Spy fiction
October 23, 2014 7:11 AM   Subscribe

I want your book recommendations. I have just finished watching the first season of The Americans, a TV series about two Russian spies who live as an American couple with two children during the Cold War, and was surprised that I loved it a lot. I want more of that, but I don't usually love this kind of tv series. So I thought, instead of looking for other tv shows like this, I could try to find some books that I like.

What I like about The Americans is that there is both spying and family life and the glimpses on what being a spy who lives like this does to people. I also like the moral ambiguity. There aren't really any "good guys" in the series, but on the other hand, the "bad guys" are still often likeable (so far). Usually when tv shows are more about character development than plot I often find them becoming boring or cliched but I like it in this show. Normally I also don't like tv with a lot of violence at all, but I'm okay with it here. Still, I don't want anything that is super explicitly and or graphically violent or too suspenseful. This is really important and one reason why I never really looked into this genre before and why I don't want to just search for a list of popular spy novels and prefer your recommendations. I also want a book with realistic and strong women characters. The main character doesn't have to be a woman, but the book should definitely pass the Bechdel test as an absolute minimum.
posted by blub to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
The Expats. It's not great literature but it's a fun quick read.
posted by something something at 7:17 AM on October 23, 2014

The novels of John Le Carre' will always be the best, including "The Little Drummer Girl."
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:17 AM on October 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you are open to another great TV show, there is nothing better than The Sandbaggers. That will lead you to Queen and Country, IMO the definitive spy-genre comic book, which was inspired by The Sandbaggers. It's been collected into four trade paperback volumes.

And +1 for everything by John La Carre. I would start with The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.
posted by jbickers at 7:32 AM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Charles McCarry is an author you may enjoy.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:33 AM on October 23, 2014

Back in 1991 the BBC did a comedy drama called Sleepers (Amazon reviews) which I remember as being warm, funny and suspenseful. You could look out for a cheap second copy of the dvd or it might be on Netflix?

Edit to say I seem to have bypassed the "I want your book recommendations" bit of your question, sorry!
posted by humph at 7:34 AM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Haha, I was coming to suggest The Expats and Little Drummer Girl...I will second both of those - they are great!
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:41 AM on October 23, 2014

The Bernard Samson series by Len Deighton might fit. It's a bit sticky on your last point, since it's almost entirely narrated in the first person by a single male character, but the key character is his wife. They both work for MI6 and she defects to the KGB early on, leaving him and their children behind, so the collision between spying and family life is a key part of the story.

The series is a set of three trilogies (Game/Set/Match, Hook/Line/Sinker, Faith/Hope/Charity), plus a semi-prequel called Winter.

Deighton is not quite as bleak as le Carré, but the same themes of betrayal and disillusionment are there in most of his work.
posted by Temagami at 7:42 AM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Alan Furst
posted by thelonius at 7:53 AM on October 23, 2014

John Le Carré novels don't always pass the Bechdel test, but they do range from "very good" to "the best the genre has ever produced". The Little Drummer Girl is a great place to start. I'm not as big a fan of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as some other people: however, not only is it still worth reading, but it opens the door to its two superior sequels, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People.

Be aware that JLC's work can be roughly divided into three eras: during the Cold War, he wrote very smart spy novels, with the novels becoming smarter and more about real life as the years went on (viz. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold); during glasnost and through the end of the Cold War, the novels became more about family lives and angst (viz. A Perfect Spy); and after 9/11, his novels became more didactic and centered around current events (viz. Absolute Friends). They're all good eras.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:56 AM on October 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

One of my favorite cold war-era spy novels is The Charm School by Nelson DeMille. Not sure it passes the Bechdel Test, there are really only two main characters, one of each sex. DeMille's The Talbot Odyssey is also excellent, but again, not entirely sure it passes the Bechdel test.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:13 AM on October 23, 2014

I discovered Olen Steinhauer several years ago and really enjoyed his work, especially his "Yalta Boulevard Sequence" which is a series of loosely interconnected thrillers set in a fictional Soviet-aligned Eastern European country during the Cold War, with one book set in each decade. The main characters work for the state police, so they are part detective books, part spy thrillers, with copious amounts of moral ambiguity.
posted by AndrewInDC at 8:24 AM on October 23, 2014

I stopped reading Charles McCarry because in his later novels the plots seemed to me to consist of right wing talking points.
posted by rfs at 8:38 AM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

The novels of Graham Greene will always be the best, including "The Quiet American."
posted by latkes at 9:01 AM on October 23, 2014

Tim Powers' book Declare, which is LeCarre with secret history stuff and is wonderful.
posted by PussKillian at 10:58 AM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for your replies so far! I'm not interested in only books, so I'll check out the older tv-series you mentioned too. I just didn't want lots of recommendations for things like Homeland and 24 and also didn't want another series with cliffhangers that I have to wait a whole year for to resolve (or not).
posted by blub at 11:53 AM on October 23, 2014

The Company, by Jonathan Littell.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 12:11 PM on October 23, 2014

I really enjoyed A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming, as well as the follow up A Colder War. He has several other espionage novels, but I haven't read them yet.
posted by stampsgal at 1:07 PM on October 23, 2014

I happen to be a fan of Tom Clancy's Patriot Games - he definitely does tradecraft pretty well.
posted by mearls at 7:55 PM on October 23, 2014

Charles Stross alerted me to Len Deighton. So I bought all the Samson books and loved them. You can find more info by searching on:
"Charles Stross" "Len Deighton"
posted by andreap at 1:21 PM on October 25, 2014

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