Feature: Five Great Spy Novels by Carl Birkmeyer

I love spy novels and have been reading them most of my life. It probably started with Get Smart in the early Seventies and progressed through the Bond films and novels and it’s a rare month when I’m not reading a spy novel. I’m not a fan of “best of” lists because reading is so subjective and it’s counter-productive to me to find some arbitrary reason to determine that John LeCarre is better than Tom Clancy. I just want to give you five great spy novels and you can put them into whatever list you want.

The Cold War Swap - Ross ThomasThe Cold War Swap by Ross Thomas

“He walked over to the bar and turned his back on me as he poured. I looked at it and thought it would make a fine target for a knife, if I had a knife and could remember how to throw it. Or I could slug him with a poker. Or throw a hammer lock on him. There were a lot of things I could do, but I kept sitting in the chair, sipping the Scotch, smoking the Cigarette, the perfection picture of inaction stemming from indecision.”

In this award-winning novel, cynical restaurateur Mac McCorckle teams up with retired CIA agent Mike Padillo to bring two defectors from East Germany back to the West. The novel is filled with plot twists, treachery, and engaging characters. One of Thomas’ best traits is his ability to make even minor characters memorable. Padillo is a superb spy but the solution always rests in his intelligence and cunning, not his abilities to drive fast or shoot accurately. McCorkle is there to provide wry observations and backup, though he’s much better at the former than the latter. The two of them form an effective team, and you’ll find yourself caught up in their adventures rapidly and just as rapidly looking for the next book in the series.

The Cardinal of the Kremlin - Tom ClancyThe Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy

“If you know stuff like that and you make a slip, you could kill people. It’s happened before. The Russians come down pretty hard on spies. There’s still a story floating around that they cremated someone – I mean they slid him into a creamatorium alive.”

If you were picking the perfect espionage novel, this would be it. It’s got it all – Russians, dead drops, moles, defectors, betrayal, and a great hero in Jack Ryan. Cardinal is a mole very high in the Russian military who is providing the US with information on Russia’s new laser weapons. At the same time that the US is trying to learn as much about the Russian program, the Russians are trying to infiltrate the US laser program. The KGB learns of Cardinal’s existence and they try to discover his identity as the Jack Ryan and the CIA work to get the necessary information from Cardinal and then get him out. As with any Clancy novel, there are dozens of subplots and a wealth of detailed information. It’s Clancy’s best work and something that should be read by anyone studying the Cold War or Vladimir Putin.

The Eye of the Needle - Ken FollettEye of the Needle by Ken Follett

“Blenkinsop sighed. “As usual, those of you who can think of better ways to win the war are invited to write directly to Mr. Winston Churchill, number 10 Downing Street, London South-West-One. Now, are there any questions, as opposed to stupid criticisms?”

Some of the best spy novels seem to take place in WWII and Follett delivers with this thriller, which was also made into a movie. The Allies invasion of D-Day was meticulously planned and deception proved to be a key point of that planning. A dummy invasion force was set up to divert Hitler from realizing the true landing spot. Unfortunately, one German spy, The Needle, discovers the plot and is determined to get the information to the Axis and ensure the failure of the D-Day invasion. MI5 is hot on his trail but it turns out to be ordinary citizens that stand in his way of returning to Germany. Follett, as always, writes clever characters and really brings them to life. You end up rooting for both sides in this taut thriller and the climax is outstanding. It’s not as technical as a Clancy novel or as cynical as a Thomas novel, it’s just a solid, well-plotted thriller.

The Messenger - Daniel SilvaThe Messenger by Daniel Silva

“Perhaps it’s a world I’m not cut out for. When we were fighting the PLO or Black September, it was simple Newtonian physics. Hit them here, squeeze them there. Watch them, listen to them, identify the members of their organization, and eliminate their leadership. Now we’re fighting a movement – a cancer that has metastasized to every vital organ of the body. It’s like trying to capture fog in a glass. The old rules don’t apply.”

It’s hard to pick one of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels, as all are top notch. Allon is a Mossad agent whose cover of an art restorer helps to set him above other characters. Mossad becomes concerned that Al Queda is plotting against the Vatican and Allon is set to discover the truth and stop whatever plot his discovers. Silva has created on of espionage’s best characters in Allon and his debates with spymaster Shamron over their actions and plans are the highlight of the book. Silva’s novels are intricately plotted and you follow Allon through every step of a difficult mission as he infiltrates the Vatican, Al Queda, and Mossad to achieve his goal – finish the mission and go back to his paintings.

From Russia with Love - Ian FlemingFrom Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

“Like an archaeologist, Bond explored the carefully planned ruin of his body. The position of the sprawled feet. The angel of the half-bent knee that would give purchase when needed. The right hand that seemed to be clawing at his pierced heart, was within inches, when he could release the book, of the little attaché case – within inches of the lateral stitching that held the flat-bladed throwing-knifes, two edged and sharp as razors, that he had mocked when Q Branch had demonstrated the catch that held them.”

The best of the Bond movies is also the best of the Bond novels. The KGB decides to humiliate MI6 and devise an elaborate trap for James Bond. He is told of a defector who wants to deliver the latest Russian encoding machine personally to him because she’s fallen in love with Bond. Bond must get her and the machine out on the Orient Express and past Red Grant and Rosa Kleb. Fleming is at his best in this novel, as he delves deeply into the Russian plotting before getting to the action. A lot of people don’t like the fact that it takes a while for Bond to appear, but real espionage involves planning, plotting, and preparation and Fleming shows us how that works perfectly in this book. The novel definitely takes the viewpoint of upper-class British snobbiness but that works with Bond and his dealings with SMERSH and even how we turns the tables on them. It doesn’t have the gadgets or glamour of the movies, just a gritty spy thriller of the mind.

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