“…I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a novel.” – A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre

August 31, 2014 at 4:53 pm (Book review, books)

The above quote is from the New York Times review by Walter Isaacson.  Here’s the context:

When devouring this thriller about Kim Philby, the high-level British spymaster who turned out to be a Russian mole, I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a novel. It reads like a story by Graham Greene, Ian Fleming or John le Carré, all of whom make appearances, leavened by a dollop of P. G. Wodehouse. But, in fact, “A Spy Among Friends” is a solidly researched true story. The London journalist Ben Mac­intyre, who has written nine previous histories chronicling intrigue and skulduggery, takes a fresh look at the grandest espionage drama of our era. And like one of his raffish characters relaxing around the bar at White’s, that venerable clubhouse of England’s old boys’ network, he is able to play the role of an amusing raconteur who can cloak psychological and sociological insights with dry humor.

Final jacket.JPG  Well, that pretty much says it all about this riveting story. One of Ben Macintyre’s biggest challenges is to penetrate Philby’s disguise and get to the truth about the complex psyche of a man who fooled just about everyone he met. Underneath the guise of the bon viveur, party going heavy drinker, empathetic friend and confidante, husband to four different women (!), was a man who betrayed those same friends, wives, and colleagues in M16 and other intelligence agencies (including the newly formed CIA) – not once, but over and over again.

Beneath Philby’s golden charm lay a thick substratum of conceit; the charmer invites you into his world, though never too far and only on his terms. The English love their secrets, the knowledge that they know a little more than the man standing next to them; when that man is also a secret keeper, it redoubles what Trevor-Roper called “the exquisite relish of ruthless, treacherous private power.” Philby tasted the drug of deception as a youth and remained addicted to infidelity for the rest of his life.

One of the pleasures of A Spy Among Friends is encountering the famous, and infamous, in its pages. Of course Donald McLean, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt – the other members of the so-called Cambridge spy ring – are present and accounted for. And there’s James Jesus Angleton of the CIA, whose unshakeable belief in Philby’s loyalty resulted in plenty of missteps and damage. But there are many more: not only the distinguished Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper but Graham Greene, Ian Fleming – even German journalist Jona von Ustinov, father of actor and writer Peter Ustinov, and Miles and Lorraine Copeland, parents of Stewart Copeland, drummer for the rock group known as the Police – all appear in these pages.

It’s a tale of daunting complexity, but if you stick with it, the rewards are great. The book eventually becomes unputdownable. I ended by pushing everything else to one side so I could race to the conclusion. Macintyre knows how to tell a story so that you’re kept on the edge of your seat. And all the while, his sense of irony is alive and well. Here’s his description of M15’s surveillance unit, known as the Watchers:

They were expected to dress in trilby hats and raincoats and communicated with one another by hand signals. They stood on street corners, watching and trying to appear inconspicuous. They looked, in short, exactly like surveillance agents.

Sometimes fact really does outdo fiction….


In 2006, William Boyd, whose novel Restless I very much enjoyed, wrote an extremely perceptive article on Kim Philby for The Guardian. I highly recommend A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre.

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