Friday, May 2, 2014

A true story that reads like a spy thriller: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre

Crown, 2014 (July)
352 pp


"Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive..
But when you've practised quite a bit
You really get quite good at it."
My very grateful thanks to Crown and to LibraryThing's early reviewers program for my copy of this book.  There is a not-so-funny (and rather expensive) story about this book that I want to share:  I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher, but couldn't get started on it right away so I set it aside to be picked up later.  When I was ready to read it, which was like 2 weeks ago, I went to find it, and it was nowhere. It had just disappeared.  I looked through each and every bookshelf and each and every book to find it (which in my case, is like looking for a needle in a haystack), and it didn't turn up.  I went to find one on Amazon and to my horror discovered that the book is not scheduled for publication until July.  Then I went into full-on panic mode because I had committed to reading this for LibraryThing's early reviewers' program for April so I bought a new copy from the UK* (Bloomsbury, 9781408851722).  Considering the pound to dollar conversion rate, I ended up paying about $40 for my stupidity.   But I will say this: it was worth every penny I spent on it and more.  I have been a huge fan of Ben Macintyre since I read his Operation Mincemeat; I've devoured every book he's written since and have never been disappointed. And once again he delivers with his newest book, A Spy Among Friends, which is, in his words, "not another biography of Kim Philby," ... "less about politics, ideology and accountability than personality, character, and a very British relationship that has never been explored before." Macintyre notes also that the "book does not purport to be the last word on Kim Philby," but rather "it seeks to tell his story in a different way, through the prism of personal friendship..." and his work succeeds on every possible level: impeccable research, the very-well developed investigation of Kim Philby's dual character, and frankly, despite the fact that it's nonfiction, it reads like a highly-polished, top-tier espionage novel,, making it reader-friendly  for anyone at all interested in the subject. 

By now the Kim Philby story may seem like old news. There have been a number of nonfiction accounts about him, as well as fictional;  John Le Carré notes in a most excellent afterword that he'd "already covered the ground in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."  Macintyre's account, though, brings new life to this very old and well-covered story:  he sets Philby's story among friends, most notably Nicholas Elliott of MI6 and James Jesus Angleton (who had met Philby in London at the age of 24, and for whom Philby right away became "an elder-brother figure),  who ultimately became an ultra-high ranking member of the CIA. Both men trusted Philby implicitly and both refused to believe that he was a spy the first time he came under suspicion after the defections of Maclean and Burgess. As Macintyre examines the respective careers of the three high-level spies, their social interactions,  their proximity to each other over the course of their work as spies, and their ties to upper-class British society with its private clubs, the best schools, etc., he also establishes how easy it was for the trusted Philby to carry away much highly-secret information and hand it over to his Soviet contacts.  As Macintyre notes, one of the "weaknesses" within the intelligence community was how natural it was to trade information, since agents are not able to share it with anyone outside of their small circle.  Philby, a big drinker, boozed it up with Angleton, for example, during lunches in Washington DC when after being transferred there as MI6 chief (selected by Angleton himself); Angleton and Philby exchanged info while drinking bourbon, eating lobster, and having cigars at the end.  In one particular Albanian operation that ended in possibly hundreds of deaths, Macintyre notes that "Lunch at Harvey's restaurant came with a hefty bill."  Philby's relationship with Elliott was one of even stronger ties and a stronger long-term friendship; Elliott would have never in a million years banked on Philby, with whom he shared his secrets, as putting those secrets to "murderous use."  "The bond with Philby was unlike any other in his life." As the author notes, 
"Elliott hero-worshipped Philby, but he also loved him, with a powerful male adoration that was unrequited, unsexual and unstated." 

Macintyre notes that "no one understood the value of friendship better than Kim Philby," and these friendships, all betrayed in the long run, were what Philby counted on -- that, and the upper-class, scandal-hating, old-boy, old-school-tie  MI6 -- to provide the perfect cover as he also betrayed his country.  Throughout this entire book, Macintyre focuses on Philby's "two faces," his dual nature as a "double-sided man,"  where "One side is open to family and friends and everyone around them,..the other belongs only to himself and his secret work."   As much as friends and family thought they knew him, the real truth was that
"Philby was spying on everyone, and no one was spying on him, because he fooled them all."
Among other things, Macintyre also examines  the effects on the friends and family left in the wake of Philby's betrayals, the divisions between MI5 and MI6, and the results in human terms of Philby's work in passing along info to the Soviets.

While people might think that they know pretty much all there is to know about Kim Philby,  A Spy Among Friends  offers a chilling new look at this enigmatic man who used his friends, betrayed his country, sent thousands upon thousands to their deaths and betrayed the people who cared about him the most, all without even a small flicker of remorse. It is so very well written, and even though it's a work of nonfiction, the story kept  me on edge up until the last minute.  In fact, one of the most eye-opening sections of this book is at the point where Philby's been outed in 1963, and Nick, Philby's biggest supporter, takes it upon himself to be the one to get him to confess.  If this conversation hadn't been recorded, one would think it was the work of a master spy novelist.  Then, when Macintyre has written his last word, the reader comes upon a short, but wonderful afterword by John LeCarré that the reader should absolutely not miss.  In fact, anyone who's even remotely interested in Kim Philby, or anyone who has enjoyed Macintyre's previous work should not miss this book -- it is simply stellar.


  1. Nice review. You have got to stop building my TBR pile. :)

  2. LOL ! I have long since quit calling it a "pile." It is now a mountain range. Thanks, Eric.