Title:                      The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader

Author:                  Michael Smith

Smith, Michael (2014). The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader: A Compendium of Spy Writing. London: Biteback Publishing

OCLC:    909112877




  • Interest in spies and spying has rarely been higher than it is today. This collection of classic fiction and nonfiction from spies and spy-writers provides a unique insight into the imaginary and the real worlds of espionage and its practitioners. Editor Michael Smith is a former intelligence officer and one of the leading authorities on the history of spies. He has collected a series of thrilling and absorbing stories told by some of the greatest spies and spy writers in this one collection. Daring wartime plans devised by Ian Fleming to steal an Enigma machine for the Bletchley Park code breakers sit side by side with reports from MI6 traitor Kim Philby to Moscow Centre, operations in Bolshevik Russia by Sidney Reilly, the original Ace of Spies, and the literary spy stories of Joseph Conrad and Erskine Childers. Each article or extract is accompanied by an expert introduction from Smith. Stories of espionage never cease to engage and enthral. Smith deftly uses his own experience and that of the many contributors to lead the reader through the fascinations of the secret world.

Date Posted:      December 5, 2016

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[2]

In 1957, the Greene brothers—Graham and Hugh—edited The Spy’s Bedside Book in which, among other things, they suggested that espionage services of the time recommend that their officers acquaint themselves with public literature on the subject to improve their skills. Intelligence writer Michael Smith follows in the footsteps of the Greenes and, despite the implied limitations in the title, aims to include in the book’s readership those who are not spies.

The 44 selections in this Bedside Reader include both fiction and non-fiction. All authors had a connection with the British intelligence services, though in some cases (as with William Le Queux, for example), the connection was the influence their fiction had on the profession in the early 20th century since they were never in a service themselves.

A few samples of the entries will convey their scope. Some come from a familiar pen. Ian Fleming probably heads that list—Childers and Maugham are also there—and Smith has chosen samples of his wartime writings to show that the foundations for James Bond were solid. On the less-known side, one finds the comments by the world-class misogynist, Sir Basil Thomson of Scotland Yard, and his views on the value of female agents. A contribution from former MI5 officer Harry Hunter’s Watcher’s Handbook explains the surveillance techniques he developed and implemented; Anthony Blunt was also impressed and gave a copy to Soviet intelligence. A selection written by Kim Philby came from the KGB archives. The entry by Graham Greene is from The Human Factor[3], one of the finest counterintelligence novels ever written. Le Carre’s brief “History of George Smiley” is taken from an earlier book, Call for the Dead[4], and is a reminder that Smiley existed before Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy[5]. The final contribution, “Uncommon Enemy,” was written by Alan Judd before he left MI6 and will encourage the reader to seek out his later novels.

The selections are a few pages at most, and each is preceded by introductory comments about the author and the source of the material. The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader is good reading, whether in bed, on a plane, or just sitting by the fire at home.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 3, Fall/Winter 2015, p. 117). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov

[3] Greene, Graham (1978, 2008). The Human Factor. New York: Penguin Books

[4][4] Le Carré, John [pseud. for David John More Cornwall] (1962, 2102). Call for the Dead. New York : Penguin Books

[5] Le Carré, John (1974). Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. London: Hodder and Stoughton


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s