The best spy novels are the stories that keep us guessing right along with the protagonist to uncover the truth, get to the bottom of the conspiracy, and outwit and outthink the antagonist. Spy novels cover all areas of the world. A good spy novel is exciting, no matter what time it is set or how long ago it was written. From World War II to the modern-day, a good spy thriller does not let you put it down. If you are looking for a good spy story, the following books make up some of the best spy fiction in the spy thriller genre.
Best Spy Novels
1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John Le Carré)
Occasionally referred to as the best espionage fiction ever written, this book is near the top of most fiction lists, not just spy thrillers. Espionage thrillers are known for their layers of conspiracy, twists, lies, moles, snitches, and mystery. This book does those things better than most. It stands out among other espionage novels because its depth and layers were so perfectly intertwined that the average reader could not pull ahead of the protagonist.
This is the story of George Smiley, a retired spy, pulled back into the game to figure out who the mole is within the British Secret Intelligence Service. In a story all about betrayal and trust, Smiley has to suspect everyone of being the mole within Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, including those who he has known, worked with, and trusted for years.
2. The Alice Network (Kate Quinn)
This story is more than a spy thriller set in the era of World War II. When Charlie (Charlotte) and her mother go overseas so that Charlie can have a secret abortion, Charlie decides to seek out her cousin she has not seen in years, who went missing.
Rose was part of the Alice Network, a group of female spies. Following clues and working with a colleague of Rose’s, Charlie quickly finds herself obsessed with learning the truth of what happened to her cousin, all while dealing with her heavy emotional issues and what she has been going through personally. This is not only a spy novel but also a piece of female fiction that depicts women as strong, tough, and determined.
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3. The Secret Agent (Joseph Conrad)
This novel is a classic among spy thrillers. Set in 1907, it tells the tale of a Russian spy living a quiet life in London, putting his work behind him. He is an older man who runs a small shop, and he seems completely unassuming. This could not, however, be further from the truth.
We soon find out that Adolf, our main character, is a spy working for yet another country and is an anarchist who will do anything to complete the missions he is given. A bumbling secret agent, this man is dangerous and more than capable of causing great turmoil.
This is more than a brilliant Russian spy novel. Joseph Conrad is one of those insightful spy novelists who can carefully and seamlessly weave emotion and humanity into his espionage novels, making them all the more gripping to read.
4. The Ipcress File (Len Deighton)
This is one of the most technical and detailed espionage novels to have been written. Written at the height of the Cold War, this is the story of a British secret agent looking for a missing biochemist who could spell doom for everyone.
This book is wonderful in that the authentic espionage tradecraft employed throughout can pull you right into the story and make you believe that you are reading a top-secret document rather than a novel. The secret service of Britain, the Cold War, the Soviets, submarines, nuclear warfare, you will find it all in this novel.
5. A Coffin for Dimitrios (Eric Ambler)
A classic and known as one of the best spy novels of all time, this book goes much deeper than just an espionage novel. This tells the story of Europe as it adapted to the social, environmental, and political climate of World War I and II.
It tells the story, not of a spy but a writer. Charles hears about Dimitrios, a dead master criminal, and decides to delve into the story of this legend, unknowingly putting himself in grave danger in the process. This is just as much literary history as it is a spy book.
6. The Secrets We Kept (Lara Prescott)
This is another look at females in the spy world. During the Cold War, a pair of women work to get the novel Doctor Zhivago into Russia by any means necessary. The book is believed to contain the secret to ending the war. This story drives home the notion of the power of women, the power of books, and the power of determination.
7. American Spy (Lauren Wilkinson)
This is the story of Marie, a Black female spy who is sent in to take down communism during the Cold War. This unassuming but tenacious agent is faced with peril and difficult moral decisions. As a young agent with the FBI, she is not sure she is cut out for the job given to her, but she is determined to do her very best.
This book about an unlikely spy gives us a look at someone we do not usually think of when we think of a secret agent. A young, Black American woman is the protagonist in this rare role in the genre. This book is just as much historical fiction as a spy novel.
8. Crisis (Frank Gardner)
When a British Intelligence officer is killed, Luke is sent into the jungles of Columbia to investigate. This is a nail-biter of a spy thriller as Luke ends up running from the cartel, finding clues that he never would have suspected, and is trying to survive long enough to finish his mission and get back home.
