Genre Guide: Spy Fiction

By Employee(s) of Universal Studios (Photograph in possession of SchroCat) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Employee(s) of Universal Studios (Photograph in possession of SchroCat) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Spy fiction is a sub-genre of mysteries and thrillers. For a novel to be considered spy fiction, some form of espionage must be present in the plot. This can include one person as a spy, or a whole agency of spies.  Spy fiction can be set in the present day, past, and future. When spy fictions are written for teens, the protagonist or protagonists are often inexperienced and considered amateur sleuths.

Authors to Know

Spy fiction must have action and adventure. Though some have it outright, others may have more of a cerebral approach.  The main character or characters have a mission that is given to them at the start of the story.  This can be a mission that they adopt themselves or one that is handed to them by a higher-up.  Oftentimes, spy fiction involves some kind of political entity, either employing the spy or working against them. In spy fiction, good and bad parties are clearly defined.  Most often, we are receiving the story from the good guy’s point of view, and that good guy is the spy.   However, readers must always beware of the double agent!  Unless part of a series, most spy fiction novels end with justice.  However, before justice is carried out the reader is usually led on a series of twists and turns and kept guessing as to if the main character will be victorious in the end.  Spy fictions are usually set in the past, alternate past, or present, and rarely are they set in the future.

The appeal of spy fiction comes from the reader wanting to be  challenged to solve the mystery along with the main character(s).  For spy fiction, the main character(s) are also an appeal factor for readers.  Teens will gravitate to spy fictions if they like a certain main character (usually as part of a series), or a character from history (Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, etc).  The action, adventure, and high emotions of the spy fiction stories also draw readers in, as well as the idea that the main characters can be average teens with above average abilities and reasoning skills.

Spy Fiction has a wide range of readers, depending on the themes of the book.  This genre, however, can attract more guy readers based on the themes and main characters.

One trend for spy fiction is Spy-Fi, or the blending of spy fiction and science fiction.  This is usually most seen in the gadgets that the spy uses while solving the mystery, but can also be seen in the setting.  One of the most successful trends of spy fiction written for teens, however, is the use of historical figures or characters and building a whole new series around them as young people–when they were amateur sleuths.


Reference Books

  • Make Mine a Mystery: A Reader’s Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction by Gary Warren Niebuhr (Libraries Unlimited, 2003).
  • Mind-Bending Mysteries and Thrillers for Teens: A Programming and Readers’ Advisory Guide by Amy J. Alessio (American Library Association, 2014).

Most teen publishers publish mysteries for teens.  Notably, Soho Teen, a new imprint of Soho Press, is currently publishing books for teens with a focus on mysteries and thrillers.

Awards for spy fiction will be included in the umbrella of awards given to mysteries and thrillers:

The Edgar Awards, includes a young adult award.

The Agatha Awards also has a young adult award.

The Thriller Awards, presented by the International Thriller Writers, has a young adult award.

Recommended Titles

— Colleen Seisser, currently reading In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang