Enough James Bond. Give These Spy Books a Movie.
We love watching James Bond on the big screen. This classic spy archetype has been a beloved constant since most of our childhoods, and we practically grew up with him. But there are plenty of other fictional spies who deserve a spot on the big screen too. This doesn’t mean the spotlight needs to be shifted from the James Bond franchise, but rather, we need to make space for other books as well that will make for great spy thriller movies.
Spy fiction as a genre originated in the 19th century and has remained a favorite ever since. This genre sheds light on politics and history through a new lens. It also brings into focus the forgotten sides of history and the incidents that history textbooks often fail to accommodate. It is rife with intriguing central characters who topple governments, speak multiple languages, and engage in other interesting activities for what they believe is the greater good. As a child, I had dreams of becoming a spy someday. Playing hide-and-seek with death seemed like a good idea in my child’s imagination.
What I didn’t realize is that I neither have the wits nor the guts to become a spy. Thus, fiction to the rescue! Since then, I have been devouring spy fiction to live vicariously through my fictional counterparts who are way smarter and braver than me. If like me spy fiction is your jam and you wish to go beyond the James Bond world, then this list is for you. These books full of nuanced character arcs and gripping plot lines will keep you up late. While spy fiction is yet to feature a diverse cast of characters, it is slowly getting there. Hopefully, in the next few years, we will get to experience more inclusivity when spy fiction is concerned.
East Of Hounslow by Khurrum Rahman
In this story, the spy is reluctant to become one but he is blackmailed by MI5. Jay sells pot and loves his BMW. But then he gets into trouble and is forced into becoming a spy. Since he is a young Pakistani man, his employers think he can be sent to an extremist group to report back information. He doesn’t have a choice, so he embraces whatever is coming his way, and thus begins his coming-of-age story. Bildungsroman in the form of a spy thriller is much needed on the big screen, and this book will be the perfect fit.
Three Hours In Paris by Cara Black
Kate has been sent to Paris by the British intelligence to assassinate the Führer. Still grieving the deaths of her husband and daughter, she is fiercely determined to complete the task at hand. But then the plan unravels and Kate finds herself running for her life. Is she to blame for the plan not working out or has the whole operation been a set-up?
The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming
Edward Crane died in 1992, and his obituary described him as a “resourceful career diplomat.” But that definition is reductive, as Crane was so much more than that. The circumstances surrounding his death seem shady too. Fifteen years later, when Sam Gaddis needs money, his journalist friend asks him to help her research a sixth member of the Trinity spy ring. But within hours, she is also found dead. Now Gaddis takes over the investigation only to discover something shocking. The unexpected twists and turns of this book will make for a great thriller movie!
A Single Spy by William Christie
Aleksi is an orphan and a thief trying to make the best of his circumstances. At the age of 16, he is caught by the NKVD and is given the choice of either becoming a spy or being banished to the basement of Lubyanka. He is asked to pose as the nephew of a high-ranking Nazi official. How will he do his job while also escaping the watchful eyes of the Gestapo?
The Coldest Warrior by Paul Vidich
At the end of the Korean war, Dr. Charles Wilson dies, and the details of his death remain in the shadows for 22 years. In 1975, it is revealed that LSD is linked to his death, and so the investigation starts again. Agent Jack Gabriel is entrusted with the job of finding out what really happened to Wilson. Key witnesses start dying, and the closer he gets to the truth, the riskier it gets for him. Dark and compelling, I can only imagine how brilliant this book’s film adaptation will be!
A Perfect Spy by John le Carré
Magnus Pyn disappears, shocking everyone. Is his successful career as a British intelligence officer the main reason behind this? John le Carré juxtaposes two narratives: one about the making of the spy and the other one about his alleged death. Who is this man and how has he been trained? What state secrets is he trying to guard and how will his disappearance impact the state? Carré’s smooth juggling of two different plot lines is the foundation every thriller movie director needs!
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
A general of the South Vietnamese army and his colleagues start a new life in Los Angeles. What he doesn’t know is his trusted captain is keeping an eye on their activities and reporting to someone in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is about this captain, who has been brought up by a poor Vietnamese mother. At once a love story as well as a spy thriller, this book makes some sharp comments on the political landscape and needs to be adapted into a movie so as to reach a wider audience.
Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht
Vera Kelly is struggling to make ends meet. This is when her job at a radio station and sharp tongue bring her to the notice of the CIA. Before she can make much sense of what she is getting into, she is tasked with infiltrating a group of student activists. As she gets more entangled in the world of the young radicals, she sees the local government falling apart. A betrayal leaves her stranded, following which she is forced to take extreme measures to save herself.
Intelligence by Susan Hasler
Maddie and her colleagues are working as terrorism experts in an intelligence agency. They are sure about another attack about to happen, but very few people are willing to listen to them. Maddie’s team of five analysts who are responsible for getting as much information about the impending attack as they can are soldiering through obstacles, both bureaucratic and personal. Their efforts to track down the attack also fail at the last minute. The administration attributes the blame to Iran even though there is no evidence whatsoever. This is when Maddie and her team start an investigation to dig out the truth.
Yesterday’s Spy by Tom Bradby
Harry Towers has recently retired from his position as a British intelligence officer and now spends nights drinking his sorrows away. To top it off, his estranged son has gone missing in Tehran after writing an article where he calls out government officials. No one seems to be too bothered about finding out where his missing son has gone except for his Iranian girlfriend. Harry teams up with her and utilizes his former training as a spy to figure out what actually went down.
