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23 of the best spy thrillers

We can’t resist a dip into the mysterious world of the spy thriller. With secrets, lies, conspiracies and undercover plots abound, these books span the national and the international, blending the personal and the political and showing how they are inextricably linked.

From the classic to the contemporary, here are some of the best spy thrillers around.

23 of the best spy thrillers

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

In Casino Royale, the first of Ian Fleming’s 007 adventures, a game of cards is James Bond’s only chance to bring down Le Chiffre, French communist and paymaster of the Soviet murder organization SMERSH. But Bond soon discovers that there is far more at stake than money.

This is a book that’s packed will thrills and suspense. It’s an incredibly satisfying read that showcases everything we know and love about the Bond stories – chilling, sadistic villains, sensuous, fiery love affairs and the smooth, sophisticated secret agent himself.

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

This book by former RAF pilot and investigative journalist Frederick Forsyth is one of the most celebrated thrillers ever written. It’s intelligent, chilling and 100% unputdownable.

It is 1963 and an anonymous Englishman has been hired by the O.A.S. to murder General de Galle. A failed attempt means the target will be nearly impossible to get to. But this latest plot involves a lethal weapon: an assassin of legendary talent. Known only as The Jackal, this remorseless and deadly killer must be stopped – but how do you track a man who exists in name alone?

Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré

Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré

Nat, a 47 year-old veteran of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, believes his years as an agent runner are over. But with the growing threat from Moscow Centre, the office has one more job for him – one that will take him down a path of political anger that will ensnare those closest to him.

Agent Running in the Field is a chilling portrait of our time – in part heartbreaking, in part darkly humorous – told with unflagging tension by one of the greatest storytellers of our age.

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

He was dragged from the sea, his body riddled with bullets, a frame of microfilm surgically implanted beneath his skin and evidence that plastic surgery has altered his face. A number on the film negative that leads to a bank account in Zurich, four million dollars and a name for the amnesiac: Jason Bourne.

This is how we first meet Bourne – a man now running for his life with an unknown past and an uncertain future, the target of assassins and at the heart of a deadly puzzle. He’s fighting for survival and no one can help him – except the one woman who once wanted to escape him…

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

Paris, 1895: army officer Georges Picquart watches a convicted spy, Alfred Dreyfus, being publicly humiliated in front of a baying crowd. Dreyfus is exiled for life while Picquart is promoted to run the intelligence unit that tracked him down. But when Picquart discovers that secrets are still being handed over to the Germans, he’s drawn into a dangerous labyrinth of deceit and corruption that threatens not just his honour but his life…

This is a gripping, unmissable thriller. Robert Harris manages to turn fact into fiction with extensive research and quality writing, producing an engaging, compelling, believable story.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Perhaps more than any other book The Thirty-Nine Steps has set the pattern for the story of the chase for a wanted man. It’s a tense tale complete with secret codes, undercover agents, and murder – everything you could want from a good spy thriller.

Adventurer Richard Hannay is bored with his London life – until a spy is murdered in his flat, just days after having warned Hannay of an assassination plot that could plunge Britain into a war with Germany. An obvious suspect for the police and an easy target for the killers, Hannay picks up the trail left by the assassins, fleeing to Scotland, where he must use all his wits to stay one step ahead of the game and warn the government before it is too late.

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

The Hunt for Red October is the runaway bestseller that launched Tom Clancy’s phenomenal career and introduced readers to hero Jack Ryan. Authentic and hugely thrilling, it’s one book we can’t recommend enough.

Beneath the chill Atlantic waters, Russia’s ultra-secret missile submarine is heading west. The Americans want her. The Russians want her back. With all-out war only seconds away, the superpowers race across the ocean on the most desperate mission of a lifetime. The most incredible chase in history is on.

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

Pilgrim is the former head of a secret espionage unit for US intelligence. Before he disappeared into anonymous retirement, he wrote the definitive book on forensic criminal investigation – a book that will come back to haunt him. It will help NYPD detective Ben Bradley track him down. It will take him to a rundown New York hotel room and the body of a woman. It is a textbook murder – and Pilgrim wrote the book.

