Book Box | Why we need spy stories - Hindustan Times

Book Box | Why we need spy stories

May 25, 2024 06:42 PM IST

From spotting the liar, to sharpening our intuition, reading spy stories is a fun way to pick up smart skills

Dear Reader,

Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre(Sonya Dutta Choudhury ) PREMIUM
Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre(Sonya Dutta Choudhury )

We need spy stories to exercise our intuitive brains. These stories are like life-sized puzzles — through the twists and turns of the plot, we scan behavioural patterns of the characters, their reactions and micro-reactions and pick out the incongruities. All this leads us to ask the questions: Who do we trust and who do we look out for?

We need spy stories for a masterclass in the art of wearing masks and deception to look through the masks people around us put on. Robert Greene has a wonderful chapter in his The Laws of Human Nature about the masks human beings wear and how to see past them. Reading a spy novel is an extremely pleasurable way to learn how to do this. Spies must wear their masks all the time, with close friends and relations as well.

We need spy stories to understand the real truths of history and geopolitics. For the true story of the drug trade in Afghanistan, for instance, read The Cobra by Fredrick Forsyth, for the unvarnished realities of the Cold War, read John le Carre and The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre, and for the secret stories about Israel read Mossad: The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service as well as the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel D’Silva.

We need spy stories to teach us the survival skills of keen observation, to train our senses to be razor sharp to all movement, to mal-intentions, to scan our horizons and ensure our exits are always open, to imprint the topography of a place on our brains, exercising the spatial skills necessary for human survival, achieving all these tautening and tightenings whilst we sit in our armchairs reading the cat and mouse games of spies, our neurons mirroring what our spy story protagonists are experiencing — tension, terror and triumph.

The Spy and the Traitor(Sonya Dutta Choudhury)
The Spy and the Traitor(Sonya Dutta Choudhury)

We need spy stories to catapult us across the world — from a safe house in Honolulu to a skyscraper in Singapore, and from there on a Cessna flight to a hideout in the Malaysian jungle.

We read spy stories for the spies themselves — the incredible panoply of personalities — the world-weary Smiley, the slow horse spooks of Slough House in the novels of Mick Herron, the Agency operatives, the contractor killer spies for hire, the female assassins and the outlier true life spy like my namesake — Agent Sonya. You can read all about her in the book by Ben Macintyre.

We read spy stories to understand what drives a human being to live this double life — is it James Bond-like glamour? Is it the adrenaline rush of living a life on the edge? Or is it the idealism of belief, of an idea or a cause, like the World War II female spies in The Alice Network by Kate Quinn? Perhaps, it is the feeling of being wronged by society, of being sidelined and made to feel small thus becoming a spy as a secret way to get back by betraying a world that hasn’t recognized you. Or perhaps it is much baser – simply the extra money.

We also read spy stories for that most powerful of human emotions - for hope. In a chaotic world where might is right, it is the lowly spy, the single idealistic woman who can use her brains and her daring to turn the tide of battle, thus changing the course of history or the single man who averts a possible war, like Oleg Gordievsky in The Spy and the Traitor.

If these reasons persuade you to read a spy story or two this weekend, begin with The Scarlet Papers, a witty combination of the old-world spy thriller with a fast-paced modern plot which centres around Scarlet King, the legendary female spy, who is now 92 and wants to publish her memoirs, stirring up a scramble in intelligence services of the world, all of whom are desperate to stop this from happening.

Birdwatching by Stephen Alter(Sonya Dutta Choudhury )
Birdwatching by Stephen Alter(Sonya Dutta Choudhury )

And if you’d rather begin closer home, Birdwatching by Stephen Alter is a brilliant bet. Its pleasantly paced storytelling has a great sense of atmosphere, as the action moves from Lutyens Delhi to the North East, with spooks and other colourful characters. And then there are the birds.

Next week, I bring you a chat with the greatest spy storyteller of them all: the bestselling author and journalist Ben Macintyre, where he talks about his many conversations with real-life spies, including spies in the subcontinent.

Until then, Happy Reading.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at

Books referred to in this edition of Book Box

The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene

The Cobra by Fredrick Forsyth

Mossad: The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service by Michael Bar-Zohar

The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre

Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

The Scarlet Papers by Matthew Richardson

Birdwatching by Stephen Alter

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