From the CIA to East Berlin to India, Musement shares 13 of the best spy novels and series for page-turning espionage adventures.
There’s no arguing the transportive power of books, and one of the most exciting genres for travel lovers is spy fiction. These novels often take their characters around the world, some even set in the past, and readers get to follow them weaving their way through their favorite cities. The intrigue of espionage only enhances the journey because, let’s face it, whose curiosity isn’t piqued by spydom?
Thankfully, to quell our curiosity, we just have to open a book (or our Kindles) for a spy fix whenever we wish. Here’s a look at 13 of the best spy novels and series that will take you on unforgettable espionage adventures across the globe.
1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John le Carré, 1974
Honestly, John le Carré’s entire repertoire will satisfy anyone looking for a good spy tale, so selecting just one is no small feat. le Carré worked for both MI5 and MI6 and his insidery insight is evident in his works. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy follows spy George Smiley, who appears in a few of le Carré’s novels, looking to uncover a Soviet mole in working in British intelligence. (The 2011 film stars Gary Oldman.) If you want more from the author, check out The Night Manager, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold , and The Constant Gardner.
2. Kim, Rudyard Kipling, 1901
Originally published as a serial, Kim takes place in the late 19th century after the Second Afghan War. The title character, an Irish orphan living in India during British rule, starts working on the British Intelligence side of the Great Game, a political confrontation with Russia over Afghanistan.
3. The Day of the Jackal , Frederick Forsyth, 1971
Be warned…once you pick up this book, you won’t be able to put it down. The novel tells the story of an assassin commissioned to take out French president Charles de Gaulle. Considered a suspense masterpiece, the book appears on several must-read round-ups, many of which extend beyond the espionage genre.
4. Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene, 1956
While considered one of the leading English novelists of the 20th century, Graham Greene’s career also includes a stint at MI6 that began in 1941. His time with the agency undoubtedly came into play when he penned this black comedy. James Wormold, a vacuum vendor in the titular city, is recruited to MI6 and gets caught up in the espionage game. The book has been adapted to a film, opera, and a play.
5. Bernie Gunther Series, Philip Kerr, 1993 – 2019
Scottish writer Philip Kerr is the mastermind behind Bernie Gunther, a Berlin policeman turned private investigator who loathes the Nazi regime. Gunther’s story kicks off with March VioletsBerlin Noir trilogy (set between 1936 – 1948) then 11 subsequent novels, concluding with Metropolils, published posthumously in 2019, a year after the author’s untimely death from cancer.
6. Midnight in Europe, Alan Furst, 2014
Another author without whom a spy novel round-up would be complete is Alan Furst. The American writer has been hailed for his historical spy novels. While you can’t go wrong with any of his books, we suggest Midnight in Europe, the 13th chapter of his Night Soldiers series. Set in Paris in 1938, the novel follows Cristián Ferrar, a Spanish lawyer who takes on an espionage mission for his home country.
7. Gabriel Allon Series, Daniel Silva, 2000- present
Daniel Silva’s best selling series about Gabriel Allon, a Mossad agent and art restorer, began in 2000 with The Kill Artist . Since then, he’s put out a page-turner dedicated to Allon and his team annually. From Russia to the U.S. to Morocco, readers get to follow Allon around the world while meeting an intriguing cast of characters along the way.
8. Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews, 2013
A former CIA officer, Jason Matthews weaves an intricate espionage tale starring Dominika Egorova, a former Russian ballerina who undergoes spy training at the “Sparrow” school. You won’t be able to put this or its two sequels, Palace of Treason and The Kremlin’s Candidate down. Fun bonus: each chapter mentions a particular food and concludes with a recipe, so if you enjoying cooking, you can let the book help you expand your repertoire.
9. The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2015
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel takes place just after the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. The protagonist is an anonymous narrator who is a North Vietnamese mole who immerses himself in a Vietnamese community in Los Angeles. A sequel called The Committed will be published within the next year or so.
10. The Jason Bourne Series, Robert Ludlum and Eric Van Lustbader, 1980
Long before Matt Damon portrayed the inimitable spy on the big screen, there were the Jason Bourne novels by Robert Ludlum, a trilogy published in 1980, 1986, and 1990. Ludlum passed before the film’s release, but Eric Van Lustbader picked up the novels from where Lodlum left off.
11. Safe Houses, Dan Fesperman, 2018
A former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Dan Fesperman reported from around the world, including Germany in the Middle East, which has given him plenty of inspiration for his novels. Safe Houses jumps back and forth between the present and West Berlin in 1979 to tell the story of Helen Abell, who oversaw the CIA safe house in the latter. During that time, she faces a dilemma that later get reignited in the present.
12. The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale , Joseph Conrad, 1907
Veering from his usual seafaring theme, Conrad tells the story of Adolf Verloc, the owner of a pornographic shop in London who is actually a spy. He’s ordered to carry out a terrorist attack on the city and though his country of origin is never named, Russia is implied.
13. The Expats, Chris Pavone, 2012
Kate Moore is a stay-at-home mom in Luxembourg, where she relocated for her husband’s job. However, she had previously worked for the CIA for 15 years. She meets another couple who she suspects aren’t who they seem. That, along with her husband’s suspicious behavior, has Moore constantly looking over her shoulder in the fear that her past just might be catching up with her.