Cold War chills in the warm sun
August 9, 2007 1:42 PM   Subscribe

Give me the Cold War chills, please. I'm going on vacation soon and I would like to settle down on the beach with a really juicy espionage novel, preferably something about the Cold War, something suitably dense, complex, panoramic and violent. What should I read?

I don't know my Le Carré from my Ludlum (though I have read The Constant Gardener and found it interesting though poorly written).

However, I'm terribly sensitive to bad writing; please don't recommend any Tom Clancies or Clive Cusslers or any of those authors whose name take up half the cover in embossed capitals.

Conversely, though they're brilliant novelists, I would also like to preemptively rule out Graham Greene and Norman Mailer, both of whom I find a bit too dry for this excursion.

So who's the Rohinton Mistry or Patrick O'Brian or James Ellroy of espionage thrillers?
posted by gentle to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Ken Follett? I recall 'The Eye of the Needle' being pretty decent but that was a long long time ago.
posted by mbatch at 1:46 PM on August 9, 2007

Best answer: This is not precisely on tack, because you are obviously looking for something more serious, but just in case you might get a kick out of it, I recently read and absolutely gobbled up Hugh Laurie's (yes, THAT Hugh Laurie) book The Gun Seller (Amazon). I don't have a lot of experience in the genre to draw comparisons, but it's hysterically wacky without being ridiculous, yet still has a substantial, interesting, convoluted and tricky plot. I was literally laughing out loud on almost every single page. It was a great book on the subway, and I think would be even better on vacation.
posted by bunnycup at 1:47 PM on August 9, 2007

Tim Powers' Declare blends historical fantasy with the Cold War. I'm not a big fantasy fan but I loved this. LeCarre is a safe bet too.
posted by mecran01 at 1:49 PM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not all cold war stuff, but if you've never treated yourself to any Eric Ambler, I can't recommend him highly enough.
posted by j-dawg at 1:53 PM on August 9, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the reminder, bunnycup, I have been meaning to read Laurie's stuff.

Declare is all right, but it is not that well-written, and I didn't really buy all of it. Powers' The Anubis Gates is much better. (The oddball zombie pirate novel On Stranger Tides as great, as is the weirdly magical-realistic card-magic book Last Call, though both seemed to be a bit pulpier.)

Ambler looks interesting, but which book? Journey into Fear, perhaps?
posted by gentle at 1:59 PM on August 9, 2007

I would vote for LeCarre, but I can't remember which of his books is/are set in the Cold War.
posted by Eringatang at 2:02 PM on August 9, 2007

I recently read The Human Factor. Very satisfying.
posted by raheel at 2:02 PM on August 9, 2007

Best answer: The Company by Robert Littell. Bonus: When you finish the book you can watch the miniseries currently airing on TNT.
posted by pardonyou? at 2:06 PM on August 9, 2007

I just finished Code to Zero by Ken Follet which is a great beach mystery. Some of it takes place during space age times but there is a lot of flashing back to the cold war in the backstory of most of the characters which takes up more of the book than the supposedly "main" story.
posted by jessamyn at 2:09 PM on August 9, 2007

Len Deighton's Game, Set and Match trilogy are great.

nthing Le Carre.
posted by djgh at 2:14 PM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Le Carre is simply the best there is. I've read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People so many times I can practically recite them by heart.

The only other author who comes close to Le Carre, in my view, is the much underrated Joseph Kanon. His two best novels, Los Alamos (about the making of the atomic bomb) and The Prodigal Spy (about McCarthy-era America), are intricately plotted, historically convincing and morally serious.

The best Eric Amblers are the early ones, particularly Cause for Alarm (1938), written in his Marxist period. But he did write one classic Cold War novel, Judgement on Deltchev (1951). You might also enjoy Lionel Davidson's The Night of Wenceslas, which is a bit like Lucky Jim but set in Czechoslovakia.
posted by verstegan at 2:21 PM on August 9, 2007

I always found Le Carre's A Perfect Spy not only superb as a novel (his best easily IMHO), but wonderful at depicting the soul-wrecking and paranoia that was probably a part of the daily lives of spooks back then.
posted by Iosephus at 2:23 PM on August 9, 2007

I know you're anti-Tom Clancy (and believe me, I am now too) but his first couple of novels were brilliant compared to the schlock he's putting out now.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:25 PM on August 9, 2007

The Eye of the Needle is a fun book, but it's World War II, not the Cold War.

