Top ten thrillers about secret organizations


We grow up with conspiracies. Even as children, we watch our parents enter a room and close the door before they talk. Our parents love us and mean well. But what of others who do not? The fear that a secret organization, unknown and unaccountable, is shaping our lives touches something deep in the human psyche. Conspiracy thrillers help us make sense of that dread. From Eric Ambler’s everymen to Robert Ludlum’s highly trained Jason Bourne, their protagonists give us hope, hope that bravery and determination will triumph over evil. Below are my top ten thrillers featuring secret organizations, all of which helped inspire my Yael Azoulay trilogy.


Ambler virtually invented the modern spy genre with this book, first published in 1939 as Europe slid toward war. His signature everyman hero, Charles Latimer, is a writer whose chance encounter with a suitably sinister Turkish police officer brings him to an Istanbul morgue. There lies the body of Dimitrios, the notorious Balkan criminal. Seeking a plot for his next book, Latimer starts asking questions—too many questions that quickly see him dragged into a web of intrigue, betrayal, and murder. A vivid, evocative portrayal of the pre-war Balkans where, even in death, Dimitrios still has a long and deadly reach.



En route to Istanbul to obtain a Lector coding machine and seduce a Russian spy, Bond is reading, naturally, The Mask of Dimitrios. The fifth novel in the James Bond series was inspired by the author Ian Fleming’s trip to Istanbul to report on an Interpol conference. But in Fleming’s book, the fictional bait—both machine and beautiful agent—have been used to set a trap. Bond has been targeted for assassination by SMERSH, a Russian counterintelligence organization. Forced to fight for his life on the Orient Express, the train from Istanbul to Europe, Bond kills a SMERSH agent posing as Bond’s colleague from the Secret Intelligence Service.



Like James Bond, Alan Furst was also reading The Mask of Dimitrios on an airplane. The muse was also traveling with him. Furst began to scribble the first paragraphs of Night Soldiers on the book’s inside cover. Ambler’s influence is immediately apparent. Reading Night Soldiers is like time travel back to the late 1930s. The book opens in Bulgaria when a young man is murdered by local Fascists. The dead man’s brother, Khristo Stoianev, joins the NKVD, the Soviet intelligence service, one of a group of young idealists who pledge themselves to Stalin before being scattered around Europe. A panoramic narrative takes in the Spanish Civil War, the French Resistance, and the struggle between the Soviet and Nazi intelligence services.


Ira Levin’s superbly plotted thriller opens with the murder of several elderly, apparently harmless men. The murders are planned by Josef Mengele, the notorious, sadistic doctor of Auschwitz. Mengele survived the war and is living in South America. Meanwhile, Yakov Liebermann, a Jewish Nazi hunter based in Vienna, gets a telephone call from a young American Jewish man, which suddenly breaks off. Liebermann starts to investigate and the full horror of what Mengele plans is revealed: the Fourth Reich and the rebirth of Nazism.


My favorite of Frederick Forsyth’s books. The Odessa is known in German as the “Organization of former members of the SS.” The file is the diary of Solomon Tauber, a German Jew who survived the Riga ghetto but then committed suicide. Peter Miller, a journalist, infiltrates the Odessa at great peril to himself. Miller is not a Jew seeking revenge for the Holocaust. Instead, Forsyth’s neat twist is to give Miller a very personal stake in the hunt for Eduard Roschmann, known as the “Butcher of Riga.”

background-658755_1920PARALLAX VIEW by  LOREN SINGER

A long-out-of-print 1970s classic thriller that inspired the film of the same name and a fine example of 1970s American paranoia at a time when government legitimacy was evaporating like the dawn mist in the jungles of Vietnam. A journalist witnesses a presidential assassination and is rapidly drawn into a conspiracy around the sinister Parallax Corporation. A fascinating period piece.


An inventive protagonist brings a new twist to the chase thriller. Ronald Malcolm works for the “American Literary Historical Society” summarizing the plots of crime and mystery novels. In fact, the ALHS is a branch of the intelligence establishment, checking what authors know about espionage. When Malcolm goes out for lunch, he returns to find all his coworkers have been murdered by a professional assassin. Malcolm then goes on the run, pursued by killers. Renamed as “Three Days of the Condor” for the film version.


Dan Brown’s global bestseller may be ploddingly written but it masterfully taps into our collective fascination with ancient esoterica and the suspicion that religion may be manipulated for others’ advantage. The book starts as a murder mystery in the Louvre museum, Paris, but soon morphs into an international thriller that pits the protagonist, Robert Langdon, against a deadly clandestine society that reaches back to the origins of Christianity, taking in hardy perennials such as the Mona Lisa and the Holy Grail along the way.


Conflict drives drama, inner conflict most of all. Jason Bourne is found floating in the sea, wounded by gunfire with a microfilm implanted beneath his skin. The number on the film leads to a Swiss bank account holding $4 million. Bourne is soon running for his life, pursued by sinister US government agents. But who is he really? Bourne’s amnesia—and identity crisis—bring a new twist to the chase thriller genre. A deftly engineered and finely plotted book that launched the Bourne series, later adapted for film.


Deighton is perhaps best known for his classic Cold War spy fiction and works such as The Ipcress File. SS GB is a creative departure, set in Britain after the country surrendered to the Nazis in 1941. Subtly nuanced, the book is one of his best works, which weaves detailed research and Deighton’s imagination into a vivid, believable panorama. Britain is gray, bombed out, and depressed, but life goes on, and Detective Inspector Douglas Archer still has to investigate murders. When a high-level Nazi official arrives from Berlin, Archer is soon buffeted by forces far beyond his control.


The Yael Azoulay trilogy—The Geneva Option, The Washington Stratagem, and The Reykjavik Assignment—is published by HarperCollins.