Skip to Main Content
Header image

The best novels about spies and espionage

By Kobo • January 28, 2024Recommended Reading

While the movie Argylle takes the espionage thriller to a new meta-level, it builds on a tradition going back centuries.

Stories about highly trained agents and double-crossing contacts have been popular for at least two hundred years, going back as far as James Fenimore Cooper’s pre-Civil War novel, The Spy. Since then, the genre has spawned beloved iconic characters like James Bond, Jason Bourne, and George Smiley that have been adapted several times over to entertain generations of audiences.

Argylle by Elly Conway

While the movie of the same name depicts the antic adventures of (fictional) novelist Elly Conway as she’s swept into a high-flying plot involving an international agency of bad guys and one extremely skilled good guy protecting Elly and her cat Alfie, the book by the same name is the story within that story. Got that?

In the book Argylle, a CIA spymaster up against a Russian oligarch with grand ambitions calls in the troubled (and troublemaking) elite agent Argylle. He’s not her first choice, but for this mission he might be the only chance the world has.

Now as for how a fictional novelist can write a real work of fiction…

View eBook    View Audiobook

Dying for Christmas by Tammy Cohen

Writing for Vox, Constance Grady has suggested that real-life thriller writer Tammy Cohen wrote Argylle. We're convinced.

In this 2016 novel by Cohen, a young woman makes an impulsive decision while Christmas shopping to go home with a stranger who she soon realizes has no intention to ever let her leave. But she’s keeping something from him that just might be her ticket to escape—before the winter sun sets on the 12th day of Christmas.

View eBook

A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

This highly-regarded 1939 novel might be the book that Argylle most owes a debt to.

Charles Latimer is a successful mystery novelist who finds himself suddenly embroiled in international espionage after a chance encounter with a Turkish colonel. As beloved as this book is, it was 30 years before Eric Ambler revisited Latimer in a sequel, The Intercom Conspiracy.

View eBook

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

To get through early pandemic sleepless nights, A Town Called Solace author Mary Lawson picked up the first of Mick Herron’s Slough House series—about a band of MI5 misfits working out of a rotting office at the outskirts of London—and couldn’t stop. “He’s a fabulous writer,” she said. “So funny and light and his stories don’t hang around you, you don’t have to commit to them when you’re reading him at 3 AM. I can read him just for the pleasure of it.”

View eBook    View Audiobook

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

Dominika Egorova is a “Sparrow,” a Russian spy trained to draw out sensitive information through seduction. She’s assigned to thwart US efforts to penetrate Russian intelligence by targeting Nathaniel Nash, the ambitious young CIA officer running the operation. As capable as he is and knowing his job makes him a target, what gets readers turning the pages of the first book in this trilogy is whether Nash sees Dominika coming.

As a former CIA operative himself, author Jason Matthews’ take on the espionage thriller draws on real-life parts of the job—but we may never get to learn which ones.

View eBook    View Audiobook

A Perfect Spy by John le Carré

Kobo staffer Tracy says of this classic by one of the giants of the genre, “it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.” She was particularly taken by le Carré's power of observation and ability to share details in a “stop in your tracks” kind of way.

Though best known for books such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy featuring his most famous character, George Smiley, A Perfect Spy is considered le Carré’s most autobiographical work, with the story of double agent Magnus Pym tracing some aspects of the author's real-life work for MI6 during the early days of the Cold War.

View eBook

Rules of Engagement by Stacey Abrams (writing as Selena Montgomery)

Leaning hard into the romantic suspense angle of espionage thrillers, this is the story of private intelligence operative Dr. Raleigh Foster whose assignment to infiltrate Scimiatar, a global terrorist network requires her to pose with her assigned partner—a sexy agent out to settle a score with Scimitar—as a couple. Soon the pair realizes the riskiest part of the plan is going to be keeping things strictly professional.

View eBook    View Audiobook

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

In 1937 Warsaw, French and German spies jockey for advantage as Europe edges ever closer to war. Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a handsome diplomat, spends his nights with a Polish-Parisian woman working as a lawyer for the League of Nations while the work of diplomacy draws him deeper into back alleys and secret salons, where every conversation is understood to have never happened... assuming it’s not the last he’ll ever have.

This is the 10th in Furst’s Night Soldiers series, but don’t hesitate to jump in here.

View eBook    View Audiobook

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This multi award-winning 2016 novel is narrated by an anonymous double agent, a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain settled in Los Angeles among other Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon. As he makes his way in America he reports back to his communist spymasters back home, giving them a view of America seldom revealed through espionage.

View eBook

The Human Factor by Graham Greene

A classic of British spy fiction, this is the story of a leak in a small unit of the UK Secret Intelligence Service and the efforts to locate it—and seal it off. And it’s also the story of an agent, Maurice Castle, sleepily readying for retirement as paranoia rages around him.

View eBook

Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

While abroad on a luxurious vacation paid for by the agency that’s employed them for decades, four elite assassins on the brink of retirement realize their bosses intend to cancel their return tickets—permanently. But these masters of old-school persuasion and subterfuge won’t be wiped out so easily by the whippersnappers sent after them.

View eBook    View Audiobook

If you would like to be the first to know about bookish blogs, please subscribe. We promise to provided only relevant articles.