4  Unputdownable Thrilling Spy Reads

4 Unputdownable Thrilling Spy Reads

Need Father’s Day ideas? How about a couple of thrilling spy reads?

As a retired CIA officer, I can vouch for the authenticity of each book on this list. Well-crafted, spine-tingling action, authentic details that comes from a deep well of research and/or personal experience.

Fiction or non-fiction, take your pick. Each is a brilliant book you won’t want to miss.

Click each image to go to Amazon.com.


Legacy of Spies ebook

A LEGACY OF SPIES by John le Carré


To honor the late Queen Elizabeth II, here is a book by a quintessentially British author. A LEGACY OF SPIES is the long sought-after backstory of le Carré’s first bestseller, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (henceforth THE SPY), a slim volume that taught many readers how Britain fought the Cold War during Elizabeth’s monarchy.

To refresh your memory, in THE SPY, British intel officer Alex Leamas, a hard-drinking, hard-driving spymaster in Berlin, pretends to get fired and fall on hard times. It is a ruse, however, for Alex to be “recruited” by Soviet/East German intelligence so he can save an odious East German intel officer who is Britain’s greatest asset inside the Iron Curtain. To position himself to be pitched, Leamas develops a relationship with an unwitting librarian named Elizabeth Gold who brings him along as her plus-one when she attends a socialist conference in East Germany.

Every step is orchestrated behind the scenes by the brilliantly quiet George Smiley.

In A LEGACY OF SPIES, it is 50 years later. The offspring of Leamas and Gold sue the British government to find out how and why their parents disappeared. The new generation of British spooks, who want to make the lawsuit go away, find that the files on Leamas, as well as the East German agent codenamed Windfall, have been purged.

With no memory of the Cold War and no appetite for its justifications, they bring in Peter Guillam (BTW, Benedict Cumberbatch played him in the 2011 movie with Gary Oldman as George Smiley). No one can find Smiley; but as the infamous spycatcher’s right-hand-man, Guillam will do.

Guillam narrates the book, which moves across time. At first we are in the present when he is summoned to London, there to find that long-held secrets are on the verge of being exposed. Then through his memory, we are transported to a Cold War landscape. Spies sneak in and out of East Germany which is replete with Stasi brutality and Communist paranoia. There are shortages of everything, except informers.

The look into the past gives us the first case in which Smiley is led to believe there is a mole inside British intelligence and reveals how Windfall came to be recruited to the British side. These elements set in motion everything that happens in THE SPY.

A LEGACY OF SPIES is another le Carré espionage tour de force. Haunting writing, the sense of wheels-within-wheels. The back and forth across time is handled deftly, without confusion.

Subtle clues abound. Gather them carefully—le Carré is never obvious.

The book is a standalone, but will be a richer experience if you have at least read THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (or saw the 1965 movie starring Richard Burton. FYI Dublin substituted for Berlin).

Other bestsellers featuring Smiley and his team, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and SMILEY’S PEOPLE, are also referenced in A LEGACY OF SPIES. Peter Guillam was with Smiley through the entire Cold War, you see, and he has a long memory.


Related: Could AI Defeat a Spy?


Operation Mincemeat book review



Eighty years ago, a dead British naval officer named Bill Martin washed up on a Spanish beach. He was a landing craft expert with a fiancée named Pam. They’d gone to the theater in London a few days before his plane crashed in the Atlantic with no survivors.

Based on the letters in a briefcase tethered to his waist, Martin had been carrying secret letters to a British general in North Africa.

The letters wound up in the hands of supposedly neutral Spanish authorities who shared them with representatives of Hitler’s Nazi government. Photographs of the letters were rushed to Berlin.

In this way, Hitler learned that the Allies planned to attack via Greece and the Balkans, with a false feint at Sicily and a minor diversion in Sardinia. Reports from other sources soon trickled in, verifying the Allied plan for Greece. In response, Hitler fortified forces there rather than Sicily.

But Bill Martin never existed

The body that washed ashore in Spain with top secret information was the product of Operation Mincemeat, a British naval intelligence operation designed to trick Germany into diverting military forces away from Sicily before the Allied invasion of the Italian island in July 1943.

The ruse worked.

Thousands of lives were saved when US and UK forces landed on the beaches of the Mediterranean island. Although the remaining German troops fought hard, the Allies successfully took Sicily and drove north up the boot of Italy. The Germans conducted a running retreat but the Italian army collapsed, taking Mussolini and the Pact of Steel between Rome and Berlin with it.

The body that became Bill Martin was that of Glyndwr Michael, a Welsh vagrant who’d died of accidental phosphorus poisoning. Michael’s body was preserved in a morgue, then dressed in a naval uniform, carried in a special capsule aboard a British submarine, and deposited on the Spanish coast at Huelva.

Ben Macintyre’s account details the months of painstaking research and preparation, the two officers who were instrumental in pulling it off and the amazing way multiple intelligence assets were used to reinforce the ruse. OPERATION MINCEMEAT is a fascinating account of a little-known intelligence success, written like an unputdownable thriller.

Note–Macintrye has written several other excellent non-fiction books about spies and espionage, including a profile of UK’s Kim Philby, Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky, and more WWII spy operations. All superb.


