A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

a spy among friendsEt tu, Philby?

😀 😀 😀 😀

The post-war Cambridge spy ring holds an endless and rather strange fascination – a group of men who betrayed their country and its allies to the Soviet regime for the most nebulous of reasons and whose actions are considered to have cost many lives. And yet somehow they are held up as anti-heroes, a bit like the Great Train Robbers or Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a strange phenomenon and one that always leaves me feeling a bit conflicted. So it was with a mix of anticipation and apprehension that I started to read this one about the infamous ‘Third Man’, Kim Philby (the inspiration behind Graham Greene’s screenplay for the film of that name). Ben Macintyre is a journalist by trade and has written several books about real-life spies. In this one he has approached his subject by looking at the friendships that to a large extent shielded Philby from discovery for years, even after suspicions had become aroused.

Kim Philby
Kim Philby

Philby had already become a Soviet agent before he joined MI6. Like all the spies, he would claim this was because he was convinced by the arguments of communism – but, again like them all, that didn’t stop him living as lavish and hedonistic a lifestyle as he possibly could. Rather than making him stand out, his heavy drinking and constant partying meant that he fitted in perfectly to the overgrown-boys’ club that was MI6 at that time. (Oh, how I wish I believed it was different now…) And this is really the point that Macintyre is making in this book – that MI6 in particular was filled by the upper-classes, selected not so much for their characters as their families and old school ties, and living in a kind of closed community where they didn’t talk to outsiders but revealed secrets casually to each other on the grounds that of course they could all trust each other.

Macintyre tells the parallel story of Nicholas Elliott, a loyal servant of the Crown, who was (or thought he was) Philby’s closest friend and confidant. As they both rose in their careers, Elliott admired Philby’s charm as much as his skills as a fellow spy. Philby was also particularly close to the flamboyant and outrageously behaved Guy Burgess, and won over James Jesus Angleton, who was on a simultaneous rise through the ranks of the newly formed CIA, and would later become Chief of its Counterintelligence branch. When Burgess was finally outed as a double-agent and fled to Moscow along with Donald Maclean, Elliott and Angleton were pivotal in deflecting suspicion from Philby as a possibility for the ‘third man’ known to still be operating. When the truth finally became unavoidable, Elliott was given the task of trying to get a confession from Philby – a task complicated by his conflicting feelings of friendship and betrayal.

Orson Welles in The Third Man
Orson Welles in The Third Man

I found the first few chapters of the book a bit tedious, as Macintyre would stray from the main thrust of the book to describe some of the exploits of various spies not really directly involved in the Philby story. I suspect however that these bits would appeal to someone with more interest in spying games than I have. But once the story focused on the path towards Philby’s eventual downfall I found myself gripped by it. Macintyre is a good storyteller and the book felt well researched. By the time he got to the crux of the matter, I felt that I knew the major participants well and this meant that I could sympathise with Elliott in his anger and disappointment. I was pleased that Macintyre didn’t try to show Philby as any kind of hero – he made it clear that his actions had led to many deaths, not just of spies on both sides, but of other people caught up in the games he played. He showed Philby as a curiously amoral character, whose charm gave him an appearance of warmth belied by the coldness of his actions. I didn’t feel, however, that Macintyre gave a particularly plausible reason for Philby’s seeming loyalty to the Soviet regime – perhaps there isn’t one. It seemed that he perhaps just liked the excitement of fooling everyone.

Ben Macintyre
Ben Macintyre

An interesting story that tells as much about the class-ridden power structures of British society as it does about Philby and Elliott – a class that sometimes puts loyalty to its own members above all other considerations, including patriotism. Have things changed since then? I guess it might be another fifty years before we really find out the answer to that question…

Thanks again to Lady Fancifull, whose great review brought this book to my attention. You can also see her review of another of Macintyre’s books, Double Cross – The True Story Of The D-Day Spies, here.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Crown Publishing.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

26 thoughts on “A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

  1. Great review, FF, for which thanks. This spy ring and scandal really do continue to hold such incredible fascination for people don’t they? Part of the reason I suspect is what you said about the consequences of what happened for so many people. For me anyway, part of the reason is also that I’d love to understand the psychology of people like that a bit better. One for my list, methinks. Not that it needs any additions – ahem! 😉

    • Thanks, Margot! I think Macintyre does a particularly good job of explaining the psychology of the people around Philby. I felt Philby himself remained quite enigmatic, but that’s probably to be expected of someone who spent a life lying to more or less everyone all the time.

