Great Books and Films about Great Spies

by | Mar 4, 2018 | Karna Small Bodman | 4 comments

Submitted by Karna Small Bodman

Stories and films about spies, real and fictional, have always been popular but seem to have engendered even more readers and movie-goers of late.  Many are on the bestseller lists and even heading for a theater near you.  This weekend we’ll see the opening of the new movie “Red Sparrow” starring Jennifer Lawrence in the role of a former Russian ballerina who is recruited to be a Russian spy and sent to “Sparrow School” to learn the art of seducing her targets. .

Jennifer Lawrence

 This one is based on the terrific thriller of the same name by Jason Matthews, a member of International Thriller Writers.  (our Rogue colleague, Gayle Lynds was a founder of the organization). I remember attending our annual conference, “Thrillerfest” at the Grand Hyatt in New York when Jason was given the award for Best First Novel. Now in addition to the film, his third thriller, The Kremlin’s Candidate, featuring the same characters, was just released.

While these books are works of fiction, they are all inspired by Matthews’ 30 plus years’ of experience serving as a CIA agent in Russia. Verisimilitude indeed!
And while the New York Times Review of Books usually features literary fiction and non-fiction, I saw that last Sunday they asked Jason Matthews to give his list of great books about great spies — several featured Russian operatives who ended up spying for the United States.  
Oleg Penkovsky
One of those spies was Oleg Penkovsky, a colonel in the GRU — Soviet military intelligence — and the highest level Soviet officer to spy for us and Great Britain at the time. He volunteered to help western intelligence and was handled by both MI6 and the CIA.  His story was written by Jerrold Schecter and Peter Deriabin in their terrific book, The Spy Who Saved the World. Penkovsky provided us and our allies with papers about Soviet military systems along with the location of launch sites. But his greatest contribution was giving us information during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, the KGB started watching him, eventually arrested, tried and killed him for his “treachery.”
Another Russian  that our agents recruited was Adolf Tolkachev, an aviation specialist working on stealth technology.  He left notes on the cars of US diplomats near the American Embassy in Moscow saying he wanted to meet with CIA officials.  His life as an informer was described in a recent non-fiction book that many say “reads like a high-tech thriller.” The title, The Billion Dollar Spy, is by David Hoffman and was taken from case files of the CIA. As for Tolkachev’s demise, he was finally arrested and executed by the Russians in 1986.
Of course, in addition to men who gave our country incalculable information, these blogs have featured many female spies who made enormous contributions.  I’d like to add one more: Nancy Wake, an elusive American spy whom the Gestapo dubbed the “White Mouse.” She was among the most decorated secret agents of the Second World War. Born in New Zealand she was described as “a good-looking girl with a streak of rebelliousness.”  At a young age, she set off to explore New York and Europe, supporting herself as a freelance journalist.
Nancy Wake
After Hitler’s rise, when she heard from refugees about Nazi brutality and the persecution of Jews, she said, “If I ever get a chance, I would do anything to make things more difficult for that rotten Nazi party.” And so she did. Parachuting into France, she embarked on a double life as a courier, establishing an escape route from Vichy France across the mountains into Spain. In fact, she escorted escapees and also provided a safe house in the  Alps. Nancy was also involved in ambushing German convoys, destroying bridges and railway lines and was on a raid that destroyed a Gestapo’s headquarters leaving 38 Germans dead.  She described it as “the most exciting sortie I ever made.  I entered the building by the back door, raced up the stairs, opened the first door, threw in my grenades and ran like hell.” The incredible story of Nancy’s life was told by Peter Fitzsimons in this bestselling book. Her exploits were also made into a fascinating documentary. But unlike those Soviet spies listed above, Nancy led a good life and died at the age of 97!

Now, do you have a favorite book or movie about a famous spy to share with us and our readers? Please leave a comment and tell us about it. Thanks for visiting us here at Rogue Women Writers.
…Karna Small Bodman 
Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Gayle Lynds

    Wow, Karna. Great stuff. Such a tragedy that we had traitors that caused the death of so many assets behind the Iron Curtain who endured constant danger to work for us. I've always been admirer of Vasili Mitrokhin, who sneaked home and copied intel for several decades & was finally able to escape to London. The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin is one of my all-time favorite books and research gold mine. Again, my admiration & appreciation! Gayle

  2. S. Lee Manning

    I knew the Russian spy stories, but not the story of Nancy Wake. Thanks for sharing. A great post.

  3. Karna Bodman

    Thanks for the comment, Gayle, – and for sharing your suggestions about other great spies to read about! As you said, these can be wonderful research tools for authors of thrillers! So true.

  4. Karna Bodman

    Yes. S. Lee — Nancy Wake was a true hero during WWII — an absolutely amazing woman. thanks for your comment.