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Mystery/Thriller

10 of the Best Spy Novels to Keep You Turning the Pages

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Katie Moench

Contributor

Katie Moench is a librarian, runner, and lover of baked goods. A school librarian in the Upper Midwest, Katie lives with her husband and dog and spends her free time drinking coffee, trying new recipes, and adding to her TBR.

The best spy novels have an enduring power to them. The covert world of espionage continues to draw in readers year after year, perhaps because it is a closely guarded world that few will ever access. The drama of spying — interactions with a cast of secretive characters, high-stakes disguises, and clandestine dead-drops — all make for good reading and propel the plot of spy novels forward. Additionally, many readers love the mix of action, intrigue, and politics found in these books. Whether they’re set at CIA headquarters or completely off the map, these books pull the reader right into the action and keep them turning the pages.

Though tales of secrecy, spying, and deception are not just a modern genre, they became especially popular in the United States during the Cold War, allowing everyday citizens to be swept into the tense relationships between nations. During this time, several major authors like John le Carré and Tom Clancy emerged as major names in the spy novel genre who would go on to have long-running careers writing books about the dangers of carrying out spycraft. Spy novels were also penned by authors like Gramham Greene and Stella Rimington, who brought their knowledge of their previous careers with British intelligence services to their work.

In the best spy novels below, you’ll find classics of the spycraft genre as well as new releases from authors whose knowledge of the spy game may surprise you. No matter what you choose, you’ll be drawn into the web of secrets and deceptions contained in these spy novel stories.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold book cover

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré 

Le Carré’s espionage novels have come to be known as hallmarks of the genre, setting the pace for spy stories set during the Cold War. Drawing on his experiences in MI5 and MI6, le Carré launched his career with this novel that begins in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. Berlin Station chief Alec Leamas has just watched an East German soldier shoot the last of his agents, and Leamas is facing either retirement or a desk job. To avoid such a fate, he accepts an undercover assignment as a bitter ex-agent in order to serve as bait to trap Mundt, the deputy director of the East German Intelligence Service. As the game progresses, Leamas finds himself being played, even as he attempts to ensnare his prey.

cover of Red Widow

Red Widow by Alma Katsu

Did you know that Alma Katsu, known for her horror novels including The Fervor and The Deep, had a multi-decade career with the NSA and CIA? Because I certainly did not, before I devoured both Red Widow and its sequel last summer. Set at CIA headquarters, Red Widow introduces Lyndsey Duncan, a semi-disgraced agent who has been assigned to track down a mole in the Russian Division. Also at headquarters is Theresa Warner, the widow of a former director who was killed under mysterious circumstances. The story becomes more complicated and more fast-paced as Lyndsey and Theresa are drawn together in a web of lies and double-crossers. 

cover of American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

Based on true events involving Thomas Sankara, known as “Africa’s Che Guevara”, this novel is set during the heart of the Cold War when Marie Mitchell is an anomaly as a Black, female intelligence in the FBI. Mitchell has been given the chance to advance her career by joining a clandestine and shadowy division trying to undermine Sankara and his Communist ideology. Over the course of the novel, Mitchell seduces Sankara, makes herself part of his world, and ultimately brings about his downfall in this fast-paced ride of a story that combines high-stakes espionage with complicated secrets from its characters’ pasts. 

Cover of A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin in Six Books to Help You Beware the Ides of March | BookRiot.com

A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin

A multigenerational novel that interrogates the meanings of loyalty and patriotism, Ha Jin’s work opens with Lilian Shang, a Maryland history professor, discovering the diary of her father, Gary, after his death. Gary was the most high-profile Chinese spy ever to be caught in the United States, and Lilian knew that he had spent his life torn between the country of his birth and the one where he came to live. What Lilian did not know of was a potential hidden family in China that Gary had left behind. This discovery leads her to travel to China in order to unearth her father’s past and develop a full portrait of Gary and his espionage activities.

Cover of Rules of Engagement by Stacey Abrams

Rules of Engagement by Stacey Abrams

If you like your suspense with a side of romance, pick up this thriller from Abrams and Montgomery. Dr. Raleigh Foster is an undercover intelligence officer tasked with infiltrating the terrorist group Scimitar, which has stolen lethal, environmental technology. Assigned to partner with her is the distractingly handsome Adam Grayson, whose best friend was killed by Scimitar, and who agrees to pose with Dr. Foster as a couple, despite the fact that he believes she might be responsible for his friend’s death. As Dr. Foster and Grayson get deeper into Scimitar’s dark world, both the risks of getting caught and their attraction to one another begin to rise to dangerous levels.

cover of Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett 

In Britain, a Nazi agent known as “The Needle” is one of the most ruthless intelligence agents working for Germany. While there, he uncovers the Allied plans for D-Day, but also exposes his cover in the process. With MI5 on his tail, the Needle cuts a violent path toward the coast, where a U-boat is waiting for him. But, he didn’t count on a storm stranding him on a remote island, or on the courage of the woman who lives there to keep him from carrying out his escape plan.

The Human Factor by Graham Greene book cover

The Human Factor by Graham Greene 

Greene’s service in MI6 during World War II helped inspire this work about Maurice Castle, an operative in the British secret service during the Cold War. Castle is deeply devoted to his wife, who escaped apartheid South Africa with the help of a communist, and because of this, he begins to pass secrets to the Soviets in hopes of helping his in-laws who still live there. As he nears retirement, old leaks in MI6’s Africa division come to light and those around Castle come under increasing suspicion. Castle will have to wrestle with what level of blame he is willing to let others take for his actions — and what level of sacrifice he is willing to bear — in this novel that explores how spies were often pawns in much larger games.

Damascus station book cover

Damascus Station by David McCloskey

Published in 2022, Damascus Station quickly became a modern standout of espionage thrillers. CIA case officer Sam Joseph is sent to Paris to recruit Syrian Palace official Mariam Haddad in order to infiltrate Damascus and find a missing spy. But Joseph and Haddad fall into a relationship, adding an additional level of danger to their mission. Once in Syria, the pair encounters a trail of deadly assassinations and finds themselves under the watch of notorious spy catcher Ali Hassan and his brother Rustum, head of the feared Republican Guard, creating a dangerous cat-and-mouse game from which there is seemingly no escape.

masquerade by gayle lynds book cover

Masquerade (Liz Sansborough #1) by Gayle Lynds

With Masquerade, Gayle Lynds was one of the first female authors to become a major player in the spy novel game. The first in the Liz Sansborough series, the novel opens with CIA Agent Sansborough having no memory of who she is or how she came to work for the CIA. Even more troublingly, one of the world’s best assassins is after her, and the only ally she seems to have is a stranger who claims they are lovers. As Sansborough evades the assassin, she begins to remember parts of her past and digs through the lies she’s been told.

At risk by stella rimington book cover

At Risk (Liz Carlyle #1) by Stella Rimington

British counter-terrorism agent Liz Carlyle is up against a challenging task: finding and stopping a terrorist plotting an attack on British soil before it’s too late. Further complicating matters is that the terrorist is an“invisible,” aka traveling on a British passport, and therefore that much harder to track down. Before she began writing the spy novel series, Stella Rimington served as the Director General of MI5.

If you’re looking for even more spy novels, we have plenty of suggestions, from stories based on true events to fantasies involving spies and spy romances. You can also head to our spy novels archive for even more suggestions!