9. Agent Running (John le Carré)
This is a story about how time changes people and how people deal with those changes. John le Carre perfectly describes the life of Nat, a retired agent runner who figures that his years in the game of espionage are long over. Having to come out of retirement due to a threat by Moscow, Nat has to face danger and solve the mysteries presented to him.
10. An Officer and a Spy (Robert Harris)
Georges is a military soldier in Paris in the late 1800s, assigned to look after a convicted spy who was exiled. The story is so great that it keeps the readers flipping the pages to see what is coming next.
11. The Quiet American (Graham Greene)
This is a classic Vietnam novel that depicts a British writer living in the foreign country of Vietnam and writing about his experiences. He meets a young CIA agent who has just arrived in Saigon, and they could not be more opposite of each other. The Brit, Fowler, having lived in Vietnam as long as he has, is full of pessimism and doubt, while the young CIA agent is full of hope and patriotic notions.
12. The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen)
This is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and has won over a dozen other awards with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications.
A man who is well versed in the art of interrogation and torture sees the tables turned on him when the communist sympathizer is captured and exposed and put through the same sort of torture and treatment during interrogation. This is more than just the story of the situation in Vietnam.
13. SS-GB (Len Deighton)
This story features Detective Inspector Archer, and the storyline is a bit uncomfortable but could have been possible, nonetheless.
This book imagines Britain under the control of Germany at the end of World War II. Archer engages in an espionage battle in this “what if” book that hits a bit close to home.
14. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (John le Carre)
Based on his own experience with the British Intelligence Unit, this author recreates his professional and private life for this novel about a spy sent in as a defector to bring down the German Intelligence Unit.
This is the third book by this prolific author that has made him truly famous. His work brings international intrigue to the genre, and his writing gives you the feeling that you are just reading a nonfiction novel. His own experience and his knowledge of undercover agents, espionage, and the military lend a sense of realism to his work.
15. Secret Service (Tom Bradby)
This book is more than just a spy novel—this is also a psychological thriller novel. Kate is a British agent who discovers that the Prime Minister’s life is in jeopardy, and one of the people who may be replacing him is a Russian mole.
Not sure if she should believe her inclinations, Kate is thrown into a mentality that leaves her questioning herself. She is also trying to deal with other personal issues, stretching her thin and making her wonder if she is on the right track with her wild idea that the Prime Minister is in danger.
16. Red Sparrow (Jason Matthews)
This is another novel written by someone with real-life experience. Retired CIA operative Jason Matthews tells the story of a ballet dancer whose career ends due to an unexpected injury. Drafted into the “Sparrow School” of Russia, she is taught to seduce enemies and get information.
She can outsmart all of her conquests until she tries to seduce Nathan Nash, a CIA operative. This agent begins to play mind games with her, and a sexy tale of betrayal and seduction follows suit. This book is part of the brilliant Red Sparrow trilogy.
17. The Hunt for the Red October (Tom Clancy)
Nearly every reader has heard of Tom Clancy and the character Jack Ryan. This was Ryan’s debut story, and this is the book that launched Tom Clancy’s career. A film was also adapted from this book featuring Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery.
This story tells the tale of an underwater chase between submarines owned by Russia and the United States. Both nations were desperately seeking possession of the Red October missile submarine, a grave matter with everything at stake as the two nations battled it out from beneath the surface of the sea.
18. The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan)
This is a book that has a little bit of everything. There is action, mystery, murder, and an assassination plot. A bored Londoner gets his world quickly turned upside down when a spy enters his London home to warn him of a murder plot so big that it could cause war between England and Germany. That spy who came with a warning is dead inside the resident’s apartment just days later.
The bored tenant, Richard, was forced to navigate his next move as the reality started to sink in and allowed him to learn the truth.
19. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
You may think of Jason Bourne when you hear the name Matt Damon, but there would be no Jason Bourne at all if not for Robert Ludlum and his book series.
This is the odd tale of a man who has no real idea of who he is. He has got a chip implanted under his skin, and he washes up and ends up on a boat after being shot. There are apparent signs of plastic surgery that alter his appearance, and clues on a film lead him to a bank account in Zurich. This book includes all sorts of loose ends to be tied up, secret codes to understand, and the mysterious world of Jason Bourne, who is learning his identity right along with the reader.
