Marked by an exhilarating pace, plenty of dramatic twists and turns, and richly drawn, complex protagonists, spy 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 the name of thrilling reading, no matter what time of year—and to wrestle with larger philosophical questions of betrayal, human connection, and the legacy of international conflict—we rounded up 20 of the best spy novels around, plus one can't miss biography. Written by former CIA and other intelligence agents and some of the most prolific literary minds of all time, get to know the best spy novels below.
Here are our picks for the best spy novels you have to read.
Who Is Vera Kelly?
The Backdrop: 1962 in New York City's Greenwich Village and Argentina
A radio show host is struggling to make ends meet and fit into the underground gay scene when she gets recruited by the CIA to wiretap a crooked congressman in Argentina, and works her way into a radical group of students planning a coup. Think coming-of-age meets historical fiction with a strong female protagonist.
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 her own fancy dinner table, Sol's loyalties struggle between her family, homeland, and her insurgent student friends. Politically charged, lyrical, and eye-opening, this is a must-read.
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. Now, everyone is racing against time to uncover who the Russian spy actually is.
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.
The Backdrop: Post-WWII 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.
The Secret Agent
The Backdrop: London, late 1800s
A shop-owner 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.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Backdrop: Post-WWII 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.
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 becomes more complicated when he falls in love with an older German with a violent, possessive ex-husband.
The Backdrop: Burkina Faso
In the FBI, Marie Mitchell sticks out as a young black woman. In American Spy, Marie wades through a sea of a mostly white male intelligence community, and an assignment to Burkina Faso, where she meets Thomas Sankara, revolutionary president of the landlocked, West African country.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
The backdrop: Cold War-era Germany
British intelligence agent Alec Leamas should be on his way back to London, but one more job—an undercover mission to topple East German intelligence, leads Leamas back into dangerous territory. In an interview with Electric Literature, author Lauren Wilkinson (author of American Spy) calls this spy novel "terrific."
The backdrop: Post-9/11 America, during an election year
Intelligence trails Maddie James, a CIA counterterrorism analyst as she pursues an al-Qaida operation with an eccentric team. Meanwhile, the Administration is more interested in maintaining the message that America is winning the war on terror. According to author Susan Hasler, a former member of the CIA, writing the novel was a way to cope with residual 9/11 period anger.
The backdrop: Cyprus
Young, blonde CIA operative Vanessa Pierson assumes the identify of a financial adviser in Cyprus on a reconnaissance mission. Her target: An international arms dealer, Bhoot, who is believed to be aiding Iran to bolster its nuclear activities. With an assassin on her trail, Blowback is full of fast-paced action scenes, as well as intimate details that the Washington Post describes "might elude a male writer." Blowback is co-authored by former CIA agent Valerie Plame, and Sarah Lovett.
The backdrop: Britain
British intelligence taps Liz Carlyle, a scrappy counter terror agent to stop a terrorist attack. And the person of interest is traveling under a British passport, an "invisible." Author Stella Rimington relies on her former life as a high-ranking spy to author At Risk, Rimington's debut novel.
Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Entrepreneur, Spy, Diplomat
The backdrop: America, through the Indigenous lens
Authored by the late Dr. Paula Gunn Allen, a Native American scholar, Pocahontas strips away Disney's romantic sheen and Euro-centric narrative in a biography illuminated from the Indigenous (in particular, the Algonquian tribes's) point of view. Publishers Weekly writes, "More persuasive are Allen's comments about the cultural similarities between the English and Algonquin and the idea that each group changed the other."
Hue and Cry
The backdrop: London
Before Mally Lee's wedding in six months, she accepts a position as governess to a shipping magnate's young daughter. Upon entering the Peterson grounds, however, Lee will be accused of being a thief and spy. Mally flees, leaving her fiancé in emotional shambles and private investigators in hot pursuit. What has Mally stumbled into?
The Courilof Affair
The backdrop: 18th century Russia
Léon M, son of Russian revolutionaries, is tasked with assassinating the ruthless Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, Russian Minister of Education. Fronting as Courilof's personal physician, Léon M works his way into Courilof's summer house, and as his relationship with Courilof grows, learns things are more complicated than they seem.
The backdrop: United States
A page-turning tale of an ex-agent on the run from her former employer (a clandestine, unnamed agency). To clear her name, she accepts one more job that will put her in an even more precarious position. But, the job goes south. What now?
The backdrop: Civil War-era America
Elizabeth Van Lew is a Union loyalist living in the Confederacy, and she will risk it all to help build the Richmond underground, break free inmates from Confederate Libby Prison, and gather military intelligence under the pretense of humanitarian aid. In this historical novel inspired by a true story, Van Lew's contributions during the Civil War comes alive.
An Extraordinary Union
The backdrop: Civil War-era America
Part espionage, part romance, An Extraordinary Union follows freedwoman Ellen "Elle" Burns and Malcolm McCall (a Scottish immigrant) in their endeavors as spies against the Confederacy. They both risk love, and their lives, for each other and the cause.