12 high stakes spy novels that will keep you turning the pages

You can't go wrong with one of these page-turning spy novels.

This spring, when I was vetting titles for the 2022 Summer Reading Guide, I just happened to read two wonderful books whose plots revolved around espionage. Not only did these two books deliver thoroughly enjoyable reading experiences, they also reminded me how much I love a great spy story.

If you were to ask what kinds of books I especially enjoy, I would for sure tell you about compulsively readable literary fiction, compelling mysteries, historical fiction, nerdy nonfiction and memoir and romance. I wouldn’t think to mention spy novels, because I don’t read a whole lot of them. I don’t think of them as a go-to genre. But upon reflection, I realized I’m consistently drawn to these stories—and should actually make a point to seek them out! (I shouldn’t be surprised: I’ve loved these books since I was a kid reading Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy.)

I tend to be a well-behaved law-abider in my regular life, and perhaps that’s why I’m in awe of the spies portrayed in these pages. I wonder: How do they do that?! I worry: Have I ever been around anyone undercover? (Actually, I know the answer to that one is yes, it’s a long story.) There are all kinds of ethical ramifications and the purported Good Guys aren’t always that good, I know. But whether someone is spying on the enemy or trying to get one over on a business competitor, spy novels make for page-turning, edge-of-my-seat reading. I want to know what will happen next, whether they’ll be discovered, whether they should be caught.

Today we’ve gathered an assortment of spy novels from different genres. Peruse the list, take note of books you’ve already read and enjoyed, and those you may enjoy reading next. By their very nature, the stakes are high in these books—and I hope the enjoyment (for the reader, at least, ha!) is even higher.

12 page-turning spy novels

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The Alice Network

The Alice Network

Author:
This is the book that got me hooked on Kate Quinn. It's 1947, and society girl and math whiz Charlie St. Clair is desperate to find her beloved cousin Rose, who mysteriously vanished during the war. Her inquiries lead her to Eve, a veteran spy from WWI who Charlie soon discovers has intimate ties to the first female spy network in England. It turns out that Eve has personal and professional reasons for tracking down Rose—and getting revenge in the process. In storylines unfolding in 1947 and 1915, we learn that a secret from Eve's past impacts Charlie's present life, and readers will race to discover what, exactly, the connection is. Quinn's riveting story is based on Great Britain's real Alice Network, which operated covertly in France during WWII to gather information about German military operations. This is a great pick for those who love historical mysteries dripping with period detail, unsolved puzzles, and secrets galore. More info →
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When We Left Cuba

When We Left Cuba

Author:
This standalone sequel to Next Year in Havana delivers a tale of politics, history, and love. Beatriz Perez was forced to flee her beloved homeland of Cuba for the refuge of Palm Beach, and will do whatever it takes to help her family and the country she still sees as her own, including begging the CIA to put her to use as a spy—something virtually unheard of in the 1960s. But her offer is too good for her government to refuse, and she soon finds herself uncomfortably close to Castro and other dangerous men, seeking precious information the U.S. can use to bring down his regime. Things get complicated when she falls for a handsome and politically ambitious U.S. senator, a man who will change her life—though perhaps not in the way either of them hoped. A page-turning story of love and revenge, though not necessarily in that order. If you enjoy this, know that Beatriz's work with the CIA features prominently in Cleeton's 2022 release (and MMD Summer Reading Guide selection) Our Last Days in Barcelona. More info →
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The Secrets We Kept

The Secrets We Kept

Author:
The story behind this historical thriller could launch its own novel, which is just one reason this book earned a dedicated bonus episode of One Great Book. Lara Prescott has always loved the book Dr Zhivago, and was stunned—along with the rest of the world—when the CIA declassified documents revealing that it had played a role in the book's covert publication and distribution in Russia during the Cold War. This is Prescott's imagining of how those covert operations may actually have been executed. The story moves between the East, where the focus is on Pasternak and his muse and mistress Olga Ivinskaya, and the West, where readers get to know the female spies of the OSS. Between experienced spy Sally, new recruit and Russian emigré Irina, and the communal voice of the CIA typing pool, the reader learns all about the American plot to infiltrate Russia with literature, and the personal secrets these women were also called to keep. More info →
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An Extraordinary Union

