10 Spy Novels With Women Protagonists

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From Electric Lit:

For the first time in the agency’s 74-year history, women dominate the upper ranks of the CIA. Since 2018, Gina Haspel has been the Director of Central Intelligence, and three of her top five directorates (support, analysis, and science & technology) are also headed by women.  

Women played key roles in espionage operations during World War II, but peace and the Cold War relegated women to largely secretarial or administrative jobs. Cold War fiction tended to mirror the gender roles that were available to women in the real business of spies—books were filled with dedicated secretaries and pretty girls with whom flirty romances might yield intelligence.  

Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, and the first woman to hold that position (from 1992-1996), reflected on the role of women in spy fiction in her introduction to the reissue of Graham and Hugh Greene’s collection of spy fiction, The Spy’s Bedside Book“The true spy story resembles real life as we all actually know it,” she wrote about the stories in the book, all of which were written before 1957. Her only complaint about the old stories in the book is that, except for a nod to Mata Hari, women are of little consequence. 

Fiction’s espionage genre has long been a boy’s club. Wikipedia’s list of top living spy authors still only contains two women among the seventy names: Stella Rimington and Gayle Lynds. But as women rise in the rank of the CIA, spy fiction too is changing. The realistic spy novel has always tried to hold up a dark mirror to the wider world, so it is only fitting that as the world changes, that mirror reflects more women as central characters in spy novels.  

Gayle Lynds’s Masquerade, published in 1996, became the first spy novel written by a woman to become a bestseller, and it helped open the genre for other women. Kate Atkinson, a literary author, entered the spy genre with Transcription, and recently a new group of talented young writers, including Lauren Wilkinson (American Spy) and Rosalie Knecht (Who is Vera Kelly?), have written well-received works.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

2 thoughts on “10 Spy Novels With Women Protagonists”

  1. Or, of course, you could always read non-spy-fiction works by a real intelligence analyst like Dr Alice Sheldon (better known under her main pen name as “James Tiptree, Jr.”). A number of her stories on the edge of “intelligence” are better constructed and more aware of “intelligence” than most thrillers, and I’m specifically including many of the bestsellers and best-known-that-don’t-sell-as-well-as-their-reputation (like the late Mr Cornwell, let alone the wannabes and hangers-on).

    The common problem with “spy thrillers” is that those who really know don’t talk and don’t write about it. Leaving aside the overreaching nondisclosure agreements, there’s also a real-world risk that if one is too “authentic” the methods or details can be used to trade back to actual assets (human and otherwise), and some of those regimes out there have no compunctions about imposing a “corruption of blood” on family members of even long-dead human assets and/or scapegoats. The same goes for the counterintelligence face of the die (there are more than two faces, so “coin” is inaccurate). Oh, you want concrete examples? That’d almost certainly be inside an NDA, if one could either confirm or deny that such examples exist.

  2. “The best spies are, and always have been, women,” Claud Cockburn, Stalinist journalist, when interviewing/interrogating a suspected female spy during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.

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