Churchill called the cryptanalysts of Bletchley Park ‘the geese who laid the golden eggs and never cackled’ or simply his ‘hens’

The Government Code and Cypher School (GC & CS) was established after the First World War, and during the Second World War its ultra secret home was at Bletchley Park. After the war it morphed into GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) one of the three UK Intelligence Agencies. In cooperation with the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), the organisation’s brief includes dealing with cyber attack, international terrorism, a major industrial accident or natural disaster, and international military crises.


Spy vs Spy

An overview of some of the best writers of espionage and their books! (Plus a little background)

During WWII, Churchill arranged for a daily box of enemy intercepts to be sent to him. ‘Churchill alone in Downing Street possessed the key to it [the buff-coloured box] which he kept on his personal key ring. Even his private secretaries had no idea what mysterious secrets the box contained.  

'At the prime minister’s personal insistence the Whitehall circle who shared the secret of his “golden eggs” was limited to about thirty of those most closely concerned with the direction of the war, and included only half a dozen of his thirty-five ministers.’ Christopher Andrew, Secret Service: the making of the British intelligence community.



Alan Furst, Graham Greene, John Lawton

Alan Furst – USA/France/UK

The Author: Alan Furst is the author of twelve highly acclaimed espionage novels and is widely recognised as the master of the historical spy novel. Nancy Pate of the Orlando Sentinel, in reviewing The World at Night, said: ‘Some books you read. Others you live. They seep into your dreams and haunt your waking hours until eventually they seem the stuff of memory and experience. Such are the novels of Alan Furst, who uses the shadowy world of espionage to illuminate history and politics with a gripping immediacy.’

Alan Furst was born in New York and, in addition to his novels, has written extensively for magazines and newspapers such as Esquire and the International Herald Tribune. He travelled widely as a journalist in Eastern Europe and Russia, lived for long periods in France, especially Paris, and currently lives on Long Island. For more about Alan’s books, visit his website at

The Books include: Night Soldiers (1988: reissued 2009); Dark Star (1991: reissued 2009); The Polish Officer (1995: reissued 2008.); The World at Night (1996: reissued 2009.); Red Gold (1999: reissued 2009.); Kingdom of Shadows (2000: reissued 2009.); Blood of Victory (2003: reissued 2008.); Dark Voyage (2004: reissued 2008.); The Foreign Correspondent (2006); The Spies of Warsaw (2008), the TV Book Club choice; Spies of the Balkans (2010); Mission to Paris (2012).

Watchwords best pick: The Spies of Warsaw (2008). It is 1937 and the threat of war hangs over Europe. In Poland, Colonel Jean-François Mercier (a decorated hero of the First World War) moves between the diplomatic salons and back alleyways of Warsaw, working in the shadows while surrounded by spies and other venal and dangerous characters.

Jean-François begins a passionate affair with Anna, a Parisian lawyer of Polish descent, but is inexorably drawn into a world of abduction and intrigue as French and German operatives desperately search for the intelligence that will give them the upper hand in the forthcoming conflict. (NOTE: This novel was the TV Book Club choice and was made into a TV miniseries starring David Tennant as Jean-François.) 

Graham Greene – UK

The Author: Graham Greene’s long life (1904–1991) spanned almost the whole of the twentieth century and he is regarded as one of its greatest novelists. After being educated at Berkhamsted School and Balliol College, Oxford, he became sub-editor of the London Times, and began to attract attention with his fourth book Orient Express.

During the war Greene worked for the British secret service in Sierra Leone and later travelled widely as a journalist, which served as background for such novels as The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, and Travels with My Aunt. Most of Graham Greene’s novels have been filmed, including The Third Man, which he first wrote as a screen treatment.

The Books include: The Third Man; Our Man in Havana; The Human Factor; Stamboul Train; The Spy’s Bedside Book (with brother Hugh Greene), a fascinating compendium of all things spy; A Gun For Sale; The Confidential Agent; The Tenth Man; The Honorary Consul; The Quiet American; The Fallen Idol; The Heart Of The Matter; Orient Express; The Comedians; The Ministry Of Fear. (NOTE: You might also enjoy Greene’s other acclaimed works such as Brighton Rock; The End of the Affair; The Captain and the Enemy and Travels with My Aunt.)

Watchwords best pick: The Third Man. Graham Greene's brilliant recreation of post-war Vienna, a ‘smashed dreary city’ occupied by the four Allied powers. Rollo Martins, a second-rate novelist, arrives penniless to visit his friend and hero, Harry Lime. But Harry has died in suspicious circumstances, and the police are closing in on his associates... Just how crooked was Harry Lime, and what does this mean for Rollo’s survival?

