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The Greatest True Spy Stories


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When I first started thinking about writing a spy novel, I read every book I could find about espionage. From Kim to Ashenden to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, along with every book that became a film starring Michael Caine. Having spent several years steeped in spies, I can honestly say that in books, real life is better than fiction. The best books I’ve discovered about espionage are not novels, but non-fiction works about actual spies and their remarkable, deadly exploits. These books are darker than Smiley. Funnier than Bond. More extreme than Jason Bourne. 

Here are my favorite, stranger than fiction, utterly gripping, non-fiction books about real spies. 

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Operation Krondstadt, by Harry Ferguson 

This extraordinary book rockets through the founding of Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) by Mansfield Smith-Cumming in the early years of the 20th century. Cumming is an unforgettable character – the great-great grandson of the founder of the East India Company, he was born to wealth and prone to florid demands and temperamental rages. Having lost his leg in a car accident, he had a wooden prosthetic that he would stab unexpectedly with a knife during meetings to unnerve people. He was known to all as “C”, and every subsequent head of MI6 has been called “C” in his honor. (Ian Fleming changed this to “M” in the James Bond novels.) Ferguson’s book describes in brilliant detail the eccentric warren of tiny offices in the attics of London’s Whitehall where C’s secret service was tucked away during World War I, as its agents, mostly ex-military men, scattered across Europe to risk absolutely everything to find out what German Kaiser was planning, and stop him.  This book is filled with extraordinary people taking unbearable risks in extreme circumstances. An absolute page turner.

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A Spy Among Friends, by Ben Macintyre 

On the list of Britain’s most notorious traitors, Kim Philby ranks near the top. A highly placed MI6 intelligence officer who rose to first secretary to the British Embassy in Washington, DC, and chief liaison with the CIA, he had huge access to top secret information. He was also a double agent working for the Soviet Union for virtually all of the nearly thirty years he served in the intelligence service. The information he provided to the Soviets devastated Britain’s intelligence agencies for decades. Some say the effects of his treachery are still felt today. Macintyre unpicks Philby’s life in a narrative that starts quite ominous in tone and only gets more tense as Philby’s power and reach grows, and the damage spreads. The most horrible sections are those where Philby shares details of planned military operations, resulting in the mass deaths of the operatives involved. The most painful parts are the betrayals of his friends. Macintyre’s writing is fleet and absorbing, and the story of Philby’s crimes is shocking enough to make it all resonate.

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 Russians Among Us, By Gordon Corera

Gordon Corera is the security correspondent for the BBC, an expert in his field, so when he tells us via a series of steady, incontrovertible facts, that the Cold War never ended, and that Russia has been systematically planting deep cover spies in the UK and the US for decades, and that these spies have one job: to undermine and destroy democracy – it’s worth paying attention. Corera has written extensively on espionage, and in this book he focuses on the so-called ‘illegals’ – Russian agents given American or British identities and sent, often with spouses and children – to live in our midst. Corera details how illegals took identities from graveyards, got themselves into American and South American universities where they acquired degrees which they used to get influential jobs in the US government. He explains how they trade nationalities, marrying into citizenships and using those new identities to inch closer to the centers of power. The stories are compelling and bizarre. It’s very like the TV series The Americans, only startlingly real. 

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M, By Henry Hemming 

Author Henry Hemming believes Maxwell Knight was Britain’s greatest spymaster, and he certainly makes a good case for it in M. Knight had failed at many careers before joining the British secret service in the 1920s, but in espionage, he found his true talent. His operations investigating and infiltrating communist cells in the UK were extremely successful, in part, Hemming believes, because Knight recruited, used, and trusted female spies more than anyone before him ever had. He placed these female spies in communist circles, often as clerical staff. He theorized that nobody would suspect them because they didn’t see women as capable of being a threat. And he was right. Over and over, subversive groups ignored and underestimated the women among them while they quietly gathered the information needed to bring the cells down. It was Knight’s recruit Olga Grey (known for years only as ‘Miss X’), who exposed the infamous Woolwich Arsenal Spy Ring. This was a group of British communist sympathizers who attempted to share critical information about new state-of-the-art weapons with the Soviet Union in the years leading up to World War II. But they were exposed by Grey, before they could do too much harm. Knight and his female spies are fascinating characters, and the story rips along at a brisk pace. 

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Open Secret, by Stella Rimington 

I find Stella Rimington fascinating. She was the first female head of MI5 and a lifelong spy until her retirement about 20 years ago, at which point she began writing a series of novels about spies. In Open Secret she tells the tale of her own extraordinary life and her rise through the ranks. Now I’m sure you know perfectly well she’s never going to tell us the truth about how intelligence officers work, nor is she going to tell us much about her own work as a spy. Nonetheless, this book is worth reading because all the things she doesn’t say are so interesting. She tells us about being expected to quit her job when she got married in the 1960s, and then travelling with her husband, a diplomat, on a steamer to India, where she was ‘tapped’ to join MI6 because they needed typists. (Hmm… See the story of M above. I’m not sure typing was what they needed her for.) Despite all she can’t say, it’s clear she was ambitious and very smart, and that she used those talents to rise further through the ranks than any woman before her. By 1992, Rimington was in charge of MI5 and the press were fascinated by this. (A woman? In charge of spies?). So fascinated, that in the early 1990s a newspaper ran a photograph of her, which meant her family had to move to another house and go deeper underground. So yes, it’s fair to say this book contains little information about actual spying, but there is much to be read between the lines about what it was like to be a talented female spy with a front row seat as the world changed.

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A Woman of No Importance, By Sonia Purnell

I’d heard of Virginia Hall before I read this book but I knew little about her, which is ludicrous because as a child she once wore a bracelet of live snakes to school, and that alone is reason to make learning about her life a priority. A society girl from a wealthy family, Hall lost her leg in a hunting accident while still young, and perhaps that propelled her to break free of the expectations of her background and choose another path. When World War II broke out, she travelled to France to volunteer as an ambulance driver, but that was just the start. Somehow, she flew under the Vichy radar, working with the French Resistance and the British secret service to undermine and destabilize the Nazi regime with such success that she became the Germans’ most wanted Allied agent in France. Her extraordinary bravery and resilience are inspiring, and Purnell’s writing flows. This is one of those books that make you believe in heroes.  

Featured image: Virginia Hall in 1945.
CIA People / Wikimedia Commons

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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