An Extraordinary Union

Author:
Espionage, passionate love, and a ton of history you didn't learn in high school, oh my! This is the first installment in Cole's Loyal League historical romance series, which focuses on a Civil War-era society of Black spies working to topple the Confederacy. Cole has said she wasn't interested in writing about this time period until she read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog post on the Civil War inThe Atlantic, and was deeply influenced to bring the period and its remarkable Black historical figures to life. Cole's heroine, Elle Burns, is based on Mary Bowser, a former slave with an eidetic memory, who spied for the Union. When Elle joins forces with another undercover agent—Pinkerton detective Malcolm McCall—sparks fly as they take on the Confederate Army and risk their lives, and their love, for justice. (This one includes open-door scenes). More info →
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Slippery Creatures

Slippery Creatures

Author:
Our team member Leigh recommends this 1920s spy romance trilogy inspired by Golden Age pulp fiction. Charles’s trademark crisp humor and nuanced characterization is put to good use with bookstore owner and former soldier Will and mysterious aristocrat Kim who has a habit of showing up at the most convenient times. When Will starts being threatened by both a criminal gang and the War Office to turn over the information, he’s at a complete loss as to what they’re even talking about. He teams up with Kim and they find more than either of them were looking for. But when Kim’s secret identity puts their burgeoning relationship in jeopardy right as their enemies are closing in, Will will have to decide whether he can trust him after all. (This is open door.) More info →
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Two Nights in Lisbon

Two Nights in Lisbon

Author:
This 2022 Summer Reading Guide pick inspired this blog post by reminding me how much I enjoy a good spy thriller! In Pavone's new release, Ariel Pryce wakes up on her honeymoon in a Lisbon hotel room to find her husband missing. Fearing the worst and increasingly frantic, Ariel turns to the Portuguese police and American embassy where her concern is met with skepticism: he’s a grown man and it’s only been a few hours. When they discover the couple both changed their names ten years ago, their skepticism balloons into outright disbelief—even though his kidnappers have surfaced and demanded an outrageous ransom. With the clock ticking and no help from authorities, Ariel seeks help from those she’d long since left behind in her old life—and then things get really interesting. Espionage features prominently in all Pavone's novels: if you enjoy this story, make sure to check out his backlist. More info →
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A Most Clever Girl: A Novel of an American Spy

A Most Clever Girl: A Novel of an American Spy

This gripping historical novel set against the backdrop of the Cold War is based on a true story. In 1963, while White House tour guide Catherine is trying to process the death of her mother and President Kennedy’s assassination, she discovers an unexpected connection to a woman named Elizabeth Bentley. An angry Catherine shows up at this stranger's door to confront her, telling this stranger she ruined her life, although the reader has no idea what Catherine is referring to or why she tells Bentley her whole life may have been a lie, and it's all Bentley's fault. To answer Catherine's charge, Bentley relays the story of her life since 1933, when she attended a Communist Party meeting in New York City, how she subsequently became a World War II spy and Cold War double agent, and what brought Catherine to her doorstep this day. This spy story probes an intriguing question: can you trust a former spy to tell the truth? More info →
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American Spy

American Spy

This fascinating and multi-layered spy thriller is told from the perspective of a Black woman, recruited by the CIA in the all-white, boys' club-era of the 1980s for an important African mission. Her assigned task is to fall in love—or pretend to—with Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkino Faso, known as "Africa’s Che Guevara." (Sankara is a real historical figure and I was so curious about how Wilkinson would handle his story.) The book's epigraph is from Ralph Ellison: he refers to being "a spy in enemy country," and I'm grateful this work inspired me to learn more about the rich literary history of African American spy novels and the theme of double consciousness. A rewarding read on so many levels. More info →
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Our Woman in Moscow

Our Woman in Moscow

Inspired by the British spy ring the Cambridge Five, this 2021 novel from historical fiction veteran Williams begins with the inexplicable disappearance of Iris, her American diplomat husband, and their two children from their London home in 1948. No one knows why: did Soviet agents take them out or did they in fact defect to Russia? Four years later, Iris contacts her estranged twin sister Ruth, asking for help. To her credit, Ruth heads to Moscow, posing as the wife of a counterintelligence agent in order to hopefully smuggle Iris and her family out of the country. But the truth is more complicated than Ruth knows—and it might just pit sister against sister in this gripping espionage tale. More info →
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The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

This Pulitzer Prize winner follows the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War. Our narrator, a captain, served as a communist spy for the Viet Cong…and continues to do so once he moves to America with the general of the South Vietnamese army and others fleeing the country. Caught between two worlds and conflicted in his loyalties, he has an uneasy relationship with both the duality of his work and his origin as an illegitimate son treated with scorn and distrust by those around him. Nguyen explores the legacy of the Vietnam War and what it means to survive.

