Book Review: Ben Macintyre’s “A Spy among Friends”

Admit it: if you’re reading this, you’re interested in the sinister, dark world of spying. Maybe you’re a Bond fan, or interested in MI5 and MI6 and similar organisations? Just want to know more about the Cambridge Five? Prefer adventure, or even real life drama? This book has it all.

If you’ve read previous books by Ben Macintyre, his “A Spy amongst Friends” needs no recommendation. It’s just as great a read as his other books.

This is a historical biography of Kim Philby. It’s main focus is the relation between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott. One of my reading groups will discuss it at our February 2015 get-together. Two of us had already read it and were impressed. Not only by the alcohol-intake of these spies, but how they duped everybody.

What’s so striking is not only the scale of Philby’s deception, but that it spanned decades. It’s upsetting to read how many lives were lost and bligthed by the acts of one man. What’s also baffling is, that while in Russia, Philby still orders clothes from Bond Street.

Perhaps this shows how split he was. How able to deceive others, as well as himself. How Kim Philby actually never totally fitted in – anywhere.

The book opens with a 1938 quote by author E.M. Forster about the choice between betraying one’s country or friends. Foster puts friends above country. Philby betrayed countries and friends.

The twenty chapters covering Philby’s and Elliott’s lives and careers, are sandwiched between a prologue and “After Word”. The latter is by former spy and author John Le Carré. He knew both men.

The prologue starts with the interview Elliott and Philby have in Damascus in 1963. They have known each other for over thirty years. They have similar backgrounds, belong to the same class, went to the same schools and universities, chose the same careers. As one of their children put it: they “talked the same language”.

Now they are enemies. Neither of them knows exactly how much the other one is aware of, is guessing, is suspecting, – has proof of. They are involved in a deadly game of chess. Shortly afterwards, after about half a century of betrayal, Philby safely makes it to Russia.

Ben Macintyre tries to uncover what motived both men and why one of them became a traitor. His theory that the families in which both grew up, played an important role, is likely.  Kilby caved in and went on a drinking binge after his father’s death. But there were other influences.

The book itself is an even better read than a Bond novel by Fleming, or Graham Green’s “Our man in Havana”. Despite many facts being known, Macintyre’s way of telling this story is spell-binding. There are the clues discovered and discarded. There is suspicion. There is charm and ruthlessness. It’s scary.

Moreover, this isn’t fiction. This is a historical account of life amongst real spies who were once very close friends. This is the drama. We all occasionally wonder how much we can trust our friends and are occasionally deceived. All of us are aware, we will never know another human being totally. But none of us bargains for deceptions on the Kim Philby scale.

The devastation he wreaked was enormous. It is easy to understand how traumatic it must have been for the organisations, departments, colleagues he worked with. His defection, affirming his betrayal, must also have been devastating for friends, partners, and children.

A Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal”, Ben Macintyre, Bloomsbury 2014. Available in English and other languages as hard cover, pocket, EBook, Kindle.

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