Novels about diplomacy and espionage written by former officers or – like Graham Greene – those who were still active in an unofficial capacity, have a special authenticity. As well as being enjoyable to those with a taste for the genre, they sometimes provide real insights into the minds and procedures of their crafts.
- Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)
Secret Intelligence Service officer in the First World War, first in Switzerland and then in Russia; and in the American OSS (later CIA) in the Second World War. His novel Ashenden, based on his Swiss experience, was adapted for the cinema by Hitchcock as ‘Secret Agent’ (1936) (ODNB; Jeffery, MI6).
Ashenden [buy this book] [Kindle ed] [buy DVD ‘Secret Agent’]
- Stendhal (1783-1842)Real name Henri Beyle, French consul at the then Austrian imperial port of Trieste only briefly (winter of 1830-1) because the authorities took exception to his liberal views, and then at Civitavecchia near Rome (where the papal authorities were persuaded to swallow similar reservations), 1831 until his death. The publication of the first of his two most famous novels, Le Rouge et le Noir (translated usually The Red and the Black but sometimes Scarlet and Black), had coincided with the announcement of his appointment to Trieste. The second, La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma), was written while he was on a prolonged leave from Civitavecchia, of which he was not fond.The Red and the Black [buy this book]
The Charterhouse of Parma [buy this book] [Kindle ed]
- Kenneth Benton(1909-99)
Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) officer from 1937 until 1968; find more information about him here.
Sole Agent [Kindle ed]
Spy in Chancery[Kindle ed]
Vengeance in Venice [Kindle ed]
Greek Fire [Kindle ed]
Twenty-Fourth Level [buy this book]
- Charles Forsyte (1920-2009)
Real name: Gordon Charles George Philo. Long-serving and well regarded British intelligence officer. He was appointed with diplomatic cover at three British overseas posts in the decades after the Second World War: Istanbul (third secretary 1954), Ankara (second secretary 1957), and Hanoi (consul-general 1968); and as a liaison officer to the Malaysian government at KL, 1963. Between these postings and after his final foreign tour, he occupied influential positions at Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) headquarters in London until his retirement in 1978. He was in charge of training new entrants to SIS when David Cornwell (‘John le Carré’) switched from the Security Service (MI5) to SIS (MI6) in 1960. Diplomatic Death and Murder with Minarets are set in the British Consulate-General in Istanbul and the British diplomatic apartments complex in Ankara respectively, both of which he evidently knew well. The first of these novels is much the best. Philo was a keen amateur magician, and – astonishing to report – after his death his private notebook on the subject was found by Marco Pusteria in a second-hand bookshop in Cromer on the north Norfolk coast (FFB: The Detective Novels of Charles Forsyte, 17 October 2014; Marco Pusteria, ‘Spies, Magic, Manuscripts’, 20 July 2013; The Times [obituary], 18 March 2009; Foreign Office List, subsequently Diplomatic Service List).
Diplomatic Death (1961)
Diving Death (1962), published in the US under the title Dive into Danger
Double Death (1965)
Murder with Minarets (1968)
- Lawrence Durrell (1912-90)
Junior Press Officer British Emb Cairo, 1941; Press Attaché at British Information Office, Alexandria, 1942-5; Director of PR, Overseas Information Service on Rhodes, 1945-7; British Council lecturer, Cordoba Argentina, 1947-9; 1st Secretary (Information), British Embassy Belgrade, 1949-52; Press Adviser to British colonial administration in Cyprus, 1954-6.
Bitter Lemons [buy this book] [Kindle ed] Not a novel but the best of what has been described as his ‘foreign residence genre’, this one set in Cyprus as the troubles of the then British colony started in the mid-1950s. The chapter on ‘How to Buy a House’ is a real page-turning account of the negotiating skills employed on Durrell’s behalf by the Turkish Cypriot estate agent (realtor) Sabri Tahir.
The following slender volumes are the collections of Durrell’s hilarious short stories, narrated through the voice of the fictional diplomat ‘Antrobus’. Justly famous, they were inspired chiefly by Durrell’s time at the British embassy in Belgrade:
Esprit de Corps: Sketches from Diplomatic Life [buy this book] [Kindle ed]
Stiff Upper Lip [buy this book]
Sauve Qui Peut [buy this book]
They can also be obtained collected, in whole or in part, in one volume:
The Best of Antrobus [buy this book]
Antrobus Complete [buy this book] [Kindle ed]
- Olivia Manning (1908-80)
Married to a British Council lecturer (‘cultural diplomat’). Olivia Manning’s six novels set in Second World War Roumania, Greece, and the Middle East, now collectively known as the Fortunes of War [the Balkan Trilogy plus the Levant Trilogy] and adapted for television in 1987, are regarded as classics. I was interested to see in the very full piece on Manning in Wikipedia that she and her husband lived for a short time in Bucharest in early 1940 with John Hugh (‘Adam’) Watson, 3rd Secretary in the British Legation and later quite a well known writer on diplomacy.
The Balkan Trilogy [buy this book] [buy this book – new ed] [Kindle ed]
The Levant Trilogy [buy this book] [Kindle ed]
Fortunes of War [buy the DVD]
- Alan Judd
Real name Alan Edwin Petty. Widely believed by spook-watchers to be a former senior officer in MI6, a suspicion I recall forming myself when some years ago I read his Quest for C: Sir Mansfield Cumming and the Founding of the British Secret Service (1999) [buy this book]. The vagueness of his entries in the Diplomatic Service List between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s is something of a give-away. The only number that says anything about him other than his rank (entering as 2nd Secretary and leaving as Counsellor) and his attachment to the ‘F.C.O.’ is the one that notes his posting as ‘Consul (Economic)’ at the British Consulate-General in Johannesburg in 1980. Hmmm. He made a hit with his first novel, A Breed of Heroes, which appeared shortly after this interlude in South Africa. This piece provides useful background on ‘Alan Judd’ and his many articles in The Spectator can be read here.
A Breed of Heroes [buy this book] [Kindle ed]
Short of Glory [buy this book]
The Noonday Devil [buy this book]
Tango [buy this book]
The Devil’s Own Work [buy this book]
Legacy [buy this book]
The Kaiser’s Last Kiss [buy this book]
Dancing with Eva [buy this book] [Kindle ed]
Uncommon Enemy [buy this book] [Kindle ed]
Inside Enemy [buy this book] [Kindle ed]
- Anne Telscombe
Real name Marie Dobbs (née Catton). She was the wife of Joe Dobbs, who served at the British embassy in Moscow for 14 years over four different postings between 1947 and 1974 and was regarded as Britain’s leading Kremlinologist during the Cold War. ‘Anne Telscombe’ was an Australian journalist who fetched up in Moscow and collaborated with Dobbs (then an ‘Information Officer’) on the embassy’s Russian-language weekly, Britansky Soyuznik (The British Ally) until this feared organ of British propaganda was slowly strangled by the Soviet authorities and expired at the end of 1948 (V. O. Pechatnov, ‘The Rise and Fall of Britansky Soyuznik’, Historical Journal, 41(1), 1998). After they married and she could no longer work she took to writing novels based on their postings. I am grateful to Jane Barder for alerting me to this novelist. Use abebooks.co.uk for the following titles, where you will find copies cheaper than the few available from Amazon:
Miss Bagshot Goes to Moscow
Miss Bagshot Goes to Tibet