Published around 60 years ago, this was le Carré’s breakout novel and still tops best-thriller-ever lists, deservedly. Alec Leamas, a British spy whose East German asset is ‘blown’ then murdered, goes undercover. Or has he gone rogue? It’s super fast-paced, the prose is spare and the twist is fabulous. John le Carré, I’m in awe.
The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny
I’ve listened to all thirteen audiobooks of Louise Penny’s novels featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Gamache is the opposite of the detective-as-troubled-soul trope. He’s from the almost-too-good-to-be-true mould, as is the fictional setting for most of the series: the town of Three Pines, near Montreal. Penny gives Gamache highly technical, often grisly, murders to solve, which he always does. In The Beautiful Mystery, Gamache and sidekick Jean-Guy Beauvoir travel to another idyllic setting: a monastery on the shores of a Quebec lake where the monks chant beautifully, until the choir master is murdered. It’s my favourite of the series, despite the cliff-hanger ending, which I usually find annoying.
Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson
Published in 1994 and recently reissued, Kolymsky Heights is the ultimate hero’s journey. Johnny Porter’s mission is to find out what’s going on at a Russian research station in Siberia. First, he has to get there. A Canadian Inuit, Johnny can speak multiple languages, build a car from scrap parts and successfully feign yellow fever with the help of a super pill. These skills come in handy en route. Once his mission is accomplished, he has to get back home. The chase on the ice at the border, switching between Johnny’s point of view and that of the bad guys, is a stand out.
Conclave by Robert Harris
Cardinals from around the world gather in the Sistine Chapel to vote for the next Pope. What could possibly go wrong? More than I could ever have imagined. Robert Harris is a master of suspense.
Restless by William Boyd
The brilliant William Boyd’s novels range from a James Bond thriller (Solo) to Sweet Caress, a wonderful story about the life of a fictional photographer. But his spy thriller, Restless, is my favourite. Sally Fairchild writes a memoir, and gives it to her adult daughter, Ruth, a struggling single mother and English teacher. It turns out that Sally is actually Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian emigre and former British spy. It further turns out that Sally/Eva believes her life as a spy is not over. Ruth suspects Sally is going gaga, but mother and daughter eventually join forces to sort things out.