What begins as an unusual and challenging case will become a terrifying race-against-time across the world to save America from oblivion.

At Risk by Stella Rimington

At Risk by Stella Rimmington

For MI5 officer Liz Carlyle, the nagging complications of her private life are quickly forgotten at Monday’s counter-terrorism meeting. An invisible may have entered mainland Britain. With each passing hour the danger increases. But as Liz desperately sifts through the incoming intelligence, she finally realises a truth that could prove deadly: her ability to get inside her enemy’s head is the only hope of averting disaster…

As former Director General of MI5, Stella Rimington’s books are packed full of authentic detail. A must-read for spy thriller fans.

Crisis by Frank Gardner

Crisis by Frank Gardner

Introducing Luke Carlton – ex-Special Boat Service commando, now under contract to MI6 for some of its most dangerous missions. Sent into the Colombian jungle to investigate the murder of a British intelligence officer, hunted down, captured, tortured and on the run from one of South America’s most powerful drugs cartels, Luke is in a life-or-death race to prevent a disaster on a truly terrifying scale.

Fly-on-the-wall insights, coupled with a fast pace and tension that’s electric, guarantee Frank Gardner’s debut a place in our list.

A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming

A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming

Six weeks before she’s due to become the first female head of MI6, Amelia Levene disappears without a trace. Disgraced ex-agent Thomas Kell is brought in from the cold with orders to find her. Tracking her through France and North Africa, Kell embarks on a dangerous voyage, shadowed by foreign intelligence services. On this far from home soil, the rules of the game are entirely different – and the consequences worse than anyone imagines.

This is the first in Charles Cumming’s Thomas Kell series and an absolutely top drawer thriller – a cleverly constructed, well-written novel full of twists and turns.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Set in an Edwardian London underworld of terrorist bombers, spies, grotesques and fanatics, Conrad’s dark, unsettling masterpiece asks if we ever really know others, or ourselves.

The classic story is woven around an attack on the Greenwich Observatory in 1894 masterminded by Verloc, a Russian spy working for the police, and ostensibly a member of an anarchist group in Soho. What Conrad does best is delve into the heart of human character – what is it that motivates us, makes us love, hate and take action, and how society shapes us.

The Sandpit by Nicholas Searle

The Sandpit by Nicholas Shakespeare

When John Dyer returns to Oxford from Brazil with his young son, he doesn’t expect to find themselves in danger. But the rainy streets of this English city turn out to be just as treacherous as those he used to walk in the favelas.

Who do you trust with a secret that could destroy the world? Readers of William Boyd and John le Carré will find themselves engrossed in this brilliantly crafted, compelling novel that grips from the very beginning.

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

Crime novelist Charles Latimer is travelling in Istanbul when he first hears of the mysterious Dimitrios – a master criminal, long wanted by the law, whose body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus. Fascinated by the story, Latimer decides to retrace Dimitrios’ steps across Europe to gather material for a new book. But as he discovers more about his subject’s shadowy history, fascination tips over into obsession – and soon, his own life is on the line.

Clever, authentic and packed with intrigue, this is a first class classic that paved the way for modern espionage thrillers.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Into the intrigue and violence of 1950s Indo-China comes CIA agent Alden Pyle, a young American sent to promote democracy through a mysterious ‘Third Force’. As his naive optimism starts to cause bloodshed, his friend Fowler, a cynical foreign correspondent, finds it hard to stand aside and watch. But even as he intervenes he wonders why: for the greater good, or something altogether more complicated?

This is a complex and multi-layered novel exploring love, innocence, and morality in Vietnam and it will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

Secret Service by Tom Bradby

Secret Service by Tom Bradby

Kate Henderson’s life seems perfectly ordinary. But she is in fact a senior MI6 officer, who right now is nursing the political equivalent of a nuclear bomb. Kate’s most recent mission yielded the intelligence that the British Prime Minister has cancer – and that one of the leading candidates to replace him may be a Russian agent of influence. Up against the clock to uncover the Russian mole, Kate risks everything to get to the truth.

