Joseph Kanon: Top 10 Spy Novels

Joseph Kanon: Top 10 Spy Novels

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré

“Still the gold standard. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold may have been more influential, but in Tinker Le Carré distilled the long nightmare of the Philby betrayal into popular art. Smiley’s finest hour.”

Joseph Kanon

The Circus has already suffered a bad defeat, and the result was two bullets in a man’s back. But a bigger threat still exists. And the legendary George Smiley is recruited to root out a high-level mole of thirty years’ standing – though to find him means spying on the spies. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is brilliant and ceaselessly compelling, pitting Smiley against his Cold War rival, Karla, in one of the greatest struggles in all fiction.

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst

“Furst became deservedly popular with his between the wars Paris spy thrillers, but he was already at the top of his form in this early novel set in the Balkans. It’s all cigarette smoke and atmosphere and guttural accents and conflicted loyalties – vintage Furst.”

Joseph Kanon

Bulgaria, 1934. A young man is murdered by the local fascists. His brother, Khristo Stoianev, is recruited into the NKVD, the Soviet secret intelligence service, and sent to Spain to serve in its civil war. Warned that he is about to become a victim of Stalin’s purges, Khristo flees to Paris. Night Soldiers masterfully re-creates the European world of 1934-45: the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, the last desperate gaiety of the beau monde in 1937 Paris, and guerrilla operations with the French underground in 1944. Night Soldiers is a scrupulously researched panoramic novel, a work on a grand scale.

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

“This 1903 Boys-Own style spy adventure, with Englishmen playing in boats around the Frisian Islands to snoop on the Kaiser’s navy, is now hoary enough to have crossed the line from dated and passé to historical, and therefore worth a look on several levels.”

Joseph Kanon

When Carruthers receives a letter from his friend Davies suggesting a Baltic sailing trip the vision of a manned yacht, A1 scenery and excellent duck shooting quickly works its charm. Much to Carruther’s disgust, the reality couldn’t be more different. If the Dulcibella is distressingly underwhelming, Davies’ ambition for their sailing trip is anything but. There has been suspicious German activity along the coast. The Medusa, manned by the sinister Dollman, has already tried to destroy him. Why should anyone want to kill Davies? What are the Germans trying to hide? Nothing less than a plot to invade Britain. And only these two courageous Englishmen can stop them. “The Riddle of the Sands” is Erskine Childers only novel. Published in 1903 it is considered the first modern spy novel.

Cause for Alarm by Eric Ambler

“My favorite of Ambler’s pre-war thrillers, another innocent caught in the Fascists’ crosshairs, with lots of jumping off trains and dashing across marshaling yards in Mussolini’s Italy.”

Joseph Kanon

Nicky Marlow needs a job. He’s engaged to be married and the employment market in Britain in 1937 is pretty slim. So when his fiancee points out the position with an English armaments manufacturer in Italy, he jumps at the chance. Soon after he arrives, however, he learns the sinister truth about his predecessor’s departure and finds himself courted by two agents with dangerously different agendas. In the process, Marlow realizes that it’s not so simple just to do the job he’s paid for – not in fascist Italy, on the eve of a world war.

My Silent War by Kim Philby

“All right, not a novel, but not strictly the truth either and fascinating in any case. Self-serving, wily, given to playing games with the reader, this is a compelling spy memoir – in ways Philby may not even have intended.”

Joseph Kanon

In the annals of espionage, one name towers above all others: that of H.A.R. ‘Kim’ Philby, the ringleader of the legendary Cambridge spies. A member of the British establishment, Philby joined the Secret Intelligence Service in 1940, rose to the head of Soviet counterintelligence, and, as M16’s liaison with the CIA and the FBI, betrayed every secret of Allied operations to the Russians, fatally compromising covert actions to roll back the Iron Curtain in the early years of the Cold War. Written from Moscow in 1967, “My Silent War” shook the world and introduced a new archetype in fiction: the unrepentant spy. It inspired John Le Carre’s Smiley novels and the later espionage novels of Graham Greene. Kim Philby was history’s most successful spy. He was also an exceptional writer who gave us the great iconic story of the Cold War and revolutionized, in the process, the art of espionage writing.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

“Admittedly not a ‘real’ thriller like Greene’s much loved pre-war entertainments (A Gun for Sale, The Ministry of Fear, et al.). But in a genre where humour is as rare as hope, this is a one-of-a-kind work, a sparkling high comedy, still funny after all these years, still sharp and astringent, still recognizably in Greeneland. Film version bonus: Noel Coward’s witty cameo.”

