by A Plague of Dragons (1965) and A Cargo of Spent Evil (1966). Jason King is not a fan.
John Sanders – I’m keen to try his five book series on Nicholas Pym, a spy for Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War, dubbed “Cromwell’s James Bond”. The first is A Firework for Oliver (1964)
Robert Charles – Prolific author with two main series, nine books about ruthless killer Simon Larren, starting with Nothing to Lose (1963), in the sixties, followed by eight books in the seventies about counter-terror operative Mark Nicholson. These are longer on action than character.
Colin Robertson – Crime writer with more than 50 books to his name, he also wrote a spy trilogy about British agent Alan Steel, codename 222: Clash of Steel (1965), Judas Spies (1966), Project X (1968). Randall gives them a B-
H. T. Rothwell – Wrote a five book series about British agent Michael Brooks, starting with Exit a Spy (1966). An inveterate chaser of women, Brooks’s most interesting outing looks like No Kisses From the Kremlin (1969).
Angus Ross – There are 19 gritty Mark Farrow spy thrillers (1970-91), who did for MI6 what Ted Lewis did for crime thrillers.
Kenneth Royce – His Spider Smith thrillers (1970-86), starting with The XYY Man, have a great premise: a cat burglar works for MI6. The Crypto Man (1984) and The Mosley Receipt (1986) are supposed to be the best.
George Markstein – The scriptwriter on the film of The Ipcress File, Markstein was also a key figure behind The Prisoner, wrote scripts for Callan and helped create Mr Palfrey of Westminster, the 1970s drama about a Whitehall intelligence chief. His first book, The Cooler (1974), is a highly regarded wartime spy yarn and there are several Cold War spy thrillers, including The Man From Yesterday (1976), The Goering Testament (1978) and Traitor for a Cause (1979)
Peter Driscoll – His debut, The White Lie Assignment (1971), is a proper spy novel, in which a Greek photographer is sent to Albania by British intelligence and becomes embroiled in a plot to locate a Chinese communist missile site. His other books, two of which are Top Notch Thrillers (The Wilby Conspiracy and In Connection With Kilshaw), are muscular international thrillers which seem likely to appeal to Spybrarians. The former, a chase thriller in Apartheid era South Africa, became a Michael Caine film and was praised by Len Deighton and Eric Ambler.
John Braine – The ‘angry young man’ author of Room at the Top penned two spy thrillers which are commended by Jeremy Duns and Matthew Bradford: The Pious Agent (1975) and Finger of Fire (1977)
Reg Gadney – His debut spy novel, Drawn Blanc (1970), in which a Czech dissident is recruited by British intelligence, was compared to Graham Greene and Franz Kafka. Several grown up thrillers, most of which have at least a whiff of espionage, were to follow. The Champagne Marxist (1977) digs into tensions at an American espionage facility in Britain, while Nightshade (1986) concerns the mayhem that ensues when an MI6 man investigates his father’s death and unearths a dark secret that threatens Anglo-American relations.
William H. Hallahan – In an 18 book career, Hallahan wrote a four part spy series based on his CIA character Charlie Brewer. The first, Catch Me Kill Me (1977) won the Edgar, one of the few spy titles to do so. The Trade (1981), Foxcatcher (1986) and Tripletrap (1989) followed.
Jon Winters – Wrote three spy novels (1979-85), the first two of which – The Drakov Memoranda (1979) and The Catenary Exchange (1983) – describe what seems to be one of the great rivalries in spy fiction between British spook Neville Conyers and Anton Drakov, the head of the KGB dirty tricks department. The third book, which inhabits the same fictional intelligence universe is a mole hunt: The Berlin Fugue (1985). The plot of the Drakov Memoranda sounds fun: “he best way to pass bad info to Person A is to convince his friend, Person B, it is important. B steals it and proudly shares it with A.” That is from Spy Guys and Gals, where Randall Masteller writes: “If you don't like this two-book series, you probably don't like spy fiction. They have it all in very well-written style: action, suspense, killing, and beautiful women.”
Patrick Alexander – Won the CWA John Creasy award for best first novel, Death of a Thin-Skinned Animal, but the one likely to appeal more to Spybrarians is Show me a Hero (1979), set in a Britain run by a pro-Soviet left-wing regime. It features a duel between an ex-SAS resistance hero and the chief of police, but the reviews suggest it has deep characters, a moving love affair and shattering betrayals. On my TBR list.
