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January 8, 2012 11:11 PM   Subscribe

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the movie, I'm a Philistine) gave me a hankering for realistic quasi-historical espionage fiction. Please recommend the best books/movies/comics/all media from other time periods.

I'm particularly curious about WWII spying, but all time periods will do. And if you could be so kind as to denote which time period each is from... /mind blown.
posted by the NATURAL to Media & Arts (44 answers total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
Len Deighton wrote a bunch of great cold war spy stories. The IPCRESS File was made into a movie.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 11:15 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is another John le Carre spy novel, and also features George Smiley in a supporting role and was made into an excellent movie in 1966. The Harry Palmer films of the middle '60's were pretty good, too and featured Michael Caine before he became ubiquitous.
posted by motown missile at 11:23 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Len Deighton has quite a number of good espionage novels beyond IPCRESS that I remember enjoying, but which I have trouble teasing out individually — several trilogies, to allow for long story arcs — ranging from the 60's through the 90's. Cold War.

In the movie world I am rather fond of Three Days of the Condor, which is very much of the mid 70's paranoid school.
posted by mumkin at 11:39 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

How about the real stuff?

Memoirs of a British Spy, by R.H. Bruce Lockhart

Written in 1932, it is Lockhart's account of his time in Russia before and after the revolution. Hair-raising escapades, derring-do, diamond smuggling, interminable train rides and, oh yeah, that whole "emprisoned in the Kremlin for plotting to kill Lenin" thing.

Stiffest. Upper. Lip. Ever.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:43 PM on January 8, 2012

The Sandbaggers
posted by pracowity at 11:43 PM on January 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

posted by pracowity at 11:45 PM on January 8, 2012

I was about to say The Sandbaggers too. But since that's already out there I'll go for the Sandbagger's inspired comic, "Queen and Country".
posted by bswinburn at 11:49 PM on January 8, 2012

Alan Furst makes gorgeous WWII espionage set pieces. Just dive in anywhere—he's great.
posted by mixer at 11:51 PM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Eric Ambler was one of the progenitors of the British spy thriller. His protagonists are usually every day people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, and Ambler ties their troubles (or the trouble they get into) back to the issues going on at the time the books were written. I suggest starting with either "Epitaph for a Spy" (1938) or "Background to Danger" (1937). Great stuff!
posted by but no cigar at 12:35 AM on January 9, 2012

Another George Smiley story, Smiley's People was an amazing follow along to Tinker, Tailor... Guinness is great in it, probably the next in line to retake

Not really a "spy", nor a "fiction", aren't the best stories are real, the story of a journalist, not a governmental spy, but definitely infiltrated into a society not his own Gareth Jones is pretty amazing and there are a lot of documents and historical pieces available online. He is the journalist who exposed the Soviet Holodomor (killing [of Ukrainians] by hunger) to the world (deniers exist to this day). But the evidence is clear, and available for all to read.
Gareth Jones left Cambridge University in 1929, having gained a First-Class Honours in French, Russian and German to join Mr. David Lloyd George, former Prime Minister to Great Britain (1916-1922). He commenced his new employment as a Foreign Affairs Advisor on January 1st, 1930.

From 1930 to 1933, Gareth visited the Soviet Union on three occasions and after each, he wrote articles for a number of newspapers regarding conditions he observed resulting from Stalin's Five-Year Plan.
What is not up for conjecture is that Gareth's Far Eastern movements were being closely monitored by the Soviets. Within five months, he had been kidnapped by 'Japanese-controlled' Chinese bandits and two weeks afterwards was suspiciously murdered in Inner Mongolia . His last mode of transport and from which he was kidnapped was 'kindly' provided gratis by a German company called Wostwag - now known to have been a trading front of the OGPU / NKVD... [He was kidnapped along with the German journalist, Dr. Herbert Mueller, who had invited him on the trip to Inner Mongolia . Mueller was 'unusually' released, unharmed after two days in captivity - British Intelligence records at the Public Records Office now reveal that they had a secret dossier on Mueller for 34 years citing him as; a known Communist, a representative of the Third International (Comintern) in China, at one time lived in the Soviet Consulate in Hankow, under the alias of 'Gordon' and also ran a covert Soviet courier business within China.]

