While only a small percentage of the information contained in the books listed below is reflected in the Mark Sava spy novels, they were essential in helping me understand my characters and the regions in which they operate. For anyone interested in learning more about any of the topics I touch on in my novels, this list is a good place to start. I have included a brief review of each book. Highly recommended ones have been highlighted in blue.
Goltz—a cult hero to many in the intelligence business, and for good reason—goes where few western reporters dare to tread. His account of the madhouse that was Georgia after the breakup of the Soviet Union is heartbreaking, hilarious and required reading for anyone seeking to learn about how post-Soviet Georgia got its start. In between careening from one booze-and-bandits war zone to another, he manages to interview half the political movers and shakers in the region; readers (and spy thriller authors) profit from it.
Kleveman has spent a lot of time in the region, and it shows. The book is well-researched from a historical/political perspective, but it also offers outstanding on-the-ground observations. Kleveman's experience as a reporter helps him present a complicated struggle over natural resources, involving little-understood countries--Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, etc.--with exceptional clarity. The chapter about Baku's oil boom was key to helping me understand and write about the city.
Fantastic book, exhaustively researched, about oil and greed in the new wild west. LeVine reported from the region for eleven years and got access to many of the top players.
An academic text in which Hiro devotes a chapter to each country listed. When it comes to the former Soviet States, Hiro focuses on the transitions from Soviet to independent rule.
Insightful ground-level account of a resourceful reporter who, as a young woman, traveled to Ukraine, Hungary, and Central Asia as the Soviet Union was collapsing.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t list a travel guide as source, but here I make an exception. Elliot’s guide is witty, extremely well researched, and has no equal when it comes to Azerbaijan. He knows a ton about the history and culture of Azerbaijan, and had been keeping his book updated since the first version came out in 1999.
The New York Times says this book, “reads like a combination of John le Carre and Hunter S. Thompson.” Goltz is crazy, in a good way.
An account by two journalists of the nearly three years they spent in Iran. Abdo and Lyons also walk readers past the milestones of modern Iranian history, (with a particular focus on the 1997 Khatami election) in a way that is more readable to a layman than the survey books on modern Iran listed below. The chapter where Abdo describes her interviews with various high-ranking clerics is particularly strong.
A highly regarded overview of modern Iran, beginning with the Qajar dynasty in 1800s, from one of the top Iran scholars out there. Abrahamian gives a better sense of the internal politics of the different eras than other survey books on modern Iran. He is reportedly a Marxist, but despite his going into class studies of the different periods, I couldn’t tell.
The subtitle Essays on the Islamic Republic describes this book better than the title Khomeninism, although it does shed some light on Khomeini’s philosophy.
A singular book in that no other looks at torture, forced confessions, and show trials in Iran as deeply as Abrahamian does here. Much of the focus is on the pre- and post-1979 persecution of leftist groups like the Tudeh, MEK and Fedayin.
Another highly regarded survey of modern Iran, beginning with the era of Reza Shah, by a top Iran scholar.
Baer offers timely insights into the potentially disastrous ripple effects of armed conflict with Iran. He particularly excels when drawing on his extensive experience as a CIA operations officer. And his theory that Iran fundamentally won the Iraq war and that, despite the Persian/Arab split, Iraq will in essence become an extension of Iran in practice if not in name, is worthy of consideration.
Bakhash’s tight focus on the 1979 revolution allows him to probe deeper into that specific era than any other book on this list.
Written by a former member of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian resistance group that originally supported the Islamic Revolution until Khomeini turned on them. The author describes the MEK’s as a personality cult which requires considerable self-abasement from its members and details the disastrous MEK attack on Iran at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. No other book out there looks at the MEK as closely as this one does.
Much of the book detailed the history of Iran over the past 100 years, but Tehran Blues does offer some important insights into youth culture in Iran.
Mostly statistical compilations. Good reference book if you need information about Iran’s military capabilities.
Much of this book was written around the time of 9/11 and as a result, is colored by the intensity of the event and the world's reaction to it.
A riveting account of a Iranian-American scholar who's arrested while visiting her ailing mother in Tehran. Esfandiari is accused of being part of a complex US plot to overthrow the regime and spends plenty of time being interrogated by the Iranian Intelligence Ministry; eventually she winds up in Evin Prison. What is striking about this book is not that the Intelligence Ministry would do such a thing to an innocent woman—given their track record, that kind of behavior is expected. No, what is truly striking is that her Iranian interrogators actually believed their delusional accusations had merit, lending insight into just how paranoid and divorced from reality the regime really is.
