Riot Headline 10 Exciting Books to Read this Summer

Five Historical Spy Thrillers Based (In Part) On Real Events

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Ann Foster

Staff Writer

Ann can often be found walking very slowly through the aisles of bookstores, making sure that nothing new has come out she doesn’t know about yet, and then eagerly telling people about them. She writes about women from history at, and about books, film, TV, and feminism at various other sites. She prefers her books to include at least three excellent plot twists, which is why she usually reads the end first. Twitter: @annfosterwriter

So the thing about being a spy is, when you’re very good at it, nobody knows your name or what you’ve done. The few historical examples we know about are generally because the spies wound up getting caught, their deeds exposed. Which is why historical fiction is a great way to imagine what some of history’s greatest spies may have actually gotten up to! Each of these five books is set in a real-life time and place in which espionage was going on. But with the artistic license permitted with fiction writing, we’re able to imagine just what subterfuge may have really been going on.

a tip for the hangman book cover

A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein

Kit Marlowe was a real playwright in Elizabethan England. He was also, almost definitely, actually a spy as well. In Epstein’s fun, irreverent debut, he takes center stage in a spy thriller. The real Marlowe’s plays were incredibly popular in his time, due to his use of exciting plot twists and lots of murder. Epstein presents Marlowe’s story here as the playwright may have told it himself: full of adventure, fun…and murder. This one is out February 9, so put in hold or preorder it now!

Bonus: Kit is queer, so this book counts towards the Read Harder challenge to read historical fiction with a POC or LGBTQ+ protagonist.

the starlet and the spy book cover

The Starlet and the Spy by Ji-Min Lee

In 1954, Marilyn Monroe visited Korea for a four-day USO tour. This book imagines the effects of her visit on the fictional character of Alice, a Korean translator and typist for the American forces still sanctioned in the city. Intrigued by her assigned task of translating for Monroe, Alice finds the movie star to be surprisingly approachable. Over the next four days, the atrocities of war continue to sear Alice’s thoughts after she’s located by one of her ex-lovers during Marilyn’s tour, and when she realizes he had worked as a spy, her world is shaken again.

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

In 1986, Black FBI intelligence officer Marie Mitchell is frequently sidelined in the old boys’ club that is the FBI. But she finds herself uniquely qualified to join a task force headed to Burkina Faso. Their goal: to undermine real-life political figure Thomas Sankara, known as “Africa’s Che Guevara.” As her mission progresses, Marie gets close to Sankara…and also must face means to be a spy, a lover, and a good American. Like A Tip for the Hangman, this is an espionage thriller set against real-life events.

the rose code cover image

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

As fans of the British TV show Bletchley Park know, during the Second World War, clever women were recruited to the country estate for secret work as code-breakers. This new work from hist fic stalwart Quinn imagines three such women. Torn apart by the time the war ends, these friends-turned enemies are reunited in 1947 by a mysterious encrypted letter. They must resurrect their old alliance and crack one last code together. But each petal they remove from the rose code brings danger—and their true enemy—closer…

The Spy by Paulo Coelho

The Spy: A Novel of Mata Hari by Paulo Coehlo

This novel is based on the real life of Margaretha Zelle, a Dutch woman who, under the pseudonym Mata Hari, became notorious as a spy. Written in the form of imagined letters sent to her lawyer after being arrested, Coehlo reveals a woman who refuses to be a victim. Starting from her traumatic youth and terrible first marriage, this work explores how she gained fame through burlesque dancing (and lying about her ethnicity), then how she wound up as a government spy and, ultimately, arrested for treason.