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8 Thrilling Spy Books That Recount True Stories of Espionage

These books span conflicts all over the globe.


Spies: From James Bond to John le Carre, they have formed the backbone of so many of our thrillers, our mysteries, and our fantasies. But spies are real, and while the work they do may not be as flashy as the exploits of 007, their contributions to history are no less significant than their contributions to fiction. These 8 books tell the true stories of real spies—some of them professionals, some of them thrust into the role—through careful historical research or, in some cases, in their own words. The results are every bit as compelling, riveting, and unforgettable as any fictional adventure.

The Spy's Son

The Spy's Son

By Bryan Denson

In 1997, Jim Nicholson became the highest-ranking CIA officer ever convicted of espionage, after years spent selling state secrets to Russia’s foreign intelligence service. Even once he was behind bars, however, he wasn’t finished. Instead, he groomed his youngest son to take up where he had left off. Now, Pulitzer Prize finalist Bryan Denson gathers all the facts to tell “one of the strangest spy stories in American history” (Robert Lindsey, author of The Falcon and the Snowman) in this “poignant and painful tale of family love, loyalty, manipulation and betrayal” that is also “filled with fascinating details of the cloak-and-dagger techniques of KGB and CIA operatives, double agents, and spy catchers” (The Oregonian). 

A Spy at the Heart of the Third Reich

A Spy at the Heart of the Third Reich

By Lucas Delattre

“A richly detailed and well-crafted account of one of America’s most valuable German spies” (Library Journal), this impossible-to-put-down book has all the urgency of a spy novel, while telling the true story of a man who has been called one of the “most valuable agents during World War II.” Fritz Kolbe was a bureaucrat in the German foreign ministry who had opposed the rise of Nazism in his native country. When he contacted Allied intelligence in 1943, it was the beginning of a campaign to funnel countless Nazi secrets into the hands of Allied forces. Making use of recently declassified materials at the US National Archives—as well as the private papers left behind by Kolbe himself—Lucas Delattre has crafted a “disturbing and riveting biography” (Booklist) that reveals the details of this unforgettable story.

Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War

By George Crile

Made into the 2007 movie of the same name starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, this “tour de force of reporting and writing” (Dan Rather) may read like a fictional thriller, but it tells the unbelievable true story of an American congressman from Texas who used his position on the House Appropriations Committee to funnel hundreds of millions in aid to mujahideen freedom fighters in Afghanistan who were fighting against the Soviet Union. The result? A “covert-ops chronicle” that is “practically impossible to put down” (Publishers Weekly), exploring an often-overlooked chapter in the history of America’s involvement in Afghanistan, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of radical Islamic military and terror groups in the Middle East.

Voices of the Codebreakers

Voices of the Codebreakers

By Michael Paterson

For years following the end of World War II, the continuing need for security meant that the full accomplishments of the Allied codebreakers who obtained much of the information that helped to win the war were veiled in secrecy. Since many of those documents were recently declassified, the stories of these unsung heroes have become much better known, making their way into films such as 2014’s The Imitation Game. Michael Paterson’s unforgettable book goes a step farther, combining heavily-researched historical insight with the firsthand accounts of the codebreakers themselves, from the men and women who worked alongside Alan Turing at Bletchley Park to radio operatives in the jungles of Burma—all of them playing a vital role in the Allied victory.

Codebreaker Girls

Codebreaker Girls

By Jan Slimming

Speaking of Allied codebreakers, the vast majority of them were women, with more than 7,000 working in England’s Bletchley Park. Among these was Daisy Lawrence, a poor young woman who grew up in London prior to the outbreak of the war and found herself at the center of one of the war effort’s most secretive projects. For decades after the war was over, she kept the secrets that she had been sworn to. Now, in this riveting book that “reads like fiction” (Books Monthly), her own daughter reconstructs her mother’s secret history, using photos, personal accounts, and historical research to recreate what life was like for Daisy Lawrence, and the many other women who worked in secrecy to help win the war.

Accidental Agent

Accidental Agent

By John Goldsmith

Here, told with “unconditional honesty” (Kirkus Reviews) are the recollections of an important asset in Allied intelligence, from his own memoirs. John Goldsmith was raised in Paris and spoke fluent French, which made him an ideal candidate for parachuting into Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War. There, he joined the French resistance, where he fought against the Germans in pitched battles, crossed the Pyrenees, and was captured by the Gestapo, pulling off a daring escape from the Hotel Continentale in Paris. All these adventures and more are contained in his vivid memoir, which tells of these exploits as only the person who experienced them could.


Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

By Karen Abbott

Spies are not a new thing—they are as old as warfare itself. In this eye-opening New York Times bestseller, author Karen Abbott reveals the stories of four women who gathered intelligence for both sides during the American Civil War. From a widow who seduced politicians in order to take secrets back to the Confederacy to the head of a sprawling Northern spy ring, these four women led dangerous, thrilling, sometimes deadly lives, and their stories are brought to life here in a “gripping page-turner that moves at a breathtaking clip” (Los Angeles Times).

best true crime books of 2020 the scientist and the spy

The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage

By Mara Hvistendahl

One of the biggest intelligence issues facing the United States at the moment is an ongoing rivalry with China over trade secrets and industrial espionage. In this “riveting whodunit” (Washington Post), Pulitzer Prize finalist Mara Hvistendahl recounts the story of Robert Mo, a Florida resident who took a job with a Chinese agriculture company and became the target of a far-reaching FBI investigation and a pawn in an international game of secrets. By following this “compelling tale of industrial espionage” (Library Journal), she also reveals the truth surrounding America’s industrial rivalry with China, “which speaks to the larger geopolitical tensions shaping our time” (Bookpage).

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