I first heard of this story on the History Extra Podcast from the BBC. Instantly intrigued by the whole process of a dual life, and what would bring someone to the decisions that Philby made, the little story was a great source of ideas. Then through Blogging for Books, the opportunity arose to get a copy of a book specifically addressing the issue, and I was in!
One of my tricks to get myself to fall asleep is to stream podcasts, always ones that I listen to when not trying to sleep, but give myself a ‘preview’. Usually I can drift off after a while, but the History Extra podcast from the BBC had discussed this book with the reviewer, and then with the author in History Extra Podcast. I was hooked – not being all that familiar with spies and traitors of the 20th century, the premise and the book information and perspective presented by Ben Macintyre during this interview had me making a note to purchase the title. Imagine my surprise when I was offered the opportunity to review via Blogging for Books, and took this as my second title from them.
For those who are unaware, Kim Philby was born in 1912 in India, and travelled the path of many ‘well-heeled Britons’ to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was reading Economics and History. While at Cambridge, his political interests were varied, and after university he started working to aid refugees from Nazi Germany. From here, while the information on his physical actions are well-documented, the psychological and moral decisions are less so. His unmasking in 1963 as one of the Cambridge Five, a group of well-placed individuals in the British Inteligence service that were recruited to pass information to the Soviet Union through WWII and through the 1950’s.
This book is Ben Macintyre’s attempt to lay out the information and confusing and often contrary positions that Philby held throughout his life: undermining and using political, social and even familial relationships with choices that range from morally ambiguous (as Philby would explain) to outright traitorous.
What most grabbed me in this book was the “feel”, while there is NO question that the research and facts are meticulously presented, McIntyre has a gift for weaving a story that reads like a thriller, with all of the tension and action and the undeniable questions about the ‘why’. I’ve finished the book, and am struck by how utterly ordinary Philby was among his peers and those who thought themselves friends and colleagues. In a way, an indictment of the “right sort of people” approach that was (and still is) common in societies with defined social hierarchies, Philby stands as a testament to never judging a book by its cover. I still haven’t decided if Philby was successful because he viewed the whole political situation as a chess game with him the master, or if his outstanding ordinariness in his upper-crust life presented him as a person of low risk. It is impossible to definitively grasp the “why”, no matter how diligent the research, but as a study of one man gone wrong, and the friends and friendships destroyed with questionable gains, this is a wonderfully compelling tale.
Title: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: Historical Non-Fiction, Non Fiction
Published by: Crown, Random House
Source: Blogging for Books
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Master storyteller Ben Macintyre’s most ambitious work to date offers a powerful new angle on the twentieth century’s greatest spy story
Kim Philby was the greatest spy in history, a brilliant and charming man who rose to head Britain’s counterintelligence against the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War—while he was secretly working for the enemy. And nobody thought he knew Philby like Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s best friend and fellow officer in MI6. The two men had gone to the same schools, belonged to the same exclusive clubs, grown close through the crucible of wartime intelligence work and long nights of drink and revelry. It was madness for one to think the other might be a communist spy, bent on subverting Western values and the power of the free world.
But Philby was secretly betraying his friend. Every word Elliott breathed to Philby was transmitted back to Moscow—and not just Elliott’s words, for in America, Philby had made another powerful friend: James Jesus Angleton, the crafty, paranoid head of CIA counterintelligence. Angleton's and Elliott’s unwitting disclosures helped Philby sink almost every important Anglo-American spy operation for twenty years, leading countless operatives to their doom. Even as the web of suspicion closed around him, and Philby was driven to greater lies to protect his cover, his two friends never abandoned him—until it was too late. The stunning truth of his betrayal would have devastating consequences on the two men who thought they knew him best, and on the intelligence services he left crippled in his wake.
Told with heart-pounding suspense and keen psychological insight, and based on personal papers and never-before-seen British intelligence files,A Spy Among Friends is Ben Macintyre’s best book yet, a high-water mark in Cold War history telling.
A copy of this title was provided via Blogging for Books for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.