A Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben McIntyre
Bloomsbury (2014), Paperback, 368 pages
I love espionage stories, and this is a beauty of an espionage story. Kim Philby, who spent three decades embedded in MI6 passing the most sensitive of secrets to the Soviets, is arguably the most damaging traitor in the history of British intelligence, and while I’ve read a number of books in which he’s figured prominently, this is the first I’ve read dedicated primarily to his treachery. The book focuses on the friendship between Philby and fellow MI6 operative Nicholas Elliott, who were the closest of friends from their early years until Elliott, finally convinced of Philby’s guilt after decades of denial confronted him in Beirut just before the traitor defected to the Soviet Union, determined to force a confession out of him. It’s primarily the story of how Philby used his extraordinary charm and the ties of the old boy network that pervaded British intelligence to avert suspicion from himself, playing the loyal British spy while at the same time cold-bloodedly passing secrets to the Soviets that cost the lives of hundreds of agents. Its evident that McIntyre has considerable admiration for Philby’s undoubted skill at espionage, while not stinting on showing the evils that Philby’s betrayal wrought on many lives. The story also details the tension between the two halves of British intelligence and the cultural differences between the middle-class MI5, made up of ex-police and soldiers, convinced of Philby’s guilt, and the aristocratic & upper-class MI6, composed of Oxbridge graduates and old boys of Britain’s top public schools, equally convinced of Philby’s innocence and determined to protect him from MI5′s probing. There is little analysis of Philby’s motivations, and little interest is paid to the origins of Philby’s political beliefs at Cambridge, although these have been dealt with at length in numerous other works on the Cambridge spies. Its is largely the story of Philby’s life as a spy, and how he interacted with others around him, including friends, fellow spies and his three wives. It’s a gripping, fast-moving story, as close to a spy thriller as a true-life story can come. The last third in particular, as suspicions begin to focus on Philby, is particularly absorbing, a tense drama played in the gentrified upper levels of British intelligence. No gunplay, no James Bond derring-do, but every bit as dramatic. Wonderful stuff, a truly great read.