On the other hand, we confess to a guilty affection for Our Man in Havana, possibly because of our fondness for the film directed by Carol Reed and released in 1959, which starred Alec Guinness, Maureen O’Hara and Burl Ives. Although some people feel that this novel is not up to Greene’s usual literary standard, surely an author’s allowed to have a joke occasionally, and this is Greene’s.

Jim Wormold, an expatriate Englishman who lives in pre-revolutionary Havana with his teenage daughter Milly, is the owner of a vacuum cleaner shop. Alas, sales are down and his daughter has reached an expensive age. Wormold therefore accepts Hawthorne's offer of $300-plus a month and becomes Agent 59200/5, MI6's man in Havana. To keep the job, he pretends to recruit sub-agents and keeps sending in fake stories but, much to his dismay, the stories begin to become disturbingly true.

John Lawton – UK

The Author: John Lawton is the director of over forty television programmes, author of a dozen screenplays, quite a few children’s books and several addictive wartime Inspector Troy novels. Lawton’s work has earned him comparisons to John le Carré and Alan Furst, but typically he takes no notice of that.

Mr Lawton describes his life thusly: ‘John Lawton was born in Derbyshire into a happy family, from whose bosom he was rudely thrust into the hands of demons, bred in one of the innermost circles of hell and known as “schoolteachers”. He escaped from their clutches and has spent the rest of his life attempting to subvert or destroy everything they stood for.’

Not only that but also: ‘John Lawton is a degenerating misanthrope who lives in a remote hilltop village in Derbyshire. He is not entirely sure why. He likes T.C. Boyle, Chuck Palahniuk and Cormac McCarthy—and considers the seminal text of our time to be Myron by Gore Vidal. He is keen on the cultivation of the onion and obscure varieties of potato. He hates Tories, teachers and travel (in that order), but loves to visit Arizona, Florence…New York…’

Whether Lawton likes it or not, praise for his writing is regularly heaped upon him. Mike Ripley of the Birmingham Post is a case in point: ‘John Lawton has created, in Freddie Troy one of the most intriguing detectives in modern crime fiction…Lawton’s writing is hypnotic…he deserves to be ranked with the best’

The Books include: The Troy novels in chronological order: (1) Second Violin (2007); (2) Riptide (2001); (3) Black Out (1995); (4) Old Flames; (5) Blue Rondo (2005); (6) A Little White Death; (7) A Lily of the Field. Non-Troy standalone novels include: 1963; Sweet Sunday; Flesh Wounds; Bluffing Mr Churchill; Then We Take Berlin. (NOTE: It’s not necessary to read the Troy novels in sequence to follow the plots, but it does help to explain cause and effect relating to ongoing characters if you do.)

Watchwords best pick: Second Violin (2007). It is 1938 and Frederick Troy has been newly promoted to CID when Hitler invades Austria. Troy’s big brother Rod is covering Berlin for the Post and cannot wait to get to Vienna. Meanwhile the Germans are robbing the Jews blind. They want them to leave but put every possible obstacle in their way…they sail down the Danube…they crowd into boxcars.

Professor Sigmund Freud leaves first class with a US Secret Service Escort [this is fiction: Freud was actually rescued from Vienna by Professor Ernest Jones, subsequently Freud’s biographer, and himself the subject of a biography by Brenda Meddox]. By the time Rod arrives in Vienna it is mayhem – Kristallnacht. Rod risks his life to help a nobody; a tailor called Joseph Hummel. 






Pictured above from L. to R. Sir Winston Churchill, the Enigma machine rotors, a group of codebreakers at Bletchley Park. Churchill followed a wide range of intelligence activities with close attention, but no section of the intelligence community captured his imagination more than Bletchley Park. The ‘emergency list’ prepared by GC & CS before the war included clever undergraduates (mostly from arts faculties) as well as more senior ‘professor types’. ‘The first wave of “professor types” who arrived at Bletchley Park was composed mainly of linguists, classicists and historians; it also included two brilliant Cambridge mathematicians: Alan Turing of King’s and Gordon Welchman of Sidney Sussex College. During the first year of the war it was Turing and Welchman, building on the earlier work of the Poles and the French, who made the crucial breakthroughs in the solution of Enigma.’ Christopher Andrew, ‘Secret Service: the making of the British intelligence community’.