With his murder under mysterious circumstances, Gareth Jones had effectively been silenced; the only reliable indepenent witness to arguably Stalin's greatest atrocity had been conveniently liquidated and both the Holodomor and Gareth's truthful reporting were effectvely airbrushed out of history for more than half a century. [Though one man however did not forget Gareth, and this man was George Orwell, who clearly alluded to Gareth in his own famine chapter in 'Animal Farm' Click Here for details.]
posted by infinite intimation at 12:36 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised Cryptonomicon hasn't been recommended yet.
posted by mannequito at 1:11 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why don't you read up on Philby, Le Carré's not-very-well-disguised model for the villain in Tinker Tailor? To start with, he's got a great (if in places totally fanciful) autobiography, and a pretty good period piece BBC drama with hats and nude men.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:16 AM on January 9, 2012

If you read the Lockhart, then you'll want to watch Reilly, Ace of Spies.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:12 AM on January 9, 2012

Also, check out Anthony Price's series with David Audley & Col Jack Butler and Clive Egleton's Peter Ashton series as well. Read them in chronological order.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:20 AM on January 9, 2012

Not fiction by The Man From Odessa by Greville Wynne is a fascinating look at 50s espionage
posted by hardcode at 4:00 AM on January 9, 2012

It's a bit later in time, but The Lives of Others is an absolutely stunning portrait of the Stasi in 1980s East Germany. It's so good.
posted by The Michael The at 4:51 AM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

No The Jackal? I am disappoint

Obviously the original
posted by JPD at 5:02 AM on January 9, 2012

Actually The Day of the Jackal
posted by JPD at 5:06 AM on January 9, 2012

The Looking-Glass War is a highly underrated Le Carré book.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:28 AM on January 9, 2012

Yeahhhh Len Deighton! He has a 9 book series about the same characters: Berlin Game, London Match, Mexico Set, Spy Hook, Spy Line, Spy Sinker, and Faith, Hope and Charity. Ignore the cutesy names, they're really fun. I haven't read much else by home but my dad (world expert on Len Deighton) assures me the quality of his writing went rapidly downhill in the 90s after Charity was published.
posted by Ziggy500 at 5:28 AM on January 9, 2012

Sorry for the double post; there's also Enigma by Richard Harris.
posted by Ziggy500 at 5:36 AM on January 9, 2012

To piggyback on but no cigar's Eric Ambler recommendation, A Coffin for Dimitrios is a pre-WWII thriller that's a classic of the genre.
posted by Bourbonesque at 5:47 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Make sure to visit The Spy Museum next time you are in DC. Heck, you should probably make a plan to visit there anyways as there's a host of spy tours available there, plus museums like the Spy Museum and Cold War Museum and proximity to spook sites like the FBI, CIA, and NSA.

Reading-wise, my wife enjoyed Littell's The Company while I, who like a bit of the fantastic with my spies, liked Powers' Declare.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:03 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agent Zigzag is the true story of a WWII British double agent. He promised to spy for the Germans to get himself out of prison in the Channel islands, then double-crossed them to the British. It's quite incredible how he managed to bluff both sides to get what he wanted.
posted by crocomancer at 6:19 AM on January 9, 2012

The Good Shepherd was just okay, but it fits the description.
posted by mullacc at 6:27 AM on January 9, 2012

Would Kim by Kipling count, or is it too old?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:48 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Sandbaggers. It's fantastic for spy moral gray-itude in the 1970s and early 80s. If you loved the mixture of tense plotting and smoky-room conversations in Tinker, you'll really like Sandbaggers -- the writing is fantastic, and the dialogue and acting are tack-sharp.