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The Cellist

The Cellist

Author:
This is the 21st book in Silva's long-running Gabriel Allon series; purists may disagree but I think you can jump in anywhere. In this fast-moving novel, Allon recruits the titular cellist—a savvy banker by day—to go undercover in order to bust a corrupt Russian billionaire. Silva often weaves current events into his stories: the coronavirus is ever-present in these pages, and in his Author's Note Silva explains he wrote an entirely new ending after the January 6 Capitol siege. It felt a little long in places, but I still enjoyed this story of revenge, money, and power; I especially admired the smart sense of humor and recurring motif of improvisation. More info →
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Honeytrap

Honeytrap

Team member Leigh calls this Cold War romance about enemy American and Soviet agents one of her all-time favorites! Soviet agent Gennady couldn’t be happier about being sent to America, except for the part where his abusive boss ordered him to honeytrap his American partner, FBI agent Daniel. He doesn’t want to seduce Daniel in order to blackmail him…but he wouldn’t mind kissing him. Daniel, on the other hand, is doing all he can to resist falling for Gennady. He doesn’t want to repeat the same mistakes from his past. Set in 1959, 1975, and 1992, we follow them through the ups and downs of the US-USSR conflict, as well as the changing understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, as both men are bisexual. The odds may be stacked against Gennady and Daniel and that makes their HEA even more satisfying. (Open door.) More info →
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Are you drawn to tales of intrigue and espionage? Do you have a favorite spy novel to recommend? Tell us all about it in the comments section!

P.S. 20 unputdownable mysteries and thrillers to keep you glued to the page and 31 mystery novels avid readers recommend again and again.

12 high stakes spy novels that will keep you turning the pages

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  1. Sue says:

    Whenever I think of spy novels, I immediately think back to Ken Follett’s “ Eye of the Needle”. It’s a classic WW II spy novel that will keep you on the edge of your seat the whole way! It’s been many years since I read it, but I still remember that feeling of not being able to put it down and racing to see how it ends!

    • Wendy says:

      YES Renea, good call! It’s a beautifully written story that features 2 of my favorite things in a novel – spies and messy family drama!

  2. Janet K says:

    Karen Cleveland’s Need to Know was something I really enjoyed. I believe that she used to work for the CIA.

  3. Jennifer Geisler says:

    The Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman is one of my favorites. I finally purchased all the paperbacks and have reread the series several times. It’s a bit dated (can you imagine the CIA hiring a retiree to do some spying/courier work for them these days?), but the characters are wonderful and each book offers wisdom. Mrs. Pollifax is my role model, courageous, caring, practical, and determined to live her life fully. Read the first to begin: The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. If you like it, keep going. The earlier books in the series are better than the later ones.

    • Carolyn Haun says:

      Thank you for the Mrs. Pollifax recommendation! I grew up reading those books and had been trying to recall her name and it wasn’t coming to me. Now, I can hunt the books down. Thanks!

      Also, The Sympathizer is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Just brilliant!

    • Susan says:

      I found the Mrs. Polifax novels in a used book store and bought all they had after reading the blurb on the first novel! I loved them!

    • Terry says:

      The Mrs. Pollifax books were the only entertainment I allowed myself when I was in grad school back in the 1970s. I read her books while I rode the bus to and from my university (which was located over 25 miles from my home). This little bit of deviation from the course is what actually kept me sane. I have re-read these books several times over the years and they continue to delight me, especially the earlier ones, and most particularly, the first book.

  4. Kailey says:

    I love a good spy thriller! As a fellow general well-behaved, law-abider (I mean, I work as a lawyer!) I find it so captivating to read about these people who risk so much and defy the rules with such panache. For the books on this list that I have read, I nodded my head enthusiastically; for the books I haven’t read, I immediately added them to my queue!

  5. Judy Gibson says:

    Thank you for this post! I recently discovered Daniel Silva thanks to a chance encounter at the library and a raving recommendation by a fellow patron: I ran directly to the stacks and took one at random. So yes, I started with #18 then quickly decided to read them in order. My next one is waiting at the library for me.

  6. Whitney says:

    Highly recommend The Stars We Share by Rafe Posey for spy novel, and also historical fiction and just lovely literary fiction. Set in and around WWII, and including travels around the world, the premise is around two people who’s love is undeniable but who’s separate experiences contributing to the war effort affect their love. June is a spy and cannot tell anyone, even Alec, who served in the war, and the balance of that reality against their relationship is riveting. Posey did a fantastic job capturing the feeling of being an independent person but also in a marriage where your independent decisions have a specific effect.

    Added so many of these to my list; I think I have also been underestimating my love for the spy novel!

