Where are spy fiction’s female authors and heroines? Thriller writers are usually male and so, often, are their protagonists, while the crime/police procedural genre is bursting with women novelists and female cops.

Judging by these recent releases — and others to come — 2020 will be the year when that imbalance will start to be red­ressed. Stephen Leather is best known for his rough-and-tumble Dan “Spider” Shepherd action series, featuring an MI5 officer operating in grey-to-very-grey-indeed zones. The Runner (Hodder & Stoughton, RRP£16.99) launches Sally Page, a junior MI5 agent. Page is a “footie” charged with managing officers’ “legends” or fake identities and back stories. But when she goes on a coffee run one morning, she returns to find her collea­gues slaughtered. Now she is on the run.

The story catalyst is similar to Three Days of the Condor, a 1975 film about a CIA researcher whose colleagues are also murdered en masse. But Leather, a former reporter, knows the world of Britain’s spooks and delivers a thought-provoking, high-octane chase thriller with style. I’m looking forward to Page’s next outing.

Humphrey Hawksley’s Man on Edge (Severn House, RRP£20.99) is the second in a series featuring Rake Ozenna of the Alaska National Guard, but it’s Carrie Walker, his ex-fiancée, who drives the story. Walker, a trauma surgeon based in Washington, DC, is contacted by her uncle Artyom, a Russian naval officer, who says he has information to pass to the west. Walker travels to Moscow to meet him, where things soon go wrong.

Hawksley, a former BBC foreign correspondent, has a newsman’s writing style that makes for an easy and entertaining read. The scene-setting is vivid, the geopolitics a balanced backdrop. He zooms in and out of the action, peppering the book with useful nuggets ranging from how to scope out an armoured personnel carrier to searching for hidden enemies: “The more normal something looks, the more dangerous it could be.” Useful advice for life in general.

Gerald Seymour is also a former journalist, a television reporter specialising in wars and terrorism. He now produces hyper-topical thrillers. Last year’s Battle Sight Zero was a lively tale of Kalashnikov smuggling; Beyond Recall (Hodder & Stoughton, RRP£18.99) is a much denser read. Gary Baldwin is a former special forces soldier, haunted by an atrocity he witnessed in Syria, who has fled to the Orkneys where he works as a handyman.

But he can never outrun his memories — especially when the Russian officer who oversaw the massacre is seen in Murmansk and “Knacker”, an old-style MI6 officer, plots his death in an off-the-books operation. The plot is well engineered, the insider detail precise, the tension ratcheted up turn by turn. But a pall of gloom slowly saps the reader’s energy. Versions of Baldwin have appeared in others of Seymour’s books. His traumatised, depressed protagonists are now veering close to cliché.

It’s a brave writer who makes his protagonist a Gestapo officer in wartime Berlin, especially one with a true believer Nazi girlfriend. Chris Petit takes the historical exploration of evil to the limits. Pale Horse Riding, a previous outing for August Schlegel, saw him in Auschwitz investigating gold smuggling. In Mister Wolf (Simon & Schuster, RRP£14.99), Schlegel is swept up in the aftermath of the failed July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, probing the mysterious death of staff in a burnt-out clinic. These are perilous times, even for loyal functionaries. The dragnet is sweeping up the innocent and the guilty.

Schlegel’s mission turns personal when he discovers that the death of Geli, Hitler’s half-niece, is connected to his father whom he thought had died in Argentina. Danger mounts when Schlegel finds a 1925 copy of Mein Kampf inscribed to his father. Petit deftly recreates the Reich as it enters its death spiral. Real-life characters — Joseph Goebbels, Martin Bormann — mix with fictional creations to build a believable universe, though more scene-setting would be welcome. In the end, Schlegel is an everyman: no true believer, but someone trying to survive. Mister Wolf is an accomplished, unsettling tale.

Adam LeBor is the author of the Yael Azoulay spy thriller series

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Cafe. Listen to Culture Call, the FT’s transatlantic culture podcast, which interviews people shifting culture in London and New York. Subscribe at ft.com/culture-call, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Get alerts on Thriller books when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article