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

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.)
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I had a good idea of what to expect from this Gabriel Allon story: a fast-moving spy novel with a smart sense of humor. Allon recruits the titular cellist—a savvy banker by day—to go undercover 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 recurring motif of improvisation.
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“Justice is truth in action” in this taut and sexy thriller from spy novel veteran Pavone. The Disraeli epigraph may initially puzzle; readers, keep turning those pages and all will become clear. 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. Team member Shannan still loves The Expats most but I say this is Pavone’s best yet. Content warnings apply. For fans of Chanel Cleeton’s Our Last Days in Barcelonaand Daniel Silva’s The Cellist.
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While 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. She shows up at her door, desperate for answers, but she doesn’t expect to hear the story of how Bentley became a World War II spy and Cold War double agent. Nor does she expect to learn that her entire life might have been a lie. Can you trust a former spy to tell the truth? This gripping historical novel is based on a true story.
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Inspired by the British spy ring the Cambridge Five, our story 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.
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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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It's 1947, and society girl Charlie St. Clair is desperate to find her beloved cousin Rose, who mysteriously vanished during the war. Her inquiries lead her to Eve, a cranky old woman, who Charlie soon discovers has intimate ties to the first female spy network, and who may have personal and professional reasons for tracking down Rose—and getting revenge in the process. A little bit The Nightingale, a little bit Girl in Disguise.
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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. (This is open door.)
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The 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.
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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 what that might have looked like. The story moves between East, where the focus is on Pasternak and his muse/mistress, and West, where readers get to know the female spies of the OSS. The book has the feel of Kate Quinn’s The Huntress, with some of the storytelling flavor of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, or Brit Bennet’s The Mothers.
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In her author’s note, Alyssa Cole shares that while she always wanted to write historical romance, she’d “never want to write about THAT. The Civil War, that is.” But after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog post on the Civil War in The Atlantic, Cole was deeply influenced to bring that time period and its remarkable Black historical figures to life. The heroine, Elle Burns, is based on Mary Bowser, a former slave with an eidetic memory, who spied for the Union. 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 love, for justice. (Note: this one includes open-door romance).
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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.
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