When the Berlin Wall was built 50 years ago, authors and readers alike went gaga for spy fiction. We select our favorite works from the genre.
Fifty years ago — on Aug. 13, 1961 — construction began on the Berlin Wall. It was an odious idea to begin with: to separate Soviet-controlled East Germany from its Western half and to execute anyone who tried to escape. East Germany claimed it was protecting itself from fascist elements left over from World War II, but in reality it was holding its own citizens hostage.
The wall came down in 1989 after political upheaval swept across the Eastern Bloc. It is estimated that during the wall’s existence, somewhere between 100 and 200 people died trying to flee.
While the Berlin Wall is recalled with chilling sadness, it managed to generate new interest in a dusty genre of publishing: the spy novel. Cloak-and-dagger devotees fed off the escalation of Cold War tensions and renewed their fascination with the exploits of dangerous men and women with murky morals and a knack for subterfuge and skullduggery.
To commemorate the anniversary of the wall’s inception, here is a list of 10 of the very best of those tomes. They’re not all from the Cold War era, but they do share a spirit of intrigue and treachery emblematic of the Wall. There are countless others of merit, to be sure. But these will keep you nervously peering over your shoulder.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (1974)
Most spy-novel discussions begin and end with le Carré — and for good reason: He writes with both the authenticity that his years as a British intelligence officer have forged and a foundation of literary eminence. Tinker, the gem of a glittering trilogy that also includes Smiley’s People and The Honourable Schoolboy, follows the world-weary but still razor-sharp George Smiley as he parries with Karla, his Soviet counterpart.
The Miernik Dossier by Charles McCarry (1973)
Tadeusz Miernik is a troll. But is he a mole? Yes, he’s irritating, bumbling and whiny, but he might also be a master spy putting on an act. The Polish scientist is at the center of McCarry’s deftly crafted yarn, which follows a handful of diverse and richly drawn characters on a car trip in a Cadillac from Switzerland to the Sudan. McCarry, a former newspaperman, CIA operative and speechwriter in the Eisenhower administration, spins his tale through a collection of documents and dispatches about the pitiable sad sack of the novel’s title, and he does so with wit and panache.
A Choice of Enemies by Ted Allbeury (1973)
Allbeury, a former British intelligence officer, took up writing at the rather late age of 56. When he died in December 2005 at the age of 88, he had churned out more than 40 novels and several radio plays. A Choice of Enemies is among his finest because it illustrates his great strength: presenting the moral tug-of-war that often resides inside each agent who finds himself immersed in a shadowy world. His protagonist, Ted Bailey, is pulled into an excruciating mission and an impossible dilemma. And after you read this, you should Google Allbeury’s bio. It reads like a spy novel on its own.