  7. SUsan S. says:

    The Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia MacNeal. The first one is Mr. Churchill’s Secretary and they go on from there.
    I also like Cara Black’s Aimee LeDuc series. It helps that they are all set in Paris! I read these as I could find them, but it would help to read them in order. She also has a newish stand-alone Three Hours in Paris set in WWII. And I just saw that she has released a new Aimee book!

  8. Ginny says:

    I can’t believe nothing by John Le Carre is on this list! A Perfect Spy, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy – so good. I know his work is considered genre fiction, but I think his prose is elegant, the dialogue so real, concise and on point. I fell in love with his espionage world.

  9. Nancy Andrews says:

    I love so many on this list and have added to my TBR. Also counting the days until the next Daniel Silva at the end of July. One of my favorites from the last couple of years is A Treachery of Spies by Amanda Scott.

    • Anne Bogel says:

      I haven’t read anywhere near all the Gabriel Allon novels but I may prioritize reading this new one! I just loved his last one (The Cellist, from this list).

  10. Susan says:

    My husband and I love the Charles McCarry books! Not many people seem to know this author but these espionage novels are first rate!

  11. Sue T. says:

    Mick Herron’s “Slow Horses” books are great — and there’s a wonderful series on Apple TV+ starring Gary Oldman which is based on the novels.

  12. Carri says:

    The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum! Actually, the whole series. Don’t think Matt Damon, please! The movies are ok, but the books are amazing! I have most of Ludlum’s books and they are fascinating! Also, I liked the recommendations of John Le Carre. This is a great list & I have some of these on the TBR table. Thank you!

  13. Suzy says:

    A Woman of Intelligence by Karin Tanabe was good, and of course, going back to Chris Pavone’s other novels, mentioned on this site, I loved The Ex Pats! It was delicious and shocking!

  14. Ann says:

    Anyone read Ian Rankin?

    More Crime, Mystery Detective then spy.

    Looking for books related to Edinburgh Scotland ahead of a late Summer visit.

    • Meghan says:

      I love Ian Rankin! I used to live in Edinburgh and would run into him at the pub – so be on the lookout when you’re there this summer. Now I live in St Andrews and he comes in for book readings each year and he’s always so down to earth.

  15. Martha says:

    The Spy Wore Red, The Spy Went Dancing ,The Spy Wore Silk… all by Aline, Countess of Spain. Exciting reading; all true accounts or based on true happenings.

  16. Amy says:

    I really enjoyed The Secrets We Kept. A real backlist book that I loved when I read it years ago and maybe it is classified as romance not espionage but it is centered around a spy in World War II Germany. That is Shining Through by Susan Isaacs. They made it into a move with Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas. The stories have some differences, the books was better.

  17. Terry says:

    I have to put a plug in for An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris. It is historical fiction of the real life French Dreyfus Affair. The book pretty closely follows actual events. It has won numerous prizes and is absolutely fantastic. I have read it and re-read it . . . and will likely re-read it again. This is definitely a do not miss book if you enjoy spy books.

  18. Amy L says:

    I remember loving Harriet the Spy as a kid and was going to give the book to my niece,so I just re-read it. I was so disappointed! Harriet is a really unlikable character and there’s no redemtion at all. The book just doesn’t hold up well.

  19. Daina says:

    I’m a big fan of Alan Furst’s books – my favorite book of his is The Spies of Warsaw. WWII, Nazis, intrigue, can’t miss. Has anyone tried him?

  20. Jen says:

    Thanks Martha for bringing up the books about Aline, countess of Spain, who was a spy during world war 2. I Also recommend Len Deighton, love Daniel Silva, Kate Quinn, and Nelson Demille.

  21. Jamie in TX says:

    The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman
    based on true events of a Russian engineer who passed information to the CIA in the late 70s/early 80s

  22. Barb says:

    I loved Helen MacInnes. These are classic spy novels. Her earlier ones are set in WW2 and Above Suspicion is one of my favourites. A young couple is recruited to travel through Europe and try to find out what happened to an informant who has gone missing. These book are definitely dated and have some stereotypes that make one wince a bit today, but the plots and characters are just great. Her later novels deal with the Cold War and are equally enjoyable.

  23. Patricia D. says:

    I do love a good spy novel. Thanks to the list and to everyones’ comments/suggestions I have discovered new authors and added several books to my reading list.

  24. Becky says:

    Y’all have to read Damascus Station! Best spy novel I’ve ever read, absolutely couldn’t put it down. Centers on a love story, but so much history and spy craft and thrills woven in.

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