British Spy Thrillers: When Nothing Else Will Do
For about 3 months of each year, I become obsessed by reading British spy thrillers.
Nothing else will do. During this time, I don’t want to read American spy thrillers. American spies (in literature) are winners. They went to fantastic universities and got the top marks. They were then recruited by shadowy research institutes that are really fronts for the CIA or some sort of special black ops group reporting only to some wise, world weary but super fit old man who knows the president.
American spies of literature are too perfect; they have excellent teeth, nice hair-cuts, wear clean polo shirts and chinos, work out all the time using some form of super krav maga and work in nice clean offices…and you know they will always win.
No, in my spy thriller mood, I don’t want American spies. In this mood, for 3 months of each year, I want the British. British spies of literature are matter of fact. They get on with it in their crumpled, sweat stained shirts. They eat terrible food at greasy spoon restaurants. They drink black tea and coffee, scotch and lager. They mask their emotions with cool banter because anything else would be a waste of time. They care about people’s lives yet kill the bad guys without emotion or regret.
They are all supervised by less competent Oxford alumni.
I want grey weather meetings on London park benches. I want longing and regret masked by emotional repression. I want alcohol problems barely contained. I want the feeling that the bad guys might actually win…
I love British spy thrillers.
I think it’s because the ones written by people with inside knowledge, the good ones, open up a world – show me the point of view of the terrorists as well as those fighting against them. It helps me to form an understanding, no matter how idealised and sanitised – of a real world threat. It helps me to understand how British born children, raised alongside us, may become radicalised. It turns the generalised horror of a terrorist attack to something quantifiable, something that can be stopped with reason, logic and diligence.
It also makes me extremely grateful that I don’t have to live that kind of life and grateful that somewhere in the world, there are people who have chosen to.
With all that said, here are some really good British spy thrillers.
Roger Pearce – Agent of the State, the Extremist and Javelin
Neil Lancaster – Going Dark, Going Rouge and Going Back
Anything by Stella Rimington and Charles Cumming
Most things by Mick Herron
Most things by Frederick Forsyth