10 of the Greatest Cold War Spy Novels


Before his death, legendary crime writer Mickey Spillane entrusted the completion of his unfinished work to his longtime friend, Max Allan Collins — a top-notch writer in his own right. This month, Collins has completed and released Complex 90 , Spillane’s unfinished sequel to The Girl Hunters. To celebrate its publication, Flavorwire asked Collins to sound off on a few of his favorite Cold War thrillers. Bone up on your spy skills with his picks, and be sure to add any favorites that Collins missed to the list in the comments.

From Russia With Love , Ian Fleming (1957)

“Though Ian Fleming himself had worked in intelligence during the Second World War, James Bond was a fantasy figure in the tradition of Bulldog Drummond, the Saint, and Mike Hammer, and Fu Manchu provided the pattern for Bond’s uber-foes (specifically, in the case of Dr. No, 1962). But in this, his fifth Bond novel, Fleming plays a straight espionage game, with Russia’s counter-intelligence agency SMERSH out to kill Bond in the context of a contrived sexual scandal. The first section of the novel depicts the planning of the mission and the training of Soviet assassin Red Grant. The 1963 film version with Sean Connery is the most faithful of Bond adaptations, rivaled only by On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and Casino Royale (2006).”

The IPCRESS File , Len Deighton (1962)

“The nameless secret agent here may lack the name ‘Harry Palmer,’ but he is very the much the deceptively ordinary bureaucrat-with-a-gun of the classic 1965 Michael Caine film. A womanizer and a gourmet cook, he has no great love for his superiors and secretly prepares an exit strategy, should things in the spy world go awry. In his assignment to locate missing scientists, he uncovers a secret brainwashing scheme that marks him for the next victim, due to betrayal from the ranks of the superiors he already distrusts. By any name, Deighton’s working-class spy is the ideal anti-Bond.”

The Girl Hunters , Mickey Spillane (1962)

“The first James Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953), was widely viewed as a British take on Mickey Spillane’s sex-and-violence format. When Mike Hammer’s creator took a ten-year hiatus from writing his thrillers, Spillane’s paperback publisher promoted Fleming as an alternative. With a boost from fan JFK, Fleming became so successful that Spillane focused his comeback novel, The Girl Hunters, on espionage, pitting Hammer not against gangsters but KGB agents. Hammer springs back from a seven-year drunk when he learns his long-missing secretary/lover was recruited into a lengthy behind-the-Iron-Curtain mission for the CIA. Now Hammer races a Soviet assassin code-named the Dragon in the hunt for the returned (but still M.I.A.) Velda. Spillane’s unfinished sequel, Complex 90, begun in 1964, has been completed (by me) and just published by Titan.”

Death of a Citizen , Donald Hamilton (1960)

“Matt Helm is known chiefly as the playboy spy character portrayed by Dean Martin in a quartet of tongue-in-cheek films that were a major inspiration for the Austin Powers spoofs. Many readers will be surprised to learn that the Helm novels are gritty noir-ish affairs. It’s clear Helm is intended as an American variation on Bond, bringing him back to his Mike Hammer roots; but Hamilton is a more realistic writer than either Spillane or Fleming. As conceived by Hamilton, previously a successful author of westerns (The Big Country, 1958), Helm is a former wartime assassin for U.S. intelligence recruited back into service by necessity, requiring “the death” of the peaceful post-war citizen he has become, much to his wife’s horror.”

The Impossible Virgin , Peter O’Donnell (1971)

“In 1953, O’Donnell created his comic-strip character Modesty Blaise as a female version of Bond; the strip was sexy and violent in a way unknown to stateside comics pages. A street urchin who grew into a powerful organized-crime leader, Modesty (and her platonic tough-guy sidekick Willy Garvin) is now reformed, sort of, and working for the British Secret Service. The novel Modesty Blaise (1965) was O’Donnell’s novelization of his (mostly ignored) screenplay for Joseph Losey’s 1966 film of the same name. The warm critical and popular response to Modesty in novel form led to a long-running series. Alone among such fun Bond-era spies as The Avengers and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Modesty enjoys an enviable body of quality prose fiction. Modesty rarely engaged in Cold War themes, but in The Impossible Virgin she does.”