I would vote for LeCarre, but I can't remember which of his books is/are set in the Cold War.

Most of his George Smiley books are set in the Cold War.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:28 PM on August 9, 2007

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a great Le Carre choice and a Cold War classic...You might also consider Forsyth...The Dogs of War or The Day of the Jackal even if they are not necessarily pure Cold War...and I am a big Trevanian fan but he is a bit of an acquired taste...Shibumi is his classic.
posted by cyclopz at 2:29 PM on August 9, 2007

ANYTHING by Adam Hall. Quiller, Quiller KGB, etc. Hands down the best spy novels I've ever read - very violent and "in the moment" of the cold war.
posted by true at 2:39 PM on August 9, 2007

haven't read the constant gardener, but i'm surprised when you say it was poorly written. i've not read le carre for a long time, but i remember his writing (the way sentences run together, the lightness of touch, whatever) being pretty good. what used to annoy me was his maudlin obsession with class and duty. if that is what you are talking about (too much focussing on why everyone is unhappy at the expense of plot) then you need to choose the books more carefully - try tinker, tailor, soldier, spy and smiley's people. there's still a fair amount of guilt (he focusses more on motivation, deceit, betrayal, than action - he's not panoramic, which you mention, since everything depends on the psychology of the characters), but they don't have the same level of navel gazing found in some of his other books.

deighton has more action, and a more noir feel, but if you're lookin for "good writing" i'm not sure you'll enjoy it. again, i've not read anything by him for a long time, but enjoyed the game, set and match trilogy. that's really page-turner territory, though.

maybe you want something more like delillo's running dog? that doesn't contain any russians - that i remember - but it's a cold war book, and surely "well written".
posted by andrew cooke at 2:40 PM on August 9, 2007

whoa. wrong delillo! should be the names. and looking at comments on the web, maybe it's not cold war at all... sorry.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:43 PM on August 9, 2007

Definitely the Smiley books, they are justifiably classics.

- Moscow Rules by Robert Moss (lighter than le Carre, but a real page-turner, out of print but can be found used)
- any of the Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith, also lighter than le Carre, but still good (they stand alone for the most part, but you get more out of them if you read them in order, starting with Gorky Park, although the two after that (Polar Star and Red Square) are better, Havana Bay is a bit meh, but the one after that (Wolves Eat Dogs) is great (and has abandoned-since-Chernobyl Pripyat goodness, plus eerily prescient Litvinenko-esque poisoning), the newest one (Stalin's Ghost) is okay). He's a good and clever writer (especially with snarky dialogue), his characters are really interesting, and the stories show you things you might not otherwise see (Polar Star is set on a canning ship in the arctic, and is where I first learned about hagfish), and the story arc of the series follows Renko from the Cold War through to today (and were written as things in the real world changed, more or less).
- The Charm School by Nelson DeMille is about a training school for Soviet plants and has proven to be un-put-downable by everyone I've recommended it to.

I'll second Shibumi, and add The Loo Sanction and The Eiger Sanction for Trevanian recommendations (good British spy novels, and the opening scene of The Loo Sanction is...icky).
posted by biscotti at 2:49 PM on August 9, 2007

Oh, thirding Shibumi, even though it's not really a straight up espionage novel.
posted by djgh at 3:02 PM on August 9, 2007

Any of the Paul Christopher Novels by Charles McCarry. Fantastic stuffl
posted by WyoWhy at 3:11 PM on August 9, 2007

Shibumi is hands down the best beach read ever. Like, the Platonic Ideal. Not literature but fun as hell.

And Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is just sublime. I, too, have read Le Carre's later stuff with a vague sense of disappointment, but I can reread the Smiley books over and over and always thrill to the writing.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:16 PM on August 9, 2007

Nth-ing Tinker, Tailor by Le Carre. Also, I think his Little Drummer Girl (although not cold war) might actually be better than the Smiley books, having read them all 10 times. His later stuff (Constant Gardener and Absolute Friends included) just isn't as good as those classics.