Joseph Kanon

Wormold is a vacuum cleaner salesman in a city of power cuts. His adolescent daughter spends his money with a skill that amazes him, so when a mysterious Englishman offers him an extra income he’s tempted. In return all he has to do is carry out a little espionage and file a few reports. But when his fake reports start coming true, things suddenly get more complicated and Havana becomes a threatening place.

The Company by Robert Littell

“Or The Defection of A. J. Lewinter, either of which has Littell at his best. The pre-drone era CIA, aspiring to be an English gentlemen’s club, but finding itself working in the gutters of moral ambiguity instead.”

Joseph Kanon

An engrossing, multigenerational, wickedly nostalgic yet utterly entertaining and candid saga, bringing to life through a host of characters – historical and imagined – nearly fifty years of this secretive and powerful organization. Intelligent and ironic, Littell tells it like it was: CIA agents fighting not only the ‘good fight’ against foreign enemies, but sometimes the bad fight too. The ends justify such means as CIA-organized assassinations, covert wars, kidnappings, and the toppling of legitimate governments. Behind every manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre, however, one question remains, which spans the length of the book . . . Who is the mole within the CIA?

The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer

“The CIA today, or at least the version that traffics in excitement, plot twists and disillusioned officers who discover they’re on their own and paranoia is just good sense. Steinhauer is a worthy heir to Littell, with breakneck Ludlum pacing.”

Joseph Kanon

Superb new CIA thriller featuring black ops expert Milo Weaver and acclaimed by Lee Child as ‘first class – the kind of thing John le Carre might have written’. In today’s CIA, there are hotspots everywhere. And wherever there’s trouble, there’s a Tourist: the men and women who do the CIA’s dirty work. They’re the Company’s best – and until he burnt out, Milo Weaver was the best of them all. Milo has spent the last four years behind a desk, tracking the elusive killer known as ‘The Tiger’. When the Tiger unexpectedly gives himself up, it’s because he wants something in return: revenge. Once a Tourist, always a Tourist and soon Milo is back in the field, a world of betrayal, skewed politics and extreme violence. It’s a world he knows well – but he’s still about to learn the toughest lesson of all.

The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarre

“A second entry on the list because Le Carré proved with this novel that he could leave the Cold War behind and still rule the genre. The best spy novel yet written about terrorists, dense and complicated and uneasy, with a masterful characterization at its center.”

Joseph Kanon

Charlie is a promiscuous, unsuccessful, left-wing English actress in her twenties. She is in search of commitment. But to what, and to whom? We meet her first with a group of acting kids, taking a holiday on the Greek island of Mykonos. Kurtz is an embattled Israeli immigrant, and an officer of Israeli intelligence. His job is to stop terrorist acts against Jews in Europe. Michel is the French cover-name for the Palestinian boy who, with his brother, has come to Europe to lift the world by its ears and make it listen to his people’s agony. Joseph is the name which Charlie and her friends have given to the handsome, solitary bather lying on the beach at Mykonos, who seems to need nothing but a water bottle and his little library of left-wing literature. Helga is an educated German girl of the middle classes, who believes that only action can speak for ideas. The Little Drummer Girl is a thrilling, deeply moving and courageous novel.

Funeral in Berlin by Len Deighton

“For the sheer fun of it, as a (now) period piece that brings back The Wall and all it meant to Cold War fiction. And because I can’t resist a novel about Berlin.”

Joseph Kanon

A ferociously cool Cold War thriller from the author of The Ipcress File. Len Deighton’s third novel has become a classic, as compelling and suspenseful now as when it first exploded on to the bestseller lists. In Berlin, where neither side of the wall is safe, Colonel Stok of Red Army Security is prepared to sell an important Russian scientist to the West – for a price. British intelligence are willing to pay, providing their own top secret agent is in Berlin to act as go-between. But it soon becomes apparent that behind the facade of an elaborate mock funeral lies a game of deadly manoeuvres and ruthless tactics. A game in which the blood-stained legacy of Nazi Germany is enmeshed in the intricate moves of cold war espionage…