Paul Burke’s 10 Best Spy Writers – Part I: The Old School

Article published on January 30, 2018.

These are the guys who wrote the fictional landscape of the Cold War (although Furst deals with WWII, he helps to set the scene). Of course, spy writing began much earlier; Childers, Buchan, Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene, for example. But Alec Leamas at Checkpoint Charlie is where we begin:

1. John le Carré – However you structure the rest of the list le Carré has to be at the top. Consistently intelligent, relevant and original. The writer who seems to get closest to the truth of the ‘service’ life. There is a quiet anger about le Carré’s best work, he doesn’t believe in blind patriotism because governments have to be accountable for their actions. He is also a phenomenal storyteller. Smiley is his great literary invention from a bit part in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold to the best novels of the 70’s. Le Carré is the spy writers spy writer and the top choice for the discerning reader. Best book: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

2. Robert Littell – Just like le Carré, a writer who survived the fall of the Berlin Wall when many others gave up writing espionage. Littell is able to write a passable epic of the CIA ‘The Company’ but more importantly also writes some very involved and intricate spy stories. Among the most sophisticated cat and mouse spy stories of the Cold War. A writer who can reinvent himself as times change. His latest novels explore the Russian cultural scene under communism and the clash with authority. Littell is a leading exponent of the ‘walking back the cat’ novel, exploring what went wrong with an operation. Best novel: The Detection of A.J. Lewington (a classic of interrogation).

3. Alan Furst – His writing brings aspects of the pre-war/WWII world to life. Spies are not always big characters with extraordinary stories, mostly at this time it was little people doing their bit and Furst recognises that. Furst gives us a grounding in the history of the time and a sense of place that no history books will be able to match by bringing the streets to life. This is spying and war the way it was for the real little people caught up in the maelstrom. Best book: Dark Star.

4. Charles McCarry – I think America’s finest, an exponent of the cold war spy story par excellence and a former CIA spy. Equally fascinating when writing an epic fictional history of an American spying dynasty or a spy story out of Vietnam. One of the few who can be mentioned along side le Carré without wilting. McCarry has a real feel for the time and place but he writes about how the ordinary things in life create the spy. His political spy novels reflect love, betrayal, trust and loneliness. Best novel: The Tears of Autumn.

5. Len Deighton – His novels caught the Zeitgeist twice, once in the 1960s with the unnamed character who became Harry Palmer in the films. Then in the 80s with Bernard Samson and the SIS novels. Deighton has written a lot of so-so pot boilers but is one of the few novelists of the 60s not just to follow the le Carré lead but to be revolutionary and fresh. There is a sense of realism in his work, a nice line in black comedy and an eye for human frailty and espionage detail. Best novel: Funeral in Berlin.

6. Anthony Price – Classy stories of the Cold War featuring a loosely defined counter intelligence organisation (MI5). David Audley (a former historian) and Colonel Jack Butler (his boss) feature but Price often takes different points of views as the focus for his novels, not all of them fans of Audley. Price has significant female characters and is good on how the services operate out of hidden budgets (research is the key). Best book: Here Be Monsters.

7. Ted Albuery – A prolific writer of readable ordinary spy stories, better than the run of the mill but without the depth of the other writers on this list. On the other hand, he has written novels based on the stories of the real traitors, Burgess, Philby and Maclean, which are brilliant. Revealing genuine insight into the motivations of traitors. A member of SOE in WWII and captured during the Cold War in Germany running spies. Best book: The Other Side of Silence.

8. Arnaldo Correa – The only non British/American author on the list. Correa opens up a totally different perspective, a Cuban point of view (I wish there were more Russians from this time but there aren’t). Correa explores the US-Cuban spy wars; exposing the Americans, Castro’s Secret Service and the Miami exile community – all very gritty and grounded. Correa makes you sees things from a perspective you might not glean from Western spy fiction, he adds a Cuban cultural perspective and a deep understanding of the socio-political situation. The one to read is Spy’s Fate (Akashic, 2005).

9. Julian Rathbone – Booker nominated author, writer of historical adventures, comedy, detective stories and spy novels. His stories are about relationships, there is a fluid link between his literary and his crime/spy fiction, lots of overlap. Rathbone has a fantastic imagination, he invented a country loosely based Belgium for a detective series. Best book: A Spy of the Old School.

10. Piers Paul Reed – He may be the one people will know the least about but he produced one truly important novel of the genre an intelligent story told from the point of view of a British diplomat who has fallen for a German girl. A controversial inclusion, it’s not a universally loved book because of its style, but a great analysis of real-politic in post war Germany. Best book: The Junkers.

Sadly, there are no female writers on the list, happily that changes with post-Cold War fiction (part II of this list, which will be published next month). I have left off Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsythe because I am only interested in realism. At its best, the spy story tells us something a out our world, our society. All of the above meet that criteria.

Paul Burke
January 2018

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