Whether it’s in novels, television series, or motion pictures, spies have always intrigued us. Theirs is a life lived on the edge, where motives are questioned, and sometimes we’re not sure what side they’re really on.
To compile a list of the most famous fictional spies of all time, 24/7 Tempo consulted numerous literature and pop culture websites, including The Telegraph, Goodreads, Spy Write, Criminal Element, Gizmodo, and Mal Warwick on Books. Though a number of these spies have appeared in movies or on TV, this list is based exclusively on books and does not include figures who appear only on screen.
Our fascination with spies is derived from their particular qualities and quirks. Bravery? Sure. Patriotism? Mostly true. And we’re drawn by the resourcefulness of Ian Fleming’s James Bond (President John F. Kennedy’s favorite); the gravitas of John Le Carré’s worn-out spook Alec Leamas; the healthy disrespect for incompetent supervisors of Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer; or the ambitions of Stella Rimington’s Liz Carlyle.
Serious novelists such as Graham Greene, W. Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, and John Banville all visited the world of espionage. Greene and Maugham worked for the British secret service, as did Rimington. Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, worked for British naval intelligence during World War II. Charles McCarry and Jason Matthews worked for years at the CIA. They used their experience with spycraft to flesh out their plots and characters. (In real life, these are the most famous spies in history.)
Some of the spies on our list appear only in a single novel, while others are in series of various lengths. While many of the novels are thrillers or gritty reads, others such as Modesty Blaise have their origins as comic strips.
Many of the spies in novels have appeared in movies or television shows, among them James Bond, Jason Bourne, George Smiley, Bernard Samson, Harry Palmer, and Jack Ryan, though their on-screen personas don’t always match up with the way they are presented in print. (These are the 30 best spy films of all time.)
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