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Stella Rimington's 6 favorite secret-agent novels

The renowned spy-novel author — and former director-general of MI5, Britain’s internal counterintelligence agency — recommends some of her favorite espionage-themed diversions

Novelist Stella Rimington.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (Scribner, $16). Le Carré’s 1974 novel about the search for a mole in British intelligence has a cast of wonderful characters, many of whom are reminiscent of people I met back in the 1970s: mild-mannered George Smiley; Connie Sachs—retired and gin-sodden, but still with an impeccable memory. The jargon of “ferrets,” “lamplighters,” and “the Circus” makes us all insiders.

The Riddle of the Sands
by Erskine Childers (Penguin, $10). Two young men on a sailing holiday in the North Sea’s Frisian Islands discover that Germany is secretly preparing an invasion of Britain. Childers’ 1903 novel is a book full of atmosphere—cold swirling fog, sinister Germans, and a protagonist, “Carruthers,” who is a minor official in the British Foreign Office.

The Thirty-Nine Steps
by John Buchan (Oxford University Press, $10). We follow secret agent Richard Hannay through England and the Scottish Lowlands as he chases and eludes brilliant German spies who are trying to steal British defense plans. Stirring stuff from 1915.

Our Man in Havana
by Graham Greene (Penguin, $15). Insiders can portray spying as it is, exaggerate it, or laugh at it. Graham Greene chose to laugh cynically. Mr. Wormold, a vacuum-cleaner salesman in Havana, is recruited as an agent by British intelligence. He begins making up his intelligence. But when it all becomes true, he becomes a star. Then it all starts to unravel.

The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth (Bantam, $8). What’s so good here is the chilling contrast between a quiet town in Suffolk, England, and the devastation being prepared by a crack Soviet agent living there. On the faintest of clues, the investigator unravels the plot, as always, just in time.

Kim by Rudyard Kipling (Dover, $3.50). I had just finished reading this when I was recruited by MI5. Kim, a street urchin in Lahore, becomes involved in the Great Game, the struggle for Central Asia between Russia and Britain. He is recruited by a horse dealer who is also a British agent. “It was intrigue of some kind, Kim knew.”

Stella Rimington is a former director-general of MI5, Britain’s internal counterintelligence agency. "Dead Line," her fourth spy novel, has just been published in the U.S. by Knopf

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