Ice Station Zebra , Alistair McLean (1963)

“Scottish adventure specialist McLean offers up one of the best Cold War thrillers in the nuclear submarine sub-genre. About to depart on a supposed mission of mercy, Captain Swanson of the USS Dolphin is ordered to take along a British doctor to aid survivors of a fire-ravaged weather station on an Arctic ice floe. Though the conflict with the Soviets is subtler here than in the well-known 1968 film version, the Cold War is the real engine of the sub’s mission, the frostbite ‘doctor’ a British Intelligence agent, with Russian spies coming into play. Few could write the men-on-a-dangerous-mission adventure yarn better than McLean (The Guns of Navarone, 1957); this one is suggested by real events.”

The Manchurian Candidate , Richard Condon (1959)

“This marriage of spy novel and political thriller is a dark satire that dared to suggest the ‘commies under the bed’ tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy only did the cause of Communism a huge favor. At the dawn of the sixties, Condon explored such concepts as sleeper agents, brainwashing, and homegrown political assassination. His bad guys are ostensibly KGB agents (with North Korean accomplices), and his hero a war-traumatized military man, now an intelligence officer, whose best friend has been transformed into a programmed assassin. But the real villain is a Red Queen of a controlling mother whose king is a bargain-basement McCarthy headed for the White House. The John Frankenheimer-directed film (1962) is a classic in its own right, but Condon put it all together in this amazing novel.”

Our Man in Havana , Graham Greene (1958)

“Possibly the greatest writer of prose to devote so much of his time to the theme of espionage, Greene was himself briefly an intelligence agent. His WW 2 experiences in London, dealing with a disinformation-dealing agent in Portugal, provided the impetus for this satirical and prescient look at the spy game. Wormhold, a British vacuum salesman in Havana during the Batista regime, becomes a spy for the MI6 to better provide for his daughter (he’s a single parent). The reports Wormhold concocts involve imaginary agents, whose salaries he collects. But his lively reports begin to greatly interest London, who send in reinforcements, initiating a deadly black comedy of errors, making the hapless agent a Soviet target. In an instance of perfect casting, Alec Guinness portrayed Wormhold in the 1959 film version.”

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy , John le Carré (1974)

“Like Fleming, Le Carré (real name: David John Moore Cornwall) worked for British intelligence. But where Fleming used his WW 2 experiences as a springboard for fantasy, Le Carre turned his Cold War service into grimly realistic novels. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) trumped Deighton as a response to James Bond’s glamourous world of espionage, and he continues to turn out fine work to this day. Tinker charts the search for a Soviet mole in the upper echelons of British intelligence, providing Le Carré’s signature character – the low-key professional George Smiley – with a late-in-the-game chance to reclaim his standing in the Circus (MI6), made bittersweet by betrayal. A fine BBC serialization in 1974 was followed by an equally well-received feature-film version in 2011.”

The Hunt for Red October , Tom Clancy (1984)

“Insurance man Clancy, with his right-wing political views, was born to write Cold War thrillers, though the Cold War was definitely thawing when he sent around his submarine novel to scores of publishers, who declined it. The book became a rare fictional work published by the U.S. Naval Institute Press, for whom Clancy had written some articles. After President Reagan praised Red October at a press conference, sales skyrocketed, and a writer who couldn’t get arrested had suddenly invented a new genre – the techno-thriller. Clancy’s CIA analyst Jack Ryan is probably the best-known intelligence agent since Bond. The novel, which became a very successful 1990 film, charts the defection of Lithuanian nuclear submarine commander Marko Alexandrovich Ramius, who wants to deliver his sub as well. A desk-bound Jack Ryan wants to help.”