Among fictional spies, James Bond remains supreme. No one has come close to dethroning him. George Smiley might boast a powerful intellect, but he can’t throw a punch. Jason Bourne can, but he has all the fashion sense of a lorry driver: in five movies, he doesn’t once put on a tuxedo. The two Jacks (Bauer and Ryan) are archetypal bros and utterly dull. Ethan Hunt has charisma but his libido is frankly perplexing: he seems more turned on by the Burj Khalifa – or whatever metal structure he has to climb as part of his impossible missions – than by the gorgeous women flanking him. Bond obviously doesn’t suffer from this problem.
In truth, only one spy has ever proved a worthy challenger to 007. His name is Zakhov, Avakoum Zakhov. A ruthless Bulgarian counterintelligence operative, Zakhov lets nothing get in the way of his missions. No martinis for him: he drinks only cold water.
Zakhov was dreamed up in 1959 by the Bulgarian novelist Andrei Gulyashki, whom the New York Times dubbed ‘the Communist world’s Ian Fleming’. As it happened, Gulyashki’s hero had an axe to grind with Fleming’s secret agent. In 1966,