Night Heron by Adam Brookes
A lone man named Peanut gets away from a labor camp one night. He flees across the winter desert of northwest China. He used to be a spy for the British two decades back. Now, to save himself, Peanut has to disappear. Desperate for help, he reaches out to journalist Philip Mangan, offering to let him in on military secrets. What Philip and Peanut don’t know yet is that the secrets will prove much more valuable and dangerous than they could have ever anticipated.
Our Woman In Moscow by Beatriz Williams
In 1948, Iris Digby disappears from her home along with her American diplomat husband and their two kids. There is much hue and cry about what happened. Have they been removed from the picture by the Soviet intelligence service? Four years later, Ruth receives a letter from her twin sister, Iris. In a surprising turn of events, Ruth finds herself posing as the wife of a counterintelligence agent. She is on a dangerous mission to extract her sister and her family from behind the Iron Curtain.
Decoded by Mai Jia, translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne
In Jia’s debut novel, he discusses the mysterious world of Unit 701, a Chinese intelligence agency whose mission is counterespionage and code-breaking. Rong Jinzhen, an autistic mathematics genius, is forced to abandon his academic pursuits when recruited by Unite 701. He discovers that his former teacher and best friend is now working for China’s enemy. But this is only the first of many betrayals to come Rong’s way. A combination of intricate character study and the mystery of a spy thriller, this book focuses on the theme of cryptography to uncover the key to the human heart.
An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole
Elle, formerly enslaved, returns to a life of indignity and slavery just so she can spy for the Union Army. Malcolm, a detective for Pinkerton’s Secret Service, is risking his life to get into a rebel enclave. Two undercover agents with a common goal join hands to uncover a plot that might help the war turn in the Confederacy’s favor. But what do they do about the undeniable attraction between them? The romance factor only amplifies this book’s potential to be turned into a great film!
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
In 1940, Juliet is 18 and becomes a part of the world of espionage. She is asked to monitor the operations of British Fascist sympathizers. Juliet understands that the work is extremely scary. After the war ends, she feels her past is left in the past. But a decade later, she is once again made to confront figures from bygone days. A different war is fought, and the battleground has changed, but Juliet’s safety is still at stake. This book is engrossing and full of suspense from the very first paragraph, and if it is ever made into a movie, it will enthrall the viewers from the beginning.
Red Warning by Matthew Quirk
CIA officer Sam Hudson has been trying to hunt down Konstantin for years now. Konstantin is a Russian deep cover operative accountable for assassinations in the West. Sam thinks this time he has a solid lead but unfortunately, he is wrong. Sam’s partner gets murdered and he himself barely makes it out alive. Now his bosses ask him to go on leave and get over his obsession with Konstantin. But there is no respite as he soon realizes Konstantin has followed him and is in the USA. This intensifies Sam’s determination to catch the culprit and makes him team up with Emily Pierce.
His Quiet Agent by Ada Maria Soto
Arthur has a job that seems interesting — but only on paper. Despite working for a secret government security agency, all he does is write reports that no one reads. After another “lateral promotion,” Arthur is advised to make friends so that someday he can move up the social ladder. When all his attempts fail, he decides to befriend Agent Martin Grove, another misanthrope like him. They start off with sociology books, eventually becoming closer than they planned. Elements of romance and spy fiction mixed together, this book will make a perfect blockbuster.
A Spy In The Struggle by Aya De León
Since childhood, Yolanda Vance has worked ultra hard to escape poverty. When her New York law firm is raided by the FBI, in an attempt to save her career, Yolanda turns in her bosses. Soon she starts working for the bureau and is sent undercover on an assignment to Red, Black, And Green, an African American activist group. They claim that their neighborhood is being exploited, but Yolanda’s thoughts are centered around saving herself and her job. Then a suspicious death makes her come back to her senses. She is forced to decide between betraying the cause of her people and inciting the wrath of the country’s most powerful authority. Yolanda’s story is a page-turner and its movie adaptation will reel in the audience right from the start.
The Starlet And The Spy by Ji-Min Lee, translated by Chi-Young Kim
When Marilyn Monroe visits Korea in 1954, Alice is asked to be her translator. Though intrigued, Alice doesn’t know if she will be to handle this job, because how can she have anything in common with a star like Monroe? But during her four-day long tour, Alice realizes Marilyn is very approachable. This is also the time when she comes to know about her ex-lover’s job as a spy. Her world crumbles, but at least she finds unexpected companionship in a movie star. Will she be able to forge connections that can change and save lives?
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
The year is 1986, and Marie Mitchell is working as an intelligence officer with the FBI. She is excellent at her job, but that also means she has to navigate the repercussions of being a Black woman in an old boys’ club. Her career has hit a standstill, as no one seems to appreciate her talents. This is when she gets an opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara. His Communist ideology has landed him in trouble. She suspects that she is assigned this job not because of her capabilities, but because of the way she looks. Despite admiring Sankara’s work, she says yes to the task at hand. Now the question is, in the end, will she choose her career over love and honor?
The Intelligencer by Leslie Silbert
This book focuses on double narratives. The first one is set in London and features the murder of Christopher Marlowe, playwright, and spy in Queen Elizabeth I’s secret service. The other narrative revolves around present-day New York City. A Renaissance scholar turned private eye, Kate Morgan, is investigating a shocking heist and murder mystery. Somehow a mysterious manuscript recently unearthed in central London becomes a part of the same murder mystery. How is such an ancient manuscript still instigating someone to commit murder? From the underworld of the 16th century to the chambers of a U.S. intelligence unit, this book is full of surprises!
Can’t get enough of this genre? For more recommendations, please check out five historical spy thrillers based on real events!