South Londoner Ava Glass is a former civil servant with the highest security clearance bar one, and has seen just enough of the inner workings of espionage to ensure that she will always be fascinated by spies.
Dubbed “a worthy heir to the James Bond mantle” by James Patterson and published by Penguin, Ava Glass’s feisty female-led spy debut “The Chase” is James Bond for the 21st century – fast, furious, and totally addictive.
Based on Glass’s first-hand experience of working in counter terrorism in the wake of the 7/7 Bombings, The Chase is an Amazon Book of the Month, and is currently under option to be made into a TV series by the team behind The Night Manager.
The Chase by Ava Glass is out now via Penguin and costs £9.99.
When I first started thinking about writing a spy novel, I read every book I could find about espionage.
Fiction and non-fiction, I read them all. And I can honestly say, when it comes to spies, reality wins.
The truth is darker than Smiley. Funnier than Bond. More extreme than Jason Bourne.
Here are my favourite, stranger than fiction, utterly gripping books about spies.
Operation Krondstadt, by Harry Ferguson
This extraordinary book rockets through the founding of Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) by Mansfield Smith-Cumming in the early years of the 20th century.
Cumming is an unforgettable character – prone to florid demands and temperamental rages.
Having lost his leg in a car accident, he had a wooden prosthetic that he would stab unexpectedly with a knife in meetings to unnerve people.
He signed his letters “C”, and every subsequent head of MI6 has been called “C” in his honour.
Ferguson’s book describes in brilliant detail the agents, mostly ex-military men, scattered across Europe and risking everything to find out what German Kaiser was planning.
An absolute page turner.
A Spy Among Friends, by Ben Macintyre
On the list of Britain’s most notorious traitors, Kim Philby ranks near the top.
A highly placed MI6 intelligence officer who rose to first secretary to the British Embassy in Washington, DC, and chief liaison with the CIA, Philby was a double agent working for the Soviet Union for all of the nearly thirty years of his career.
The information he provided to the Soviets devastated Britain’s intelligence agencies for decades.
Macintyre unpicks Philby’s life in a narrative that starts ominous in tone and only gets more tense as Philby’s damage spreads.
This was recently made into a television series, but the book is better.
Russians Among Us, by Gordon Corera
Gordon Corera is the security correspondent for the BBC, so when he tells us via a series of steady, incontrovertible facts, that the Cold War never ended, and that Russia has been systematically planting deep cover spies in the UK and the US for decades, and that these spies have one job: to undermine and destroy democracy – I believe him.
This well-researched book focuses on so-called ‘illegals’ – Russian agents given American or British identities and sent to live in our midst.
The stories are so compelling and bizarre, you’ll find it hard to put this book down.
M, By Henry Hemming
Henry Hemming thinks Maxwell Knight was the UK’s greatest spymaster, and he may be right.
Knight had failed at many careers by the 1920s, but in espionage he found his true calling.
His operations infiltrating communist cells in the UK are legendary. He succeeded in part by recruiting female spies to do the work.
Knight believed nobody would suspect them because men simply didn’t see women as capable of being a threat, and he was right.
Female spies are still in high demand for this very reason – some things never change.
Knight and his spies are fascinating characters, and the story rips along at a brisk pace.
Open Secret, by Stella Rimington
Stella Rimington was the first female head of MI5 and a lifelong spy until her retirement 20 years ago, when she began writing a series of novels about spies.
In Open Secret she tells the tale of her own life and her rise through the ranks.
Now, I should warn you there was no way she was ever going to tell us how intelligence officers work, and nor does she share much about her own work as a spy.
Nonetheless, this book is worth reading if only because it reveals so much about what it was like to be a talented, intelligent woman in a world that wasn’t ready for that.
Rimington fought sexism throughout her career and had a front row seat as the world changed.
A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell
Virginia Hall was almost unbearably brave. As a child, she once wore a bracelet of live snakes to school.
She lost her leg in a hunting accident when she was a teenager, and perhaps that propelled her to break free of the expectations of her wealthy and privileged background.
When World War II broke out, she travelled to France to volunteer as an ambulance driver and then stayed after the Nazis arrived, working with the French Resistance and the British secret service with such success that she became the Germans’ most wanted Allied agent.
She fought like a tiger and faced death without blinking. This is one of those books that make you believe in heroes.
The Chase by Ava Glass is out now, Penguin, £9.99.
In this breakneck, race-against-the-clock thriller, a female British spy has twelve hours to deliver her asset across London while being pursued through the streets of London by Russian intelligence agents.
Can she make it without being spotted . . . or killed?
A massive new talent in British fiction, Ava Glass’s storytelling is complex and finely crafted, combining twisting plotlines, intelligent dialogue and ambiguous characters, all skilfully brought together in an epic climax.
Never before has spy fiction been so nail-bitingly real.
Featured image credit: Jack Jewers