I Spy With My Little Eye

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I Spy With My Little Eye

Novels Exploring the Art of Espionage

James Bond. Jason Bourne. Jack Ryan. Three of Hollywood’s biggest secret agent characters who began their fictional cloak and dagger lives as literary heroes. But there’s more out there than just these dashing spys-cum-action-heroes. And it takes more than just a compelling lead character to create a good spy story. Intrigue. Romance. Secret codes and hidden gadgets. Villains in disguise. A good espionage thriller will touch on all of these. So here’s a list of five novels that delve into the arcane world of secret intelligence. Some are praised for their realism, some less so. Some concern modern, contemporary espionage, and others look at the hidden history of spying, but all are worth a read for anyone interested in taking a peek behind the curtain. So go peek, and prepare to enter a world of shadows, but if anyone asks about this list…you don’t know anything.
 
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
Widely regarded as Le Carré’s masterpiece, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy really captures the essence of what a classic spy novel should be. Retired MI6 agent George Smiley is forced to re-enter the world of espionage to hunt down a Soviet mole who has plagued the highest levels of British intelligence for decades. The treachery of the mole has foiled vital operations and soured some of England’s greatest spy networks. It is clear that the double agent is one of their own, but who? Smiley is assigned to identify him. And once identified, the traitor must be destroyed. I saw the 2011 film version before reading the novel (which is practically sacrilege to a librarian) and, no surprise, the book is much, much better. This is a very intricate, suspenseful, and brilliantly complex spy novel and, undoubtedly, a classic.
 
The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
Now he’s a household name, and this is the book that made him so. The story is simple but compelling: the Soviet submarine Red October has turned west. The Americans seek to capture her. The Russians want her back. So begins an incredible chase that will lead to the greatest espionage coup in history. Clancy’s writing style may not be for everyone, but I think he has a knack for dreaming up shockingly realistic scenarios sometimes, and the pace and action here are enough to keep the reader hooked and excited, even if some of the military jargon might be over their heads (as it was with mine.) If nothing else, Clancy is thorough in his research and meticulous about historical accuracy. So much so that it’s rumored he was debriefed by the White House after the book’s initial publication. Take that for what you will, agent.
 
Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
Though he might be better known for his massive tomes about building cathedrals and his recent Century Trilogy now, Ken Follett preceded all that by writing several gripping spy novels. Eye of the Needle is by far the best. Set amidst the chaos of the Second World War, one enemy spy knows the secret to the Allies’ greatest deception. He is a ruthless, cunning assassin known as “The Needle” and he holds the key to ultimate Axis victory. But one person stands in his way: a lonely Englishwoman on an isolated island who is beginning to love the violent, dangerous man who has mysteriously entered her life against all her better judgments. If she sways, it will assure his freedom—and win the war for the Nazis. I really enjoy Follett and think he’s a great storyteller. He has a keen grasp of both history and humanity, and injects a lot of complexity and heart into this story while never veering off course from his path towards the book’s terrifying, devastating ending. Available from our catalog in electronic form only.
 
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
In the first of the original series of James Bond novels, 007 goes up against Le Chiffre, French communist and paymaster of the Soviet murder organization SMERSH. Their war begins over a fifty-million-franc game of baccarat, continues over Bond’s passionate affair with a sensuous and deadly female spy, and concludes with fiendish torture at the hands of a master sadist. If you’ve ever wanted to experience the beginning of Bond, this is the place to start, and it still holds up as a captivating spy story today, obviously attested to by the legacy of the character in popular culture. Chilling, suspenseful, unexpected, and totally thrilling. You just can’t beat Bond.
 
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré
When the last agent under his command is killed, British spy Alec Leamas is relieved to be called back to London, out of the cold for good. But his spymaster, Control, has other plans. Control is determined to bring down the head of the East German Intelligence and topple their organization, and to do so is sending Leamas into the line of fire to play the part of the dishonored spy and lure the enemy to their ultimate defeat. This is a cold and dark novel, but expertly written and enthralling. The world that le Carré builds is all-encompassing and extraordinary, and all supposedly based on his own time spent working in British Intelligence. If you want to read a story that grapples with human philosophy, shadowy dealings, and international espionage, this is, without a doubt, the book for you.