  2. Great review – particularly the pingy thingies and the reference to Lady Fancifull. I must go and investigate her website, though she does sound a bit weird. Please don’t let her know i said that.

    Jokes aside, what i so love about the reading experience is how personally it touches people, so you could get several reviews all picking up slightly different facets.

    I do think that ‘the times themselves’ were responsible for a lot of people joining The Party (I can’t help the capitalisation), which in a way almost did not need ‘a plausible reason’ since it was a certain bedrock for those who felt inequalities existed, a theory which explained them, and a theory and a practice for change to happen. And you certainly didn’t need to be one of those exploited to feel its appeal. The complexity of dialectics very suited to appeal to intellectuals. And, I guess particularly for the young, there is also very much the appeal of being part of a secret, part of a cult, part of challenge. I think there is a lot going on both in personal, and cultural psychology. The conflicts between ‘champagne socialists or champagne communists’ and the lives of the ground down poor is no greater than the contrast between Christ and Christianity as a religion which arose from the poor and powerless, and the spectacle of (particularly in times past) fabulously wealthy clergy, neatly extracting as much of the widow’s mite as they could for their coffers!

    Sorry for the novel above!

    • Yes, she is a bit weird, but she’s Ok so long as you don’t get her started on fairies…

      I think it was the secrecy that appealed to Philby rather than any concern about inequality. He seemed to me to be in a retarded state of permanent adolescence…but then so did they all. If they just all wanted to go live on an island and kill each other, I’d be all for it – it’s the fact that they put other people in danger that sickens me. Thank goodness we’re not ruled by some elite old boys’ network any more, eh?!?

  3. Did I hear parts of this serialised on Radio 4? It’s ringing bells with me. I find that whole Cambridge group fascinating and I think I might recommend this for the one of my reading groups that will tolerate non-fiction every now and again.

    • I don’t know, Alex – the ARC I’ve got is from the US publisher so doesn’t mention it. I’m only moderately interested in the spy ring, but even so I certainly found this very readable, so I’d think you’d probably really enjoy it. Hope you do anyway!

  4. Oh this sounds like a fascinating book and I’m really not interested in ‘spies’ at all! It almost sounds like a gang of well-connected boys/men with their secrets. As you say it wouldn’t have mattered so much if their actions hadn’t caused so much destruction. I’m off to see what Lady Fancifull had to say now!

    • Yes, that’s just what it’s like! I’m not really interested in spies either but LF made it sound as if this would be more about the relationships, and she was right. Enjoy her review!

  5. Ironic that you are reviewing this on the day Chapman Pincher, who did as much as anybody to “out” the Cambridge spies, died at the age of 100. This, of course, was in the days when journalists concentrated on revealing real scandals, and not on what some celebrity is getting up to. I always like Ben Macintyre’s stuff, so (sigh!) I suppose this will have to go on the list. At least it’s the non-fiction list, which is shorter and interests me more.

    • Yes, I just heard that on the news. Funnily enough, I don’t think he got a mention in this book. But it was more about the internal relationships than the outside investigation. If you like Macintyre’s style, then I’m sure you’ll enjoy this…

    • Yes, I think half of all British spy novels are based on the Philby case! The angle of looking at the friendships made the book more interesting to me than straight spy stuff would have done.

    • Thanks, Angela! And wow! Popped through to the link and discovered it stars a young Colin Firth – sold!! I may even have to review it just so I can post a pic…or two… 😉

      • Sorry to creep!! But my spidey senses detected the name ‘Colin Firth.’ It’s not Netflix. Rupert Everett too. But young Colin is the best!!

        • Haha! A fellow fan! The film arrived today – so I might review it, though I’m rubbish at reviewing films, just so I can post a pic or two! Might even post one of Rupert too…

          Shallow? Me? Whatever do you mean…? 😉

  6. Looks like a great read! I have to check this out sometime. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

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