Great British Spy Writers

Our spy walks make mention of John le Carré for some very good reasons. Although he is now 85, he continues to write about the modern era. So he is up to date. He is a former spy, having worked for MI5 and MI6, so he knows his subject intimately, and maintains contacts to this day. And he strives to make his books as realistic as he can. However, there are many others you can try.

Frederick Forsyth, Len Deighton, John le Carré, Graham Greene and Ian Fleming. All excellent writers, but not all of their books are true espionage novels. For us, the true spy novel is not a whodunit, not a mystery, not crime, although it may include elements of all three.

The true spy story is mainly a mind game, which is why it is ideally suited to the novel format. Some spy films are excellent, but none of them truly capture the jeopardy and the skilled thinking that goes on inside the head of a spy. A true spy story will also have a political element: the terrorist, the nuclear bomb parts, the overthrown regime, the assassination.

So with all of that in mind, we can recommend Len Deighton’s the Ipcress File, which follows a lower-ranking agent than le Carré normally bothers with. It is of its time, and if you prefer your entertainment on the screen, the lead role in the movie was played by Michael Caine. Almost all of le Carré’s books are either movies or TV shows, and almost all of them apart from the first two are true spy stories. Even the Constant Gardener, the Night Manager and the Tailor of Panama contain a lot of spying.

For a more comic-style, Bond-style flavour, try Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal which covers a political assassination in fine detail. It’s a true page turning thriller but is also packed with carefully researched details. Forsyth’s life is just as thrilling, and his recent autobiography is as ripping a yarn as any of his made-up stories.

More recently, Charles Cumming has become our foremost modern spy writer. Not a former MI6 officer, not quite, but they did attempt to recruit him. He coincidentally shares a surname with one of our most famous spy leaders, and went to Eton. You can see one of the homes of Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming on our Westminster walk, a house that doubled up as the very first office of MI6 when the organisation opened in 1909. Charles Cumming very much has the background of the Cold War British spy. There is no question that he has the mind of a spy, and the mind of a very strong author too.

A couple of people on recent walks have recommended Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, who is a former CIA spy. He is one of the few true espionage writers we can recommend from America. Please do make suggestions for others and we will revisit American authors in future.