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August 23, 2008


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Steve B

I am a huge fan of the Sandbaggers series. A friend once said that show and _Yes, Minister_ were all you needed for a basic understanding of the British political mindset (yes, he was overgeneralizing and speaking a bit facetiously, but he still meant it.)

Ok. More in the action thriller category than you'd prefer, but an old favorite of mine, are Adam Hall's Quiller novels. Starting with _The Quiller Memorandum_ in the 1960s, there's about twenty of them.

Also, Bill Grainger's series about an American spy named Devereaux working for a who watches the watchers spy group in the US hidden away in the US Department of Agriculture is again probably more thriller, but solidly Cold War. Recommend the first two, _The November Man_ and _Schism_.

More Le Carre-ish is the espionage fantasy _Declare_ by Tim Powers that you are probably already familiar with.

peter naegele

I'm a Hammer fan at heart, but the Quiller series sounds like something you might enjoy.

Glen Engel-Cox

Bryan, have you read Ian McEwan's The Innocent? It's based on an actual event during the cold war, and it is probably one of the best, and most literary, spy thrillers I've ever read.


Hi Bryan --

I don't really like spy fiction, but my book group read


That was supposed to end in The Human Factor by Grahame Greene and I really liked it.

I tried to use some html, but must have messed up.


The Le Carré novels that have George Smiley as a central (or near-central) figure are, I think, his best work. My personal favorite is actually one of the earliest stories: "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold".

For Graham Greene, the six novels mentioned in the Wikipedia article on spy fiction are all great. To that list, I would add a seventh, "The Ministry of Fear", which is really a combination thriller/espionage novel. Of course, Greene's novels are a bit more than spy fiction in the same sense that Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday" is a bit more than a thriller...

John M.

Robert Littell - The Company

This novel matches your criterion to the word. Covers both sides of the Cold War from the earliest days of the CIA to Afghanistan, 1991. Epic and the real deal. Memorable and strong characters, fictional and actual. If you only read one spy novel, this should be it.

Littell was a career intelligence professional and although I haven't read them, I understand his other novels are excellent, as well.

Another great spy novel with a paranormal twist is Declare by Tim Powers. His rendering of Kim Philby is priceless.

Both of these books would also qualify as great literature, in my world.

Ed Webb

No-one has yet touched Le Carré in this genre, in my experience. As well as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (mentioned above - also made into a pretty decent film starring Richard Burton), A Small Town in Germany and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are truly excellent. The Honorable Schoolboy slightly less so. In movies, The Third Man remains the standard, I think.

Some of the earliest Ludlum is not actually too bad - but he jumped the shark once he started making truckloads of money.

I highly recommend SSGB by Len Deighton. Like the excellent Foyle's War TV series, it examines the absurdities and ironies of policing during wartime. Unlike Foyle's War, set in a lovingly recreated Hastings of the early 1940s, this is set in a parallel-universe dystopia in which Nazi Germany has defeated and occupied Britain. So the London detective who is the protagonist is working under the authority ultimately of the SS and Nazi government. (Gorky Park has some of this stuff going on, too - how does a detective solve murders in the middle of the Cold War, in a society where rule of law is subjugated to raison d'état?)

Steven Kaye

Talked over some of this with you, but Len Deighton's The Ipcress File, A Funeral in Berlin, Catch A Falling Spy and his Bernard Samson novels. I can't say how The Billion Dollar Brain compares to the movie.

Some of Alan Furst's novels involve the NKVD before WWII, if I remember correctly. Night Soldiers has a great opening line.

Most of the stuff I can think of is either more action thriller (even my beloved Ambler, though you might look into The Intercom Conspiracy) or more character study.

@Steve B: Damn tways. I loved There Are No Spies.

Steve B

@Steven Kaye: Heh. I read Grainger before I found Quiller. I like _The November Man_ for the hullaballoo that blew up around the fiction becoming essentially true. I recommended _Schism_ as Cold War. _There Are No Spies_ is excellent, but I like _Burning The Apostle_ if for no other reason than the title.

Bryan Alexander

What an astonishing response! Thank you very much, my friends, for such a rich bibliography.

Next post will summarize this giant skein.

Couple of notes:

Yes, I enjoyed Declare, @Steve B and @John M.

@Dona, that first comment was splendidly and appropriately mysterious, even if accidental.

I think Spy Who.. is the LeCarre I read, @Ruben and @Ed Webb.

Gorky Park would be a good example, or close enough, I think, @Ed Webb. Decent film, too.

@Steve B, say more about that hullaballoo?

Steve B

First, I must apologize to Bill Granger, should he ever read this, for misspelling his surname with an extraneous "i". From Granger's Author's Note prefacing _The Man Who Heard Too Much_: "The first book in this series, which is a sort of history of cold war politics and the bureaucracies that direct them, was The November Man and concerned a plot by IRA terrorists to assassinate a cousin of the British Queen while on his boat off the Irish coast. The book appeared a few weeks before Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by terrorists off the Irish coast. The prescience was unintended; it was my attempt to turn reporting observation into a study of future logic." I believe the novel was published two weeks before the assassination, giving reviewers time to say "fiction, could never happen in real life". Somewhere I have an article by Granger describing how he wrote the first novel while a Chicago reporter, was published, and then two weeks later he's up at all hours on talk shows in Australia being asked "How did you know?" and he kept replying that, having watched international news for a while, things would have to escalate to that level eventually. A quick check of my copies of his novels found only this author's note to use instead of my memory.

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