20. Codename Villanelle (Luke Jennings)
With the show Killing Eve based on this four-part, self-published series of novellas, this is the story of the alluring and ruthless Villanelle. Eve, another female agent, must stop her before things get too out of hand in this ruthless and twisted story of an agent and a hitwoman playing cat and mouse with each other.
21. An Officer and a Spy (Robert Harris)
This is the tale of a French soldier accused of espionage, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. However, a fellow soldier who has witnessed things that no one else knows about is sure they have the wrong man. This is a riveting tale of the 19th-century French military working to prove his fellow soldier’s innocence.
22. Secret Asset (Stella Rimington)
A book that is part of a series, this book continues the story of Liz Carlyle, a British agent who has to figure out how to take down a terrorist plot. Complete with a sleeper spy mole that she is charged with finding and identifying, this is a harrowing tale that will keep the reader on the edge of their seats.
23. High Crimes (Joseph Finder)
Also technically a legal thriller, this novel by Joseph Finder, High Crimes, criminal defense attorney Claire is used to winning and dominating a courtroom. She has a good life with her family and is happy. Then her husband is arrested for murder and other crimes that she cannot believe her husband could have committed.
Determined to clear his name and keep him out of prison, Claire sets out to prove his innocence and gets more than she bargained for. She learns that she has no idea who her husband is. It seems that the man she thought she knew and the man she loved had a double life, complete with a different name and a different look.
In this novel, Claire struggles to figure out where the truth lies and tries to figure out if her entire marriage and the family that she created with this man were based on lies.
24. Casino Royale (Ian Fleming)
Bond. James Bond. Daniel Craig played the sexy, smooth, and always sophisticated 007-agent in the film adaptation of this book by Ian Fleming.
An organization made up of Soviet murderers is the obvious suspect in this book, and Bond has only one chance to take them on and get them out of the game and derail their plans. A card game is a basis on which Bond must outmaneuver these criminals. It is a dangerous task and mission, but nothing that the classic Bond cannot handle. Or is it?
25. I am Pilgrim (Terry Hayes)
This is the story of a retired agent who wrote the book on forensic investigation and retired and lived in anonymity, not sharing his new identity or location with anyone.
When Ben Bradley, a New York detective, needs his help, he reads the retired agent’s book and locates him using its advice. With no choice but to help the former head of a spy unit for the United States, he must solve the murder of a woman found in a hotel room.
Pilgrim and Bradley must work together to solve the crime using the techniques he developed, leaving Pilgrim with questions and personal doubts about whether he can ever walk away from his work.
26. The Sandpit (Nicholas Shakespeare)
John Dyer and his little boy come back to England after a covert operation in Brazil—with a secret that is so big, it could change or destroy the world. John finds himself looking over his shoulder everywhere he goes, even upon returning home with his child.
However, his paranoia proves effective when he learns that there are people right there in his native country who are trailing him to know his secret. They will stop at nothing to obtain John Dyer’s information, and Dyer will stop at nothing to protect his son and his secret.
This novel is a nail-biting adventure from start to finish and will have most readers wanting to continue to turn the page right on through to the last page. In other words, you will not be able to put this book down.
27. The Couple Next Door (Karen Cleveland)
This is a suspenseful and thrilling story told by Karen Cleveland, a former analyst for the CIA. She blends her knowledge as an analyst with her creativity as a writer to pen this dramatic and intriguing story that packs a punch.
Vivian is a CIA analyst (just like the author) tasked with finding Russian sleeper agents living in the United States. After she nails one operative and seizes the computer of this Russian operative, she can now access more names, which leads her to an entire network of far more sleeper agents than she could have imagined.
The real trouble occurs when Vivian finds out that her husband’s name is on that list of sleeper agents. Things become personal and quite dangerous as Vivian tries to uncover the truth that threatens to take everything she cares about away from her. She is now faced with the reality that she might lose not only the job she worked so hard for but her children and husband.
This novel marries spy fiction with drama in a way that works perfectly. It will have you wondering while reading what you might do in Vivian’s shoes, finding out that your spouse is an enemy. It may have you wondering how well you know your husband or wife, or anyone at all.