Best spy novels for a young teen?
March 31, 2024 9:24 AM   Subscribe

My 13 year old son has expressed interest in reading some ‘spy novels’. This is a genre I have read very little of, so I am a little bit at a loss as to where to point him.

He is reading at college level, so both middle grade and adult fiction should be fine reading level-wise. I think he is looking for something a little more serious than ‘kid/teen spy’ in tone, but I, personally, don’t think he is ready for some of the content he might find in general adult spy fiction.
I would like to avoid as much as possible (1) graphic violence and (2) misogyny. So gentle spy fiction in which women aren’t treated as objects? Thanks!
posted by bitbotbit to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The best spy novels feature British agent Quiller. Unfortunately their author, Elliston Trevor (aka Adam Hall) passed away in 1996, so they're all quite dated now; but their amount of (2) is rare, even non-existent. If I were to choose a few for the contemporary neophyte, which have the least Cold War connections, I'd go with The Tango Briefing, The Kobra Manifesto and Quiller's Run.
posted by Rash at 9:35 AM on March 31 [3 favorites]

And I'll note that, one of the earliest web-sites, was dedicated to him, but it seems to have gone offline last year. Here's its last archive courtesy of the Wayback Machine.
posted by Rash at 9:42 AM on March 31

At his age I was reading some of my dad's cache of spy novels. I didn't always get the references in The IPCRESS File (and I don't mean sex, but slang and locations) because it's 1960s London, but I liked the vibe and the oblique style and it helped me understand the Cold War. And you can't go wrong with The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – also Cold War setting, grimmer than Deighton. Both short books – 256 and 248 pages – although both authors went on to write massive doorstep novels.
posted by zadcat at 9:44 AM on March 31 [5 favorites]

The Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz might be up his street? Lots of tension, but no actual violence (from what I recall).
posted by philsi at 9:51 AM on March 31 [3 favorites]

The Bond books are easily his reading level--I read them at that age and enjoyed them, but I wouldn't recommend them. They haven't held up well, and I doubt I'd enjoy them now.

I'd suggest the Eiger Sanction and the rest of Trevanian's books. I don't remember their being as sexist and ridiculous as Fleming's stuff.

I love Martin Cruz Smith, and his writing is absolutely lyrical! The hagfish scene in Polar Star should grab any teenage boy.

Two more recently written spy novels with different points of view from the typical male spy are Alias Emma and Killers of a Certain Age.

Day of the Jackle, Hunt for Red October, Ipcress File, Six Days of the Condor (movie title had only Three Days) are also classics that are excellent movies.

And of course, there is always that quintessential spy book: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but that may be a bit tough for him, depending on his reading level?

Depending on if you censure his reading, you might want to read the books before for sex and violence. Nobody ever censured my reading, and apparently I turned out just fine.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:56 AM on March 31

Seconding Alex Ryder by Horowitz - it’s aimed exactly at your kid’s demographic.
posted by damsel with a dulcimer at 9:56 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]

I've been enjoying the City Spies series by James Ponti. Interesting plots, a fair amount of suspense but minimal violence, and a good international cast of characters.
posted by Umami Dearest at 10:17 AM on March 31

On the old ones are the best ones front, which I read at that age include Marazan (1926) by Neville Shute and Ice Station Zebra (1960) by Alistair MacLean. Maclean who wrote filmed books like The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare. 'Normal' sexism of the time without so much of the Ian Fleming shite alluded to by BlueHorse above.
posted by BobTheScientist at 10:23 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]

The Saint novels are pretty much devoid of explicit sex scenes. There is violence but it's not extreme the way a lot violence and death is presented today. The catch with these, however, is that they're old--written between (roughly) the 1930s and the 1960s. The earlier ones are better than the latter ones, but the latter ones move more into "spy" territory, rather than the dashing rogue bandit genre. (Also some of the much later ones weren't written by the original author, Leslie Charteris, and it's obvious.) Apparently there is a new film in the works, if that makes a difference and your boy wants to be ahead of the curve. (I started reading them around Grade 7.)

Like BlueHorse I read Bond around that age. I've gone back to them a few times as an adult. They are problematic in a lot of ways, but I wouldn't necessarily say he can't or shouldn't read them. Part of growing up and growing as a reader involves encountering some things that are challenging and uncomfortable, but that said, I'm sure there are much, much better choices out there today.
posted by sardonyx at 10:34 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]

"Spy High" by A.J. Butcher. Like "Alex Rider," it's a multi-book series with modern sensibilities and targets a YA readership.
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:17 AM on March 31

Thinking of my dad's bookshelf again – if your kid has tolerance for the older stuff, The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle, both by John Buchan and featuring the heroic Richard Hannay, are cracking good reads.
posted by zadcat at 11:55 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]

There is no compelling reason to delve into the classics of the genre IMHO. The Cold War is going to be abstract and irrelevant to a 13 year old; Bond is dripping with misogyny; The Saint is dripping with damsels in distress.

There is just so much better contemporary fictiuon. The suggestion for the Alex Ryder series is excellent.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:04 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]

I don't disagree that there should be modern, appropriate choices for a good read, DarlingBri. I only offered up what I did as a historical/canonical perspective. I don't know what type of reader bitbotbit's son is. If he's the type to want to delve deeply into the genre and wants to understand where it came from and how it evolved, great. We've discussed some older options that reach back a little ways into the origins of the genre. If he's not, and he just wants modern stories that he has an easier time relating to, then people have offered up those as well. More choice and more informed choices are better that limited choices.

