In anticipation of the release of her debut spy thriller, author, journalist and broadcaster Charlotte Philby shares her all-time favourite spy books with The Home Page
Being the granddaughter of Britain’s most famous double-agent, Kim Philby, writer Charlotte Philby knows a thing or two about the murky world of espionage. Described by its publishers as “an irresistible combination of contemporary espionage and domestic suspense”, Charlotte’s much anticipated debut novel, The Most Difficult Thing, which explores what happens when a woman walks out on her family, hits bookshelves in July. So, who better to share her five all-time favourite spy books that all fans of suspense should devour…
Louise Doughty can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. Every time, she takes the well-trodden domestic suspense genre and makes it her own, be it with her devastating early work, Whatever You Love, or the masterful Apple Tree Yard. Black Water is another departure from her previous novels, capturing the quiet cunning of a Le Carre novel. Opening in an isolated hut in Bali where John Harper, our protagonist, reflects on how he came to be where he is, this is a love story, a political thriller and a challenge to American foreign policy that sits in a league of its own.
It might be sacrilegious to say so, but I find the early Le Carre’s quite difficult to penetrate. They assume a degree of knowledge from the reader that can be off-putting, whereas his later works seem to be more cinematic and engaging. I love everything from The Constant Gardener on, but A Legacy of Spies, published in 2017, is possibly my favourite. His first George Smiley novel in 25 years, it’s incredibly atmospheric, with characters you know at once, and a plot that keeps pulling you in until the noose is so tight you can’t escape.
I had the joy of interviewing the legendary journalist Chapman Pincher, AKA the Spycatcher of Fleet Street, as he turned 99. He was extraordinary and had just published an updated version of his espionage tome Treachery: Betrayals, Blunders and Cover-Ups: Six Decades of Espionage. It’s a brilliant yarn and crammed full of theories and anecdotes that are part of Pincher’s life’s work.
It is rare to find spy stories by women authors and, without suggesting that women write in one way or another, compared to men, which would be a highly reductive statement, it is true that this book is very much written by a woman, and it subverts a typically male genre. A beautifully moving Cold War novel, Dunmore, with characteristic lightness of touch, explores the notion of betrayal and family in a book that is so much more than a typical tale of espionage.
My family got to know Phillip, a journalist with the Sunday Times’ Insight team who had formerly exposed the thalidomide scandal, after he spent a week interviewing my grandfather, Kim Philby, in Moscow after he defected there as a Soviet spy. He wrote countless non-fiction spy books but I particularly love this one, which explores the history, psychology and practice of spying – not least for its title: The Second Oldest Profession: The Spy As Bureaucrat, Patriot, Fantasist and Whore.
The Most Difficult Thing by Charlotte Philby, published by Borough Press on 11 July 2019, is available for preorder now. Instagram: @charlotte_philby Website: charlottephilby.com
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