5 5* Espionage Thrillers

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Posted by Amanda Ellison

I won’t argue: John le Carré is the undisputed king of the espionage thriller. But there is little doubt that his books challenge the little grey cells – I know, I’ve read several and the hard work has paid off but left me mentally exhausted. In 1986, Philip Roth even proclaimed A Perfect Spy to be ‘the best English novel written since the war’. There is no reason to doubt this, even though I admit to having started this book three times, only to throw in the towel at every attempt. Let’s leave it to loftier souls – or watch the film. Instead, dip into one of these juicy little numbers, each and every one guaranteed to have you gripped from the get-go.

So in no particular order...

1. Chris Pavone, The Expats


Chris Pavone’s debut introduces ex-spy Kate, who has turned her back on the world of espionage after fifteen years in the CIA. Escaping to Luxembourg with her family, she and her husband become acquainted with their seemingly like-minded neighbours. But are these two new acquaintances all that they seem? And is Kate’s spying background really behind her? Of course not! This is a real page-turner and an easy introduction for any readers new to the realm of spy fiction.



2. William Boyd, Restless

Anyone who knows me will tell you just how much of a William Boyd fan I am. And this is one of his best.  Here, Boyd ventures into the arena of espionage in this highly accomplished tale of Ruth, who discovers that her mother was a spy during World War II. Convinced she is in danger, the older woman enlists the help of her daughter to track down the man who recruited her all those years ago. Restless is a somewhat literary offering (this is William Boyd, after all) but is no less gripping for that. And it’s worth a read just for the finesse with which Boyd adopts a female persona. Not to be missed.

3. Martin Cruz Smith, Gorky Park

Set in Moscow, that hotbed of mystery and intrigue, Gorky Park is of course an espionage thriller of the highest order. Not for the faint-hearted, the novel commences with a particularly nasty image of three mutilated corpses in an amusement park. Given the lack of both faces and fingers, it is clear to Inspector Arkady Renko that these bodies are meant to be unidentifiable. Not your everyday crime, then. Ah, but he has a clue: a pair of roller skates …

Fans of the redoubtable Renko will witness the Russian sleuth exercising his considerable detection skills in this cold-climate tale of procedural policing.

4. Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy

Robert Harris is a writer of many talents, turning his hand to a range of genres, from high finance to ancient Rome. This spy thriller, based on a true story, showcases Harris’s talents in all their glory. Riveting from the very first page, it tells the tale of Alfred Dreyfus, a military officer in nineteenth-century France, who stands accused of espionage. High treason! Sentence him to death, pronto! Enter Georges Picquart, fellow military officer, who smells a rat despite being no fan of the accused. Will Picquart manage to covertly uncover the truth? There's only one way to find out...

5. Kate Atkinson, Transcription

Protagonist Juliet recalls her spell in MI5 in 1940, when she was recruited to undertake the tedious task of transcribing surveillance tapes. The transcribed conversations of fascist sympathisers can’t be much fun for your average eighteen-year-old – but worry not, as Juliet soon finds herself embroiled in far more exciting and dangerous endeavours. Kate Atkinson is a serious writer, and really pulls this one off.

What's your favourite espionage thriller? Do you agree with my selection above? Or have any recommendations of your own? I'd love to hear your comments.

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