And the intro is a classic.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:20 AM on January 9, 2012

Deighton's Berlin Game, London Match and Mexico Set were also filmed as a miniseries titled Game, Set and Match. I saw it on PBS a long time ago - don't know if is available on DVD.
posted by leaper at 7:24 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

In Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, Maturin is a British spy during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. Aubrey is a naval captain, so you also get a good bit of seafaring adventure along with Maturin's other personas as a medical doctor and naturalist. The Fortune of War, the sixth book in the series, probably focuses the most on the spying aspect.
posted by John Frum at 7:37 AM on January 9, 2012

Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost is pretty fantastic, although it's kind of a doorstop. Day-to-day life in the CIA from 1955ish to the Kennedy assassination.
posted by COBRA! at 7:38 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some nonfiction: Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War 1941-1945 by Leo Marks
A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII by Sarah Helm

Fantasy, but with Kim Philby as one of the main characters and very much in the style of Tinker Tailor: Declare, by Tim Powers

Fiction: the works of Helen MacInnes
posted by PussKillian at 9:16 AM on January 9, 2012

Nelson DeMille has a couple good cold war era spy novels: The Charm School and The Talbot Odyssey.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:34 AM on January 9, 2012

Harry's Game, by Gerald Seymour. Also a miniseries starring Ray Lonnen (from the Sandbaggers, mentioned above).

Set in Northern Ireland during the peak of the Troubles.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 9:54 AM on January 9, 2012

The Scarlet Pimpernel is an old one, set in French Revolution.
posted by mareli at 10:29 AM on January 9, 2012

Somerset Maugham, Ashenden: Or the British Agent, espionage during the first world war and there abouts. Short stories. Le Carre and Greene were writing in this tradition.

Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands. Edwardian spies, with Germans are the enemy. A really great read. Free text from Gutenberg.

Kim, by Ruyard Kipling: "The Great Game" between Russia and England in what is now Northern India and Pakistan. Gutenberg text.
posted by bonehead at 11:34 AM on January 9, 2012

Sandbaggers is fucking brilliant, though my girlfriend hates it (she says it's all about paperwork, which it kinda is, but that makes it fucking brilliant).

There are a couple of pretty great quasi-espionage graphic novels:

The series No Pasaran!, about the Spanish Civil War.

From Bilal and Christin: The Hunting Party is about crumbling Soviet allegiances, and The Black Order Brigade is about old anti-fascists having a last go.
posted by klangklangston at 11:47 AM on January 9, 2012

Greg Rucka's Queen and Country is a post-cold-war espionage comic series focusing on a female British intelligence operative and her team. There is one volume of flashback stories set in the 1980's entitled "Declassified."

There are 8 volumes available from Oni Press.
posted by JDC8 at 12:54 PM on January 9, 2012

In Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin series (beginning with Master and Commander), set in the early 1800s, Dr. Stephen Maturin is a main character who is an intelligence agent. He keeps a triple-encoded diary with him wherever he goes, and there is, I think, an espionage subplot in every one of the twenty or so books in the series.

Highly recommended if you appreciate some humor (if understated), strong characterization, historical accuracy, and/or early science.

Dr. Maturin is also used as a device to explain seafaring to us lubbers, since he doesn't know much about ships and the sea, but is always going to sea.
posted by circular at 1:19 PM on January 9, 2012

Surprised no one has mentioned Ken Folett: specifically Jackdaws, Hornet Flight, and Lie Down with Lions.
posted by brilliantine at 3:29 PM on January 9, 2012

The Sandbaggers was an amazing short lived British TV show by a possible spy who died in mysterious circumstances.

Greg Rucka based his Queen & Country on it.
posted by Artw at 4:20 PM on January 9, 2012

Alan Bennett's An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution are both worth a look.
posted by Dr.Pill at 5:01 PM on January 9, 2012

Another good site for Len Deighton is

In response to Ziggy500; add "Winter" to the Bernard Sampson set. I read it after Game/Set/Match It is part of the entire saga.
posted by andreap at 7:54 PM on January 9, 2012

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