License to Read: Realistic Spy Thrillers from a Former CIA Analyst

Posted by Cybil on January 11, 2018
Former CIA analyst Karen Cleveland is the author of this month's debut thriller Need to Know about a female agent who finds herself at the center of a Russian sleeper cell. We asked Cleveland to tell us what books correctly portray life in the CIA.


I spent eight years as a CIA analyst, working first on Russia and later on counterterrorism. I wrote my debut novel, Need to Know, while on maternity leave from the CIA. It might be no surprise, then, that the protagonist in Need to Know is a mother of young kids—I was home with an infant and a toddler when I wrote it!

In Need to Know, a CIA analyst working to uncover a cell of Russian sleeper agents makes a discovery that threatens everything important to her—including her family. The book has been optioned for film by Universal Studios, with Charlize Theron attached to produce and star.

I find books about the CIA fascinating. Because it’s such a secretive community, I think it’s sometimes difficult for non-Agency authors to write about it. And those who’ve worked for the CIA have to find a way to provide realistic detail without disclosing classified information. These are some books that I think get it right in terms of portraying what it’s like to work for the CIA:


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"Red Sparrow is an authentic look at modern spy tradecraft from someone who spent years in the field practicing it."


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"In The Triple Agent, Joby Warrick provides a powerful account of the challenges that counterterrorism analysts and operators face in determining who to trust."


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"Keeping secrets for a living can complicate life outside work, as Chris Pavone aptly describes in this engrossing novel."


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"Intelligence is a satirical take on an enduring priority for CIA analysts: speaking the truth and making sure policymakers hear it."


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"Red Cell, a thriller that centers around an actual Agency think tank, is full of detail about Langley."


Karen Cleveland's Need to Know hits bookshelves on January 23. Add it to you Want to Read shelf here.

What spy thrillers would you recommend to your fellow readers? Let us know in the comments!


Check out more recent blogs:
Rising Up: Pierce Brown on Shaping Our World Through Stories
40 of the Hottest Mysteries & Thrillers of 2018
2018's Big Book-to-Screen Adaptations

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by katwiththehat (new)

katwiththehat Karen Cleveland's book was totally amazing!


Olivia "Don't Blame Me I Voted for Hillary" A good one I read recently is Spy Dance by Allan Topol.


message 3: by Angie (new)

Angie Boyter 9800 Savage Road: A Novel of the National Security Agency
This book was written by an NSA employee and gives an extremely accurate picture of life at another intelligence agency. Even most of the events mentioned in passing, such as the suicide of a young airman or the enraged husband who chased an Agency executive down the hall because he thought the man was having an affair with his wife, really happened!


message 4: by William (new)

William Richardson I really loved Karen's book and look forward to more from her. Like the list of books in this page.


message 5: by Pamela (new)

Pamela Need to Know-
5 stars! What a compelling first novel! Surely it will win an Edgar!

WOW! Just WOW! A unique storyline, a character driven plot, high suspense, twists galore: CAN NOT get better than all that! No bombs blowing up, no super human feats, just enthralling psychological suspense at its best! Thematic issues of love and loyalty to one's family and conscience. The denouement is incredibly satisfying! A bit lacking in character development, but the riveting plot more than makes up for that! Plan on reading it on a day (and night) when you have no responsibilities because the novel is un-put-downable! It is THAT good! Looking forward to a sequel as we the reader is left with a delicious cliffhanger!

4.5 not a full 5 because of a missed (and obvious) opportunity to catch the Russian handler and prove Matt's loyalty early on.

Thank you, too, for the list of other books in this genre! Red Sparrow and it’s sequel are fantastic as well!


message 6: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen Anything by John Le Carre is topnotch spy- themed reading!


message 7: by Nick (new)

Nick Sanders Lonely at the top is still John LeCarré, mainly with the George Smiley series, but don't forget A Perfect Spy, his Almost Autobiography.


message 8: by Pete (new)

Pete Though it might be considered by some as a door stopper, The Company by Robert Littell has to be included in any list of best books related to the CIA.


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