Also - any of the Smiley books and Little Drummer Girl are better than Littlle's The Company, which goes on way too long and gets ridiculously implausible by the end.
posted by Mid at 4:08 PM on August 9, 2007

i enjoyed both "declare" and "the company"
posted by rmd1023 at 4:54 PM on August 9, 2007

It's non-fiction, but reads like the great cold war spy novels, though it's set before the cold war started. Reilly Ace of Spies by Robin Bruce Lockhart. He wrote a sequel that is very good as well, can't recall the name. They made a British/PBS miniseries in the 80's with a young Sam Neill as Reilly. Worth renting the DVD as well.
posted by ljshapiro at 5:20 PM on August 9, 2007

Best answer: Go hardcore and read non-fiction: The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
posted by Doohickie at 6:19 PM on August 9, 2007

2nd the The Company suggestion.
posted by mmascolino at 7:14 PM on August 9, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War is a true but insane story of how a coke sniffing boozing democratic Congressman from Texas was instrumental in funding the Afghan and foreign Mujahadeen who defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan. It's one of the final chapters of the cold war and it's as crazy and engaging as any story I have ever read.
Plenty of espionage, and perfect for a vacation read.
posted by extrabox at 7:51 PM on August 9, 2007

I do think more people should try The Gulag Archipelago, and it is dense, panoramic, and violent; but it is neither very complex, nor espionagey.
posted by eritain at 10:42 PM on August 9, 2007

Response by poster: Lots of suggestions to process now -- thanks.

I realize there's a bunch of great spy fiction out there. I would like to emphasize that I'm looking for something where I can also enjoy the writing on its own.

I'm secretly hoping that somebody will dig up "the Patrick O'Brian of spy fiction" or tell me that Jeffrey Eugenides once wrote a really good novel about the CIA.
posted by gentle at 2:10 AM on August 10, 2007

I realise you said no Tom Clancy but Cardinal Of The Kremlin is great schlock spy stuff and plus you have the the fact that it just takes place in a different world from the one we live in now (plus it doesn;t have the weird bits where Tom stops talking about tanks and starts talking about making lurve (see this review for more). details

Other good author's for this type of thing are Frederick Forsythe (4th Protocol, Devil's Alternative, The Deceiver). I've also enjoyed Chapman Pincher.

Happy spying!
posted by eb98jdb at 2:33 AM on August 10, 2007

I know you're anti-Tom Clancy (and believe me, I am now too) but his first couple of novels were brilliant compared to the schlock he's putting out now.

I completely agree with this. I think at some point he decided that every word on every page was a precious snowflake that had to be protected from evil editors. His solution was to "edit" his work himself and it really shows.
posted by bshort at 5:59 AM on August 10, 2007

Le Carre's "Tinker, Tailor..." and "Smiley's People" are the best, as Verstegan said. And "Drummer Girl" is absolutely tops, as is "Spy Who Came In From The Cold" -- plus, if you get the chance, watch the movie w/Richard Burton.

Extrabox is right about "Charlie Wilson's War" -- though it ain't Cold War. Wilson was (is?) totally insane but he did have some crackin' adventures worth reading about. (A friend of a friend knows Wilson and says you would not want your sister, mother, daughter to have anything to do with him.)
posted by Smalltown Girl at 6:17 AM on August 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Charm School by Nelson DeMille. I also found it un-put-downable. It's a great beach read!!
posted by slyboots421 at 7:44 AM on August 10, 2007

Response by poster: The raft of suggestions in the direction of dime-a-dozen airport-kiosk pot-boiler hacks (Deighton, DeMille, Follett, Forsythe -- and Clancy, even if it's his earlier, better self) makes me think that I made a mistake in not properly emphasizing the literary qualities I am looking for, or at best goes to prove that most posters don't read the "read more" bit of the post. Sorry, people -- not convinced.

Fow now, Robert Littell, especially The Company, looks like the only really spot-on answer. I'm chalking up Hugh Laurie's book for later purchase because it sounds worthwhile, and Eric Ambler looks interesting in its own right.

I will probably end up grabbing William Gibson's new one, Spook Country, which promises a rich ore of literary craftmanship to mine. And perhaps I will even give Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost another shot; the squat, fat paperback has been rotting away on my shelf since the last millenium, which almost seems like a portend.
posted by gentle at 5:22 PM on August 12, 2007

Best answer: One day, maybe many years hence, you will read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and feel like such an ass for not listening to us.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:19 PM on August 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

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