I thought it may interest fellow spy literati if we ranked our favourite Bond novel within the context of our top ten spy thrillers.
To start the ball rolling, here are the works that have given me hours of pleasure together with some of the reasons why:
1. THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY by John le Carre (1977).
Not just my favourite spy story but my favourite book of all time. This is the middle volume in the 'Karla' trilogy and sees a damaged George Smiley appointed to the head of 'The Circus'. He is determined to extract revenge and his chosen
weapon is Jerry Westerby, 'The Honourable Schoolboy', a seasoned secret agent and passionate lover who is pointed east
towards the chosen battle ground, Hong Kong. What sets this book aside is its energy, passion and overwhelming sweep.
le Carre's detractors often accuse him of being dry, too complicated and the stories a little slow. Although I don't agree
with those criticisms, I do understand them. His works are far from being thick ear melodramas. They transcend the
genre. That said, this is one of his fastest moving works and there is never a dull moment. An absolute must for all
aficionados and one of the last century's most important works of fiction.
2. BERLIN GAME by Len Deighton (1983).
This is the first novel in three trilogies featuring the jaded, middle aged, MI6 agent Bernard Sampson. The book has
stonker of a story that kicked off the most compelling spy series of all time. In this opener Bernard has to supervise a
defection but he has a traitor in his own ranks. As always, Len delivers a highly literate exciting tale but, what really sets
this one above the 'Palmer' novels, is the ensemble cast of characters that populate both 'GAME' and the eight novels
that followed. Fiona (Bernard's wife), Dicky Cruyer - the despised boss, Frank Harrington and Bret Rensselaer are all
complex characters that Deighton crafted into the spy saga to end all spy sagas. Terrific stuff but terrible TV
3. THE TEARS OF AUTUMN by Charles McCarry (1974).
I only discovered McCarry a few years ago whilst I was living in America and this, his second and best novel was the first
I read. It features Paul Christopher a CIA agent who, whilst investigating JFK's assassination decides that it could be an
act of revenge perpetrated by the Vietnamese following the killing of President Ngo Dinh Diem by the Americans.
When one of Kennedy's advisors warns Christopher not to discuss his theory, he resigns from the agency and heads
off to Vietnam to discover the truth.
Like le Carre, McCarry spent serious time in US intelligence. He spent more than ten years as a deep cover CIA agent in
the most dangerous of locations and it shows, he knows his subject matter inside out but more than that, he is a
fabulous lyrical writer. This is the spy story that will make you cry.
4. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE by Ian Fleming (1957)
Although I'm a huge Fleming fan, I always considered that the sum of the total Bond canon was greater than the
individual parts. The exception is this, Bond's fifth outing which is a great spy in its own right.
I first read it as a boy and remember being disappointed that a third of the book passes without Bond appearing.
Re-reading it as an adult, I realise this as a strength. The first part of the story is told from the Smersh
perspective and sets the scene perfectly. A cast of characters are also introduced that are more fleshed out and more
real than in previous and subsequent books. Kronsteen, Klebb and Grant are a great trio of villains and Bond's
friend and his lover (Darko Kerim and Tatiana Romanova) are also a lot more developed.
It's Ian's tautest, most exciting and brilliant tale. It had the greatest artwork to ever adorn a dust jacket and it's no
surprise that it made the best film. With this one Fleming joined his own heroes Graham Greene and Eric Ambler
in the literati's top ranks.
5. THE DAY OF THE JACKAL by Frederick Forsyth (1971)
I bought this book at Darlington station in 1973 and I don't think I did anything other than read it for the next two
days. It's a truly original piece of work that creates tremendous suspense despite the fact that you know the outcome
from the outset (OAS recruits freelance assassin to kill French President after multiple previous attempts).
Forsyth delivers an absolute masterclass in terms of story construction. By developing the book through three anatomies
(Plot,Manhunt,Kill) he ratchets up tremendous tension in terms of the build up, the chase and the ultimate climax that
makes you doubt that de Gaulle will survive. Furthermore, it was the first book that had me rooting for both the villain
(OAS recruited assassin 'The Jackal') and the hero (his hunter Claude Lebel).
It is also a book that probably heralded the arrival of the more detailed thriller that fleshed out tricks of the trade
(the description of how 'The Jackal' obtains his false identity actually resulted in the UK passport office changing it's
process) and opened the door for Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy.
Another book that was launched with great cover art and which was turned into a fabulous film.
6. SABRE TOOTH by Peter O'Donnell (1966)
In 1965, Peter O'Donnell wrote a full length novel for a film treatment featuring his long running Evening Standard
comic strip character, 'Modesty Blaise'. The Joseph Losey directed film baring the same name that appeared a year
latter was a complete turkey and had nothing - save the name - to do with O'Donnell's book.
That said, the novel was a huge success and in the year of Fleming's death Bond's true successors were born and
Blaise & Garvin drop kicked there way to the top of the best seller charts in spectacular fashion.
All of the Bond success ingredients were there — sex, violence, glamour and restless changing of scenes but this
time the cocktail was original and in the opinion of many, new, different and better.
O'Donnell's heroine was a retired, millionaire master criminal who, with her talented side kick, Garvin is lured into
her adopted country's service by the head of MI6, Sir Gerald Tarrant.
This second and best of what was to become a series of thirteen followed a year later.
Somewhat remarkably, the plot involved the invasion of oil rich Kuwait by a band of mercenaries on September 11th -
O'Donnell had a habit of prolific plotting!
Blaise & Garvin are asked by Tarrant to look into it meanwhile the architect of the coup, Karz is out to recruit Blaise to
aid him with his invasion and kidnaps a child in order to blackmail the duo and secure their involvement. Like Fleming,
O'Donnell was a master of the restless changing of scenes, the description of the high life and a great transporter to
exotic locations but, unlike Bond, Blaise was a creation of the '60s- not the '50s and as a consequence she was very much
a product of the cultural revolution and the equal of any man, in bed or on the battle field and was more than a little hip.
A great strength of O'Donnell was his capacity to inject his characters with huge warmth and charisma that makes you
feel for them in a way that frankly, you didn't feel for Bond.
These books, like the 007 novels are at the fantasy end of the spectrum but they are no worse for that and O'Donnell
was a much admired writer. Kingsley Amis famously described the books as "endlessly fascinating" and that "Blaise &
Garvin were one of the great partnerships in fiction, bearing comparison with that of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor
Watson''. I envy anybody that hasn't read a Blaise book. You have so much to look forward to — start with this, his best
and you'll read them all!
7, TYPHOON by Charles Cumming (2008)
This novel works on so many levels.
It's a character study, a love story,a political thriller, a history of the transfer of Hong Kong and a straight spy yarn -
whichever way you take it, it won't disappoint. From the get go you are drawn into the murky world of post 9/11
espionage. The characters are richly drawn and jump off the page. Expatriates all over the world will have met people like
this and will be now wondering how many of them were working for MI6?
Cumming is, without doubt, the best of the new kids on the block and is single handily doing his level best to reboot
the genre. He's a great writer but I had real difficulties with his first series. I found the hero, Alec Milius, deeply unlikable.
For me, 'Typhoon' was his breakthrough and his masterpiece to date. In it he proves that he can write dialogue that is up
there with the greats. Sometimes it is laugh out loud funny on other occasions, he puts a lump in your throat and leaves
you gasping for air.
This is one of the best books I have ever read and I can't recommend it highly enough. A piece of classy literature that
puts Cumming up there with the masters and provoked comparison with Le Carre. In my opinion, if you want a
comparison with a master, I think he's closer to Len Deighton. In any event, if you haven't read it, you'r in for a treat.
8. MISSION TO PARIS by Alan Furst (2012)
Furst is such a cool writer. All of his books take place in Europe during the build up to WW11 and are packed full of spies,
politicians, corrupt officials and desirable women. Nobody creates atmosphere like this guy and he consistently
demonstrates an iron grasp of European history and culture that takes you to a point in time when everything was
to play for and many were living each day as if it was their last.
It's against this back drop that Furst introduces his characters. In this case, his hero is a film star who has ostensibly
come to Paris to shoot a movie but quickly finds himself as an amateur secret agent and part of an informal spy service
being run out of the American embassy. His mission, to take on a secret bureau within the Reich Foreign Ministry that
has for years been waging political warfare against France.
En route, you will meet a fabulous cast of characters but at the centre of this novel is the city of Paris, the heart and
soul of Europe - its alleys and bistros.
In many regards, Furst reminds me of Eric Ambler, his heroes are often amateurs and his sense of place is simply
extraordinary. Put your trench coat on, light a Gauloises and take a walk into a dark, glamorous night club with Furst.
You won't regret it - fabulous stuff.
9. THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS (aka A COFFIN FOR DIMITROS) by Eric Ambler (1939)
In my opinion, Ambler was the writer that most influenced Fleming and many others working in the genre.
He was a writer with a huge talent and the first thriller writer to start to challenge the political system and to inject a
little cynicism into his work. Something doubtless emulated by Deighton and Le Carre and Cumming to name but three.
This is his most famous work and, in my opinion,his best. I first read it in 1962 after discovering that it was
Bond's choice for his plane journey to Istambul in From Russia With Love.
Expecting that Bond would read escapist novels that mirrored his own situation I was pleasantly surprised that Ambler's
stories are very much set in the real world and often feature amateurs caught up in conspiracies. THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS
is an engrossing spy novel set in a turbulent central Europe between the wars, where emigres and petty criminals, moral
spies and corrupt police all struggle for survival. It features George Latiner, a mild-mannered crime novelist, who is on
holiday in Istanbul when he meets Colonel Haki, the head of the secret police, who tells him about Dimitrios, a spy, long
wanted by the authorities, whose corpse has just been dragged from the Bosphorus. Latimer starts an amateur
investigation that soon turns into a perilous chase. Great stuff. Highly literate but not at all heavy going.
10.THE DYING LIGHT by Henry Porter (2009)
Porter has long been a champion of civic freedoms and when he published this, his new book in 2009, it was set in the
future and showed a surveillance state that was relentlessly dismantling civic freedoms.
The plot involves the death of a former head of the UK Joint Intelligence Committee who is presumed to have lost his
life in a terrorist attack in Columbia. When his former girlfriend denounces the government at his funeral and embarks
on an investigation to piece together the truth surrounding his last years, his enemy, the British Prime Minister, uses all
of the powers of "the database state" to suppress the truth - even if it means sanctioning murder and something close to
This is a great thriller and the subsequent revelations of Edward Snowden have shown how prolific Porter actually is.
We let politicians take our freedoms under the guise of protecting us from terrorism at our peril. Read this and you will
be both thrilled and informed.
After fifty happy years spent reading spy thrillers, the above constitute my top ten.
Of course I have excluded some of my favourite authors; Daniel Silva, Ken Follet, Adam Hall and Barry Eisler to name but four. Great as they are, they have not, in my opinion, produce that one work that allows me to rank one of their books in my top ten and Fleming, much as I love his Bond books, only manages fourth place with FRWL.
Please share your top ten and let me know where you rank your favourite Bond , within this, the most demanding context.