The Spy Who Smiled: Witty Espionage Novels

I was much surprised and definitely pleased reading Mick Herron's latest, Real Tigers. Following the first two books in the Slough House series, Slow Horses and Dead Lions, one of Slough House's own has come under attack. Slough House, by the way, is where the screw-ups of MI5 (Britain's spy agency) are warehoused until they either get the hint and move on or die of tedium. The seriously flawed characters are fully filled out and the plot is delightfully byzantine. Herron gives tropes of the genre a good roasting while he's at it. What really gets one though, is the wiseacre dialog. Definitely a good pick for a wintry afternoon.


Lemuel Swift, a somewhat charming miscreant and minor nobleman, is enjoying the expatriate life in South America when he is diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. Desperate to see his young daughter one last time and stopped at Heathrow by Her Majesty's finest, he agrees to assassinate his own father, a defector to the USSR. The plot gets complicated from there in Reginald Hill's Traitor's Blood. Hill, perhaps better known for his mysteries, keeps things moving in this witty romp.

Ostensibly a spy novel, Ian McEwan mocks everything he talks about in Sweet Tooth. Sarah Frome has done an embarrassing job at university, but is recruited nonetheless by MI5 to find writers sympathetic to the government to secretly support. She falls in love with a mark, and then things really go awry. Once again, spy stories get skewered, as does the Cold War and literary pretensions of just about everybody. Ian McEwan writes in a restrained style, so the humor may be a little dry for novices, but will be instantly recognized and liked by his fans.

Have more witty outings with MI5? Know some American espionage stories with humor? Tell us about it in the comments.

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