Mark Henshaw is the author of the Kyra Stryker and Jonathan Burke series, and earlier this year, he released the third installment: The Fall of Moscow Station. But Henshaw doesn’t just write spy thrillers; he also reads them. Here, Henshaw shares five of his favorite espionage thrillers with Bookish readers. Whether you’re new to spy novels, or a seasoned reader and fan, these five picks deliver some of the best thrills, chills, and spy antics that the genre has to offer.
Here, in no particular order, is a list of tales that had the most lasting impact on me and, I believe, on the espionage genre.
Without question, James Bond is the most famous spy of all time. His movie exploits are only slightly more realistic than Austin Powers’, but there’s no denying that Ian Fleming’s protagonist shares the same rarefied literary air as Sherlock Holmes. His fame is so pervasive that it has shaped readers’ (and viewers’) expectations of the genre even if they’ve never read one of the Bond books or seen any of the movies.
From Russia With Love is Fleming’s fifth Bond novel, and some Bond fans rank Casino Royale higher; but the stakes in FRWL are more personal for Bond than in most of Fleming’s other books. SMERSH targets Bond personally, planning to use his disgrace and death to discredit British intelligence. It’s a fantastic Cold War novel with a first-rate plot, intriguing characters, and a cliffhanger ending that sends readers running to buy Dr. No.
John le Carré is the only author who appears on my list twice, and he sits on the opposite end of the realism spectrum from Fleming. Le Carré was a former intelligence officer until Kim Philby outed him to the KGB, thereby ending his career; but le Carré got the last word, turning Philby into Tinker’s traitor—KGB codename “Gerald”—who is hunted by the brilliant George Smiley.
That said, Tinker is no thriller. In fact, it’s tough to read, especially for non-Brits unfamiliar with the UK’s cultural oddities, which le Carré dissects throughout the book. He throws readers into the deep end of the espionage pool by serving up loads of accurate jargon and tradecraft, and Smiley’s investigation is painfully methodical. Then the story comes together at the end and you find yourself wondering whether le Carré wasn’t putting his own revenge fantasy down on paper.
Publishers Weekly named le Carré’s third novel the “best spy novel of all-time” in 2006. I rank Tinker higher only because the BBC’s brilliant 1979 miniseries adaptation starring Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley has ensured that Tinker has enjoyed a bigger impact on the genre.
Smiley also appears in Spy as the spymaster who gives West Berlin station head Alec Leamas a mission that leaves readers guessing about who is moral and immoral, trustworthy and despicable, more effectively than any other novel I’ve ever read. The third act puts the ethical quandaries of espionage on full display in a way that leaves any right-thinking reader appalled and heartbroken.
Written in just 35 days, Jackal is the best “chase” book ever published. Better known as the Jackal and hired to kill French President Charles de Gaulle, antagonist Charles Calthrop deploys false identities, forges documents, and customizes tools and weapons at a dizzying rate as he outruns Inspector Claude Lebel, who tears through France and doesn’t spare even de Gaulle’s own staff as he tries to understand and catch his quarry. History records that de Gaulle died on November 9, 1970 from a ruptured blood vessel, so readers know the Jackal fails; but they and Lebel both learn on the final page that they never really knew Calthrop at all.
Many people criticized Tom Clancy for bogging down his narratives with technical minutiae and sacrificing character development on the altar of expansive, complicated plots. Whatever your opinion, Hunt’s impact on the genre is undeniable—discerning readers expect accurate tradecraft, technology, tactics, and geopolitics—and few authors ever get hailed as the creator of a literary sub-genre (the techno-thriller). Hunt set the realism bar so high that technical accuracy is now the ante that every espionage author must pay to sit at the table.
Mark Henshaw is a graduate of Brigham Young University and a decorated CIA analyst with more than sixteen years of service. In 2007, Henshaw was awarded the Director of National Intelligence Galileo Award for innovation in intelligence analysis. A former member of the Red Cell think tank, Henshaw is the author of Red Cell and Cold Shot and lives with his family in Leesburg, Virginia.