Spy novels by real spies: Anthony Burgess, John le Carré and others
Former spies can make great authors. Here's a list of some of the best: Anthony Burgess, Ian Fleming, Charles McCarry, John le Carré and more.
Seattle Times book editor
Early this summer I asked an idle question of Seattle Times readers: What are the great spy novels written by authors who were actual spies?
Another learning experience: When it comes to avid readers, there are no idle questions. I was deluged by titles of books written by former intelligence workers and spies: whether out of guilt, a compulsion to testify after a lifetime of secrecy or an urge to set the record straight, the numbers of former intelligence workers who have written fictional takes on their profession are legion.
But first, a word from an actual intelligence analyst turned author.
Susan Hasler worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for 21 years, including a very unhappy time after 9/11 when she watched with dismay as the Bush administration, drawing on faulty or fabricated intelligence, launched a war with Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that never materialized. A former Soviet specialist, speechwriter to three CIA directors and a counterterrorism analyst, Hasler has written a black comedy, "Intelligence" (St. Martin's Press), about a clutch of eccentric but dedicated CIA workers trying to outguess a real terrorist bent on attacking the U.S. as their superiors deluge them with pointless busywork.
In 1983, Hasler had a degree in Russian languages, and the CIA was one of the few employers looking for those qualifications. Twenty-one years later, after the invasion of Iraq, she left the CIA. "When I left, the last thing I wanted to do was write," she said in a phone interview. "I was very upset about the whole run-up to the Iraq war and 9/11. ... I always had the greatest respect for the people I worked with. The idea that the president would lie to the people was one I really couldn't swallow."
But if you have to write a book, you have to write a book — even if you're an ex-CIA employee and must submit the manuscript to vetting by the agency's publications review board. Hasler was scrupulous about fabricating details, such as the office lingo she made up. She says the terrorist threat she writes about (involving use of remote-control model planes) couldn't actually happen.
In the end, "I pretty much knew what I could say, and not," she said: "They didn't change a word. They're not allowed to cut something just because it's embarrassing; there are very precise regulations."
Hasler mostly reads literary fiction, but you will find some of her favorite spies-turned-spy-novelists in the following list. (No room here for great spy novelists such as Alan Furst who were never spies.) For suggestions I particularly thank a group called the Association of Former Intelligence Officers — my initial request was picked up by their weekly newsletter, and I got tips from around the country, and the world.
"A Choice of Enemies" by Ted Allbeury. The British newspaper The Independent said of Allbeury when he died in 2005: "For his humanity and depth of characterization, Allbeury may be considered the spy-story-writer's spy-story writer." Allbeury worked in army intelligence in Britain during World War II, according to his obituary in The Independent. Titles: "A Choice of Enemies," "The Alpha List" and "The Other Side of Silence. "
Milt Bearden. This former CIA officer in charge of the covert war in Afghanistan wrote 2002's "The Black Tulip," set in the late 1980s during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
John Bingham. The pen and family name for Baron Clanmorris, Bingham worked with John le Carré in British intelligence and is said to be one of the inspirations for George Smiley (see below). Bingham, who died in 1988, wrote his own spy and detective novels, including "Brock and the Defector." "Well written, concise and compelling" said one reader.
John Buchan. Buchan wrote "The 39 Steps," the classic 1915 novel on which the 1935 Hitchcock movie and the recent PBS adaptation were based. "The 39 Steps" vies for contention as the first spy novel with "Kim" by Rudyard Kipling and "Riddle of the Sands" by Erskine Childers. Buchan worked for British intelligence during World War I.
Anthony Burgess. The 1966 novel "Tremor of Intent," by the British author of "A Clockwork Orange," might be described as a high-concept parody of the James Bond adventures. Burgess apparently did "cipher work" for British Army intelligence in Gibraltar during World War II, according to the Dictionary of Literary Biography.
