L. Goodwater’s novels blend tales of historical espionage with another genre: in this case, fantasy. In Revolution, the second of his novels about magicians enmeshed in the Cold War, Goodwater’s protagonist Karen O’Neil visits Cuba before its own revolution, taking in the ensuing power struggle among a host of factions, both local and international.
Owen Matthews brings a host of journalistic experience to his forays into fiction: he covered numerous wars around the globe, and spent 10 years in Russia as Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief. He ventures into that nation’s past in Black Sun, about a KGB officer investigating an unsettling murder in a research city whose very existence is surrounded by the highest levels of secrecy.
Some novels about the Cold War are set on its front lines, about figures lurking in the shadows trading blows and bullets for their own side. Others, like Lisa Howorth’s Summerlings, illuminate how the Cold War shaped the lives of everyday people. Summerlings is set in Washington, D.C. in 1959, a story of friends coming of age and how both the Cold War and the legacy of World War II shaped their development.
The Secrets We Kept
Some tales of espionage involve secret codes, covert operations, and mysteries within mysteries. But some Cold War battles were fought using the arts — and one of those is the subject of Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept. It’s about the CIA’s efforts to get Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago into wider circulation around the globe — which involved getting it out of the Soviet Union, no easy task.
The Spy and the Traitor
When writing about espionage during the Cold War, sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. In The Spy and the Traitor, Ben Macintyre — whose bibliography includes a number of thrilling tales of real-life spy craft — explores the complex life of Soviet double agent Oleg Gordievsky, who began working for MI6 in 1973. His work, the shifting balance of power across the globe, and its geopolitical ramifications form the spine of this gripping book.
The Red Daughter
John Burnham Schwartz
For this novel exploring the life of Svetlana Alliluyeva — perhaps better known as Joseph Stalin’s daughter — John Burnham Schwartz drew on his own family history. (As a young man, his father helped get Alliluyeva to the United States.) The result is a fascinating look at the repercussions of power and of a person out of step with two diametrically-opposed societies.
The Soul of America
Jon Meacham’s books have delved into a number of distinct periods of American history, including acclaimed biographies of multiple heads of state. With The Soul of America, Meacham turns his attention towards moments in the nation’s history where the public was acrimoniously divided — including the Army-McCarthy Hearings, which reflected the ongoing tension of the Cold War.
Revenge of the Kremlin
Gérard de Villiers
In his novel Revenge of the Kremlin, author Gérard de Villiers uses the adventures of his recurring character Malko Linge to explore questions of post-Soviet Russia, corruption, and espionage. At the center of it is the mysterious death of a Russian oligarch living in exile — and an investigation that hearkens back to Cold War tensions.
In order to understand the Cold War, it can be useful to explore the years in which it began. In Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: Where Now Begins, the author explores the shifting geopolitical climate around the world — which includes how the United States and the Soviet Union went from wartime allies to peacetime rivals.
More than 50 years after his death, Whittaker Chambers remains one of the most contentious figures of the Cold War. His ideological journey led him to first embrace Communism and then fervently denounce it, placing him at the center of some of the most harrowing moments of his era. Tanenhaus’s biography of Chambers neatly traces the abundant complexities of his life.
Over the course of several decades, the Cold War dominated the collective psyches of two massive nations. It called to mind geopolitical tensions and ideological disputes; it also led to numerous acts of espionage, betrayal, and warfare. Even after it ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, books on the Cold War are plenteous and it continues to be a subject of great interest for numerous authors, whether they’re fictionalizing elements of the Cold War or exploring its more compelling real-life moments.
What follows is a look at some gripping stories, both fiction and nonfiction. In an era of renewed tension between the United States and Russia, looking back on a decades-long conflict that had global repercussions can be enlightening — or simply entertaining for those looking for a thrilling window into the past.
Featured image: David Turnley