Mark Sullivan author of “Thief: A Robin Monarch Novel”, shares with us his top five espionage thrillers. “Thief” will be available on Kindle and in hardcover on December 16, 2014
I’ve always liked spy books because they’re usually about a struggle over information rather than something tangible like gold. The fact that the MacGuffin - - the thing the spy wants - - is an idea, or a secret, ensures that the stories have to be told in shifting shades of gray, rather than static black and white.
That alone beckons me as a reader. But a really good spy story not only tells a good tale, it usually takes you into an utterly deceitful world on the back of someone uniquely smart, steeped in tradecraft, and highly adaptable.
These five spy novels have stayed with me more than any others.
Follett’s masterwork of espionage focuses on the hunt for the last German spy operating in England in the spring of 1944. Henry Faber, code-named “The Needle” because of his love of stiletto knives, is trying to figure out where the Allies are going to launch D Day. MI5 detectives are after him, but he stays one step ahead, discovering a fake-out designed to make the Germans believe the attack will be at Calais, not Normandy. Unwilling to risk a short-wave radio transmission to warn Germany, he hires a trawler, which shipwrecks on Storm Island where a legless and bitter RAF pilot lives with his young wife. This twist is what sets the book apart. Until the shipwreck, Faber is depicted as a heartless, ruthless killer. But spies operate in shades of gray. Fabor’s relationship with the unloved wife, and the climax that results make this novel one of the best espionage books ever.
Greene’s seventeenth novel is a savage skewering of Cold War espionage, and in particular Britain’s MI6 where the author once worked. James Wormold is the unlikely hero of the book, a widower, and down-on-his-luck vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana. An MI6 operator approaches Wormold, offering him a position gathering intelligence on the Battista regime. The pay is on delivery and Wormold jumps at the chance. But he’s a horrible spy. Desperate, the takes photos of vacuum cleaner parts and sells the pictures as proof of a new and dangerous weapon. Double agents inside MI6 sell Wormold out, and assassins start hunting him. A truly amazing black comedy of espionage.
No spy writer takes the reader deeper into a world of shadows that Le Carré. Here he is at his best, writing a fictionalized account of the hunt for a mole in the British Intelligence Service during the Cold War. What makes the novel exceptional is the hero, George Smiley, an ordinary looking, ordinary acting former academic who became a spy to study the far reaches of human behavior. By the time we meet Smiley, he’s assistant to Control, the director of the British Intelligence, the “Circus”, and a powerful man. His power is soon destroyed, however, and he’s sent into retirement. But when word surfaces of a Russian sleeper agent inside the Circus, Smiley is brought in to probe the souls and histories of the five most likely double agents in the highest echelons of British Intelligence. The book also introduces the character of “Karla,” the KGB General who is Smiley’s great nemesis. Their story goes on in “The Honorable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People.” But this book is the gem of the three.
Any spy novel that causes the White House to debrief its author on his sources is one for the ages. Clancy invents the “techno-thriller” subgenre of espionage with this ground-breaking work that tells the tale of a Soviet naval captain trying to secretly defect to the U.S. on a state of the art Russian submarine. Clancy’s understanding and depiction of submarines and sub warfare tactics are flawless. But he also is masterful at showing the geopolitical stakes of such a defection while taking you deep into the minds of the two protagonists: Defecting captain Marco Ramius, and and CIA Analyst Jack Ryan, who is trying to convince the President that the sub sailing toward the U.S. is not bent on starting World War III.
The third of Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels is a brilliant story of espionage based on a Vatican secret left over from the Holocaust. Allon, a former Mossad operator who now restores classical paintings, is drawn into the crucible of the action in swift, expert fashion. And the plot unfolds hyper-realistically, and at break-neck speed. But what sets the book apart are the chapters told from the point of view of a newly inaugurated Pope forced to look clearly at sins in the Vatican’s past.