I feel like I'm forgetting a lot of books, many of which would require a lot of soul-searching about their inclusion or exclusion from this list, but for now, these are the ten I have selected.
1). Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming. The greatest spy novel ever written (and one of my ten favorite Books, period). Ian Fleming was the king of the espionage genre, despite the fact that his books are more fantasy than reality. But who cares, they are entertaining as hell. In this one, Bond investigates a financing organization that’s digging up pirate gold in the Caribbean. Both Harlem and Jamaica get hit up, and while there’s a hefty dose of racism, we also get some of the coolest action scenes in the whole series, including the climactic scene where the villain goes fishing for sharks…using Bond as bait.
2). Rain Fall by Barry Eisler. This guy is the new king of espionage and my favorite thriller writer working right now. His first five books featuring Japanese/American assassin John Rain have great characters, great action scenes, exotic locales, and authentic modern tradecraft. His first two books are more crime novels though, so be ready for that. My personal favorite is Hard Rain, but they’re all incredible. This debut follows Rain as he uncovers a huge political conspiracy behind his latest hit involving both the Japanese government and the CIA.
3). The Fraternity of the Stone by David Morrell. Morrell was the first guy to give us textbook tradecraft in his thrillers, and this book was no exception. If you want to know about hand to hand fighting in the dark, or surveillance, this is the read for you. Of course, it’s also his most nailbiting read out there, a story concerning a monk whose past as a CIA assassin comes back to haunt him when assassins storm his monastery. He follows them from America to Europe and uncovers the truth about a secret order within the church that dates from the Crusades (and yes, this book predates Dan Brown by a long, long time).
4). The Spy who came in from the Cold by John LeCarre. Honestly, I don’t really like LeCarre. All his books are dreadfully slow and “realistic” affairs about tubby, balding men sitting around tables and talking about how so and so misplaced a file once which means that the Reds compromised them back in ’83. Usually the climax involves someone drinking some tea and commenting that someone’s wife is having an affair, at which point someone says something like, “Isn’t that a pity?” And then someone gets shot or arrested. Yes, it’s a broad generalization, but I’m not a fan. This book is pretty cool, though. I’ll give you that. It concerns a British spy’s attempt to protect an asset hidden in deep cover on the other side of the Berlin Wall.
5). The Hard Way by Lee Child. Lee Child is more of a detective writer, but former military police officer Jack Reacher is so cool he has to be on the list. This book is one of my favorites, as Reacher’s attempts to track down a mercenary’s missing wife and daughter turns up a sordid tale of betrayal and violence in the lawless wilds of Africa. Great villains and lots of plot twists, all told in Child’s clipped, matter-of-fact style.
6). The Tango Briefing by Adam Hall. Adam Hall is another of my favorite thriller writers. His super spy Quiller is always angry, misogynistic, vaguely neurotic, and obsessed with details. He narrates his stories in a flat monotone, frequently letting the reader know key facts long after he himself knows them, and occasionally ending chapters on cliffhangers and then skipping several days into the future, only returning to the cliffhanger pages later. The Tango Briefing is one of his more action packed books, involving Quiller’s attempt to find a downed plane in the Sahara desert and protect or destroy the cargo. There are, of course, plenty of complications along the way and Quiller kills a lot of people in creative ways. He’s kind of like a twitchy, British Jack Bauer.
7). A Game for Heroes by Jack Higgins. I like only a handful of Higgins’ books, primarily the early ones. I’d have to say out of all his stuff, my favorite is probably The Khufra Run, but that’s not so much an espionage or military tale. A Game for Heroes is, and it involves a legendary war hero’s attempt to infiltrate a German-held British island in World War II. Violent and suspenseful, it’s a quick, entertaining read. Plus it gets points for the main character’s repeated use of his knife as his primary weapon.
8). Without Remorse by Tom Clancy. I don’t like Clancy as much as I used to, and while Red Rabbit or The Cardinal of the Kremlin are far more espionage-based than this one, Without Remorse is the single most awesome book this guy ever wrote. John Clark has always been the maverick trigger-puller who stood ready to do America’s dirty work while Jack Ryan duked it out with the politicians. This book tells us how Navy SEAL John Kelly changed his name and became America’s top operative in the Clancyverse. Part a story of a personal, incredibly violent vendetta against American organized crime, and part a story about a rescue mission in Vietnam, it’s a long book but it absolutely flies by, and a lot of people have a hard time believing that the same Clancy wrote this who wrote The Sum of all Fears.
9). The Day of the Jackal – Frederick Forsythe. It’s kind of slow moving, but this book about an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle is a remarkably slick, well-written narrative. It’s probably the most political, procedural book here, but it’s pretty good. Even though you already know the ending. The main character is the Jackal, an emotionless, intelligent, highly skilled assassin, as he plans his hit, smuggles in his weapon, prepares his ammunition, and move to his objective, all as a hapless French policeman tries to find and stop him.
10). Vertical Run by Joseph Garber. This one’s an adrenaline rush from start to finish. A businessman goes to work one day and his boss tries to kill him. Then a team of mercenaries and cops locks down his building and starts hunting him down. Unfortunately, this guy used to be a Special Forces soldier in Vietnam, and he engages in a private war with them all up and down the skyscraper where he works. Tense, fast-paced, and despite a weak payoff, the pages absolutely fly by.