A List Of My 5 Favorite Spy Novels And TV Series About World War II And The Cold War

by: Marlene email

I’ve had a little tune running around in my head for the past few days,  the  tune apparently often hummed or whistled by the French Resistance  as an informal  password during World War II.  Not that I have been hob-nobbing with anyone from the French Resistance lately but  ever since I got a  copy of  one of  my  favorite books,   Neal Stephenson’s  “Cryptonomicon“,  autographed during a week-end trip to Washington D.C. to attend the  Sept., 2011 National Book Festival,   I’ve been getting back into WWII  literature.   This then led to re-watching on DVD  the absolutely top notch,  terrifically suspenseful  BBC series 1, 2 and 3  of   “Wish Me Luck“.  A mini-series  featuring fictionalized stories of  real-life British spies, primarily women, it details the heroism of those  working undercover together with the Resistance in Occupied France and the theme song of  Series 2 and 3 consists of a few bars of that tune.  ( Not that they tell you this,  but one eventually figures it out. )

At any rate,  having that little tune ping-ponging around in my head has made me think about the  many spy novels and TV espionage series that I have enjoyed over the years and I decided to make a little list of the ones I have enjoyed the most.  There is almost nothing more enjoyable on a balmy Eastern Shore of  Virginia summer’s day, ( or a breezy spring or a crisp fall day for that matter ),  than sitting out on the screened porch,  bees buzzing,  birds singing, boats going by every once in a while,  ice cold tea at the elbow,  an exciting book in hand  and the time available to read it,  that’s the life of Riley for sure.  So…  the following  5  books are my  “spook”  favorites,  the top 4 re-read at least once,  maybe  twice,  because to me re-reading a book I  loved is like reuniting with an old friend.  Seriously, who could read “Gone With The Wind” or  “Hawaii”   just once  ??   Most of  the following cloak and dagger favorites  are set in Europe during the Cold War  but  “Schoolboy”, one of my  tied -for- 1st place espionage suspense novels,  is set during the Cold War period but  the action takes place   primarily in Viet Nam  and Hong Kong.

1.  “The Honorable Schoolboy”   by John Le Carre’  tied with  “Tinker,Tailor,Soldier, Spy”  also by John Le Carre’ , who had,  in real life,  actually been a part of the  British Secret Service.  It’s interesting to me that in an interview where he was asked what he considered his best work,  he did not list “Schoolboy”  but did list “Tinker,Tailor“.  Nevertheless,  “Schoolboy“,  which is his longest book  by far, running to almost  600  pages in paperback,  has a complicated story line which moves deftly between Asia and the UK,  and is still my personal  favorite even if it is not the author’s.  (  I confess that I am prone to prefer long books because once I get interested in a character,  I like them to stick around for a while ! )

2. “The Company”  by Robert Littel.  Also a very long book, close to 900 pages, this is a great read, each and every pages, which is sometimes not  the case  in  long  novels.  Utilizing all the bells and whistles of the trade,  this is a thoroughly  intriguing story of the struggle between the CIA and the KGB  to discover  ( or keep secret, depending on which  side one is on )   the identity of  a deeply placed KGB mole.  Explores  in detail  number of historical events and seems very much in-the-know about the inner workings of  the CIA.  Definitely is one of those books where once you start,  you just want to keep on reading  even if it is past midnight and you have to get up early the next day !

3.”The Charm School”  by Nelson DeMille.  This book is set in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and gives an amazingly realistic picture of Russia of that time. It’s a fascinating story, another one of those can’t-put-it down novels. It seems like every time DeMille comes out with a new book they also do a reprint addition of  “Charm School” so I have given copies of  this book as a gift to several people, all of whom loved it too.  In his new forward to one of the latest reprints,  DeMille indicates that this book had at one point  become suggested  reading for new  US foreign service officers which lends some interesting credibility to the story line.   DeMille has written a number of  excellent novels  but I think this is his very best,  with “Word Of Honor” ,  an unusual combination of  a courtroom suspense drama and a Viet Nam era war novel,  coming in a close second.