This is a fresh-from-the-headlines thriller from journalist and ITV News anchor Tom Bradby for fans of Homeland and Bodyguard.

SS-GB by Len Deighton

SS-GB by Len Deighton

Recently adapted by the BBC, this is a spy story quite different from any other, imagining Britain under German rule following World War Two.

In February 1941 British Command surrendered to the Nazis. Churchill has been executed, the King is in the Tower and the SS are in Whitehall. However, it’s ‘business as usual’ at Scotland Yard run by the SS when Detective Inspector Archer is assigned to a routine murder case. But when SS Standartenfuhrer Huth arrives from Berlin with orders from the great Himmler himself to supervise the investigation, the resourceful Archer finds himself caught up in a high level, all action, espionage battle.

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland

The Couple Next Door meets Homeland in this contemporary novel that blends spy thriller and domestic drama perfectly. Penned by a former CIA analyst, the story oozes with an authenticity that sets it apart from the rest.

Vivian Miller is a dedicated CIA counter-intelligence analyst assigned to uncover Russian sleeper cells in the United States. After accessing the computer of a potential Russian operative, Vivian stumbles on a secret dossier of deep-cover agents within America’s borders. A few clicks later, everything that matters to her is threatened – her job, her marriage, her children. Because one of the agents is her husband.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

Banished to Slough House from the ranks of achievers at Regent’s Park for various crimes of drugs and drunkenness, lechery and failure, politics and betrayal, Jackson Lamb’s misfit crew of highly trained joes don’t run ops, they push paper. But you don’t stop being a spook just because you’re no longer in the game.

Slow Horses is the first book in this terrific series that just gets better and better. Clever and compelling, with a great cast of characters and sharp wit, this is a hugely entertaining read.

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Inspired by a real-life investigation, this thriller by the writer of BBC Two’s London Spy revolves around an ambitious secret police officer, Leo Demidov, who believes he’s helping to build the perfect society in 1950s Stalinist Russia. But when he uncovers evidence of a killer at large – a threat the state won’t admit exists – Demidov must risk everything to expose the truth.

Dark, brutal and brimming with tension, Child 44 will hook you in and refuse to let go.

The Winter Agent by Gareth Rubin

The Winter Agent by Gareth Rubin

A gripping thriller set in occupied France, based on a shocking historical conspiracy that reaches the very top of the British establishment.

January, 1944. A bitter winter grips occupied France, where Marc Reece leads an SOE circuit facing deadly risks, operating in secret to sabotage the German war effort. But Marc has a second mission, secret from even his fellow agents. Everyone knows that D-Day is coming, and that the hours following the Allied landings will decide the war – and every last scrap of information he can provide might make all the difference in the fate of the western world. But when the circuit is ambushed – with deadly consequences – Marc realises there may be a spy in their ranks, putting at risk everything they’ve been fighting for.

Killing Eve: Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings

Killing Eve: Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings

BBC One’s Killing Eve captivated us all when it landed on our small screens back in 2018 – but have you picked up the pacy, addictive books behind the series yet?

Following Villanelle, a ruthlessly trained Russian assassin, and Eve Polastri, the MI5 agent who hunts her, in an entertaining, witty and often bloody cat-and-mouse game, the books are a refreshing addition to the spy thriller genre, mixing the personal and political to great effect.

Atomic Love by Jennie Fields

Atomic Love by Jennie Fields

Rosalind Porter has always defied expectations – both in her work as a physicist designing the atomic bomb, and in her love affair with coworker Thomas Weaver. Five years after the end of both, the FBI comes knocking. Agent Charlie Szydlo wants Rosalind to spy on Weaver, whom the FBI suspects of selling nuclear secrets to Russia. Rosalind’s final assignment launches her on a mission to find the truth – no matter where it leads.

Blending historical fiction, spy thriller and emotional drama, Atomic Love examines our fiercest loyalties, deepest desires and the transforming power of forgiveness.

Have we missed any of the best spy thrillers? Let us know in the comments below!

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