Spies: The Secret Showdown Between America and Russia by Marc Favreau, Little, Brown, 2019, 306 pgs., $19.99

Marc Favreau’s new book Spies opens with the gripping story of a woman who’d been “born in Massachusetts and was educated at some of America’s best schools,” a woman named Elizabeth Bentley who became a Soviet spy during the early days of the Cold War. When she defected to the U.S., her Congressional hearings before the House Un-American Activities in 1948 drew a crowd of journalists, and the proceedings provoked sensational headlines throughout the country — and a steeply heightened atmosphere of paranoia, since, as Mr. Favreau puts it, “anybody, it seemed, could succumb to the lure of the communist menace.”

Americans started suspecting traitors in their midst, and newspapers “took an increasingly dark view of the USSR’s motives.”

There followed a long history of risks and ransoms, plots and counterplots, and a thousand clandestine triumphs and failures extending into the 1980s and beyond. In an ironic comment on the power of the plastic arts, moviegoers and readers of John Le Carré-style spy thrillers often have a better awareness of the nature of those clandestine goings-on than the average person. But Spies pulses with the adrenaline of real life, never faltering in either its pacing or its readability. Mr. Favreau’s characters are always well-drawn in the colors of life rather than those of melodramatic fiction.

Spies follows the story of Cold War espionage from major headline to major headline. We meet the FBI’s top spy hunter Robert Lamphere, who uncovered successful efforts by Russian spies to learn the secrets of the Manhattan Project. We meet William Harvey, head of CIA operations in Britain, who masterminded an elaborate effort to intercept Russian messages by enlisting the famed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dig an 1800-foot tunnel, nicknamed “Harvey’s Hole,” from West to East Berlin. We meet Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet airspace in 1960 (“All I could see was blue sky,” Powers later recalled. “Spinning, spinning, spinning”).

The story continues as the Cold War stretches on through the decades. In the 1970s, a complicated man named Aleksandr Ogorodnik took on the codename TRIGON and used state of the art miniature photographic equipment to steal Soviet secrets. In the 1980s, senior KGB official Oleg Gordievsky worked industriously as a spy for the West, even though “he knew well the penalty for sharing Soviet secrets with the enemy: a long sentence in a prison camp or, more likely, execution by firing squad.”

And the action moves right into the 1990s, when operatives like senior East Germany official Markus Wolf, dubbed “The Man without a Face,” walked a knife-edge of spywork even as “communism, the only way of life he had ever known, seemed on the verge of total collapse.”

Along the way, Mr. Favreau adds the kinds of colorful details most spy-thriller novelists couldn’t invent on their best day — indeed, the book inadvertently and repeatedly demonstrates that spy novelists have always been tagging along behind the lurid events of the real world, often foisting fictional creations on the reading public that were only watered-down versions of the things real-life spies encountered every day of their working lives. Whether it’s super-sophisticated equipment or something as strange as “spy dust” (an invisible radioactive dust both sides used to “tag” diplomats, journalists and ordinary people suspected of spying), Mr. Favreau’s book consistently serves up the kinds of details that are all the more fascinating for being real.

Spies is being marketed as that rarest of publishing items: Young Adult Nonfiction. The YA market is saturated with bestsellers, but they’re all fiction, usually fantasy novels and usually intensely (if often unknowingly) condescending to their readers, with overcooked plots in which a plucky and resourceful young woman only gets around to saving humanity after she’s decided which of the two young men (the cuddly safe one or the brooding handsome one) she wants to take to the prom.

Mr. Favreau’s book is therefore doubly remarkable. Not only does it risk relating real history to teenagers, but it does so without the slightest hint of talking down to those teenagers. And the result is what always happens when an author decides to write a YA book for smart, curious readers: it stops being only a YA book and becomes instead something any interested reader can enjoy.

Spies tells the hero-by-hero story of the secret battles on which the modern world was built. Adults are advised not to let teens have all the fun of reading it.