Novel Gift Idea:
A Spy for Christmas
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 17, 2020 -- The death of John le Carré last weekend has cast something of a pall over the already Covid-darkened holidays. But it also gives me a devilishly devious idea: Why not give a spy novel or two for Christmas?

I've long favored books as gifts. They are portable and personal; entertaining and exotically low-tech; and now, of course, easy to download in digital format rather than traditional hardcover or paperback formats. And if your potential recipient expects to drive more than fly in the months ahead, books are widely available in audio format, too. In other words, they are nearly perfect.

Where to start in the massive genre of spy fiction? Why not with le Carré himself? As I wrote just one month ago, his 25th and now final published work, Agent Running in the Field, stands on its own merits as an engrossing contemporary spy thriller by the master of the espionage genre. Published last year by the then 88-year-old le Carré, the so-called Brexit novel shows he'd lost none of his skill with plot, character and, most notably, dialogue.

If you prefer vintage le Carré, allow me to suggest The Quest for Karla. Master spies--Britain's George Smiley and his nemesis, Karla, head of Soviet foreign intelligence--duel in the books included in this compilation. The trilogy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley's People) represents the most definitive and pragmatic of what I consider the greatest spy novels. The only one possibly better? Le Carré's own masterpiece, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

Is Joseph Kanon in the same league as John le Carré? Some reviewers say he compares favorably, but I am not totally convinced. I prefer one of his earliest novels, 1998's The Prodigal Spy, which is carefully paced, well-plotted, often suspenseful and never tedious. However, it stumbles somewhat at the finish when the hero, by his own choice, comes face-to-face with J. Edgar Hoover and successfully confronts the FBI's tough and unforgiving boss. Another in Kanon's canon, Istanbul Passage, was a best-seller in 2012. It revolves around Leon Bauer, an American tobacco merchant who occasionally doubles as a spy for the U.S. Embassy in Istanbul in the years after World War II. Tied to Istanbul on a personal level by his comatose wife, who collapsed from the strain of helping Jews pass thru Turkey on their way to the new state of Israel, Leon is recruited by American intelligence. His mission? Pick up a shadowy figure destined to be flown to the United States in a few days.

You could also consider a foundation of the espionage genre: W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden: Or the British Agent. Many of Maugham's successors call it one of the greatest spy novels ever written. The 1927 classic totally defies anything I've ever read in this field and seems to be based on the author's own experience as an agent for the British secret service. Unlike the espionage thrillers that have since evolved, the emphasis here is rarely on physical derring-do or heart-stopping suspense, but rather on the emotional dimensions and motivations of his opponents. I found Ashenden to be an intriguing read and was particularly impressed with Maugham's command of the English language.

Somerset Maugham Award winner Ian McEwan, who has written more than a dozen novels, is his usual clever and provocative self in Sweet Tooth. The 2012 bestseller is set in 1970s England at the height of the Cold War when there was no debate on which countries were the enemies. Sweet Tooth focuses on the nuanced art of lying. It is executed with the wit and innovation that one expects of McEwan's work. It's spy versus scribe in a book that's clever and entertaining. Sweet Tooth revolves around a young lady who has a brief romance with a much older Cambridge professor, a liaison that leads her into a career as a low-ranking operative at MI5, Great Britain's renowned spy agency.

Meanwhile, American author Daniel Silva has immortalized an Israeli spy and art restorer by the name of Gabriel Allon in nearly two dozen novels. In 2010's The Rembrandt Affair, Allon is middle-aged and not particularly imposing in a physical sense. Yet this quiet and modest hero nevertheless walks on a large political stage and delivers the goods as a master undercover agent. So much so that you might find Allon's physical exploits implausible. When an obscure painting of Rembrandt's beautiful young mistress reappears, the tale unveils all manner of dark events involving the masterpiece's history. Silva works with flashbacks interspersed with the current story. There's a Dutch Jewish family who trades the painting to a Nazi official for the life of a daughter and a list of Jewish holocaust victims whose estates are used by a Swiss banking family to build a fortune. The ill-gotten wealth extends to the present in the person of a character known worldwide as "St. Martin."

If you prefer a catch-all gift, consider The Book of Spies, An Anthology of Literary Espionage. Released in 2003, it is a delightful potpourri of the spy genre. These tempting tidbits of intrigue will convince even the most indifferent readers to find some of these novels and read them in full. Even a longtime addict of the category like yours truly was motivated to read what editor Alan Furst, one of my favorite espionage writers in his own right, sampled and selected. There's Eric Ambler's A Coffin For Demetrios; Maxim Gorky's The Spy; le Carré's Russia House; Anthony Burgess's Tremor of Intent (Burgess is best known for A Clockwork Orange.); Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes; Charles McGarry's The Tears of Autumn, which is one of my all-time favorites; Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel; Steinbeck's The Moon Is Down; and Rebecca West's The Birds Fall Down. Each of the excerpts is preceded by a short introduction from Furst, who sets the stage in a concise and informed manner.

A happy, stress-free holiday to us all!