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15 Nonfiction Spy Books More Thrilling Than John le Carré

When it comes to spy stories, the truth is often stranger—and more compelling—than fiction.

Some of history’s greatest spy fiction writers—including John le Carré, Ian Fleming, and Graham Greene—were spies themselves, and drew on that experience when writing their famous fictional spy books. But when you read some of the remarkable true stories in the great spy books listed below, you may begin to wonder if le Carré and his compatriots left the good parts out of their novels. When it comes to spy stories, the truth is often stranger—and even more compelling—than fiction.


Buy Hitler's Spy Chief at Amazon

Hitler's Spy Chief

By Richard Bassett

If this book was just about the head of the Abwehr (Nazi Germany’s secret service), that would be more than enough intrigue to keep us turning the pages. But Wilhelm Canaris was more than just a high-ranking Nazi spy. He was also a de facto double agent who subverted Hitler’s efforts from within – and even plotted to assassinate the infamous Nazi leader

Hitler's Spy Chief

By Richard Bassett

Buy The Falcon and the Snowman at Amazon

The Falcon and the Snowman

By Robert Lindsey

We think of espionage as a highly specialized, professional field. But as modern-day leakers show us, anyone can be a spy. That was true even back in the Cold War, when two unlikely (and, apparently, unpatriotic) friends discovered how easy it was to sell American secrets to the Soviet Union. Lindsey’s book follows their story of amateur espionage in all of its strange, drug-addled glory.

The Falcon and the Snowman

By Robert Lindsey

Buy The Art of Betrayal at Amazon

The Art of Betrayal

By Gordon Corera

MI6 is one of the world’s most famous spy agencies. It has employed real-life spies like John Le Carré and, in the world of fiction, it gave James Bond his license to kill. Corera’s book is the indispensable history of the organization, and it does a fantastic job examining how things have changed from the shoot-from-the-hip early days through Cold War paranoia and modern-day tech surveillance.

The Art of Betrayal

By Gordon Corera

Buy Target Tokyo at Amazon

Target Tokyo

By Gordon W. Prange

Richard Sorge is one of the most important spies you’ve never heard of. Sorge spent the 1930s disguised as a Nazi journalist, but he really worked for Moscow. He ran a spy ring from the German embassy in Tokyo, all while keeping a high profile as a hard-partying man about town. The authors of this book bring Sorge’s story back to life and show how this bold spy–who worked under his real name–managed to evade capture for years while doing serious harm to the Axis war effort.

Target Tokyo

By Gordon W. Prange

Buy The Spies Who Never Were at Amazon

The Spies Who Never Were

By Hervie Haufler

The Spies Who Never Were is the remarkable story of Nazi Germany’s spy network in Britain. Germany’s secret service placed spies all over Britain after the fall of France, but it was the British who had the last laugh: they captured and turned every single one of the spies, creating a complete network of double agents and disrupting the Nazis’ intelligence system from within.

The Spies Who Never Were

By Hervie Haufler

Buy Sub Rosa at Amazon

Sub Rosa

By Stewart Alsop and Thomas Braden

There are a lot of great history books written about spies, but there are remarkably few autobiographies being produced by spies themselves (it’s as if they want to keep a low profile–go figure). One exception to the rule is Benjamin Tallmadge’s memoir. After the British took New York in the American Revolution, Tallmadge–on General George Washington’s orders–infiltrated the city and established a spy ring that helped Washington win the war.

Sub Rosa

By Stewart Alsop and Thomas Braden

Buy Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge at Amazon

Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge

By Benjamin Tallmadge

There are a lot of great history books written about spies, but there are remarkably few autobiographies being produced by spies themselves (it’s as if they want to keep a low profile–go figure). One exception to the rule is Benjamin Tallmadge’s memoir. After the British took New York in the American Revolution, Tallmadge–on General George Washington’s orders–infiltrated the city and established a spy ring that helped Washington win the war.

Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge

By Benjamin Tallmadge

Buy Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy at Amazon

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

By Karen Abbott

Spies became popular figures in 1960s fiction, but real-life spies have been around far longer than that. Abbott’s brilliant book reveals the story of four lesser-known female spies who were involved in the American Civil War. This book has all the intrigue of a Bond novel, but it’s also a fresh and fascinating look at a world of espionage that you may not have known existed.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

By Karen Abbott

Buy A Spy Among Friends at Amazon

A Spy Among Friends

By Ben Macintyre

We think of espionage as a highly specialized, professional field. But as modern-day leakers show us, anyone can be a spy. That was true even back in the Cold War, when two unlikely (and, apparently, unpatriotic) friends discovered how easy it was to sell American secrets to the Soviet Union. Lindsey’s book follows their story of amateur espionage in all of its strange, drug-addled glory.

A Spy Among Friends

By Ben Macintyre

Buy The Triple Agent at Amazon

The Triple Agent

By Joby Warrick

In 2009, the CIA thought they had the perfect double-agent: a top al-Qaeda operative who had been feeding the CIA information about Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist organization. But Humam Khalil al-Balawi was planning something of his own, and when the CIA went to meet him, he detonated a suicide bomb that killed seven CIA operatives. Warrick’s book tells the compelling story of how al-Balawi became a terrorist and how he was able to deceive the CIA.

The Triple Agent

By Joby Warrick

Buy The Winter Fortress at Amazon

The Winter Fortress

By Neal Bascomb

There are a lot of great history books written about spies, but there are remarkably few autobiographies being produced by spies themselves (it’s as if they want to keep a low profile–go figure). One exception to the rule is Benjamin Tallmadge’s memoir. After the British took New York in the American Revolution, Tallmadge–on General George Washington’s orders–infiltrated the city and established a spy ring that helped Washington win the war.

The Winter Fortress

By Neal Bascomb

Buy The Billion Dollar Spy at Amazon

The Billion Dollar Spy

By David E. Hoffman

There are a lot of great history books written about spies, but there are remarkably few autobiographies being produced by spies themselves (it’s as if they want to keep a low profile–go figure). One exception to the rule is Benjamin Tallmadge’s memoir. After the British took New York in the American Revolution, Tallmadge–on General George Washington’s orders–infiltrated the city and established a spy ring that helped Washington win the war.

The Billion Dollar Spy

By David E. Hoffman

Buy Spycraft at Amazon

Spycraft

By Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton with Henry R. Schelsinger

When we think of spies, we sometimes think of exploding alarm clocks, invisible ink, and ejector seats. Some of this is Hollywood magic, of course, but secret technology has played a key role in espionage for generations. In this fascinating book, the authors take a deep dive into the history of the CIA’s secret technology, which over the years has helped American operatives fight everything from the Cold War to the War on Terror.

Spycraft

By Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton with Henry R. Schelsinger

Buy Agent Zigzag at Amazon

Agent Zigzag

By Ben Macintyre

Agent Zigzag is a pretty wonderful nickname, but the story of Eddie Chapman’s spy career is even cooler than that. Chapman, released from an English prison, signed up to spy for the Germans–but he soon surrendered and was turned by British counterintelligence agency MI5. Chapman’s story is wilder than any pulp spy novel, and Macintyre does a brilliant job of bringing it to life

Agent Zigzag

By Ben Macintyre

Buy Blind Man's Bluff at Amazon

Blind Man's Bluff

By Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew with Annette Lawrence Drew

Spy work isn’t all cocktail parties and midnight dead drops. A great deal of espionage happens beneath the surface of the ocean, where brave spies tap underwater cables and steal enemy secrets. This is the definitive book on a lesser-known but essential aspect of American espionage operations.

Blind Man's Bluff

By Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew with Annette Lawrence Drew

Buy Strangers on a Bridge at Amazon

Strangers on a Bridge

By James B. Donovan

Rudolf Ivanovich Abel was the leader of Soviet espionage efforts in the United States when he was caught by American counterintelligence. But in America, everyone deserves a fair trial, so Abel was provided with a talented and dedicated attorney named James B. Donovan. Ultimately, Donovan protected his client–and negotiated the release of an American U2 plot, Francis Gary Powers, from the Soviets. If this story sounds familiar, it may be because this 1950s spy classic was adapted for the big screen as the acclaimed Tom Hanks movie Bridge of Spies.

Strangers on a Bridge

By James B. Donovan

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Published on 11 Nov 2016

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