Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (1958)
Given the intensely secretive nature of the work and the number of highly unusual tasks that must be performed, a certain level of absurdity creeps into intelligence work. Greene taps into this to great effect in this black comedy about Wormold, a vacuum-cleaner salesman in Cuba who is approached by a representative of the British secret service and enlisted in the spy game. Madness ensues when Wormold comes up dry, concocts information to satisfy his minders, then discovers that what he is providing has become all too real. You’ll eat this up with a sterling teaspoon.
The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer (2009)
The tourist in question is not like you, comfortably seated on a jet, likely bound for a holiday brimming with adventure. He’s Milo Weaver, assigned to a section of the CIA known as the Tourists; they perform a particularly grimy and deadly no-questions-asked form of black ops. Weaver becomes accused of murdering a fellow agent, and rival agency Homeland Security is after him. Steinhauer draws a spellbinding protagonist, so much so that George Clooney has plans to play him in the movie version.
From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming (1957)
No sampling of the genre would be complete without at least one entry from Fleming, who was a Naval intelligence officer during World War II and the son of a member of Parliament. He created James Bond to be a hardened veteran of the British secret service, not as the suave, martini-hoisting, wisecracking playboy we have come to see him as. In this, the fifth in the Bond series, our hero enters the story late, after the evil Russian killing organization, SMERSH, has been established. Later, he gets a real kick out of assassin Rosa Klebb, and you’ll get a kick out of this literary joyride.
The Polish Officer by Alan Furst (1995)
A former magazine writer and columnist whose valise is festooned with stickers from across Europe, Furst specializes in World War II–era intrigue. In this, he weaves a gripping tale around the virulently stoic Alexander de Milja, the title character, who is assigned to smuggle the national gold reserves out of Poland in service to the underground. De Milja dodges the Nazis and the local authorities with bravery and cunning underneath a gray cloud of perpetual despair brought on by the occupation. But the brilliance of Furst’s prose and the richness of detail will lift any reader’s gloom.
A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939)
Charles Latimer is a mystery writer who finds himself thrust in the middle of a spy story. Invited by a Turkish officer to view the body of a notorious criminal — so Latimer can then pen an espionage tale the colonel has cooked up — he ends up investigating the death himself. Dimitrios turns out to be an engrossing character, with a past that has more dirty twists and turns than the European sewer system. Dimitrios is considered a classic of the genre, and Ambler counted Graham Greene, John le Carré and Alfred Hitchcock among his fans.
The Charm School by Nelson DeMille (1988)
Granted, a spy-novel snob — and we all know at least one — might raise his nose at the mention of DeMille among the literary lions. But when it comes to a page-turning thrill ride, there may be none better. The titular Charm School is a secret installation inside the Soviet Union, where potential infiltrators are trained by captured Westerners. Presumably. The tension rises as some nosy American embassy personnel begin to sniff around. Not much is at stake, other than the future of Soviet-U.S. relations. It’s a great beach read. Just watch your back for that dagger.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré (1963)
Although it may seem unfair to include two le Carré titles on this list when so many other worthy candidates also deserve mention, it’s almost impossible to leave this off. This gripping 1963 publication features the Berlin Wall as a major character. But it is agent Alec Leamas — and the moral quandary in which he finds himself when handed a final assignment that involves having him defect to the East Germans in order to snuff out an enemy — that propels this startling narrative. Former CIA director Richard Helms was said to have loathed le Carré’s work because it made intelligence agents appear too cynical. He might be the only nonfan.