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Oct. 24th, 2006

The Top 15 Spy Novels

Peter Cannon of Publisher's Weekly recently compiled a list of what he considers the top fifteen spy novels. (The list itself I pulled from author Gayle Lynds's website.) It's an intriguing list (no pun intended...okay, maybe a little...), and one that certainly begs discussion.

1. John le Carre, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1963)
2. Robert Ludlum, THE BOURNE IDENTITY (1980)
3. Frederick Forsyth, THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (1971)
4. Ian Fleming, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1962)
5. Graham Greene, THE QUIET AMERICAN (1955)
6. Len Deighton, THE IPCRESS FILE (1962)
8. Gayle Lynds, MASQUERADE (1996)
9. Joseph Finder, THE MOSCOW CLUB (1991)
10. Helen MacInnes, ABOVE SUSPICION (1939)
11. John Buchan, THE 39 STEPS (1915)
12. Norman Mailer, HARLOT'S GHOST (1991)
13. Daniel Silva, THE UNLIKELY SPY (1996)
14. Erskine Childers, THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS (1903)
15. Colin MacKinnon, MORNING SPY, EVENING SPY (2006)

First, a disclaimer. I have not read Colin MacKinnon's novel, but based on a few reviews I've read, I certainly need to add it to the already too-high stack of books on my end table. That said, I cannot help but concur with just under half of the choices, argue, in some cases heatedly, with others, and scratch my head at what's missing.

THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, THE IPCRESS FILE, EYE OF THE NEEDLE, ABOVE SUSPICION, THE 39 STEPS and THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS are all masterpieces of the form, and are absolute musts if one wants to become an authority on spy fiction. Placing THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is understandable, perhaps even necessary, but I prefer the multi-layered, richly textured Karla Trilogy, which begins with TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. Likewise, whatever one feels for the quality of Ludlum's writing, one cannot help but admire the sheer narrative drive of THE BOURNE IDENTITY. It may be a Big Mac to le Carre's filet mignon, but damned if it doesn't taste good going down.

Then there is the case of Graham Greene. He's a seminal espionage writer whose influence remains pervasive, especially when one remembers that le Carre's THE TAILOR OF PANAMA is an homage to Greene's hilarious OUR MAN IN HAVANA. So, while I can see him here easily, I have to wonder why Cannon chose THE QUIET AMERICAN over either HAVANA or THE THIRD MAN. Granted, Greene considered AMERICAN one of his "serious" novels, as opposed to his "entertainments" (which include the above mentioned, as well as A GUN FOR SALE), but, looking at some of the others on this list, I remain perplexed. If you're going to include Ludlum, if you're going to opt for le Carre's SPY, then why not go with a novel that more closely resembles a tale of intrigue?

The inclusion of Lynds, Finder and Silva are somewhat debatable. All three are competent writers, and the works listed are enjoyable (though in the case of Lynds I prefer THE COIL, and in the case of Silva, THE MARK OF THE ASSASSINS), yet I'm dubious of their endurance. It just seems too soon for them to be on a "best" list of this sort.

Two books that, in my opinion, should not be on this list are Fleming's THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and Mailer's HARLOT'S GHOST. Being a huge James Bond fan, I have no qualms with putting Fleming on the list, but I cannot understand why Cannon would choose Fleming's most experimental novel – and a failed experiment at that – over the elemental CASINO ROYALE or an acknowledged classic like FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE. And while I have enormous respect for Mailer and this work, I felt Cannon's selected it to make his list more palatable to the literary-minded. Charles McCarry covered similar material in his novel THE LAST SUPPER, which is just as literary as Mailer's book, and a thousand pages shorter.

And then there's the obvious omission: Eric Ambler. Ambler, in such novels as A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS, CAUSE FOR ALARM, JOURNEY INTO FEAR and THE LIGHT OF DAY, practically created the spy novel as we know it in the 1930s. He took all of the adventure of Buchan and Sapper (who wrote the Bulldog Drummond novels), added the complexity and ambiguity of character one finds in Greene's novels, and mixed them together with a healthy sprinkling of (then) contemporary realpolitik. The result was a series of novels that have often been equaled but seldom surpassed, and remain incredible, and incredibly readable, works to this day.

I also do not understand the absence of Joseph Conrad's THE SECRET AGENT or W. Somerset Maugham's ASHENDEN. These may not be to everybody's taste –contemporary thriller readers might find them slow going – but they are influential works, and worthy of consideration on anybody's list. (And, admittedly, they do not show up on my own list below.)

In addition, I'm also surprised by the absence of Geoffrey Household's ROGUE MALE and Adam Hall's THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM. Though modern audiences do not better know these works, both contain enough action and intrigue to satisfy the most cynical and jaded reader. They are also tightly written and exquisitely plotted. Why they aren't here is a mystery to me.

And then there are personal favorites such as Charles McCarry's THE TEARS OF AUTUMN, Trevanian's THE EIGER SANCTION, and Robert Littell's THE AMATEUR, that Cannon doesn't select, but then, why should he? They are personal faves, and perhaps not to his taste.

So, in response to Cannon's list, allow me to provide my own. I'll admit to some degree of idiosyncrasy on my part – I tend to like everything from the pulpy adventure stuff to the most literary tome – but I feel that someone looking for a good read could do worse than these. Rather than giving each novel a ranking, I'm listing my choices in alphabetical order. Those marked with an asterisk also appear on Cannon's list.

Eric Ambler, A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS (1938)
John Buchan, THE 39 STEPS (1915)*
Erskine Childers, THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS (1903)*
Len Deighton, THE IPCRESS FILE (1962)*
Ian Fleming, FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE (1957)
Ken Follett, EYE OF THE NEEDLE (1978)*
Frederick Forsyth, THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (1971)*
Graham Greene, THE THIRD MAN (1950)
Geoffrey Household, ROGUE MALE (1939)
John le Carre, TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY (1974)
Robert Ludlum, THE BOURNE IDENTITY (1980)*
Helen MacInnes, ABOVE SUSPICION (1939)*
Charles McCarry, THE TEARS OF AUTUMN (1974)
Trevanian, THE EIGER SANCTION (1971)

Go read.

June 2012



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