Top 15 Espionage Novels by Publisher's Weekly (2006)

Deciphering code

Nearly three years ago, Publisher's Weekly released their list of Top 15 Spy Novels compiled by Peter Cannon:

1. THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD by John le Carre (1963)

2. THE BOURNE IDENTITY by Robert Ludlum (1980)

3. THE DAY OF THE JACKAL by Frederick Forsyth (1971)

4. THE SPY WHO LOVED ME by Ian Fleming (1962)

5. THE QUIET AMERICAN by Graham Greene (1955)

6. THE IPCRESS FILE by Len Deighton (1962)

7. THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE by Ken Follett (1978)

8. MASQUERADE by Gayle Lynds (1996)

9. THE MOSCOW CLUB by Joseph Finder (1991)

10. ABOVE SUSPICION by Helen MacInnes (1939)

11. THE 39 STEPS by John Buchan (1915)

12. HARLOT'S GHOST by Norman Mailer (1991)

13. THE UNLIKELY SPY by Daniel Silva (1996)

14. THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS by Erskine Childers (1903)

15. MORNING SPY, EVENING SPY by Colin MacKinnon (2006)

Reactions in favor and against the listing circulated after its release but for me, the list is substantial enough for any curious collector of Best Espionage Fiction. But I would like to add Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901), Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October (1984) and more importantly, Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907). GK Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) is another good book to add to the list, but I think it's more of a metaphysical thriller and cross genre literature about saboteurs, just like Tim Powers' sci-fi and modern fantasy spy thriller Declare (2001).

Let me know what you think about this list, or any suggestions of your own.

All images belong to their respective authors and owners.


  1. thanks so much for posting this. I've always like spy novels, but after reading The Quiller Memorandum, I'm more excited than ever about finding new "classic" espionage works. You don't have that listed.... I sure hope you've met Quiller. I'm on a mission to seek out each and every on of these books... in time, of course. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Sean! I'll try to look for that book/series by Ellison Trevor aka Adam Hall.

    1. erratum: the right name is Elleston Trevor

  3. Thanks so much for tis list. I've read many and will try to get to the ones I haven't soon.

    But for my money, youve missed a few of my favorites and favorite authors.

    First, a much overlooked but brilliant espionage writer is Brian Freemantle and his Charlie Muffin series. Although I am very fond of nearly ALL his early (and mostly out of print) entries in the series (Charlie M, Here Comes Charlie M, The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin, Charlie Muffin USA, and a Madrigal for Charlie Muffin), I would rank the three next following books in the series (the Blind Run, See Charlie Run and the Run Around) as the the peer of anything else ever written within the genre. Fabulous writing, plotting and tradecraft. It just doesnt get any better.

    Second, I cannot omit Robert Littel. I love many of his bookc (the Sisters, The Company and the Once and Future Spy) but have to recommend most highly the Amateur. A wonderful twist and great atmospheric, as well as very capable writing.

  4. Charlie Muffin sounds like a very unique protagonist but I heard Brian Freemantle is remarkable especially in the first Charlie M novel and his latest thriller--Red Star Rising.

    Robert Littel is good in writing about the Soviet Union, the Russians, as well as the CIA (what can you expect from a Newsweek journalist?) and I'll be looking for that 2006 novel-Legends, and the ultra-thick book (900+ pages)The Company that spawned a tv series.

    Thanks for all the comments!

  5. The fact that Ian Fleming is placed above Graham Greene invalidates the entire list. Heck, the fact that Ian Fleming is present at all in a list of the best spy novels is bad enough.

    This would be like ranking fantasy novels and putting Dragonlance above JRR Tolkien. It'd be like ranking popular music and placing Justin Bieber above the Beatles.

    In other words, this is an absolutely epic fail on the part of Publisher's Weekly.

    1. You've got a point there, Leelas. This is an outdated list(2005-2006) made by Peter Cannon for Publishers Weekly.

      Personally, all I care about the list is Le Carre and Greene making it in the top 5, and Mailer and Childers in the top 15.

  6. Tell me Charles McCarry isn't at the top of this list because somehow you've overlooked his work. To believe that is a stretch, I know, but I want to give you the benefit of the doubt. That said, anyone who wants to read the best of the best, in this genre and most any other, for that matter, read The Tears of Autumn, The Secret Lovers, and The Last supper, in that order. Those three books are in a category by itself.

    1. Let me clarify that Peter Cannon compiled this list ten years ago in Publisher's Weekly. It was never my list. I am just using it to gauge my own list of favorite spy fictions. It's just not comprehensive enough and I have a lot to finish in my pile of spy-action-geopolitical-thriller books before posting my own list.

      Your comment and recommendation on the other hand are much appreciated. I am looking forward to read Charles McCarry books.


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