Espionage Stories

With all the jacked-up, gratuitously muscled super heroes and Hannibal the Cannibal villains running around, the cerebral thrills of a gripping spy story can be easy to overlook.

The spymaster of the novel world is John le Carre, whose tales of the doubting, overworked spies who toil for the British government have explored every secret nook and cranny of the Cold War and beyond for fifty years. In le Carre's hands, we come to intimately know the flesh and blood heroes who operate in the political shadows off the world stage. Because le Carre's spies are so human, we can imagine ourselves in the role of agent, spy handler, even the career bureaucrat who spends more time with paperwork than with cloak and dagger. This is why his novels are so enduring – not the technology or the politics, but the people.

A worthy complement to John le Carre is Alan Furst, whose thoughtful, atmospheric spy novels are set in Europe during the late 1930s and early 1940s, as the shadows of Nazism and Fascism spread out from Germany to darken the Balkans, France and Spain. His protagonists are ethnically and socially varied, his locations differ from novel to novel, but they are always filled with intriguing historical detail. His novels don't rely on a single plot engine; Furst prefers a more impressionistic approach, as he probes the shifting moral landscapes of his characters and their eras.

Bestselling spy novelists who put their heroes through more energetic paces include Alex Berenson, Vince Flynn, Olen Steinhauer, Joseph Kanon and Daniel Silva. Uniquely qualified to write spy stories is Stella Rimington, the first female Director of Britain's MI-5 intelligence service, who has several bestsellers to her name.

In my opinion, the best spy novels don't need high tech weaponry or shootouts between professional assassins and Special Forces operatives. They rely on complex characters, insider research and political nuance to explore our world's conflict zones. In a great spy novel, characters clash in battles of wits, not gunfire and the truth is never black and white.

The movies don't love spies like they used to. Low tech, low body count espionage tales are rare, and they are often adapted from a John le Carre novel, such as "A Most Wanted Man" and the remake of "Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy." "Bridge of Spies", directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen is an exception, a spy movie that's more cerebral than explosive, more brooding than bloody.

If you want to study a recent screenplay that expertly combines spying, terrorism, human infallibility and political in-fighting, catch "Eye in the Sky" written by Guy Hibbert and directed by Gavin Hood. It's a real jolt of inspiration; if you're a thriller/espionage writer, it will send you to your keyboard.

In Britain, secret agents are still deployed on Her Majesty's airwaves and broadband. Recent shows such as "London Spy", "The Game", "The Night Manager" (le Carre again) and "Spooks" carry on the tradition of British spying that manages to be both deadly and elegant.

On American television, the spy field is less crowded, dominated by "Homeland" and the increasingly disturbing, homicidal plot twists of "The Americans."

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Orson Welles in Third Man

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Ulrich Mühe in The Lives of Others

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