The Mysterious Bookshop


Espionage agents turned authors.


There’s more to spy thrillers than 007!

Of course millions of filmgoers worldwide are familiar with British Secret Service agent James Bond, 007, from the popular series of films, two dozen and counting at this writing.  But if you haven’t enjoyed the original novels, well, you are in  for a treat!  Not only are they well written thrillers, but the early editions especially make for quite a collecting challenge, although the novels are still in print and readily available in recent editions.  

After his WWII intelligence service, Ian Fleming was doing newspaper work and was set to act on his long standing desire to write a thriller.  Combining tales from his own wartime and Cold War experience with those of colleagues coupled with his own vivid imagination, he rued the fact that most fictional heroes had improbably memorable names and reflected that, if one were working undercover as a spy, one would do well to keep a low profile and be nondescript, the better to perform clandestine operations.  The author had a book on birding at hand written by a man named James Bond, and so was named a spy.  At Fleming’s home in Jamaica he set his writing desk in front of a wall in a windowless room to minimise distraction and wrote Casino Royale in about two months, starting in February 1952, beginning a pattern that he would repeat through eleven more novels and two collections of shorter pieces.   

But as entertaining as these books are, let us not forget that Mr. Fleming is but one of several practitioners of the espionage thriller who have parlayed their experiences in the field into novels, or a series of novels.


One of the first if not the first intelligence-operatives-turned-author is W. Somerset Maugham, whose novel Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1927) parlayed his own service into a literary work.  Working in Russia before the 1917 Revolution, Maugham brings us a series of interconnected tales that show the spy not as a super-hero but as someone doing a dirty job as best they can.  A huge influence on those who came after, especially James Bond himself. Just remember not to expect car chases, explosions, or bikini-clad blondes!  While in the service, Maugham also worked in Switzerland, India, and eastern Asia, and he regarded his earlier training in medicine as useful to his writing career. His first sustained success was as a playwright, until Of Human Bondage was published in 1915.


One of the most celebrated and widely read authors of the genre is Charles McCarry, whose past career as a CIA operative provided a fresh insight for the author to create his fiction. Serving as a speechwriter for President Eisenhower, he moved to an undercover position for the Agency, remaining until 1967 when he transitioned full time to writing.  Check out The Tears Of Autumn, which is the second in the series about Paul Christopher, an Agency operative who quits when ordered to stop investigating the assassination of JFK.  Or for something a bit different, try The Miernik Dossier, which introduces Christopher, and in which the reader is invited to examine the file of one Tadeusz Miernik, a Polish national who is suspected of working for the Soviet Union, or perhaps he is targeted by the Soviets because he has spent time in Switzerland and is trying to remain there.  Or perhaps the truth lies elsewhere, as is often the case.  But espionage is never clear-cut and author McCarry expounds upon that reality as well as any writer.  This tale is told in the form of the documents in the file, 89 in all, presented in chronological order to tell the tale as it happened.  His latest, The Mulberry Bush, was published last fall and will be available in paperback in December 2016.


In the first of Charles Cumming’s novels, A Spy By Nature, Alec Milius uses a family connection to obtain and interview with the Secret Intelligence Service, only to find that the price for a life in espionage may be higher than he is willing or able to pay.  An intelligence service recruit himself, Cumming, like McCarry, uses his own life experience to bring a verisimilitude to the story.  The third in the Kell series, A Divided Spy, just came out in the summer of 2016.


New Yorker Alan Furst’s latest, A Hero Of France, is a slight departure from the CIA/Secret Service/MI5 milieu in that the action is set in Occupied France and the Resistance, in the person of one ‘Mathieu,’ is trying to undermine the Gestapo. A real page-turner and a good rendering of the frightening, paranoid atmosphere of the time and place.  

While not, so far as we know, a past or present member of any intelligence service, author Furst writes as if he were!


The Bond books are great reads, and are readily available. After you’ve enjoyed those, check out the other authors here mentioned. If good reads are your focus, drop by and we’ll be happy to show you the newest works from the listed authors, as well as their past works in softcover and vintage copies and maybe even a first edition or two!

Have a read of some of these:


Continuing the Bond series, author Horowitz uses some of the material that Ian Fleming wrote for a proposed US television series that was ultimately unproduced.  A topnotch job of maintaining the nature of the characters, and introducing a new villain as well!


Do you remember the memorable film?  I bet you do. Remember the epic fight on the train between Robert Shaw and Sean Connery?


An excellent example of an epistolary novel, and a swell spy thriller too!


An alternate history revolving around the JFK assassination.


Industrial espionage is the game, but Alex Milius finds it's not all it's cracked up to be--nor is he!


An operative in the French Resistance tries to oust the Gestapo from Vichy France--and stay alive in the bargain!  The paranoia is palpable in this page-turner.

Questions/Comments/trick exploding briefcase?



Written by Ian Kern — September 12, 2016


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