4.”Cryptomicon”  by Neal Stephenson.   ( Did I mention, maybe for the 10th time,  that I now have a  personalized signed copy ? )  Technically not a true spy story but  it does have its great spy moments.   Plus endless and fascinating detail on the  WWII code breaking efforts which led to the invention of the computer,  some details of  which are  probably best understood by tech whizzes.  Nevertheless,  it is a fabulous book,  initially set at the outbreak of WWII  and continuing forward for decades thereafter.  Interesting and funny, extremely well written, covering many issues.  At nearly 900 pages,  plotted  in alternating chapters between the War period and present day,  there is plenty of time to enjoy the myriad of  characters and their offspring  as they traverse  the world,  doing lots of wild things.  Plus the good guys win, who could ask for anything more ?

5. “The Unlikely Spy”   by Daniel Silva.  Although most of Daniel Silva’s  subsequent books have featured a very interesting character named Gabriel Allon and are set in in current times, ( my favorite of those being “The Secret Servant” ),   “The  Unlikely  Spy”  is set  during the Cold War and  proceeds at a very fast pace.  It  has all the satisfying complexities  and duplicities one expects in such a book plus, unusual for Silva,  a sadly ambiguous ending,  the very sort one always expects from Le Carre’.

And  the TV spies ?   Nobody does espionage on the telly like  the  BBC,  hands down,  nobody else can  hold a candle to BBC.  So here is a list of my favorites, not all BBC,  and  several  are among  my favorite cloak and dagger books which have been dramatized for  television or film.

1.Wish Me Luck–  This BBC series, 3 seasons altogether,   is hold- your- breath dramatic.  Based on real life, the characters are completely realistic.  Gives a real sense of what the risks were for undercover agents during World War II and a program everyone should watch as a little reminder of the serious  sacrifices made behind the lines by so many during the War.

2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.   A  6 part mini-series of the Le Carre’s book by the same  title.  Staring  Alec Guinness, this is a very dramatic production and handles the multiple sub-plots very well which I’m sure wasn’t easy to do in the time allotted.

3. The Sleepers .  A fall-off-the-sofa-laughing  mini-series,  by BBC,  who else.  Staring  Warren Clarke and Nigel Havers,  the plot is very simple —  after 20 years, two deep cover Soviet sleeper spies living in the UK get called to active duty but they have become too comfortable as  British citizens and revolt against  the call to duty.  The antics and carryings on as the KGB hunts them down  are  simply hilarious, quite different from most  espionage productions, everyone I’ve loaned this DVD to has  simply loved it.

4. “A Perfect Spy”  ties  for 4th place with “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold”  staring Richard BurtonBoth are John Le Carre’  superb novels made into superb dramas.  And both with such sad, sad endings.   That is one of the things one must be prepared to accept about Le Carre’s work–  the endings are usually quite sad or very ambiguous.  As a person who prefers  a happy or at least a somewhat less sad ending,  I find, for me,   it is not my favorite aspect of  his work.  Not looking for Pollyanna but maybe a light at the end of the tunnel  which is not the on-coming train  ?

5. The Man Who Knew Too Little  staring Bill Murray ties  with Hopscotch  staring  Walter Matthau,  both American made films, staring well-known American actors.  Like  BBC’s  Sleepers,  both of these  movies are absolutely hilarious.   Bill Murray turns in what I think is one of  his  best performances ever in this comedy about spies and mistaken identity.   In  Hopscotch, Matthau and co-star Sam Waterston, longtime  favorites of mine,  are outstanding,  filmed 1980,  shot on  location in Austria,  the UK and Washington DC., it’s  absolutely delightful.  Such fun,  check out both of  these funny, funny movies.

So those are some of  my personal espionage favorites.  If  anyone decides to check them out,  I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.   Maybe you’ll even find one or two that you’ll put  on your  “read again”  or  “see again”  list.  Bon appetit’.

(Posted by Marlene Cree, licensed Virginia agent with Blue Heron Realty Co., 7134  Wilsonia Neck Dr., Machipongo, VA)

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