Espionage Old & New
People are fascinated spy fiction and non-fiction for many reasons. Some are taken with the notion that there are comprehensible, coordinated plots that affect world events. Others enjoy learning about how mixed motivations, conflicting interests, and human error conspire to produce outcomes no one could predict. Still others like the spy tale as a container for a study of human personalities and morality. Here are some riveting spy novels for every reader.
The Officer and The Spy by Robert Harris – This fictionalized narrative follows one of the key players in the Dreyfus Affair. Harris does an admirable job contextualizing the antisemitism and class politics of the time. Readers will learn more about the specifics of this historical episode that was a flashpoint in European politics and an omen about the potency of antisemitism in European society.
Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht – This female-focused take on the psychological spy novel is set in Argentina during the 1960s. Vera Kelly is a CIA operative sent to keep an eye on leftist students. She’s good at her job and enjoys the freedom and anonymity it affords her, but she ends up questioning the logic behind the project she enlisted in. This story has enough Cold War-spy elements to grab readers of traditional espionage fare, but modern psychological and gender insights show readers new perspectives on old stories.
The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco – If you like the hardboiled worldview of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and the historical fiction about the American West in the 19th century, you’ll love this book. Written with a very 21st-century perspective, Carrasco’s book still manages to produce a vivid picture of the West Coast before the lines between organized crime and government were fully formed.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carré – Any of Le Carré’s works are well worth the time of any reader interested in espionage during the second half of the 20th century, but this early, relatively short work is a taut introduction to the characters and questions Le Carré mined for longer novels. Along with a classic film adaptation, this book is awash in the moral ambiguity and individual alienation that saturated international politics from the 1960s on. Like all great works, this book asks more questions than it answers without peddling mere relativism. There are “bad guys” and “sadistic bureaucracies” on all sides in Le Carré’s vision of the Cold War.
The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government by David Talbot – Rather than focusing on what we do not know, may never know, or would like to know, this narrative history follows the career of Allen Dulles and his well-documented aspirations for the CIA and US foreign policy. The precedents Dulles set endure to the present and his career must be understood to gain a fuller perspective on how the US government relates to others throughout the world. This is a good read for people who favor the plots of spy fiction, rather than the characters.
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby’s Great Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre – You can see that the fictional world of eccentric bureaucrats and striving careerists that John Le Carré conjured in his George Smiley books are quite close to the reality of Cold War-era intelligence work in this true story. Far from a game of cat-and-mouse between a clever hero and villain, this story reveals how sordid and complex the world of high-level moles was after World War II. Philby is a fascinating, surprisingly inept character whose social skills seemed to outpace his covert diplomatic skills.
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