The Best SPY Fiction

Dr. Thomas Boghardt, Historian

Espionage fiction has long influenced people’s notions of intelligence. And there are a good number of first-rate espionage authors to choose from, including John le Carré, Graham Greene, and Ian Fleming. But who did it best?

The answer, of course, depends much on one’s own taste, but my choice is the British writer Eric Ambler (1909-1989). Here is why: Ambler never loses focus, uses unstilted, crisp prose, and simply tells a good story well. His protagonists are believable, and his scenarios are realistic. Many of his novels are set in the interwar period, and as a contemporary of Mussolini and Hitler, Ambler masterfully uses the backdrop of a Europe gripped by totalitarianism, and on the brink of war, to craft powerful stories. Since Ambler’s hero is typically not a professional spy, but someone who accidentally stumbles into a major politico-espionage plot, the reader can easily identify.

If I had to pick one of Ambler’s many excellent novels, it would have to be Journey into Fear. Published and set in 1940, the book describes the flight of an Englishman, Howard Graham, aboard a small Italian steamer from fascist agents. As the vessel is chugging across the eastern Mediterranean from Istanbul to Genoa, Graham discovers with growing horror that his fellow passengers are not what they initially seemed—and that his journey may not lead to safety at all.

Journey into Fear is a relentlessly paced suspense novel. Whether you are interested in espionage, interwar Europe, or simply a good story, you will not be disappointed. Read and enjoy!


Nothing is What It Seems

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2 Responses to The Best SPY Fiction

  1. Karmela says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve never heard of this writer but am always looking for espionage thrillers to add to the bookshelf. Bonus that this is set during the 40s — one of my favorite spy eras.

  2. Richard Cummings says:

    Allow me to put forward the name of Alan Furst for consideration as the author of “the best spy fiction.”
    Two books that come to mind immediately are “The Polish Officer” and “Night Soldiers.”

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