The spy novel has come a long way since the heyday of Ian Fleming. John LeCarre’s literary legacy has been the morally complex person who must negotiate a world in which the terms “bad guys and good guys” has lost all meaning. The newest spy novels not only incorporate the bells and whistles of the latest technology, but they also feature complicated human beings who don’t always know if they’re doing the right thing in service to their country.
A recent spate of nonfictional accounts and fiction about spies reveal that “these are the times that try men’s souls.” Thomas Paine recognized that service to one’s country during difficult times tested all who were called. In these accounts, the notion that spying is service to one’s country will be questioned by more than one person. In 2018, writing fiction that surpasses the current nonfiction blockbuster at play in Washington, D.C. is a daunting challenge, and yet, the writers here have found ways to meet it. And, in the nonfiction accounts, the real people who became spies are stories of adventure and heartbreak.
Here are some of our recent favorites.
One thing Vera Kelly is not is a standard-issue spy. During the Cold War, both the United States and the U.S.S.R. expended enormous amounts of money and personnel in search of information that would provide one or the other with an advantage. They also fought for influence among non-aligned groups, which is how Vera Kelly, a former “troubled teen” who is working dead-end jobs in Greenwich Village ends up as a spy in Buenos Aires. She has been sent there to infiltrate a leftist student group and monitor the members’ contact with the Soviets. But when a coup d’etat creates chaos on Argentinian streets and cuts her off from her C.I.A. handlers, Vera must improvise to survive.
Knecht has written a hybrid novel that is both literary in its attention to character and language, and a thriller where Vera’s status as a spy makes her a hunted woman who will have to find a way to survive. This intelligent novel about the quest for secret intelligence is a real treat.
Penny Kessler lands a dream internship working at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. On July 4th, she is part of the happy crowd at the Embassy’s Independence Day celebration. But someone lets off a bomb, killing and injuring many in the crowd. Many of the newspapers covering the story publish an affecting photo of the the after-effects of the bomb, one in which the injured Penny becomes the focus for the world’s rage and sorrow.
The trouble is that the photo makes Penny a target for those who want to use the injured woman as propaganda and those looking for a scapegoat. Even before she has regained consciousness, Penny’s life is taken over by those who want to make her a symbol of American resilience. But as many past heroes have discovered, the celebrated survivor may soon find themselves as the prime suspect, and it’s not long before she has to fight for her life against those who claim that Penny is a terrorist and a spy.
Gregory J. Wallance
Even today, to speak of what happened in Armenia in 1915 as “genocide” is to provoke the fury of the Turkish government, which has always insisted that the slaughter of 1 million Armenian men, women, and children were military losses, not the result of an ethnic cleansing. But, as Gregory J. Wallance writes in his history, what Sarah Aaronsohn witnessed as a Jew living in the Ottoman Empire convinced her that after the Armenians had been erased, the Ottoman Empire would turn its attention to Jewish settlers in Palestine, also part of the imperial territory.
In order to prevent further Turkish atrocities, Aaronsohn and her Nili ring of spies began offering the British, who were fighting the Turks in battles in Egypt, information from behind Ottoman lines. Wallance paints a portrait of a complex woman who performed heroic work during difficult times. For those looking for a book about espionage that has real human lives at stake, this little-known story is a tremendous read.
Pity the spy novelist writing a thriller set in 2018 America. When the current American administration is under investigation for having allowed Russian actors to influence the latest election and a former KGB agent is now the head of the Russian government, how can fiction top real-life shenanigans? Enter John Wells, the fictional creation of Alex Berenson. Wells is former C.I.A. who is now following the trail that begins with a drug bust in Texas and ends with a plot to take over the White House.
Berenson writes in a style perhaps best described as “hard-boiled.” He uses few adverbs and does not provide long literary descriptions. What he does is to immerse readers in story before they leave the first page, which makes The Deceivers a tough book to put down, especially when the plot that John Wells uncovers will add layers of anxiety to any anxiety readers are already feeling about the current occupants of the White House.
Film adaptations do not always do justice to complex literary characters and plots. Movie goers who saw Red Sparrow without reading the book upon which it was based missed out on Jason Matthews’ detailed descriptions of how a spy shakes someone who is tailing them, or the labyrinthine structure of Russian security bureaucracy, or the complicated woman that Dominika Egorova is underneath her performed role as spy.
Matthews was in the C.I.A for years, and his knowledge of the myriad little maneuvers and counter-maneuvers that go into an operation is fascinating to readers who may have wondered how the system really works. In this, the third novel in his trilogy, readers once again follow Dominika as she seeks to frustrate President Putin in his plans to assassinate an essential member of America’s intel community.
Karen Cleveland worked for the Central Intelligence Agency before writing a novel so Need to Know is full of the kinds of verisimilitude that readers of spy thrillers hunger for. With rare exception, other spy novels portray spies as the survivors of busted marriages or for whom the constant exposure to human depravity has made private life near impossible. But Vivian Miller, a counterintelligence analyst, has a perfect home life, one in which she has been successful at dividing her life at work from her husband and four children.
All that changes while she is searching for sleeper agents, those Russian agents who have blended into the American population and are thus able to perform all of their espionage duties without triggering any warning signs. Miller has developed a new computer program that uses data to hone in on these sleeper agents. But one morning, her program reveals that one of these spies sleeps next to her every night in her marital bed. What happens when you come into possession of knowledge that you really didn’t want to know?
Naveed Jamali and Ellis Henican
Walter Mitty was James Thurber’s invention: a man who imagined himself to be other versions of himself in a vivid fantasy life. When Naveed Jamali was growing up, he imagined himself as the sort of spy whose exploits he watched in television shows.
After college, however, Jamali became what he had imagined. His spy story reads like the best of fictional capers with money deals transacted in Hooters restaurants and other everyday places in American cities. Jamali wasn’t just a spy, however, he became a successful double agent, working with Americans to convince Jamali’s Russian contacts to give up valuable information. Jamali’s true story is a delicious read.
Many spy stories present romanticized images of the person who is willing to do heroic work for their own country by uncovering information about another country before harm can be done to our own. But a spy among one’s own people is regarded as the worst kind of betrayer: someone who trades secret knowledge to someone else knowing that the information can do harm to us.
But, as Marc Perrusquia shows, some spies can be forced into their actions either through extortion—the threatening of family members, for example—or because they believe that their actions are meant to protect the group they love from people the spy regards as bad actors.
So, what then, to make of the case of photographer Ernest Withers? Withers captured some of the most iconic moments of the Civil Rights movement, photographs that convinced America that the situation had to change in order to be on the moral side of history. And yet, the evidence also suggests that Withers was an informant for the F.B.I, an agency that treated people such as Martin Luther King, Jr. as enemies of the people. What would have convinced Withers that spying on King and his cohorts was the right thing to do? This fascinating book elucidates one of the darkest chapters of American history, when Americans spied on other Americans as they worked for justice.