Nov 3, 2016

Double O Section 10th Anniversary: Top 10 Spy Novels of the Past Decade

While I haven't seen all the spy movies to be released around the world over the past ten years, I have certainly seen the majority of them. The same can't be said for spy novels. There are simply too many published every year to possibly keep up with all of them. But I do read a whole lot of spy fiction, and try to stay on top of the new stuff. Here are ten of my favorite spy novels published during the past ten years.

My Favorite Spy Novels 2006-2016

1. The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer (2010)

If you haven't read this book, it's a bit unfair of me to list it as the best spy novel of the decade, because it can't really be read as a one-off; it actually requires you to read three books. The good news is... all three are fantastic! The Nearest Exit is the middle novel in Steinhauer's Milo Weaver trilogy, which begins with The Tourist (2009) and ends (for now, anyway) with An American Spy (2012). It's tough to pick a favorite of those (especially between the last two), but when it came out The Nearest Exit blew me away with the best "knot," to use Connie Sachs' term, since Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The characters are compelling; the tradecraft is impressive, and the espionage plot is ingenious. Publishers absolutely love to label any new spy novel with a variation on "le Carré meets Ludlum" (odd as those particular bedfellows are), but Steinhauer really delivers on that, combining exciting action of the latter with the rich characterizations, complex plots and moral uncertainty of the former. It astounds me that these books have not yet been filmed. Perhaps if Steinhauer's new TV show Berlin Station proves successful, that will be remedied.

2. A Most Wanted Man by John le le Carré (2008)

Speaking of le Carré, the all-time master of this genre is still as sharp as ever in his eighties. Not only has he remained prolific (I don't begrudge his contemporary Len Deighton enjoying his retirement, but oh how I wish he were still publishing as well!), but he's remained topical. Le Carré may have written about the Cold War better than just about anyone else, but that period was hardly the limit of his outrage. If anything, he's gotten angrier as he's gotten older. Some of his later books might suffer a bit from getting overly polemical, but A Most Wanted Man is the perfect concoction of literary fury. It's not only the best novel of the "War on Terror," but easily among the best in the author's justly celebrated oeuvre, featuring some of the most memorable characters he ever created. How many authors are still producing some of their best work in their eighth or even ninth decades? Le Carré is a towering talent still at the top of his game. His follow-up novel, Our Kind of Traitor, was also fantastic, as was his memoir this year, The Pigeon Tunnel. I can't wait to see what he does next.

3. Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (2013)

Proving once again that spies and authors draw from similar skill sets, former CIA officer Jason Matthews penned as impressive a debut novel as you're ever likely to read in this compelling tale of the spy games very much still being played between America and Russia. The novel follows Russian SVR agent Dominiki Egorova and up and coming CIA officer Nate Nash first separately, and then as their paths ultimately converge. While most of us will never be able to judge a spy novel for its accuracy, Matthews certainly lends an air of authority in his descriptions of tradecraft and Agency politics that feel incredibly realistic. Red Sparrow was the first in a trilogy, and unfortunately the second novel, Palace of Treason, was a serious letdown, but I'm holding out hope that Matthews will bounce back with his third novel and cement himself a spot among the great spies-turned-writers like le Carré, Greene and Fleming.

4. The Devil in Amber by Mark Gatiss (2006)

Before Mark Gatiss shot to Internet superstardom as co-creator of the BBC's terrific Sherlock, he penned a trilogy of fantastically fun spy/adventure novels featuring the unlikely secret agent "by appointment to His Majesty" Lucifer Box. Box is a sort of debonair, bisexual mash-up of Sherock Holmes, James Bond and Oscar Wilde, and as witty a narrator as you could ask for. In my review here when this second book in the Box trilogy came out, I wrote that it gave me "just about the most pure enjoyment I’ve gotten out of any book in a long time." All these years later, it still stands out for that. Granted, I must admit that that might have something to do with my specific tastes, which seem to be nearly identical to Gattiss's. Into this supernatural John Buchan/Dennis Wheatley pastiche,/parody, he mixes healthy doses of James Bond, Hammer horror, Adam Adamant, Doctor Who and P.G. Wodehouse. For me, that adds up to sheer joy. Anyone who enjoys Gatiss's work on Sherlock and Doctor Who should definitely seek out The Devil in Amber (as well as its precursor, The Vesuvius Club). Read my full review here.

