Cold War Spy Thrillers For Warm Weather Reading

June 25, 2008

A recent spate of quality espionage fiction has come to our attention bringing with it a return to Cold War-style spy stories of old. John le Carré created the yardstick by which most other spy novels are measured against along with a number of other contemporaries who propelled the genre forward with protagonists who were as morally ambiguous as their enemies. Le Carré returns this fall with A Most Wanted Man. Set in Germany, it chronicles the fate of a Muslim man who relocates to Hamburg to begin medical school but has a shadowy past that attracts the attention of intelligence agencies from Germany and beyond.

Robert Littell also produced well-crafted spy fiction in the 70’s and still continues publishing. His 2002 fictionalized account of the CIA, The Company, a bestseller, was made into a multi-part series by both the BBC and TNT. He has followed that up with Legends, a darkly humorous story about an aging spy’s identity crisis and Vicious Circle, an account of a kidnapping plot gone bad sending Israel and Palestine to the brink of collapse.

Charles McCarry had a small but devoted following in the 70’s for his books featuring CIA agent Paul Christopher. McCarry too, has seen a recent renaissance in his popularity beginning with Old Boys which brought back Paul Christopher and an aging group of fellow co-workers. Last year’s Christopher’s Ghosts continues the popular series.

We are lucky to have a cadre of newer writers to continue presenting espionage in the Cold War tradition. Olen Steinhauer has a first-rate series of books featuring Inspector Emil Brod set in a fictional Eastern European country. The first, The Bridge Of Sighs, nominated for multiple awards, begins at the end of WWII. The series closes at the fall of the Berlin Wall with Victory Square, portraying the corruption that has etched itself on Brod over the preceding 40 years.

Jenny Siler also writes as Alex Carr. Her books depict events still resonating in our society: Easy Money, portrays drug running with its origins in the killing fields of Vietnam, and An Accidental American covers the 1983 Beirut bombings. Carr’s newest novel brings us up to date, exposing the underbelly of Morocco in The Prince of Bagram Prison.

Alan Furst uses WWII and the days immediately following as glamorous backdrops for his espionage tales beginning with The Night Soldiers and continuing with the just-published The Spies of Warsaw.

Daniel Silva‘s bestselling series starring Mossad agent Gabriel Allon carries on the tradition with his take-no-prisoners scenarios and plenty of action just begging to be bought up by Hollywood. His latest installment, Moscow Rules, is due out in July.

In a similar vein, but already cashing in on the Hollywood interest, is Robert Ludlum with Eric Lustbader and the Bourne series. The latest Bourne book, The Bourne Sanction, is due out the end of July.

Although William F Buckley is gone, he’s certainly not forgotten, and his bestselling Blackford Oakes series will continue to find new fans. Oakes, a CIA agent described by Buckley as being “distinctly American”, acquits himself with style and charm. The series begins with Saving The Queen and concludes with Last Call For Blackford Oakes.

Science fiction stylist William Gibson brings his expertise with cyberspace to the genre with two espionage novels that won critical acclaim: Pattern Recognition and Spook Country.

Last but not least, Ted Bell has produced an enjoyable spy series with Alex Hawke as the lead character who works for both the American and British governments. The series includes Hawke, Spy, Assassin and TSAR due out this September.