John le Carré. My opinion: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," "The Honourable Schoolboy" and "Smiley's People" by le Carré are not just the best spy novels ever written, but some of the best novels, period. This epic trilogy is the story of George Smiley, an aging spy who is called back to ferret out a traitor in the British Secret Service. Le Carré (real name: David Cornwell) worked for British Intelligence during the Cold War.
James Church. An author of North Korea-based mysteries, featuring the diligent civil servant/detective Inspector O, Church is a former intelligence operative in East Asia ("James Church" is a pseudonym). In 2007's "Hidden Moon," Inspector O's hapless assignment involves investigating a bank robbery, but no one is talking, which means the government may not want him to find the answers. Shades of Martin Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park." Church's latest Inspector O book is "The Man with the Baltic Stare" (2010).
Richard A. Clarke. Clarke, White House counterterrorism chief under both Clinton and Bush, has written several nonfiction books and two novels: 2007's "Breakpoint" and 2005's "The Scorpion's Gate," the latter about an ill-advised plan to invade an Islamic republic. The writing "is nothing special; what is special is Clarke's passionate and deftly detailed version of the present, albeit one told in terms of its consequences," said Publishers Weekly.
Charles Cumming. Cumming's book, "A Spy by Nature," published in Britain in 2001 and the U.S. in 2007, is "loosely based on the author's real-life experience of having been recruited by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in 1995," said Publishers Weekly. It's about a British marketing consultant who lives to regret a job assignment which turns into industrial espionage.
Lawrence Durrell. Durrell, author of "The Alexandria Quartet," worked as a press attaché in Britain's foreign office in Yugoslavia. It's not clear whether he worked in intelligence, but his 1957 book "White Eagles Over Serbia" is about a British secret agent sent to Serbia to investigate the assassination of one of his colleagues. "White Eagles" is "fun, quite an adventure story," said Anna Dewart, a professor of English at the College of Coastal Georgia.
Ian Fleming. The creator of James Bond worked in British naval intelligence in World War II, and several Bond characters are based on real British spies. "Q," the head of the research division that supplies Bond with fantastic gadgets, is based on the work of Charles Fraser-Smith, a real person who supplied British agents with "miniature cameras, invisible ink, hidden weaponry and concealed compasses" according to Ben Macintyre's book "Operation Mincemeat."
E. Howard Hunt. The notorious intelligence operative of the Nixon era wrote more than 80 books, many of them spy novels ("The Berlin Ending"), under his own name and numerous pseudonyms.
W. Somerset Maugham. According to the new biography "The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham," Maugham worked for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service in Switzerland in 1915-16 (and later during World War II). His first boss told him: "If you do well you'll get no thanks ... and if you get into trouble you'll get no help." Thanks, boss. Maugham's six-story collection "Ashenden: or The British Agent" was nominated by several readers, and Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 movie "Secret Agent" is based partly on this book.
Charles McCarry. A reader favorite, McCarry was a clandestine officer for the CIA in several countries during the Cold War era of the 1950s and '60s. Of McCarry's "The Tears of Autumn," published in 1974, one reader said "the novel reads as fresh and timely as if it was written yesterday, plus, it offers a credible explanation for who assassinated John Kennedy and why." McCarry wrote a number of novels featuring a spy named Paul Christopher, several of which have been reissued by Overlook.
Stella Rimington. Dame Stella, appointed director general of MI5 in 1992, was the first woman to hold the post and the first director general whose name was publicly announced on appointment. She has written several novels, the latest of which is "Dead Line" (2010) and frequently highlights the conflict between MI-5 and MI-6 (the British equivalents of the FBI and the CIA).
David Stone. A pseudonym for a former intelligence officer and military man, "Stone" has written "The Echelon Vendetta," "The Orpheus Deception," "The Venetian Judgment" and "The Skorpion Directive," about "cleaner" Micah Dalton, a guy who cleans up CIA operations after things fall apart. "You need to start with the first one and read through. ... you'll be mostly lost if you don't," said George Edward Stanley, a professor at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla., and a much-published author himself.