Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (Penguin $14). The first James Bond novel was a departure from the headier, heavier fiction about secret agents written before then. Suave, dark, and blunt, Bond is an instantly appealing character. Those familiar only with the Bond films should pick up this or any of Fleming’s books—you’ll get a man who’s far more complex than you might think.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (Penguin, $16). Le Carré’s protagonist, George Smiley, is the antithesis of Bond, but is equally arresting as he methodically goes about tracking down a mole within Britain’s MI6. There are no supervillains or secret weapons: This is Cold War espionage as it really was.
Wild Bill Donovan by Douglas Waller (Free Press, $30). Donovan, the head of the precursor organization to the CIA, went to whatever extremes necessary to hammer together a crack intelligence apparatus during World War II. Waller’s bio is both an excellent portrait of a key figure in Western geopolitics and a study of the birth of today’s approach to gathering and applying intelligence.
The IPCRESS File by Len Deighton (Sterling, $12). This Cold War–era thriller features an unnamed protagonist who tumbles into a web of mind-control plots. It is a character-driven look at a man in conflict—and what a character! A classic 1960s anti-hero, he is a civil servant making his way as best he can, paranoid, contemptuous of classist society, and fast with his wry asides.
The Human Factor by Graham Greene (Penguin, $15). Although the opposite of a shoot-’em-up adventure story, this novel keeps you utterly engaged. The story finds intelligence agent Maurice Castle investigating a security breach that soon leads him into an escalating moral crisis. Greene knows whereof he writes: he was once an MI6 officer working for the infamous mole Kim Philby.
Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre (Broadway, $15). This recent work is the true story of the operation to fool the Nazis into thinking that Greece and Sardinia were to be the focus of the Allied spearhead that was instead targeting Normandy. It’s an immensely entertaining book.
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