It is a vocation as old as humanity itself. From the Assassins of Medieval Persia to the pen of Walsingham, the act of espionage is not only historically but also culturally pervasive. Shrouded in secrecy, spies in both history and fiction continue to fascinate us all. Here I list my top 5 spy books.

Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern EspionageStephen Budiansky

Employed by Elizabeth I, Walsingham was a pioneer of modern day espionage. As a “spymaster” he ran a network of agents stretching across Europe. He even recruited John Dee, an occultist who spent much of his life trying to communicate with angels. Elizabeth and Dee would write coded letters to each other; Elizabeth signing with an “M” and Dee with a simple “007”. The two zeros in the signatory represent two eyes keeping watch! The book runs through different plots against Elizabeth’s rule. Although lacking great detail, it is well written.

The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime WashingtonJennet Conant

Roald Dahl‘s early life consisted more of cocktails, cars and sex than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Employed by the British as an undercover propagandist in the United States, Dahl’s job was to persuade a U-turn on American isolationist policy during World War II. His charm, good looks and cockiness were essential tools for getting in with American high society. This book often lacks an upbeat pace, but does highlight the huge spy networks operating at the time.

Hitler’s Spy Princess: The Extraordinary Life of Stephanie von Hohenlohe – Martha Schad

It was through a curious pattern of social climbing that Stephanie von Hohenlohe became a close friend of Adolf Hitler. Even more surprising is that she was of Jewish descent. This was no issue for Himmler, who later declared her an “Honary Aryan”. A virile propagandist for the Third Reich, Stephanie proved a vital window into British high society. So much so that Hitler even gifted her a castle. If you can wade through the pages of affairs, titles and double, triple and even quadruple barreled surnames, Schad’s book is an interesting read. Best bit is Stephanie’s diary. She writes of Hitler: “his mouth is… far too small for a man and when he opens it, especially when he gets worked up, it is extremely unappetising.” 

Our Kind of Traitor John Le Carré

If it’s good enough to make Obama’s summer reading list, it is good enough for me. Le Carre’s murky tale of a global crime network focuses on rampant capitalism as the new threat, replacing that of Cold War communism. This book is fast paced. It blends the world of a money laundering Russian oligarch, with that of an Oxford don. The story is firmly placed in our time with tennis opens, yachts and the stiff upper lip of the old school British establishment. A vivid and intriguing read.  

Spies: The Secret Agents Who Changed the Course of History – Ernest Volkman   

Victory in war is not always due to brute strength or force. It is often the result of a key commodity: knowledge. Volkman’s vast study features those spies, masters, moles and legends that have changed the course of history. Read about Amy Thorpe Pack, the “siren spy”, who seduced an Italian intelligence chief. Then there are KGB defectors Golitsin and Popov or British spy Ian Fleming, all hailed as “legendary”. Each case is woven into a narrative, some quite funny to imagine, such as Ruth Kuczynski hiding her transmitter radio inside a teddy bear to avoid police inspection. Other cases such as K’ang Sheng and Tai Li in China and “the utter shit” Claude Dansey, who “saved” the MI6, make for painful reading. Forget Bond, real life spies come from all walks of life and operate in all sorts of ways.


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