Patrick Cosgrave – This political adviser to Margaret Thatcher wrote a trilogy about spymaster Colonel Allen Cheyney: Cheyney’s Law (1977), The Three Colonels (1979) and Adventure of State (1984). “A lot of atmosphere but also a lot of action,” says Randall Masteller, who grades them A-
Victor Marchetti – Joined the CIA in 1955 and ended up working in the office of the Director of Central Intelligence. In 1969, now disgruntled, he resigned and wrote an expose of the agency called The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, which led to a protracted legal battle. Frustrated in the courts he penned a novel, The Rope Dancer (1971), in which an assistant to the CIA director defects to the Soviets. The non-fiction version eventually came out three years later.
John Ehrlichman – Another example of a historically fascinating espionage author. One of Richard Nixon’s closest advisers, Ehlichman was heavily implicated in the Watergate scandal and responded by writing The Company (1976) in which he claims the CIA knew about the president’s private intelligence gathering and could have stopped it. The book became the hit TV series Washington Behind Closed Doors. Ehrlichman followed up ten years later with The China Card, which suggests Nixon’s rapprochement with China was part of a plot involving a Chinese mole.
Ted Willis – The Labour peer and thriller writer, who helped create Dixon of Dock Green and is regarded as the most prolific TV writer of all time, tried spying with The Left-Handed Sleeper (1975), which is loosely based on the John Stonehouse affair.
Warren Adler – Best known for The Wars of the Roses, which became a successful film, Adler also wrote spy thrillers, including Trans-Siberian Express (1977), The Casanova Embrace (1978) and Target Churchill (2013), a Day of the Jackal-style plot targeting Churchill before his Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri.
George MacBeth – The Samurai (1975) series, featuring female operative Cadbury, is regarded as little short of action pornography (which may commend it to some) but he also penned a spy thriller called A Kind of Treason (1982) which Mike Ripley calls “outstanding”.
Robert Rostand – Pseudonym of Robert Hopkins, Rostand wrote a trilogy about freelance operative Miles Locken. The first, The Killer Elite (1973), where Locken tries to protect a man being hunted by three top assassins, became a Sam Peckinpah film starring James Caan. Viper’s Game (1974) and A Killing in Rome (1977) followed.
N. J. Crisp – Wrote at least six thrillers in the 1970s and 1980s. His first, The Gotland Deal (1976), was enjoyed by Randall Masteller (h/t Mike Hassel Shearer)
Joseph Rosenberger – Another pulp fiction legend, Rosenberger penned 71 books (1971-88) in his Death Merchant series about assassin Richard Camellion. He also authored one Nick Carter book and in the 1980s he created a second series called COBRA, which spawned another six books.
Edward D. Hoch – Between 1965 and 2008, Hoch wrote 65 short stories about codes and ciphers expert Jeffrey Rand, most of them published in Ellery Queen mystery magazine, winning an Edgar for his short form work. There are four collections of his work, starting with The Spy and the Thief (1971)
Richard Sapir & Warren Murphy – As of 2021 there were 121 books in The Destroyer pulp series (1971-). Most of the first 70 books about Remo Williams were written by one or both of these authors. They’re action packed but also satirical.
E. Howard Hunt – CIA man and Watergate burglar Hunt wrote a series of spy thrillers after he became publicly notorious, starting with The Berlin Ending (1973) and its sequel, The Kremlin Conspiracy (1985). The Hargrave Deception (1980) was even based on his involvement in Watergate.
James Dillon White – Best known for his Kelso naval novels, he also wrote three spy thrillers about spy Sebastian Kettle – The Leipzig Affair (1974), The Salzburg Affair (1977) and The Brandenburg Affair (1979), which cover popular terrain like extractions from East Germany and plots to kill a president. Randall Masteller rates them highly (A-)
Robert Wright Campbell – The Spy Who Sat and Waited (1975) concerns a sleeper agent in the Orkneys who helps the Germans sink HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow (h/t Mike Hassel Shearer)
Wilson McCarthy – The Fourth Man (1972) and The Detail (1973) are thrillers about the US secret service, responsible for both defending the president and the dollar, made more credible because McCarthy had extensive experience working for both JFK and LBJ.
Will Perry – Won an Edgar for Death of an Informer and has one spy book to his name, The Kremlin Watcher (1978). In the wake of a workers’ uprising in Poland the Americans have to work out of the Russians will send in the tanks. The CIA station chief in Warsaw with agents on the ground and a leading Kremlinologist are at odds. This is hailed as a rare book that “deals intelligently with the function of the analyst in processing intelligence”.
