I’ve been on a spy thriller kick recently, first inspired by the classic BBC miniseries adaptation of John Le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and fueled by the more modern flair of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels. Somewhere in the middle of all this cloak and dagger, I decided the list was getting long enough that I’d better share a few of the better ones here. A couple of them have even been adapted to the screen!
It was recently recommended that I read Len Deighton’s “The IPCRESS File,” and I decided to put it next on my list. I had just finished a pair of James Bond books, which are practically parody as far as the world of spycraft goes, and I was hoping for something with a little more grit and realism to it. The IPCRESS File, delivering a great mix of classic spooks and strange, fantastic science, is now near the top of my list as far as favorite spy novels go. IPCRESS follows a nameless narrator, who has worked for British military intelligence his entire adult life. In stark contrast to action packed, bullet-spitting, lady-bedding, martini-drinking James Bond, our narrator is an awkward man, sarcastic and self-deprecating, and sometimes even a little bit naive. He’s paranoid, far less sure of himself than Mister Bond, and is not at all accustomed to killing or death, despite the occasional necessity of the act. At the beginning of the novel, he is transferred to a different, more secret and elite branch of intelligence to work with a man named Dalby. What happens next is for you to discover, but I can say it is full of chasing and betrayal with a hefty dose of conspiracy. AND, this is also one of those books where the film is just as good- if not better! Featuring a young Michael Caine as the main character (who receives a name – Harry Palmer – for the film), the plot was tweaked in all the right ways and none of the wrong ones.
Since I feel bad for knocking on James Bond back there, I’d better feature him as well. In the early Cold War days, Ian Fleming decided to take a distinct anti-Communist slant and invent James Bond, the ultimate Western spy. Most of you have certainly seen him portrayed by one or more super suave British men in the plethora of films that have been made, but reading the novels is a different experience entirely. Bond reads more like a well-written pulp novel than a complex thriller, but that makes the novels fast paced and easy to digest – much like the movies. You may also be surprised how much the plots differ between page and screen – Moonraker is an excellent example of a film that went completely off the rails when compared to the book. Although Bond often comes across as an arrogant jerk, you find yourself unable to argue with him – after all, he is undoubtedly much cooler than you or I could ever be.
In the modern day of espionage authors, Daniel Silva has begun to take the reins as the Chief Spymaster with his books featuring Gabriel Allon. Allon is a spy for Israeli Intelligence (in the novels, his employer is called “The Office,” not quite mentioning that it is really the Israeli Mossad) while maintaining cover as an artist and art restorer. His first job in intelligence was to uncover the killers of Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympics, but left The Office after his wife and son were attacked in a revenge-bombing by Tariq al-Hourani, the leader of the Munich Massacre. Pulled out of retirement by a man who wants to assassinate Tariq for his own reasons, Allon joins a small team of agents and begins the story of The Kill Artist. Allon has an unconventional background and personality for a secret agent – while most of them tend to be old, British men (see next paragraph for the reason why), Allon is native Israeli, with a character history tied deeply to his culture and a personality shaped by his experiences and heritage. He is highly intelligent and introspective, speaks five languages fluently, and more than anything wants to restore people, even as he is constantly coerced into destroying them. If you like the first one, you can look forward to at least thirteen more novels, and more as soon as he writes them. A movie adaptation of one of his novels is in the works – supposedly – but there’s been no official peep about it yet. Stay tuned.
And now we come to the Grand Master, the one who took a niche genre and flung the shutters open on it: John Le Carre. His novel, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is almost certainly the most famous spy thriller ever written, and it’s the one that most thoroughly sets up Le Carre’s complex world of espionage: the Circus. Headed by a man known only as Control, and kept in line by perpetually (but never truly) retired spymaster George Smiley, the Circus is the nexus of power for British intelligence. In the novel, Control asks the narrator, named Alec Leamas, to “go back into the cold one more time;” that is, to re-enter the land beyond the Iron Curtain for one last mission. This mission is to trick the East Germans into executing one of their own for treason – no easy task, and one which puts Leamas at the point of a very long spear stretching from England all the way to the dismal reaches of East Germany. No author portrays the intense paranoia and moral poverty of the Cold War era like Le Carre, and although that rarely means a happy ending for his characters, it always makes for a riveting story.
To place holds on the film versions of any of these titles, click on their respective covers: