25 Thrilling Spy Books Written by Real-Life Operatives

After devouring espionage legends John le Carré, Graham Greene, and Len Deighton, you may be wondering what's next. Prepare to be captivated by these 15 spellbinding novels, a mix of vintage classics and contemporary gems all expertly woven by actual spies.


NEED TO KNOW 

Karen Cleveland’s bestseller follows Vivian Miller, a high-powered CIA analyst who makes a shocking discovery about her husband that makes her question everything she believes. How far will she go to learn the truth? And does Karen really Need to Know? This non-stop thriller is written by a former CIA counterterrorism analyst. 

UNDER WESTERN EYES

You may know Joseph Conrad as the author of Heart of Darkness but did you also know he was a Master Mariner and, during WWI, a British Q-ship co-navigator on a mission to sink German subs? In 1916, the Kaiser redoubled his submarine warfare and Royal Navy Captain J.G. Sutherland invited Conrad to join his spy mission. Keep that in mind as you read Conrad’s classic espionage thrillers Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent

THE BLACK TULIP

Milt Bearden’s The Black Tulip is an international thriller that follows Alexander Fannin, an operative bankrolled by US Intelligence to support the Mujahideen fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Bearden spent 30 years in the CIA, so you can decide for yourself what’s real and what’s fiction.

THE TERMINAL LIST

If you enjoyed Chris Pratt’s political thriller The Terminal List you’ll love the novel. Author Jack Carr spent more than 20 years in Naval Special Warfare Command, initially as a Navy SEAL sniper and later as an officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. Carr’s book, The Terminal List, is the first in the series about a Navy SEAL who has nothing left to live for (and everything to kill for) when he discovers the US is behind the death of his team.

RED LONDON BY ALMA KATSU

Lyndsey Duncan is keeping tabs on war criminal Dmitri Tarasenko and arrives in London fully focused on the assignment until her MI6 counterpart, Davis Ranford, calls. There’s been a suspicious attack on a Russian oligarch's property on Billionaires' Row and Davis needs Lyndsey to cozy up to the oligarch’s aristocratic British wife in Red London. Katsu spent decades working as a senior analyst at the NSA and CIA, so her novels have punch. You may also want to check out Katsu’s Red Widow.

THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS

Classic thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps introduces Richard Hannay - a Canadian caught up in a spy ring and a murder - who reappears in Greenmantle and Mr. Standfast. Author John Buchan was attached to the British Army's General HQ Intelligence Section before being sent to Canada as Governor-General where he stayed until his death in 1940. If you haven’t picked up a Hannay novel yet, what are you waiting for? 


MIKE4 SERIES

Former CIA division chief of operations and US Army paratrooper John R. Seeger is behind the MIKE4 series of thrillers. MIKE4 is the call sign for Chief Warrant Officer Sue O’Connell, a Special Operations Force surveillance specialist. For readers interested in espionage, tradecraft, and agent handling fused with adrenaline this series ticks all the boxes. 

DAMASCUS STATION 

Fictional case officer Sam Joseph is sent to Paris to recruit a Syrian Palace official and soon falls for her, leading to danger in Damascus. Real-life ex-CIA case officer David McCloskey captures the essence of CIA espionage operations in the Middle East, and the intense relationship between a case officer and his agent.

THE LAST VIOLINIST

Former US State Department psychiatrist Kenneth Dekleva is back with his second novel, The Last Violinist (sequel to The Negotiator’s Cross) about a gifted violinist from North Korea whose talents take him to the former Yugoslavia, Austria, Russia, America, and beyond. His gifts and love affairs - with a high-ranking North Korean diplomat’s wife, and a Korean-American CIA officer - draw him into a web of espionage.

25 Thrilling Spy Books Written by Real-Life Operatives

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After devouring espionage legends John le Carré, Graham Greene, and Len Deighton, you may be wondering what's next. Prepare to be captivated by these 15 spellbinding novels, a mix of vintage classics and contemporary gems all expertly woven by actual spies.


NEED TO KNOW 

Karen Cleveland’s bestseller follows Vivian Miller, a high-powered CIA analyst who makes a shocking discovery about her husband that makes her question everything she believes. How far will she go to learn the truth? And does Karen really Need to Know? This non-stop thriller is written by a former CIA counterterrorism analyst. 

UNDER WESTERN EYES

You may know Joseph Conrad as the author of Heart of Darkness but did you also know he was a Master Mariner and, during WWI, a British Q-ship co-navigator on a mission to sink German subs? In 1916, the Kaiser redoubled his submarine warfare and Royal Navy Captain J.G. Sutherland invited Conrad to join his spy mission. Keep that in mind as you read Conrad’s classic espionage thrillers Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent

THE BLACK TULIP

Milt Bearden’s The Black Tulip is an international thriller that follows Alexander Fannin, an operative bankrolled by US Intelligence to support the Mujahideen fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Bearden spent 30 years in the CIA, so you can decide for yourself what’s real and what’s fiction.

THE TERMINAL LIST

If you enjoyed Chris Pratt’s political thriller The Terminal List you’ll love the novel. Author Jack Carr spent more than 20 years in Naval Special Warfare Command, initially as a Navy SEAL sniper and later as an officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. Carr’s book, The Terminal List, is the first in the series about a Navy SEAL who has nothing left to live for (and everything to kill for) when he discovers the US is behind the death of his team.

RED LONDON BY ALMA KATSU

Lyndsey Duncan is keeping tabs on war criminal Dmitri Tarasenko and arrives in London fully focused on the assignment until her MI6 counterpart, Davis Ranford, calls. There’s been a suspicious attack on a Russian oligarch's property on Billionaires' Row and Davis needs Lyndsey to cozy up to the oligarch’s aristocratic British wife in Red London. Katsu spent decades working as a senior analyst at the NSA and CIA, so her novels have punch. You may also want to check out Katsu’s Red Widow.

THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS

Classic thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps introduces Richard Hannay - a Canadian caught up in a spy ring and a murder - who reappears in Greenmantle and Mr. Standfast. Author John Buchan was attached to the British Army's General HQ Intelligence Section before being sent to Canada as Governor-General where he stayed until his death in 1940. If you haven’t picked up a Hannay novel yet, what are you waiting for? 


MIKE4 SERIES

Former CIA division chief of operations and US Army paratrooper John R. Seeger is behind the MIKE4 series of thrillers. MIKE4 is the call sign for Chief Warrant Officer Sue O’Connell, a Special Operations Force surveillance specialist. For readers interested in espionage, tradecraft, and agent handling fused with adrenaline this series ticks all the boxes. 

DAMASCUS STATION 

Fictional case officer Sam Joseph is sent to Paris to recruit a Syrian Palace official and soon falls for her, leading to danger in Damascus. Real-life ex-CIA case officer David McCloskey captures the essence of CIA espionage operations in the Middle East, and the intense relationship between a case officer and his agent.

THE LAST VIOLINIST

Former US State Department psychiatrist Kenneth Dekleva is back with his second novel, The Last Violinist (sequel to The Negotiator’s Cross) about a gifted violinist from North Korea whose talents take him to the former Yugoslavia, Austria, Russia, America, and beyond. His gifts and love affairs - with a high-ranking North Korean diplomat’s wife, and a Korean-American CIA officer - draw him into a web of espionage.

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AN ORDINARY SPY

Joe Weisberg - better known for his TV Series The Americans - is also a former CIA officer and novelist. An Ordinary Spy is also set in America and it is a case study of paranoia, tradecraft, and redactions. Weisberg’s dry wit shines through.

IN THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE 

Former CIA operations officer James Lawler focuses on a Russian-North Korean conspiracy to develop a devastating biological weapon for assassination, terror, and genocide in his novel In the Twinkling of an Eye. Lawler’s career was devoted to battling the spread of weapons of mass destruction so this one's close to his heart. 

WHERE VULTURES GATHER

Where Vultures Gather is one of five spy books written by former CIA officer Christopher Turner (pen name C. Turner). Where Vultures Gather is set in the Philippines - where Turner spent time in his pre-CIA days working as an archeologist. It involves an intelligence officer, a broken heart, and an adventure. Fans of spy tradecraft will love this literary novel.

The Spy From Saint-Sulpice

Barry Michael Broman's novel The Spy From Saint-Sulpice (2023) is a Cold War love story involving the recruitment of a gay Russian diplomat in Paris who falls in love with his CIA access agent. SPYSCAPE understands that Broman - a former CIA clandestine officer and US Department of State diplomat in Southeast Asia - has also finished the second novel in the series. Let's hope it is published soon.

Dead Hand

James Stejskal spent 35 years with the US Special Forces and the CIA before turning his hand toward his ‘Snake Eater Chronicles’ series. Stejskal's latest offering, Dead Hand (2023), is rich with operational intrigue, exceptional tradecraft, and a post-Ukraine conflict in which Russia eyes the Baltics. When a Kremlin spy mentions a code word for a Russian nuclear war plan, a CIA operative is dispatched with former Special Forces and CIA officer Joshua Devlin as his backup. A tight, taut thriller.

Red Sparrow

Former CIA 'diplomat' Jason Matthews ran spies in Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean before writing Red Sparrow (2013) about a beautiful Russian honeypot agent who targets a vulnerable CIA operative to uncover a mole at the heart of the Kremlin’s intelligence service. Is there a real-life sparrow school? It is an intriguing read and the first in the trilogy.

Blowback

Former CIA officer Valerie Plame and writer Sarah Lovett team up in Blowback to create the spooky world of CIA officer Vanessa Pierson as she tracks the world’s most dangerous nuclear arms dealer. One of her assets turns up dead, however, and a sniper seems ready to pick off more targets. Plame’s former role as an undercover CIA operative specializing in nuclear weapons adds heft and authenticity to this page-turner.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

We couldn’t resist adding in one le Carré - when it comes to espionage thrillers, nobody does it better than the former MI6 officer. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) is among his best spy novels. It follows aging spymaster George Smiley as he uncovers a Soviet mole in the British Secret Intelligence Service. The novel followed the defection of Kim Philby, a man le Carré despised so much he turned down an invitation to meet him in Russia.

Hazardous Duty

Fans of HBO’s White House Plumbers will enjoy former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt’s bonkers fiction, much of it is from the so-bad-it’s-good school of spy writing. The CIA tapped Hunt to create an American 007 to rival Ian Fleming’s James Bond so it’s no surprise that Hunt’s fictional boss Avery Thorne bears an uncanny resemblance to Bond’s spymaster ‘M’. Watergate historians should enjoy Hazardous Duty (1965), written under Hunt’s pen name David St. John. It begins with a black bag job, a burglary, and a team of operatives reporting to spymaster Peter Ward who directs the operation from a nearby Command Post. 

How to Betray Your Country

Author James Wolff is a man of mystery. We don’t know his real name. We do know he worked for the British government for 10 years but with little else to go on you’ll need to use your imagination. How To Betray Your Country is the sequel to Beside the Syrian Sea and also a clever standalone spy novel. An operation involving an Iranian scientist in Istanbul presents an age-old question: is it better to follow orders or your conscience?

The Salzburg Connection

Scottish-American author Helen MacInnes wasn’t a secret operative but she observed one at close range. Her husband was a British MI6 officer and most of MacInnes’ writing is fueled by her love of espionage. The Salzburg Connection (1968) is among her bestsellers. The setting is post-WWII Europe.  The Nazis hid a sealed chest in a lake surrounded by the Austrian Alps. One of the men who knows of its existence sets out to discover its secrets and unleashes a series of deaths. 

Secret Lovers

American writer and former CIA officer Charles McCarry shares some of his tradecraft in Secret Lovers. The story begins with a courier who delivers a manuscript written by a Russian dissident to CIA agent Paul Christopher. Meanwhile, Christopher’s wife decides to have an affair with a film director. Are the two events linked? You’ll need to put the pieces together.

The Walk-In

The Walk-In is a novel of spy tradecraft and terror written by a former CIA operative and field commander who cornered Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Gary Berntsen’s fictional book involves an Iranian intelligence operative who walks into a US Embassy claiming to possess explosive intelligence but can the man be trusted?

The Day of the Jackal

Former MI6 officer Frederick Forsyth is known for his string of bestsellers including The Odessa File, The Fourth Protocol, and The Kill List. The Day of the Jackal involves an assassin with a contract to kill the world's most heavily guarded man. If you read one Forsyth novel, let it be this. As The New York Times says: “The Day of the Jackal makes such comparable books such as The Manchurian Candidate and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold seem like Hardy Boy mysteries.”

Ashenden, or the British Agent

Ashenden is based in part on the author's work with British Intelligence in Europe during WWI. It is a collection of linked stories, often regarded as the first spy story and a precursor to George Smiley and 007. Maugham captures the harsh realities and cutthroat nature of espionage, with elements of intrigue, betrayal, and absurdity.

Casino Royale

Ian Fleming's debut novel Casino Royale (1953) took inspiration from his days operating in Naval intelligence as he introduces James Bond. 007 takes on Le Chiffre, a treasurer with ties to the Russian secret service, in a high-stakes baccarat game at the Royale-les-Eaux casino. The story explores Bond's expertise in gambling, espionage, and his relationship with Vesper Lynd. Fleming, drawing from his wartime experiences, weaves a tale of Cold War espionage.

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