Was Kim Philby the greatest spy ever?

kim philbyMention his name in the halls of the CIA or MI6, and you’ll get a decidedly frosty reaction. Your reception at the successor to the KGB will be quite different. You can guess whose side he was on.

Kim Philby is indisputably one of the most successful spies whose identity has ever been revealed. For nearly three decades, from his recruitment as a Soviet spy as an undergraduate at Cambridge in the early 1930s to his flight from Beirut to Moscow in 1963, he fed mountains of sensitive information to his handlers in Moscow. Yet he operated with such skill and aplomb that he was for a number of years considered to be a shoo-in as the successor to “C,” the director of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.


A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre

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Though he began his secret work in 1934 or even earlier, Philby first came under active suspicion in 1951 for having tipped off two other Soviet spies in time for them to escape from certain capture and flee to the USSR. However, his superiors and his friends remained so firmly convinced of his innocence despite a huge volume of circumstantial evidence that they undertook a high-profile campaign in his defense that helped to put off his capture for a dozen more years. All this, despite decades of prodigious consumption of alcohol that would have dangerously loosened the tongue of virtually any other human being.

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The Soviet postage stamp that featured Philby’s likeness in 1990

A Spy Among Friends tells Philby’s oft-told story in a new way, focusing on his relationships with the two long-term friends with whom he was closest: Nicholas Elliott, a colleague and contemporary at MI6, and a slightly younger American, James Jesus Angleton, the legendary head of counterintelligence at the CIA from 1954 to 1975. Each of these men is worthy of a book in his own right; in fact, Angleton has been the subject of criticism and conjecture in numerous books over the decades. Ben MacIntyre weaves their stories together with consummate skill.

MacIntyre is a proficient researcher and a gifted storyteller. A book on this topic — so far as we know, the greatest calamity in the annals of Western espionage — could easily become a dreadful bore, riddled with strident rhetoric and recriminations. But MacIntyre tells the tale so straightforwardly and injects so many telling details and so much local color that it’s a genuine pleasure to read. And if you’re like me and you enjoy learning about the fabled eccentricities of English “gentlemen” with names like Sir Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugessen, you’ll love this book. So many of the characters who crossed paths with Philby over the years were true originals. I found myself laughing out loud more often than I could possibly recount.

Incidentally, the Afterword by John Le Carre is not an afterthought typical of these devices. It’s well worth reading — but not before the body of the book, only afterward, as intended.

For further reading

Ben MacIntyre writes about crime, too, but is best known for his books on espionage — for the most part, British espionage. His earlier books about spies have included Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal; Double-Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies; and Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory. I’ve read and been enthralled by all three. (I’ve linked the title of the last two to their reviews on this blog.)

This is one of the many good nonfiction books about national security reviewed here and of 20 good nonfiction books about espionage.

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to Great biographies I’ve reviewed: my 10 favorites, of which this book is one.

You might also be interested in seeing my post, 20 good nonfiction books about espionage. This book is one of the 20. Also, this book is included in my list of The 10 best books of 2016.

You may also enjoy browsing through 100 good nonfiction books about history, including my top 20.

Enjoy reading general nonfiction? Here is my list of The 10 most memorable nonfiction books of the decade.

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