The Spying Game

Six - The Real James Bonds

The Secret Agent's bedside reader

The Spying Game

Book cover: the spying game

Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6, is one of the most secretive organisations in the world. It does not release its own files to the British National Archives, at Kew in south-west London, but in historical terms that scarcely matters. There is a wealth of historical correspondence between the secret service and its customers in the archives, all of it released by the departments that received the original “CX material”, as the service’s reports are known.

When I first left military intelligence – where I had worked on Middle-East terrorism and then on East Germany – I had no interest in writing about the subject. But at the time much of the newspaper reporting was based on misperceptions and conspiracy and I quickly realised that there was enough material in the public domain to write a comprehensive study of British intelligence. This was eventually published in paperback as The Spying Game. This covers all of Britain’s intelligence agencies, including histories and up-to-date information on how MI5, MI6 and GCHQ operate.

 Buy The Spying Game from Amazon (US) 

 Buy The Spying Game from Amazon (UK) 


The GCHQ satellite intercept site at Morwenstow, Cornwall

Six: The Real James Bonds

Six - the real James Bonds

The natural follow-up to The Spying Game was Six: The Real James Bonds a history of MI6 from its creation in 1909 to the start of the Second World War in 1939. MI6 had commissioned its own official history. Written by the late Keith Jeffrey, it is an excellent book based on the Service’s secret archives still held under lock and key at its green and cream Vauxhall Cross headquarters.  

But it made clear the limits on how much material was still held in those secret archives compared to the material held in open UK, US, Scandinavian and Russian archives. Six: The Real James Bonds was based on secret MI6 documents held in all of those archives plus the private papers of a number of former MI6 officers, some of which were astonishingly revealing.

 Buy Six: The Real James Bonds from Amazon (US) 

 Buy Six: The Real James Bonds from Amazon (UK) 


MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall Cross,
south of the Thames

The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader

The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader

There is one other good source of material on the history of British intelligence – books written by former spies themselves, and not just their memoirs. A number of former MI6 officers – Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and John le Carré to name just a few – have written novels that while fiction give an authentic feel of real intelligence work, indeed Maugham’s Ashenden stories are barely disguised accounts of his own genuine exploits as a British secret service officer operating in Switzerland and Russia during the First World War. I selected a range of forty different passages from books written by former intelligence officers to give a rounded view of how our spies operate and published it as The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader.

Intelligence officers have to be able to tell a very good story, whether it is in an intelligence report or in the ‘legend’ they adopt for an undercover operation. It is not for nothing that this is known as the cover story and the measure of how good it has to be is that for the author it may well mean the difference between life and death. So it is hardly surprising that, over the years, authors and journalists have made good intelligence officers, and a relatively large number of intelligence officers have gone on to become successful writers.

The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader is a selection of some of their very best work. There are extracts from the fiction of Maugham, Greene and many others; Le Carré’s first extensive description of his eponymous hero George Smiley. Nor is everything contained in the book fiction. There are extracts from memoirs from former top spies like legendary Ace if Spies Sidney Reilly, Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout Movement, and author Compton Mackenzie plus real intelligence reports and memos written by Ian Fleming, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, and other top secret agents. Amazing stuff!

 Buy The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader from Amazon (US) 

 Buy The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader from Amazon (UK) 

Kim Philby

Kim Philby, the so-called Third Man in the Cambridge Spy Ring. The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader includes one of his most important reports to Moscow.

Praise for Michael Smith's books on spies:

The Spying Game

"Up-to-date and well researched"

Oliver Robinson, The Observer 

"Smith has the advantage of access to insiders and an excellent grasp of intelligence and how it functions. The result is a lucid, methodical, informative overview of the nature and role of the British intelligence services."

Sheila Kerr, Defence Analysis

“In the fast-moving, slightly blurred world of intelligence operations it is hard for anyone to distinguish between the authentic and the dross. But Michael Smith’s The Spying Game is written by someone who really does know and understand the business of espionage. His information can be relied upon. The result is packed with good case histories.”

Nigel West, author of Double Cross in Cairo


Six: The Real James Bonds

“Engrossing... As a rollicking chronicle of demented derring-do, Smith s book is hard to beat. His research is prodigious and his eye for a good story impeccable, and his book, while perfectly scholarly, often reads like a real-life James Bond thriller.”

Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times

“Finely detailed and scrupulously researched. A tour de force in the exploitation of the available open sources plus a thoroughgoing re-examination of the published narratives in the light of these additional sources. Smith s work has, of course, always stood out amongst that by journalists because of his efforts to achieve standards of rigour approaching the scholarly while retaining the accessibility and brevity needed to reach a wider audience.”

Philip H Davies, Intelligence and National Security


The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader

“A compendium of fiction, memoir and archive material, never less than entertaining and surprisingly informative – Spectator Book of the Year.”

The Spectator

“If you crave armchair action and adventure this well-chosen anthology should prove thoroughly satisfying.”

The Good Book Guide