Elliott Cannon – Arthur Elliot-Cannon wrote crime novels as Nicholas Forde and spy novels as Elliott Cannon, employing three operatives in overlapping stories who work for a British spy chief called Tricky Dicky (this was the time of Nixon). Breakaway (1973), A Sense of Danger (1973), The Dumbo Dossier (1975), The Big Chip (1976), The Edge of Hate (1979) and The V2 Virus (1980)
Donald Seaman – Wrote a three book spy series (1975-77) which begins with The Defector (1975), which covers a Russian defector in Britain getting a new identity who, when a body turns up, are hunted by the KGB and the courts. The lead character, Sydnenham, is short and fat, not your usual hero. Randall gives them a B+
David Craig – James Tucker wrote 50 well regarded crime books as Bill James but began his writing career as Craig, knocking out spy thrillers. The Alias Man (1969) began a trilogy on Roy Rickman, who reports to a parliamentary intelligence committee. There are another two about MI5 officers Bellecroix and Roath: Young Men May Die (1970), A Walk at Night (1971)
Owen Sela – Best known for a WW2 thriller An Exchange of Eagles (1977), he also wrote a trilogy of spy thrillers with the same lead character Nicholas Maasten. The second, The Kiriov Tapes (1973) is highly regarded.
Chapman Pincher – One of the best known journalists writing non-fiction about espionage, Pincher also wrote several spy thrillers, including The Penthouse Conspirators (1970) and The Skeleton at the Villa Wolkonsky (1975)
John Rossiter – A former police detective wrote four thrillers about secret agent Roger Tallis (1970-75), the best known of which is A Rope for General Dietz (1972) about the hunt for a Nazi war criminal hiding in Spain.
W. T. Tyler – Another American who is sometimes compared to Le Carre, his real name was Samuel Hamrick and he took up writing after 20 years in the State department. His first book, The Man Who Lost the War (1980) explores similar mole hunt territory and a confrontation between a veteran of the CIA and one from the KGB. The Ants of God looks at Vietnam and Rogue’s March focuses on a coup d’etat in Africa.
William Hood – A 30 year veteran of the CIA, his Spy Wednesday (1986), a story about defectors, one real and one fake, is regarded as highly authentic and containing some great tradecraft. He also wrote Mole, a highly-regarded non-fiction account of his role in handling Pyotr Popov, a Soviet spook who spied for the CIA for seven years.
A.J. Quinnell – Accomplished thriller writer, best known for Man on Fire and In the Name of the Father. But for our purposes The Mahdi (1983) has one of the great premises in spy fiction: MI6, the CIA and the KGB work to create a modern day miracle to convince three millions Arabs at Mecca they're witnessing the arrival on earth of the Mahdi, the reincarnation of Muhammad. Let’s assume this has consequences… (h/t Raj Basu)
Eric Clark – Former journalist who gets some interesting reviews. Black Gambit (1978), a plot to swap a Russian dissident for an American murderer was compared by Jack Higgins to Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Chinese Burn (1984) a China chase thriller has been described as a “modern day Thirty-Nine Steps”. The Sleeper (1980) and Send in the Lions (1982) also look interesting.
Richard Hoyt – CIA man James Burlane is the central figure in a nine part series (1982-96). In the first one, Trotsky’s Run, Kim Philby contacts the CIA with information about a presidential candidate. Randall Masteller praises Hoyt’s “dynamite style and cadence” in these “terrific” books. He grades them A-
Bob Cook – His four book series – Disorderly Elements (1985), Questions of Identity (1987), Faceless Mortals (1988) and Paper Chase (1989) – on world weary MI6 man Michael Wyman is hailed for combining “first class writing” with satirical humour about the intelligence services that does not distract from the plots. The added bonus that some of them were published as those beautiful yellow Gollanz thrillers.
Kevin Doherty – His debut, A Long Day’s Dying aka Patriots (1988) is a highly praised thriller based on Nicholai Serov, the head of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate and leading black marketeer, who faces an anti-corruption drive under Gorbachev’s Glasnost and fights to protect himself with information that can change the world.
Nicholas Proffitt – A journalist in Vietnam, his debut Gardens of Stone (1983) is regarded as one of the best novels about the conflict. He followed it with a morally nuanced spy novel, The Embassy House (1986) which deals with the CIA’s Phoenix programme to purge the Vietcong from villages. It follows different perspectives and the characters sound properly nuanced and rounded.