A fine mid-20th century history of Iran as seen through eyes of Iranian aristocrat whose family suffered at the hands of both the Pahlavi dynasty and the Islamists who followed.
Probably the best translation out there of the Shahnameh, an epic poem written written in the late 10th and early 11th centuries. It tells a mythic story of ancient Iran and is credited with preserving Iranian culture and language in the wake of the Arab invasion in the 7th century, along with helping to forge a uniquely Iranian national identity separate from that of Iran's Arab neighbors. It remains enormously influential in Iran to this day. Understanding Ferdowsi's influence, as well as that of other ancient Iranian poets (such as Hafez and Saadi), is an important part of understanding modern Iran and the tensions that exist there between national and religious identity.
Surveys over 2500 years of Iranian history, from Cyrus the Great to the Islamic Republic. It’s helpful to have all this in one volume because when it comes to Iran, the distant past and the present are intimately connected. (You go on the Iranian blogs, they’re still talking about things that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago.) This book emphasizes that long history in a way that other survey books on modern Iran don’t.
The only book out there that focuses solely on the relationship between Iran and China. Garver emphasizes that Iran and China are drawn to each other not only because of oil politics, but also because they are both ancient cultures and feel they have suffered multiple humiliations at the hands of the West.
A collection of essays on modern Iran, most of which are quite good. The ones that address the modern Iranian economy are particularly helpful in quantifying the regime’s failures, and in some cases its successes. Shahla Haeri’s essay on the women’s movement inside Iran is excellent.
Presents an account, from the Bahá’i perspective, of what the religion stands for and how it came to be.
Hiro emphasizes what he perceives to be moderate aspects of the mullah regime—an openness to business, the constitution, Khomeini’s practical nature in Iran/Iraq war, an increase in female literacy rate since the revolution, etc. He also emphasizes the role the US played in propping up Shah, the way the US used its connection with Shah to gain access to oil resources, the Shah’s repressive regime, and the awful working conditions for Iranians when the British controlled their oil industry. He provides some balance by mentioning the appalling slaughter of MEK supporters, student beatings, and the fact that women are considered only to be worth half a man in legal matters according to Sharia law. Overall, it is a book more sympathetic to the current regime than most.
Reads like a thriller. A great introduction to the 1953 CIA-led coup in Iran that even now is not widely understood by most in the US.
Madj has family ties to former President of Iran Mohammad Khatami and works as a translator for Ahmadinejad. As a result, he’s able to get more access to political bigwigs than most reporters do. He’s also exceptionally adept at describing Iranian culture to a western audience. A quick, satisfying read.
If you’re looking for a biography on Khomeini, this one is it.
A bestselling memoir about the effect of the Iranian revolution on academics and women.
The only biography out there on Ahmadinejad.
An excellent history Shia Islam, with good insights into how the religion affects both Iran and the broader region. Nasr writes with the authority of a renown Iran scholar, but in a way that is accessible to the layman.
An academic work that offers decent insights into the various power centers in Iran and how the tension between them has been reflected in Iran’s governments over the past 100 yrs.
Parsa, a sociologist, believes that the Iranian Revolution occurred because of social conditions rather than religion and ideology. He points out that the more a state is involved in capital accumulation that the more likely it is people will turn to the state in venting their grievances, leading to a greater potential for revolution and for conflicts to be politicized. The book is full of statistics to back up its central premise.
Offers a comprehensive overview of US-Iranian relations and speculates about the consequences of a military conflict between US and Iran.
Shari’ati was a university professor and writer whose philosophy tied social justice to Islam in the same way liberation theology tied social justice to Christianity. Although he was not a member of the clergy and died in 1977, his ideas heavily influenced the Islamic Revolution. This is the definitive biography of the man.
Probably the best of all the books about Iran written by journalists. Sciolino provides an overview of Iranian history and culture from the perspective of an American reporter who accompanied Khomeini on his epic return to Iran in 1979 and has returned many times since.
The Koran is a notoriously difficult text to understand. Leaving aside the fact that it’s impossible to accurately translate much of the poetic language, one needs a decent knowledge of 7th century Arabia to catch many of the allusions. And oh, the suras (chapters) are arranged by how long they are rather than in any chronological order. Sells' book is great resource if you're looking for an entry-level approach to the some of the early suras, which are a bit shorter and focused on more universal themes than the later, more legalistic ones. Comes with a CD so you can listen to some popular Quranic reciters.
