Ten Spy/Heist Reads from Bookstore Owners
We all have our favorite subgenres in the mystery/thriller world. For me, it’s spy and heist novels, the more escapist the better. Who doesn’t love the skilled patriot working in the shadows for king and country, the cat burglar challenging a high-tech security system, or the grifter spinning the perfect con?
As we used to say in the intelligence world, “You don’t know what you don’t know,” and I’d hate to miss out on any great reads. So, I went to the real experts, bookstore owners and staff, to learn their favorite spy and heist books. Here are their ten recommendations.
- The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (William Blackwood and Sons, 1915)
Mike Tormey of Mike Tormey Books clued me in to this spy tale he describes as “foundational to the genre.” Penned in 1915 by Scottish author John Buchan The Thirty-Nine Steps introduces series character Richard Hannay as an unlikely hero pulled into an espionage caper. He is caught between German and British spies on the cusp of World War I. It is a snarky man-on-the-run story that brought the delicate combination of realism and escapism to the genre. A World War I thriller published at the start of the war, it became a favorite of men in the trenches, who perhaps needed an escape more than anyone.
- Thieves’ Dozen by Donald E. Westlake (The Mysterious Press, 2004)
Mike also introduced me to Donald E. Westlake, and he is joined by Mystery Mike Bursaw and Otto Penzler of New York’s The Mysterious Bookshop. They all agree Westlake is the master of the heist story. From 1959 to the end of his life in 2008, Westlake brought crime novels to the world under his own name and multiple pseudonyms. What better way to sample this epic body of writing than to try Thieves’ Dozen, a collection of humorous short stories? Don’t expect twelve stories. In true burglar style, Thieves’ Dozen will only deliver eleven. Westlake’s work was a popular choice among our bookstore denizens, as the next three picks will attest.
- 3. Bank Shot (Simon & Schuster, 1972),
If you can’t get enough of John Archibald Dortmunder, the bumbling star in most of the Thieves’ Dozen stories, Mystery Mike recommends Bank Shot, in which Dortmunder is out to steal an entire bank, building and all.
- Hot Rock (Simon & Schuster, 1970)
Otto Penzler of The Mysterious Book Shop is also a Dortmunder fan and recommends the character’s first adventure, The Hot Rock. “Everything that can go wrong does,” he says. “Dortmunder is forced to steal the same jewel multiple times, break into a prison, and go on the run from criminals and police at the same time. No one can read it without laughing out loud.”
- The Outfit (Pocket Books, 1963)
If you like a sharper, hard-boiled thief, don’t fret. Mike Tormey of Mike Tormey Books recommends any of the novels written under Westlake’s Richard Stark pseudonym. Start with The Outfit. Mike loves the “terse and gritty, action-oriented writing” of the series.
- 6. Heist Society by Ally Carter (Hyperion Book CH, February 2010)
No one has their finger on the pulse of the mystery world like McKenna Jordan, owner of Murder by the Book in my hometown of Houston. Both McKenna and Event Coordinator John McDougal recommend Ally Carter’s Heist Society for YA fans “and everyone else.” Born into art thievery and unable to escape the family business, even at boarding school, Katrina Bishop must assemble a teen team for globe-trotting adventure to clear her father’s not-so-good name. McKenna and John love this story for the great plotting and the “aha!” moment at the end, so critical to the heist genre.
- Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (Henry Holt and Co, 2015)
While we’re on the YA front, Bethany Strout, the Director of Buying at Denver’s Tattered Cover recommends Leigh Bardugo’s #1 New York Times bestseller Six of Crows. Fantasy and sci-fi have their heist stories too. In Bardugo’s magical Grishaverse, thief prodigy Kaz Brekker must pull off an epic heist that combines the concept of a traditional thief team with a fantasy adventure party. Bethany calls it “a sprawling, diverse, and magical Ocean’s 11.”
- The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg (Bantam, 2013)
Todd Grubbs of Preston Half Price Books in Dallas handed me this lighthearted beach read. Lee Goldberg, who brought us the “defective detective” in the TV series Monk, joins Janet Evanovich to create a comic duo that pits straight-laced FBI agent Kate O’Hare against witty conman Nicolas Fox. This is their first adventure together, and once Kate catches Nicolas, they team up to capture an investment banker hiding on his own private island. Todd loves the “screwball action and cinematic style.” This series has reached its sixth iteration with The Big Kahuna (February, 2020).
- The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer (Minotaur Books, March 2009)
Returning to spies, McKenna and John at Murder by the Book recommend The Tourist, and multiple starred reviews back them up. Milo Weaver is a CIA manager who used to be an Agency “tourist,” a spy without name or home. When questions arise surrounding an old case and an old enemy, Weaver must return to his old life of constant glances over his shoulder. This is a trust-no-one story that dives deep into a spy’s troubled psych. McKenna and John recommend it for Steinhauer’s “superb writing and the novel’s modern relevance.”
- 10. The Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry (Signet New American Library, 1984)
Otto Penzler of The Mysterious Bookshop brings our number ten with this final spy recommendation. And where better to go for a spy story than a real live CIA agent? Charles McCarry drew from his own experience and from the events surrounding the Kennedy assassination to create this high-level conspiracy tale. Otto calls McCarry “a poet who whose stylish prose reflected that elegant use of language.” And he says The Tears of Autumn “cuts through the many conspiracy theories with an utterly believable narrative.”