Pierre Salinger & Leonard Gross – JFK’s former press secretary co-wrote The Dossier (1984), in which an Israeli agent obtains information that a French presidential candidate was a Gestapo informer during the Second World War.
James Follett – No relation of Ken, much of his output was wartime and tech thrillers, but his most highly regarded book, Mirage (1989), tells the story of Mossad’s intelligence coup to steal the plans for the Mirage jet after De Gaulle banned their sale to Israel.
Frederick Nolan – His Second World War assassination thriller, The Oshawa Project (1974) became the film Brass Target. In the 1990s he wrote four thrillers about Charles Garrett, an anti-terrorism expert with Special Branch, under the pseudonym Donald Severn. Between that he wrote well regarded Cold War thrillers like Red Center (1987)
David Aaron – Served on the US National Security Council under both Republican and Democrat presidents and then penned spy yarns: State Scarlet (1987), a nuclear blackmail story; Agent of Influence (1989); and Crossing By Night (1993)
Noel Hynd & Christopher Creighton – The Khrushchev Objective (1987) is another of those interesting footnotes in spy history. The plot concerns the Soviet leader’s state visit to the UK and the disappearance of frogman Buster Crabbe in Portsmouth harbour after he examined the Russian ships. Lord Mountbatten told Creighton what really happened on the grounds that he would write it as fiction.
Margaret Duffy – Beginning in 1987, Duffy wrote a series of crime/spy books featuring Ingrid Langley, a romantic novelist, and her ex-husband Maj Patrick Gillard, who works for intelligence outfit D12 and wants her as cover for his activities.
Ian Rankin – I didn’t know the great Scottish crime writer had penned an espionage novel. Watchman (1988) features a surveillance expert embroiled in a conspiracy surrounding an IRA bombing campaign.
Amos Aricha – Former chief superintendent of the Israeli police, his most popular novel is The Phoenix (1980), another lone gunman thriller about a plot to assassinate Moshe Dayan.
Norman Mailer – One of the great men of American letters in the 20th century, Mailer’s masterpiece, some believe, is his 1,300 page epic on the CIA, Harlot’s Ghost (1991)
Raymond Benson – His nine Bond continuation novels (1997-2002) are seen as a return to a grittier Bond after the late Gardner books.
Francis Bennett – Author of a well reviewed trilogy of literary Cold War spy novels: Making Enemies (1998), Secret Kingdom and Doctor Berlin. They seem to have been reissued by Faber Finds, as the Joseph Hone books have been, which is a good sign.
Kate Westbrook – The pseudonym of Samantha Weinberg, her three Moneypenny novels (2005-8) are regarded by many as the best of the Bond continuation books.
Edmund P. Murray – A Peregrine Spy (2004) is supposed to be one of the best books on espionage with Iran.
Stella Rimington – The former head of MI5 has written 10 books (2004-18) in her Liz Carlyle series, which have plenty of fans here. At Risk, the first, seems the most widely acclaimed.
Jon Stock – His trilogy – Dead Spy Running (2009), Games Traitors Play (2011) and Dirty Little Secret (2013) – starts with a great hook reminiscent of Speed: the hero Daniel Marchant sees a suicide bomber running in the London Marathon. The bomb will detonate if they run below 8mph. Marchant's father was the former head of MI6 but was in disgrace and the series follows the twists and turns of the son trying to rehabilitate his father while facing accusations of Treachery himself. Matthew Bradford is a fan and Randall Masteller (Spy Guys and Gals) hands out an A- grade. I've just bought all three of them.
Barry Eisler – Spybrarians commend the first two John Rain books – Rain Fall (2002) and Hard Rain (2003) for the “Bladerunner-style” “Tokyo-noir” world in which the assassin operates. Most then think this 10 book series, the most recent of which was in 2019, drops off a cliff into a blunt special forces-style shoot-em-up series. (h/t Jason King)
Alex Dryden – Wrote a four book series based around former KGB Colonel Anna Resnikov, beginning with Red to Black (2008). Steven Ritterman is a fan.
Joe Weisberg – An ordinary spy (2007) got some good reviews, perhaps because Weisberg is a former CIA case officer.
Viet Trangh Nguyen – Another Pulitzer winner, The Sympathizer (2016), is regarded by some as the best ever spy thriller set during the Vietnam War. It also won the Edgar for best first novel.
Chris Pavone – Highly regarded author of The Expats (2012), which won the Edgar for best first novel. That was followed by The Accident, The Travelers and The Paris Diversion.
