Marked by an exhilarating pace, plenty of dramatic twists and turns, and richly drawn, complex protagonists, spa novels are about as riveting as it gets in the library—and even at the beach. And while all the excitement of double agents and espionage keeps you at the edge of your seat, these books also offer insight into fascinating and troubling historical periods in a way that biographies and textbooks can't.
In the name of entertaining summer reading—and to wrestle with larger philosophical questions of betrayal, human connection, and the legacy of international conflict—we rounded up nine of the best spy novels around. Written by former CIA agents and the most prolific literary minds of all time, get to know the best spy novels below.
Who Is Vera Kelly?
The Backdrop: 1962 in New York City's Greenwich Village and Argentina
A radio show host is just struggling to make ends meet and fit into the underground gay scene when she gets recruited by the CIA to go wiretap a crooked congressman in Argentina and work her way into a radical group of students planning a coup. Think coming-of-age meets historical fiction with a strong female protagonist.
"I saw no reason to trust her, and she was clearly suspicious of me."
The Backdrop: Modern-day Russia
Dominika Egorova is forced into becoming a secret agent that uses her sultry beauty to seduce an American CIA officer. When she develops genuine feelings for him, her loyalties begin to shift and the plot thickens.
"She saw his purple lust, it lit up the darkened room."
Gun Dealer's Daughter
The Backdrop: 1980s Marcos-era Philippines and modern-day America
Though this book doesn't follow a linear chronology, it reflects Sol's fragmented memory and trauma. As a young woman limited by the comfort of her wealth, she seeks to overthrow the Marcos regime. Spying on the American generals and Philippine elite from the comfort of her own fancy dinner table, Sol's loyalties are caught between her family, homeland, and her insurgent student friends. Politically charged, lyrical, and eye-opening, this is a must-read.
"Words are all we have to save us. But at the same time, they are not enough to make us whole."
Agent in Place
The Backdrop: New York, Washington, D.C., and the French Riveria during the Cold War
When a Russian spy who's expertly infiltrated Washington society gets his hands on a top-secret NATO memorandum, a high-profile CIA officer's cover is blown in Moscow, and now everyone is racing against time to find out who the Russian spy actually is.
"Katie herself was a gem. Made to order, and no pun intended. She was out now, as he expected: a restless type, devoted to causes and demonstrations."
The Backdrop: 1975 Vietnam and Los Angeles
A half-French, half-Vietnamese double agent relocates to America after the fall of Saigon, and betrayal, both personal and political, ensues. At once a love story and a spy novel about the legacy and evils of colonialism, the Vietnam War, and ensuing refugee experience in the U.S. you won't soon forget The Sympathizer. It's satirical, sharp, suspenseful, and poignant.
"I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces."
The Backdrop: Post-WWII in Berlin, Germany
Alex Meier is a young German Jew who fled to America at the onset of WWII to escape Nazi persecution. But with the Cold War underway, it's the peak of the McCarthy era, and he's pigeon-holed into working undercover in East Berlin for the CIA. It's the only way he won't be deported. But when he gets there, he finds out that his target is the woman he loved and left behind before the war. It's a thought-provoking and action-packed love story.
"He'd seen the faces before, the jowls and smirks, when they’d been Nazis."
The Secret Agent
The Backdrop: London in the late 1800s
A shopowner gets wrapped up in an anarchist scheme to bomb the Greenwich Observatory, but the plan goes wrong and throws his life into chaos. It raises philosophical questions and is a literary masterpiece, but that doesn't keep it from being a thrilling, entertaining read.
"Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it by threats, persuasion, or bribes."
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Backdrop: Post-WWII in Britain
Unhappily retired after a failed mission, an aging officer sets out to catch a traitor who has worked their way into the highest ranks of British Intelligence. Full of political and social commentary with a fast-paced plot, there's a reason this is such a classic.
"There are moments which are made up of too much stuff for them to be lived at the time they occur."
The Backdrop: Berlin, 1955
A young Englishman living in American-occupied Berlin is commissioned to install the tape recorders that that will wiretap Russians in Soviet-occupied East Berlin. He begins spying on the Americans for the Brits while helping the Americans spy on the Russians. But, he fails as a spy, and the plot begins to thicken even more when he falls in love with an older German with a violent, possessive ex-husband.
"If she went, what was he going to do with all these loving facts, these torturing details? If she wasn't with him, how would he bear all this knowledge of her alone?"