5. The Last Run by Greg Rucka (2011)

For his work on the sublime spy series Queen & Country (comprised of both comics and novels), Greg Rucka made that very first list that started this blog ten years ago, so it's not surprising that he's making this one too. What is a bit surprising (and disappointing), is that he hasn't written more spy novels since then! But the one new Queen & Country novel to come out in the past decade was more than worth the five year wait that led up to it. This is by far my favorite of the subgenre of contemporary espionage that Lee Child memorably and humorously dubbed, "something about Iran." Rucka uses Iran to tell a very contemporary twist on the classic Cold War spy novel. His field heroine, Tara Chace, finds herself on the run deep in enemy territory (quite a Quiller predicament), while his desk hero, Paul Crocker, is faced with that age-old dilemma of trying to figure out whether a potential defector is too good to be true. You don't have to have read any other entries in this superb, Sandbaggers-inspired spy series to enjoy The Last Run, but if you have, it rewards on multiple levels. I really, really hope that Rucka returns to the Queen & Country universe again, be it in a new novel or a new comic series. In fact, that's one of my dearest spy fan-related hopes. Read my full review of The Last Run here.

6. A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming (2012)

Along with Olen Steinhauer, Charles Cumming is probably my favorite contemporary spy writer. He reliably delivers a great read every time, but A Foreign Country, the first of his novels featuring British agent Thomas Kell, is my favorite of his to date. Though the stakes (involving the first female head of MI6) are incredibly high, the story itself is relatively small for contemporary spy ficiton, and I found that appealing. It's also a great example of one of my favorite type of spy plots, the secret war between friendly nations. In this case, that secret war turns deadly. Like Jason Matthews, Cumming is a master at describing tradecraft with a palpable sense of realism, and a lengthy shadowing operation with a very limited surveillance team is the highlight of this novel. This was optioned by Colin Firth's company back in 2013 as a potential starring vehicle for the actor (who I think would be great as Kell). Earlier this year it was reported that the project is still alive, but might take the form of a miniseries rather than a movie. That's something I would love to see!

7. The Moneypenny Diaries: Secret Servant by Kate Westbrook (2006)

When The Moneypenny Diaries concept was first announced, it sounded like a terrible idea. It seemed like a blatant attempt by Ian Fleming Publications to capitalize on the then zeitgeisty success of Bridget Jones' Diary... which seemed like an odd zeitgeist to capitalize on for the heirs of Ian Fleming. So who would have predicted such an odd experiment would produce the best James Bond continuation novel of the last decade? Unfortunately, it was so under the radar that hardly anyone outside of hardcore Bond fans ever found out about it. But the second book, in particular, in Samantha Weinberg's really quite brilliant trilogy definitely deserves a larger audience. Weinberg, writing as Kate Westbrook, actually wrote a Bond novel with the potential to appeal to the sorts of spy fans who don't normally give 007 the time of day. She penned a Bond novel, with Miss Moneypenny as the protagonist, set in John le Carré's world—mixed with actual history. In Secret Servant, we see Bond's Service torn apart by a mole and M acting like Control in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Add to that real-life traitor Kim Philby and his wife Eleanor, and you've got the makings of a Bond novel unlike any other and a treat for Bond fans and fans of the "desk" half of the spy genre alike. Read my full review of The Moneypenny Diaries: Secret Servant here, and my interview with Weinberg here.

8. Double or Die by Charlie Higson (2007)

The Moneypenny Diaries wasn't the only seemingly bad idea by Ian Fleming Publications to strike unlikely gold in the past decade. The announcement that they would explore the adventures of James Bond as a boy in a series of Young Adult books seemed like an equally blatant Harry Potter (and Alex Rider)-inspired cash-grab, and initially provoked consternation among many fans. But author Charlie Higson improbably made this unlikely premise work, and ended up penning some of the very best James Bond continuation novels to date, as well as some of the best of the very rich trend of Young Adult literature in the early 2000s. It's a toss-up for me whether Blood Fever (which pre-dated this blog) or Double or Die is my favorite, but there is no question that the latter is a fantastic read. In attempting to decrypt a secret code, James and his Eton friends find themselves on a scavanger hunt across pre-WWII London involving gambling, Soviet spies and a nascent Bletchley Park. It's a great Young Adult adventure that feels authentically Bondian, and a fantastic read. Read my full review of Double or Die here.

9. Restless by William Boyd (2006)

William Boyd eventually became a James Bond continuation novelist himself, and penned a decent 007 entry with Solo. But it wasn't nearly as good as his original spy novel Restless, a literary thriller about a young woman in 1970s Britain searching for the elusive truth about her mother's past as an agent of William Stephenson's British Security Coordination during WWII. The BSC makes a fascinating backdrop for a spy novel, dealing again with that theme of spying between friendly nations. In this case, that spying includes the real-life historical efforts of Stephenson's organization to draw America into the war to aid Britain. But both the 1940s and 1970s storylines are compelling (unlike in the miniseries, which gave short shrift to the Seventies one), and Boyd creates two terrific heroines. It should be noted that there's an excellent audio version read by Bond Girl and Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike. Boyd's masterpiece is Any Human Heart (a novel that features a little bit of spying—and Ian Fleming as a character—but which isn't really a spy novel), but Restless is also well worth reading.

10. Dead Line by Stella Rimington (2008)

Stella Rimington is another former spook turned successful author, and like Jason Matthews, she lends credence to the theory that the two professions rely on some of the same skill sets. Like Matthews, the former Director General of MI5 brings an air of undeniable authenticity to her Liz Carlyle spy novels. Dead Line is among Rimington's best, and expands the tapestry a bit from her previous books. Rather than focusing on Carlyle and her antagonist, she follows many different agents working for different countries and different branches of the British intelligence community this time around. While it isn't immediately clear how all of these storylines are related, the converge in a most satisfying manner, culminating in an assassination attempt at a peace conference in Scotland. Rimington also proved prescient (again, not surprising given her former profession) in predicting the significance of Aleppo in world affairs. Read my full review of Dead Line here.

Those were ten of my favorite spy novels of the past decade, though I could easily make a list of fifty! (Well, maybe not easily. These things take time to write!) What were some of yours? I'd love to get some recommendations for my reading pile.

Addendum: I cannot believe that I forgot to include Jeremy Duns' excellent debut novel, Free Agent! It was easily among my favorites of that period, but for some reason I had thought it came out sooner.

The contest code word is: AMBER.


teeritz said...

Man, you're really keeping me busy with these Top Ten lists, I can tell you. Excellent work. I've been meaning to chase up Steinhauer's (did I spell it right? I think the last glass of red just kicked in) work for quite some time. And I'm back on a Le Carre kick after just having watched "The Night Manager" mini-series.
I agree about the Moneypenny books, even though I've only read the first one. Westbrook/Steinberg did a better job, in my view, than both Faulks and Boyd (There. I said it).
And yes, Deighton writing another spy novel would be grand indeed.

teeritz said...

Ahh, dammit! Weinberg wrote "The Moneypenny Diaries". I must've crossed her name with Steinhauer. What a mess. I blame the wineberg.

And Greg Rucka's "Queen & Country" graphic novels were superb. I've also been meaning to track down his Tara Chace books. Whatever happened to the rumours about Ellen Page starring as Chace on the big screen? In development? Or in turnaround?

antony said...

Worth noting that RESTLESS was also made into an excellent BBC TV series starring Michelle Dockery, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Gambon, et al. I've actually never got round to reading the book, so I can't speak to its faithfulness, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Tanner said...

Good point, Antony. (And good to see you on here again; I'm very much looking forward to the Coldest City movie!) I enjoyed the miniseries (it sure had a great cast!), but as I said, I thought it gave short shrift to the 1970s storyline--despite a script by Boyd himself. In the book, that was just as compelling as the 1930s one. But it's absolutely worth watching--especially for fans of AGENT CARTER who want to see Hayley Atwell doing more period spying! Both those Boyd books, however, are far better than their TV adaptations, IMO.