Charlotte Philby – Kim’s granddaughter is the leading light in the new wave of women writers who have combined espionage with the psychological thriller. I’m excited about her new book Edith and Kim (2022), about Edith Tudor Hart, the woman who introduced the most notorious defector to his handler.
Lauren Wilkinson – The American Spy (2019) is different, in that it is set in Africa and features an African-American female lead, and has had rave reviews.
Kate Atkinson – Transcription (2018), in which a young woman is recruited into MI5 during the war and whose past returns to haunt her afterwards, is hailed as one of the most important crossover books in recent years between a literary novelist and the themes of espionage.
Lara Prescott – The Secrets We Kept (2010) is another hugely popular crossover, this time about the underground mission by two secretaries to smuggle Dr Zhivago out of the Soviet Union. It’s based on a true story. Prescott was named Lara after the heroine of Pasternak’s epic.
Oliver Harris – A Shadow Intelligence (2019) seems well regarded but his second outing in out genre, Ascension (2021), looks like a breakthrough book.
Luke Jennings – Helped Stella Rimington with her well regarded first book, At Risk, but better known as the author of the Codename Villanelle stories (2018-20), which the TV series Killing Eve was based on.
Alex Gerlis – Has written two pretty successful four part spy series, the first beginning with The Best of Our Spies (2012), the second with Prince of Spies (2020) and it appears he began a third series last November with Agent in Berlin. For someone so prolific, I’m not sure why Spybrarians don’t seem to be reading them.
Robert Goddard – Author of nearly 30 literate thrillers, many of which involve a modern day investigation uncovering dark secrets about past events (his debut Past Caring, 1986, is excellent). Late in his career (2013-15) he wrote a trilogy about spy James ‘Max’ Maxted, set in 1919 around the time of the Versailles conference: The Ways of the World, The Corners of the Globe, The Ends of the Earth.
Frank Gardner – The BBC’s security editor has penned several modern intelligence actioneers (2016-22). He knows of what he writes.
Peter Hanington – His trilogy of politcal/spy novels featuring BBC journalist William Carver – A Dying Breed, A Single Source and A Cursed Breed get strong reviews.
Tim Glister – Another promising new talent. His first spy thriller featuring Richard Knox of MI5 and a CIA sidekick, Red Corona (2020) is set in 1961 during the space race. His second, The Loyal Traitor (2022) in the swinging London of 1966. It was recently a Times thriller of the month.
Bernard Besson – a former chief of staff of the French intelligence services who was involved in dismantling Soviet spy rings in France and Western Europe when the USSR.Two of his spy novels – The Greenland Breach (2011) and The Rare Earth Exchange (2016) seem to have been translated into English featuring his trio of freelance intelligence operatives: John Spencer Larivière, his karate-trained partner Victoire, and their computer-genius sidekick Luc.
Jack Beaumont – The Frenchman (2021) is high on my TBR list. It features a DGSE spy who is chasing terrorists and then finds them chasing his family. He’s a former French spook so the reviews stress the realism.
Rory Clements – Having written a series about a detective in Elizabethan times, Clements turned his attention to more modern times in 2016 and is now five books deep in a series set around academic Tom Wilde who gets sucked into espionage during the Nazi period.
S.J. Parris – Pen name of Stephanie Merritt, she has written a six part series about Elizabethan spy Giordano Bruno, who is recruited to be part of spymaster Francis Walsinghan’s intelligence network. He gets sent undercover to expose treason, heresy and conspiracy. The first book is Heresy, which is currently on Kindle Unlimited.
Karen Cleveland – Another ex-CIA stagger, Need to Know () was highly praised. It has a great hook: “You get to work. Make a coffee. Turn on your computer. Your task: break into a Russian criminal's laptop and find proof that he's concealing five deep-cover agents – seemingly normal people living in plain sight. You’re in. Five faces stare back at you. One of them is your husband.
Mara Timon – Part of the new wave of women spy writers, City of Spies (2020), which features an SOE agent rooting out a traitor in wartime Lisbon; and Resistance (2021), where her agent Elizabeth de Mornay goes behind the German lines before D-Day look great.
Kate Quinn – In The Alice Network (2017), a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together to search for the truth. The Rose Code (2021) tells the story of three young women recruited to Bletchley Park who then join forces before the Royal Wedding in 1947 to crack a new code and prevent disaster.
Jeffrey Deaver – I really ought to read his Bond continuation novel, Carte Blanche (2011). It’s the longest in the series and it divides opinion sharply.