As a kid, I was the type that wanted to get a full understanding of everything I took an intereste in, so I read the really old stuff, I read the slightly older stuff and I read the contemporary stuff. The advantages to the older stuff was it it was gentler, for lack of a better word. No rape scenes. No vicarious torture scenes (or if those events happened, they weren't described in detail.)

And while Patrician Holm was rescued a few times by Simon Templar, she wasn't a damsel in distress and ended up helping him out way more than once, so for books written at the time, I took that as a win (and as a female reader, I didn't feel shortchanged or hurting for strong women characters.)

I'd hope that there are more modern, age-appropriate works out there. I probably didn't need to be reading Robert Ludlum as a teenage girl, and as much I loved The Bourne Identity, I would have been so much happier not to have had to suffer through what they did to (smart and Canadian!!!!) Marie. Ugh. (But at the same time, it certainly prepared me for a lifetime of reading about how male characters are motivated by violence inflicted upon "their" women.)
posted by sardonyx at 1:17 PM on March 31 [2 favorites]

And since bitbotbit admitted to being unfamiliar with the genre, it doesn't hurt to offer up some commentary on famous/classic works of the genre to say, "Bond may be famous--because of the movies--so here's what's good and bad about the books, should bitbotbit junior show an interest in them." Forewarned is forearmed. And again, I'm a proponent of people (including children and teens) picking the books that interest them, but it doesn't hurt to have a parent who understands what the child is reading, if only to take an interest in the kid's own interests.
posted by sardonyx at 1:24 PM on March 31

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the help, all. I do appreciate both the classic and contemporary suggestions, as it will help him to cast a wide net in his exploration of the genre - hopefully allowing him to find a niche he especially enjoys. He does love history and reads a lot of historical non-fiction, so I don’t think that an older book will necessarily be a barrier for him.
posted by bitbotbit at 2:39 PM on March 31

I am a huge fan of Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series, which focuses on an Israeli spy who poses as an art restorer. I started reading them in high school.
posted by notjustthefish at 2:48 PM on March 31

Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle was the first spy novel I ever read and I still remember parts of it vividly, 40 years later. Set during World War II.
posted by wryly at 5:03 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]

Code Name Verity is a WWII YA spy novel that is brutal and brilliant.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:24 PM on March 31 [6 favorites]

I recently was surprised to learn that Rudyard Kipling's Kim is a spy novel. The prose and the vital force of the depiction of life in the early 20th century Indian subcontinent are just about unparalleled in quality, which for me make it a worthwhile read. But stand by to have chats about how the story is affected / limited by the author's colonialism. Might want to read it along with your kid.
posted by rabia.elizabeth at 6:48 PM on March 31 [2 favorites]

The suggestion for the Alex Ryder series is excellent.

I suppose one positive thing about them is that they're not as homophobic as some of Anthony Horowitz's other work.
posted by Umami Dearest at 7:47 PM on March 31

He does love history and reads a lot of historical non-fiction

Oh well then! If he's into World War II he should try some Alan Furst, known for his novels of romantic espionage, set during and just previous to the war. The first two (Night Solders (1988) and Dark Star) are quite dense and heavy, but so good. (I never really understood the Spanish Civil War until reading Night Soldiers.) The World At Night and Red Gold are a part 1 and part 2, but the rest can stand alone (although they share certain characters and locations; encountering them again is part of the fun). Maybe Kingdom Of Shadows is a good place to start, a regular man being pushed into espionage by circumstances (but that's what happens in a lot of his novels). Note that although he publishes one of these every year or two, I'm recommending his earlier work from the 1990s; his later books aren't so memorable.
posted by Rash at 8:47 PM on March 31

The Cherub series by Robert Muchamore. The shifting perspectives from the different characters are good and the writing is better than Horowitz.

"Michael Strogoff, The Courier of the Czar" by Jules Verne is a non-stop thriller.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 11:48 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]

Rosalie Knecht’s Vera Kelly series and Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy are fresh takes on the genre that I loved recently. Female protagonists, no graphic violence, lots of spycraft mixed in with questions about the morality of American politics.
posted by minervous at 1:00 AM on April 1 [3 favorites]

I was going to recommend John le Carré, whose books I enjoyed at about that age, but I don't think they are gentle. Helen MacInnes? A couple of reviews at Leaves & Pages. Also, non-fiction, but The Man Who Never Was (see the comment in review about one photograph, though).
posted by paduasoy at 2:04 AM on April 1

Silk and Cyanide, and it isn’t even fiction.

Anthony Price has a lot of spy-ish novels set in the aftermath of World War One; I’d try the earlier ones.
posted by clew at 11:19 PM on April 1

The Riddle Of The Sands, especially if he has any interest or experience with small boats.

There is international intrigue,, if not actual espionage, in several of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:29 AM on April 2

+1 for Anthony Price. The Slow Horses series by Mick Herron for contemporary…spies.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:42 AM on April 2

« Older What's new and cool in Chicago?   |   So what Boeing planes should I avoid right now? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments