Dr. Zhivago meets James Bond in The Partisan, Patrick Worrall’s ambitious debut. In 1941, a trio of orphaned teenagers escape into the forests of Lithuania, waging a guerrilla campaign against the occupying Germans. Twenty years later, Greta, the lone survivor, is a capable assassin hunting for the Russian who killed her mother and the English double agent who betrayed her resistance network. Meanwhile, at a chess tournament in London, Cambridge University student Michael falls in love with Yulia Forsheva, a Russian chess master and the daughter of important Politburo officials. Their star-crossed romance is aided by Yulia’s chaperone, a Soviet spymaster disgusted by the brutality of his comrades, and catches the attention of Greta, who coerces Michael into spying on Yulia’s inner circle. Worrall expertly weaves crossed narratives while vividly depicting the paranoia of Soviet life, the barbarism of war, and shrewd old-fashioned spycraft.

Spies are endlessly fascinating. I suppose all of us lead a double life to an extent, with a public and private face, so we're drawn to fictional characters who do it for a living. Then there's the natural desire to peep into a world normally hidden from us. That was the thrill I experienced when I read John Le Carré as a boy: the feeling that I was being inducted into a secret society with a strange private language—moles and honey traps, lamplighters and pavement artists.

What struck me as I was drawing up this list was how broad a church the genre has become. A spy can be a ruthless killer, a bitter critic of the state, a useful idiot, or the keeper of a nation's conscience. Some of these novels are complex and cerebral, like Le Carré 's masterpieces. Others are violent and grotesque, like Ian Fleming's Bond books. Both authors drew on their experiences as intelligence officers to create their plots and characters, so which is more realistic? Civilians like us will never really know. That's part of the fascination, too.

1. Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901)

Was Kipling an irredeemable imperialist, or worse? You decide. But do read him first. If we cancel Kipling, we miss out on some of the finest English prose ever committed to paper. Kim is his great love letter to India, the land of his birth. We tend to forget that it's also an espionage thriller, the archetypal spy novel-as-bildungsroman exploring how young Kimball O'Hara is forged into the perfect undercover agent, the “Little Friend of all the World” who slips effortlessly between identities. How does this secret life affect his sense of self? I wonder if Harold Philby, the most destructive double agent of the Cambridge Five spy ring who was nicknamed “Kim” after Kipling’s natural-born spy, mused over this questions in his twilight years in Moscow.

The book is full of tradecraft, from the codes, disguises, and honeytraps that are still very much in service today to skills that have surely been forgotten in the age of the smartphone. A teenage spy playing the Great Game in the foothills of the Himalayas needed only two things to produce an accurate survey of enemy territory: a knowledge of the precise length of his own stride, and a string of Buddhist prayer beads to count the thousands of paces.

A warning: fall for Kim and you will read it so many times that the language becomes part of you. Any test of memory, for me, is a Kim's Game. And if I'm suffering from insomnia, the rest I crave is the sleep of Kim, sleep that soaks "like rain after drought."

2. Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (1938)

No need to be squeamish about Eric Ambler's politics. He was a blameless antifascist who saw through Stalin earlier than many others on the British left. Ambler's depiction of the Soviet show trial in Judgment on Deltchev may be the first such rendering in Western fiction, and it retains the capacity to chill the bones. 

Most of Ambler's books were out of print by his death in 1998, though they have made a comeback in recent years after Le Carré and others acknowledged their debt to him. As with Le Carré, you get the sense of a thriller writer repurposing earlier elements of style and structure, consciously bending the genre into a different shape. Epitaph for a Spy is essentially a whodunnit, a Poirot-esque mystery set in a small hotel on the French Riviera with a Gestapo agent rather than a killer to be unmasked.

3. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1953)

Fleming comes with a warning, too: for most of my life, I believed you really could murder someone by covering them with gold paint. "Skin suffocation," you see. I was also aghast when Sky Marshals, armed cops posing as airline passengers, became a thing in the early 2000s. A shootout on a plane, where a hole would depressurize the cabin and suck us all out into oblivion? Hadn't the authorities read Goldfinger?

The bad science of Bond is symbolic of the whole series: very silly, as soon as you stop to think about it, but utterly irresistible. 

Imagine reading a first edition of Casino Royale in 1953, in smog-bound London, with wartime rationing still in force. The cocktails, the easy sex, the baccarat tables. The Taittinger ’45 with dinner, something called an “avocado pear” for dessert. Why Casino Royale and not the (demonstrably better) From Russia with Love? It's the brevity, the nastiness of the torture scene, and Bond's vulnerability and subsequent coldness, captured beautifully in the book’s brutal last line.

4. The IPCRESS File by Len Deighton (1962)

Bond has the girls and the champagne, but Ipcress, more than any other spy novel of the period, has style. Ray Hawkey's unimprovable cover art for the first edition sets the tone: modern, bold, elliptical, slightly sardonic. We are being introduced to a new kind of hero, to whom coffee and cigarettes are as indispensable as bullets. 

This, as the cover makes clear, is a NOVEL. Not a piece of pulp fiction, but a serious exercise in form. Who cares if the plot is impossible to follow by the end? Style wins out over story here.

And what style. Precise and funny and brutal by turns, but always seething with energy and invention. 
The unnamed, bespectacled narrator is a timeless creation, one of Raymond Chandler's wisecracking gumshoes updated for the nuclear age. He was heavily marketed as the antidote to Fleming's suave 007 at the time, which is just a little unfair to both authors. Bond himself was conceived as a hard-edged improvement on all the pipe-smoking chaps called Peregrine who inhabited pre-WWII thrillers. And while Ipcress is concerned with class and hierarchy, it's not obsessed with it. This isn't social commentary, it's a wild ride, from grimy, not-yet-Swinging London to atom bomb tests in the Pacific. The world is a duller place when you finish reading.

5. Modesty Blaise by Peter O'Donnell (1965)

We're at the Fleming end of the spectrum again, though I think Blaise beats Bond for sheer entertainment. In the original comics created by O’Donnell and illustrator Jim Holdaway, she starts out as a shoeless kid in a refugee camp who grows up to run a gang of international jewel thieves. By the time the series of novels begins in 1965, she's a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, recruited by British intelligence. 

Yes, it's nonsense and no, the Modesty Blaise books do not represent a landmark in feminist literature. But she is an enduring action heroine, lovingly rendered by O'Donnell. And Modesty and Willie Garvin, the sidekick with whom she shares an intense but platonic bond, are one of the great fictional double-acts.

6. The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth (1971)

This classic continues to inspire legions of stylistic imitators. Forsyth had an investigative reporter's eye for detail and used it to create an astonishingly realistic blend of fiction and historical fact: the real attempts by the far-right Secret Army Organization to assassinate Charles de Gaulle inspired this tale of a hunt for a dead-eyed British hitman on the loose in France. The tradecraft is also a big part of the appeal. It includes the famous "Jackal Fraud" technique for creating a false identity, which I have heard is still used by some intelligence professionals.

7. The Human Factor by Graham Greene (1978)

Like Eric Ambler, Greene (in spy thriller mode) has a type. His subjects are unglamorous men, no longer in the first flush of youth: a vacuum cleaner salesman, a worn-out journalist. Maurice Castle is perhaps the dullest of them all, a bureaucrat stuck in the backwater of the African section of British intelligence. His life is so far removed from the glamour of Bond that the intelligence services could use The Human Factor as a kind of anti-recruitment tool to put off would-be applicants. But still waters run deep; like all Greene's aging heroes, unselfish love is Castle's saving grace and his story manages to be suffocatingly bleak and utterly compulsive at the same time. This is supposedly the book into which Greene poured most of his real-life experience of the spy game—the ghost of "Kim" Philby, Greene's boss at MI6, hangs over the ending.

8. Smiley's People by John Le Carré (1979)

Yes, there must be at least one Le Carré title on any list of this kind. No, it's not The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Why not? Smiley’s People is Le Carré at his most magisterial, offering a sweeping god's eye view of the Cold War and its soldiers: the spineless diplomats, the casual killers, and the unlikely heroes who stand up to them. 

The plot, as intricate and finely tooled as a Swiss watch, sees British spymaster George Smiley summoned from retirement by a nervous intelligence community to investigate the death of a Soviet defector in a scene that eerily predicts the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and the Salisbury poisonings. As he pulls at the threads, Smiley realizes he has been given the chance to pull off an intelligence coup that will wipe out all professional failures and personal humiliations. 

It's this redemptive note that marks out Smiley's People, as well as its unusually detailed focus on the brutality of the Soviet system, rather than the moral failings of the Western allies. Some of Le Carré novels leave you doubting whether the ex-spy ever really believed that Britain chose the right side in the Cold War. This is the one that looks the enemy in the face. Karla, Smiley's chain-smoking opposite number in Moscow, is a terrifying fanatic who plays on human frailty like a master musician, until his own weak spot is exposed.

9. The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette (1981)

Manchette is much better known in his native France, where many of his thrillers were adapted for the screen. Of the eight or so Manchette books translated into English, it's hard to recommend one over another. Fatale, built around a female assassin, is even more riotous. Nada, about a far-left kidnap gang, is more overtly political. But they all share the same preoccupations. Manchette settled on Dashiell Hammett's hardboiled style as most appropriate for the real-life noir of post-WWII French politics. Deeply cynical, all his books involve the merciless lampooning of the bourgeoisie. Most descend into something approaching madness by the end. I'm not sure if there is any English-language work that could serve as a reference point here. Perhaps there’s an affinity with Quentin Tarantino, both in the gleeful depictions of graphic violence and the playful, frivolous streak.

10. The Untouchable by John Banville (1997)

Not a thriller, but a great spy novel, The Untouchable is a lightly fictionalized account of the life of Anthony Blunt, the best-connected of the Cambridge spies. Like Blunt, Banville’s Victor Maskell is a Soviet asset who becomes close to the British royal family. He is also a gay man, and Banville's great insight is that sexual politics lie at the heart of this story. The suggestion is that Blunt and fellow traitor Guy Burgess made natural double agents because they grew up in world where homosexuality meant a life of code words, secret networks, and furtive meetings. The book is a beautiful exercise in character and historical detail. It's also a razor-sharp dissection of the British class system by an Irish outsider.