Ibn-e Safi – The recent release of The House of Fear (2011) by this Indian writer who has penned more than 100 spy thrillers, is exciting. This is the first book featuring his character Detective Imran, who is secretly a spy chief.
THE KALASHNIKOV KIDS (h/t Jason King)
Lee Child – Yes, I do need to try Jack Reacher, who is Randall Masteller’s favourite ever fictional operative. A Bazillion readers can’t all be wrong
Mark Greaney – The Gray Man series has a lot of fans, though the first one seems not to be the best. Where to start?
Brad Thor – Mentioned in Shane’s original Spybrary podcast intro, he’s barely been heard of since in these parts, but if you like this sort of thing, devotees say you’ll like this sort of thing.
David Hagberg – (h/t Raj Basu) The American Novelist Who Created ‘Kirk McGarvey' series of actioneers is famous because his book Joshua’s Hammer predicted Osama bin Laden would try to kill Americans on home soil and came out in 2000, a year before 9/11. His first book, though, Without Honor, is a more traditional more talk, less action spy yarn, which may commend it here. The moaning about how slow it is on Good Reads from the fans of action confirms it might be worth a go.
A plea – Fans of this sort of thing might advise who else I should include here who writes this sort of thing to help others who like this sort of thing. Thanks
SPYBRARIANS TO SUPPORT
Antony Johnston – Highly versatile author of the Bridgette Sharp techno spy thrillers, the best known of which is The Exphoria Code, he has also created a Cold War graphic novel spy series. The Coldest City and The Coldest Winter, became the Tharlize Theron film Atomic Blonde.
CG Faulkner – Author of the Jeff Fortner spy trilogy, the first of which, Edge of Reality, is based on the intriguing premise that the Soviets tried to disrupt the launch of Apollo 11 to sabotage the moon landings.
David Holman – Creator of the Alex Swann spy thrillers which pair the ex-MI5 man with Arthur Gable, a former Scotland Yard detective. There are six so far. Fellow Spybrarians seem impressed.
Merle Nygate – The Righteous Spy (2018) has an intriguing premise: that Mossad tries to fake a terrorist plot in Britain to get intelligence they want from the UK and US.
August Thomas – Liar’s Candle (2018) focuses on a young intern at the embassy in Turkey who survives a terrorist attack only to discover that the man she has fallen for has disappeared and is accused of being a traitor.
James Stejskal – James kindly sent me the first two thrillers in the Snake Eater Chronicles, which focus on a special forces unit attached to the CIA. A Question of Time focuses on a plot to rescue a CIA agent in Berlin. That was followed by Appointment in Tehran. He says his third is the best of the lot. One to watch.
Rossa McPhillips – HIs debut novel The Contact (2019) sees MI6 officer Frank Oatley open secret talks with the IRA only to fall for his IRA contact Naomi McGinty
Stephen England – Author of 11 books in the Shadow Warriors series, featuring CIA paramilitaries, described by one reviewer as “a cross between Clancy and 24”.
Andy Onyx – Created the Barbell trilogy of spy thrillers (The Glimmer Girl, Shamstone, Like Dolphins). “If you like dashing characters, reimaginings of historical events, and a touch of magical realism, then you’ll love Andy Onyx’s” work.
C.P. Bennison – Parallel Shadows tells the story of two women who became spies for opposite sides in the Second World War and beyond
So now we have a much fuller list of the best spy writers.
My ranked list: 125
My wild cards: 8
Authors to read: 163
That’s a grand total: 296
I am not tempted to call it definitive since I’ve discovered a whole host of writers even as part of this process and I know how many I’ve left out from these reference books. However, one of the great joys of spy fiction is that it’s a far more manageable genre than detective fiction. In a lifetime of reading, we really can try most of the stuff that is reasonably well regarded. But discovering new writers and obscure classics is one of the pleasures.
Finally, thanks to Spybrary for bringing us all together and giving me access to such a fount of collective knowledge. All hail our founder Shane Whaley. I hope this project gives everyone a valuable resource to inform their TBR piles.
Now, with no little trepidation, I will soon start on the Top 10, but that will be a separate post…
Tim would love to hear your thoughts on his top spy author list, either leave a comment here or better still why not join us on the Spybrary Facebook group and read observations on Tim's list written by your fellow spy fans.
[…] now augmented the main list of 125 best spy writers I have enjoyed with what follows: more than 170 new spy writers who should be […]