More of a pamphlet than a book, but nonetheless the best biography of Ayatollah Khamenei that I have been able to find.
Taheri, an expatriate Iranian journalist, takes a particularly hard line against the Islamic Republic. Nest of Spies offers decent insights into Mohammad Reza Shah’s relations with the Republican Party in the US and his close rapport with Nixon. Details how the US was caught flat-footed by 1979 revolution.
The early chapters, in which Takeyh walks readers through the 1979 revolution and the decades following it, are a relatively easy read and offer a reasonable interpretation of events. Where Takeyh is strongest is at the end of the book when he discusses the rise of Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard.
The history of the Iran-Contra affair as told by the independent counsel charged with investigating it.
This book was controversial because many thought it gave away too many US secrets. Arkin has contacts deep within the military community and this book is exhaustively researched.
Baer served as a CIA case officer for over twenty years, much of it in the Middle East. A compelling memoir when it comes to the CIA tell-all genre.
A follow-up to Baer’s 2002 memoir listed above. He offers a general history of US-Saudi relations and is strongest when detailing his experiences as an intelligence officer in the region.
The NSA may be an “ultra-secret” agency, but they sure told Bamford a lot. He gets inside the NSA and drillsdown pretty deep. The best book out there on the subject.
One of the best CIA memoirs out there. Crumpton’s descriptions of CIA tradecraft, based on his experience as an operations officer and station chief, are excellent. When 9/11 hit, he spearheaded what initially was a CIA-led war in Afghanistan. His opinions of how the war was run are strong, well-reasoned, insightful and fair.
Devlin was Chief of Station in the Congo in the sixties when Mobutu staged a coup d’etat and as close to the action as you could get. Sure, the material is a little dated, but it’s a hell of a story. I hope they make a movie out of it.
An insider’s perspective about all that Devlin thinks is wrong with the CIA (he describes it as a risk-crushing bureaucracy) and what should be done to fix it (he advocates scrapping the whole thing and start over using the Office of Strategic Services, the lean intelligence agency formed during World War II, as a model).
Part authoritative account of a CIA operations officer’s tenure at the Agency (Ishmael Jones is a pen name) and part opinion piece about why the CIA is broken and what needs to be done to fix it.
A general history of the internal politics that’s consumed the CIA for the past few decades. The book was heavily censored by the CIA prior to publication.
Think ridiculous scenes from Mission Impossible, where spies peel off completely realistic face masks, is the stuff of fiction alone? Think again. Mendez worked for the CIA as Chief of Disguise and tells some truly bizarre tales. The most riveting is when he flew in undercover to Iran right after the revolution to help extract American embassy workers who had gone into hiding.
A ground-level account of a young CIA case officer who finds herself dismayed by all the bureaucratic roadblocks.
Priest and Arkin document the post 9/11 explosion of covert, compartmentalized military and intelligence programs—many of them run by private contractors—in the US.
The Washington Post Book World calls this book “The authoritative survey of the American cloak-and-dagger establishment.” They’re right. This is a reference book that is packed with detailed information about not just the CIA, which is covered extensively, but also every other US intelligence agency out there, whether civilian, military or in between.
This memoir stands out because it focuses on the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), an organization that serves as the military’s counterpart to the civilian-run CIA.
Riveting account of the CIA’s role in preparing for the war in Afghanistan just after the 9/11 attacks. Schroen was there on the ground making it all happen.
An exhaustive, Pulitzer-prize-winning historical account of the CIA.
And exhaustive, Pulitzer-Prize-winning account of the history of oil. The sections on Baku, and Central Asia were particularly useful to my research.
A follow-up to Yergin’s book The Prize, The Quest focuses more broadly on energy in general, and particularly excels when discussing where we’re likely to get our energy from in the future. There are sections specific to the Caspian Region that skillfully summarize the regional politics at play.
You could fill a room with books about the Navy SEALs. Many are sensational and superficial, but a few stand out:
Inside look at the SEAL training program in Coronado, California.
A harrowing, often emotional, account of a SEAL mission in Afghanistan that led to the largest loss of life ever for the SEALs. As the title suggests, Luttrell was the only survivor.
I have mixed feelings about whether this insider’s account of the mission to take out Bin Laden should even have been published, but since it was, I read it. There’s no doubt it’s gripping, well-written, and chock full of details that are immensely useful to thriller writers.
Pharrer served all over the world as a SEAL, including in Beirut when the bombing of the Marine barracks occurred. He later went on to write fiction, which means he actually wrote this memoir himself, and wrote it well.