Related: Get Carmen’s Top Secrets


Billion dollar spy book review



During the height of the Cold War, Adolf Tolkachev was a Soviet engineer working on advanced aviation radar system for MiG fighter planes and other platforms, in the highly secretive Scientific Research Institute for Radio Engineering, known as Phazotron.

He was also a CIA asset, codenamed CKSPHERE.

From 1977, when Tolkachev first attempted to make contact with the CIA in Moscow, to 1985, when he was arrested by the KGB, Tolkachev was committed to damaging the Soviet Union by passing technical secrets of the highest magnitude to the West. He was driven by revenge and the belief that the Soviet system was rotten to the core. His wife’s family had been destroyed by Stalin’s purges. He wanted to destroy the repressive system which had killed so many, leaving the rest struggling under ever-present brutal KGB scrutiny.

This is the definitive work on Tolkachev, from his personal story to the staggering amount of intelligence he passed to the United States over the course of so many years. Photographing documents that he smuggled out of his workplace and even snapping some in the restroom with miniature cameras, he provided a wealth of information on Russian airpower, technology, and radar, that saved the West billions in arms development costs.

The book is also a deep dive into what it was like to operate as an agent handler in Moscow, when the KGB constantly surveilled Western diplomats, had observation posts on street corners, and roving cars of KGB agents roamed the city’s streets. Informants abounded, as did so-called “militia” soldiers who provided more surveillance eyes and ears.

The CIA officers assigned to meet Tolkachev used elaborate disguises and subterfuges to evade KGB watchers and meet with him. Frankly, they had guts of iron because one wrong move on their part would expose him. What did Tolkachev want in return? Western music, books, art supplies for his son, and money that was a fraction of the value he gave to the US government.

The book is amazingly detailed yet reads like a thriller. Tolkachev remains a legend in spy circles and this book shows us why.

Related: Confessions of a Media Spy


Tower of Secrets by Victor Sheymov

TOWER OF SECRETS by Victor Sheymov

fiction based on true events

In 1980, Victor Sheymov was the head of worldwide cypher security for the KGB. A brilliant engineer and wily political operative, he rocketed through the ranks by a combination of blackmail and technical expertise and was one of the few senior KGB officers allowed to travel overseas.

But 1980 was also the year the CIA smuggled him out of the Soviet Union, together with his wife and daughter in an unprecedented and daring exfiltration operation. The CIA has never described the means used to get the Sheymovs out. All we know is that the operation led the Soviets to believe the family was dead, saving them from being hunted down.

In fact, Sheymov is mentioned in the Hoffman book about Tolkachev. His codename was CKUPTOPIA.

TOWER OF SECRETS (the title refers to the tower inside the original KGB headquarters in Lubyanka Prison) is Sheymov’s own account of his career, KGB power and paranoia, and escape. It’s a memoir disguised as a thriller and absolutely riveting.

Published in 1990 as the USSR crumbled–after the Sheymovs had been living in the US under false names for 10 years–TOWER OF SECRETS is written in the third person, a device that Sheymov explains in his intro as the best means of standing apart and viewing his decisions critically. It also allowed him to fudge still-classified details. FYI, the book’s fictional depiction of his escape is remarkably similar to the real-life exfiltration of Oleg Gordievsky from Moscow by the British in 1985.

With all that out of the way, let me tell you, TOWER OF SECRETS is page-turning. It opens with Sheymov meeting his future wife while suffering the effects of being poisoned by a brother-in-law trying to get a permit to live in Moscow. The event sets the stage perfectly for both his devotion to Olga and his cold-blooded approach to problems.

As a senior KGB officer, Sheymov lives in a cross between a mousetrap and a fishbowl. KGB surveillance is everywhere: roving unmarked cars, fixed observation posts, uniformed officers on street corners, and a network of informants. Along with this looming presence, there’s dire consequences for failure and rampant hypocrisy. Every day he experiences the hallmarks of a thoroughly corrupt system perpetuating itself through fear, blackmail, and favors.

Sheymov pulls you into this labyrinth of paranoia. Friends are assassinated for speaking out, owning the wrong books, or even being in the wrong hallway at the wrong time when the head of the KGB goes by. Family members protect each other with silence.

He realizes that someday he will make a misstep and be denounced by his 5-year-old daughter who is indoctrinated every day at school. Soon he and Olga plot their escape during evening walks away from their bugged apartment. Just when you don’t think the tension can ratchet up any higher, it does.

The tension is excruciating, matched only by the pace throughout the entire book. You will be in that time and place, without question, looking over your shoulder for the KGB watchers.

FYI, Victor Sheymov became a US citizen in 1985, was awarded the US Intelligence Medal, ran a computer security company, patented communications technology, and consulted for the National Security Agency. He died in 2019. He also sued the US to get money that was promised him and won.

The Father’s Day Kindle

Kindle oasis

Do you know a dad who needs a Kindle?

We got my husband the squarish Kindle Oasis last year for Father’s Day. Or maybe it was the Christmas before last. (Photo from newatlas.com)

He swears by the feature that serves him up the next book in a series. Thanks to his Kindle, he’s now read a million books by Griff Hosker!

Author Carmen Amato

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