A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

a spy among friendsEt tu, Philby?

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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

TBR Thursday 25…

Episode 25 – Villains!


After all this iron self-control stuff, imagine my dismay to discover that the TBR has gone up this week – to 98! How can this be, I ask myself? Is it an alien mind-control thing? Or have Amazon found a way to add books to my list without me knowing? No, no, dear reader! The answer is much simpler than that. It’s YOU!!

Somehow you’ve got past all my safeguards – the electric fences, the security lights, the bucket of water perched just above the door…even my killer guard-cat Tuppence

310110 004 - Copy

– and snuck your recommendations straight onto my TBR! It is cruel of you to take advantage of this poor weak-willed woman…so to protect other innocents from your nefarious plans, I hereby name and shame you!

Here are the villains responsible…and no surprise to see some hardened repeat offenders amongst them!

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Villain 1 – Cleopatra Loves Books!


keep your friends closeWhat would you do if your best friend stole your life? A psychological thriller…

Cleo saysSorry to scatter this review with clichés but this book is a real page-turner and an absolute compulsive read so that each time I came to the end of a relatively short chapter, I had to read ‘just one more!’ I wanted to know how both Natty and Eve would play their respective hands and Natty’s realistic reaction to being told that her best friend and her husband were an item made me root for her throughout the book despite the fact that she clearly wasn’t some perfect woman who’d never done anything wrong. Paula Daly has created a book made up of flawed characters including some wonderful secondary ones…

See the full review at Cleopatra Loves Books


Villain 2 – Raven Crime Reads!


oxcrimesA truly delectable selection of crime novelists contribute to this anthology in aid of Oxfam…

Raven says “OxCrimes is introduced by Britain’s greatest crime writer, Ian Rankin, and features pieces by Mark Billingham, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Horowitz, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, George Pelecanos, Peter James, Adrian McKinty, Denise Mina, Louise Welsh, Ann Cleeves, John Connolly, Stella Duffy, Christopher Fowler, Fred Vargas, Neil Gaiman, John Harvey, Maxim Jakubowski, Simon Lewis, Walter Mosley, Stuart Neville, Phil Rickman, Peter Robinson, James Sallis, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Martyn Waites and Anne Zouroudi with an afterword by Mark Goldring, Oxfam CEO.Blimey!

See the full post at Raven Crime Reads


Villain 3 – Professor VJ Duke!


a princess of marsAfter thoroughly ripping this classic sci-fi novel in his own inimitable style, the Prof later admitted to loving it. He does make it sound quite irresistible, doesn’t he…?

The Prof saysIt should be pointed out here that all of the characters in the story (including John Carter) go about completely naked. Now that’s interesting, seeing that the average temperature on Mars is roughly -81.5 degrees Fahrenheit (-63 degrees Celsius). I would think that clothes would be most needed, wouldn’t you? Burroughs tries to explain this away by stating that the Martians have a machine which regulates the atmosphere’s oxygen. I suppose he could have thought that it regulated the temperature as well, but I doubt it. He was probably having one of his childish and outlandish moments.

See the full ripio at The Punchy Lands!


Villain 4 – Lady Fancifull!


a spy among friendsA factual book about one of the most famous of spies, Kim Philby…

LF saysThe other fact which struck me is how young, how very young, some of these major players were at the time when they were rising to extraordinary positions of power and responsibility – men in their mid-twenties. I was also quite fascinated to discover how much the class war was played out in this country between MI6 (that public school educated, upper class often aristocratic privileged elite) and the middle or working class background of MI5. And of the rivalry and distrust between them. This was mirrored in the setting up of similar agencies in the States, between the CIA and the FBI.

See the full review at Lady Fancifull



Well, people, you have been warned!

Take special care when visiting any of these blogs as they can be seriously injurious to your TBR…