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Historical Fiction

Spies in Historical Fiction from 1860 to 1975

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Rachel Brittain

Contributing Editor

Rachel is a writer from Arkansas, most at home surrounded by forests and animals much like a Disney Princess. She spends most of her time writing stories and playing around in imaginary worlds. You can follow her writing at rachelbrittain.com. Twitter and Instagram: @rachelsbrittain

Move aside, James Bond. These historical spy novels may not have the glitz, glam, and scantily clad women of a classic Bond film, but that’s because they’re drawing on history—and often real people and events—to show what a life of espionage is really like. Across continents and conflicts, spies work behind enemy lines or on the homefront to infiltrate, decipher, and generally deter enemy plans in any way possible. It’s dangerous work, pretending to be someone you’re not, especially in hostile territory. But these spies make it look easy. Well, maybe not always easy. After all, putting your life—and identity—on the line in every sense of the word is always going to come with some risks and challenges.

These nine historical spy novels follow spies, saboteurs, and code-breakers from conflicts spanning from the American Civil War in the 19th century to the Vietnam War in the late 1900s. Some are seasoned operatives while others are new recruits only just learning the ins and outs of spycraft. Regardless, they’re all going to take you on a wild ride through the world of espionage. So grab your spyglasses and your trick pens as we discuss these historical fiction spy novels.

The American Civil War

The American Daughters book cover

The American Daughters by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

A secret spy society working to undermine the Confederacy finds a new recruit when Ady stumbles into the Mockingbird Inn. Ady, raised by her mother on stories of their family’s origins and fierce spirit, is adrift now that they have been separated. Her cleverness and passion make her a perfect addition to The Daughters, a group of women fighting for a future in which they can be free—a future only possible if the Confederacy is defeated. For the first time, Ady is beginning to believe that the future might be possible, too.

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole Book Cover

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole

Alyssa Cole’s novel about a woman working as a spy for the Union Army and a Pinkerton detective is equal parts spy novel and historical romance. When the two undercover agents discover a plot that could give the Confederacy a wartime advantage, they have to set their feelings for one another aside. Completing the mission and preserving the Union is what matters most—even if they risk losing each other in the process.

the widow spy book cover

The Widow Spy by Megan Campisi

Based on the life of the first female Pinkerton detective, The Widow Spy tells the story of Kate Warner. The year is 1861, and Kate’s next assignment could bring an end to America’s bloody civil war. All she has to do is win the confidence of a socialite turned Confederate spy. But Rose is all too aware of Kate’s working class background and abolitionist views, making an easy friendship unlikely. To make matters even more challenging, Kate is hiding secrets of her own, secrets that Rose would be all to happy to exploit.

WWI

The Alice Network book cover

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

All it takes is one name for Eve Gardiner to throw herself back into the life she thought she left behind after the First World War, a life of espionage and secrets. But when Charlie St. Clair, pregnant and sent away to Europe in 1947 to deal with her “little problem,” shows up asking about her missing cousin, Eve is determined to find answers, both for Charlie and herself. Could Rose’s disappearance during the Second World War answer questions about the betrayal that tore Eve’s spy network apart so many years ago?

WWII

The Woman With No Name book cover

The Woman with No Name by Audrey Blake

No one thinks twice about a diminutive older woman like Yvonne Rudellat— not even the men who recruited her to become Britain’s first female saboteur. But for once, her tendency to go unnoticed by those around her is actually an asset. Soon, she’s upended all expectations with her aptitude for explosives. Armed with a new name and fake identification papers, she’s soon ready to set the Nazi regime in France ablaze.

Code Name Butterfly book cover

Code Name Butterfly by Embassie Susberry

With Nazi occupation looming over Paris, a young journalist who had been enjoying the freedom the city once brought her is mistaken for famous performer Josephine Baker. Whisked backstage, Elodie soon realizes Baker is much more than she seems during her shows. Now involved in the spy network Josephine Baker herself is a part of, Elodie is determined to fight for the country she now calls home.

The Cold War

American spy book cover

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

As a young Black woman working for the FBI, Marie Mitchell is used to being overlooked by the old boy’s club. It’s probably why she agrees to join the task force to undermine the communist-sympathizing regime of Burkina Faso, even though she secretly admires the work of the country’s revolutionary president. She will, in fact, seduce him over the coming years before playing a role in his downfall. But in doing so, she will come to question everything she thought she knew about herself, her country, and the agency she works for.

the berlin letters book cover

The Berlin Letters by Katherine Reay

When CIA cryptographer Luisa Voekler recognizes a symbol from her childhood in a series of letters, she discovers that her father is not dead, but imprisoned in East Germany. With her bosses refusing to help, Luisa flies to West Berlin to take matters into her own hands. But she’s no spy; she’s a code breaker, and without a plan, she has no hope of succeeding. When a friend shows up with contacts and a plan to get her across the wall, Luisa might just be able to save her father, even if the CIA can’t—or won’t.

Vietnam War

The Sympathizer book cover

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Torn between worlds and ideologies, a man born to an absent French father and a Vietnamese mother—who went to school in America—returns home to fight in Vietnam. But although he’s working as a captain for the Southern Vietnamese army, he’s secretly relaying information to higher-ups in the community Viet Cong regime. The truth is he sympathizes with both sides, sees horrors inflicted by and upon both sides, and knows it is all Vietnamese people who will lose because of this war in the end.