118 of 124 people found the following review helpful
Format: Kindle Edition
Ben Macintyre is a great writer and, in this latest book, he has turned his attention to Kim Philby – one of the Cambridge Spies. Historically, this book may not offer much that is new, but it does tell the story from a different viewpoint ; that of his friendships, most notably with Nicholas Elliott. In other words, this is not really a straight-forward biography of Philby, but focuses on his personality and on the Old Boy network that enabled him to evade detection for so long. The book begins with the meeting between Philby and Elliott in Beirut in January, 1963, with Elliott confronting his former friend about his betrayal of his country and trying to obtain a confession. He must certainly have felt betrayed personally too, as he had done much to protect Philby from earlier suspicions by MI5 – defending and helping him when he was in difficulty.
This fascinating account looks at the early life of both men, their meeting during WWII and their career in the Secret Intelligence Service. Kim Philby was, from the beginning, a Soviet agent. Along with the Cambridge Spies; Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, he was so successful that his Soviet spymasters suspected him of being a double agent. As well as being a close friend of Elliott, he also became the mentor of James Jesus Angleton, an American and one of the most powerful spies in history. The Old Boy network which had brought both Elliott and Philby into the intelligence service meant that while agents were secretive outside of their immediate circle, they were horribly indiscreet within it, trusting on bonds of class and social networking to protect them.
During this book, we read of Elliott’s and Philby’s career, and personal life, including the jaw dropping appointment of Philby as head of the Soviet Section. As the Second World War ended and the Cold War began, Philby was able to inform Moscow of exactly what Britain was doing to counter Soviet espionage and, indeed, their own espionage efforts against Moscow. There is no doubt that Philby’s actions were an odd mix of defiant belief in the Soviet Union and an inability to take responsibility for his own actions. His passing of information to his Soviet masters led to many people losing their lives. Yet, despite his own reluctance to finally defect to Russia (he called himself a ‘Russian’ but lived there as an almost stereotypical Englishman) he was insistent that he had carried out instructions out of a (misguided) loyalty and was seemingly untroubled about the, often terrible, consequences. Also, although he was constantly loyal to Russia, he rarely spoke of politics. It was as though, having decided on his beliefs, he simply put them out of his mind and stayed true to them, despite any conflicting, or disturbing, evidence – such as the disappearance of successive Soviet spymasters that he looked up to and respected.
As Kim Philby’s life descended into the drama of defection, Macintyre asks whether he was, in fact, allowed to escape. Would his possible trial been such an embarrassment to the British government that he was simply given the chance to leave? However, the real core of this book is his friendship with Nicholas Elliott and the two men are almost given equal space. Angleton comes to the fore when Philby is in the States, and is important to the book, but the central relationship was Philby and Elliott. Personally, I found this a really interesting read and there is an enjoyable afterword, written by John le Carre. It is impossible to defend Kim Philby for his actions, but his story – both personal and as a spy – are certainly larger than life. If you have read anything by Ben Macintyre before, you will know that this is a not a dry and academic account, but reads almost like a spy novel. If you were not aware that it is factual, you would assume that this astonishing account was pure fiction – but it is certainly a riveting read and another well written and entertaining book from the talented Ben Macintyre.
52 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on March 29, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Why surprising? Well it is not the sort of book I would expect to be "unputdownable" but it is.
Kim Philby lives through this book as an enigmatic yet charismatic double agent whose exploits over many years astound.
If you like spy thrillers give this book a try. Ben Macintyre writes great accounts of things that happened but in a way that engages and persuades you to draw in closer. Try his other books too.
My only moan (directed at Amazon not the author) is that if you like to read the notes on each Chapter (as I do) in Kindle this totally messes up the process of tracking your last page read. Something they could no doubt correct but choose not to.
Great book - good read!
75 of 89 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a patchwork quilt of a book, stitching together the colorful bits from about two dozen popular accounts of the Philby affair. The author has a good ear for light anecdote and there's certainly plenty of dramatic material to mine. The result is an amusing story. Unfortunately it is more fiction than fact. The problem is that the underlying sources, while varying widely in reliability, average about equal amounts of truth and untruth. Picking the colorful bits biases the sample, and combining material uncritically introduces additional error.
A good example is this quote from early in the book:
"The daughter of a Russian-Jewish gold tycoon, Solomon was another exotic bloom in the colorful hothouse of Philby's circle: as a young woman she had had an affair with Aleksandr Kerensky, the Russian prime minister deposed by Lenin in the October Revolution, before going on to marry a British First World War general."
Later in the book, we meet the same woman again:
"Flora Solomon had lived a life that stretched, rather bizarrely, from the Russian Revolution to the British high street: after an early affair with a Bolshevik revolutionary and marriage to a British soldier. . ."
It doesn't seem that the author has merely forgotten that he has already introduced Flora, the descriptions are so different that he perhaps doesn't recognize that she's the same person. Both descriptions are wrong. The affair with Kerensky (who was not a Bolshevik, he belonged to the Trudovik opposition) began when Flora was 32, eight years after she married Harold Solomon. It was a ten-year acknowledged relationship between well-known public figures, not the Monica Lewinsky hanky panky suggested by the word choice. Her husband was a Brigadier, not a general ("soldier" is technically correct, but misleading in context). She was 22 when the Russian Revolution broke out, so her life stretched well before it. There was nothing bizarre about a wealthy Jewish financier with family and business connections throughout Europe leaving Russia for Britain in 1917.
At the times in question, Flora Solomon was an important woman with major accomplishments supporting both Zionism and British social policy, but she is identified entirely by her men and patronizing nonsense like "exotic bloom in the colorful hothouse. . .". Details are changed to make things more exciting. Instead of a 50-something exiled partisan in an adult relationship with a 30-something career woman, the book suggests a powerful head of State having a fling with a rich young thing.
The book never misses a chance to zero in on sex or other titillating details, at the expense of duller but more relevant facts. Even when there is no sex, it is stated in the negative to create doubt, "there's no evidence it went beyond friendship," or "some thought they were lovers, but. . .". Ordinary events are described in purple prose, often more than once, foreshadowing and flashback are used to create suspense rather than illuminate the facts, dramatic events irrelevant to the thesis are favored over dull on point facts.
I focus on Flora Solomon among many similar lapses because it is central to the author's thesis. In his view, it was Solomon's testimony that moved Nicholas Elliot and other elite public school Philby defenders from certainty of Philby's innocence to certainty of his guilt. This has tremendous implications for interpreting almost everything about the Philby affair. It strikes me as highly implausible for a number of reasons, of which I mention only that the testimony was about events over a quarter century old, was merely suggestive concerning the main charges against Philby and Solomon admitted it was motivated by spite. There was plenty of stronger evidence against Philby that had been around for nearly a decade, and there were plenty of ways to explain Solomon's testimony that did not imply Philby's guilt. I admit Solomon might have been an effective witness in a public trial, both because of who she was and because juries like individuals making specific allegations to supplement circumstantial evidence, but the pure informational value of her testimony was low.
Therefore, the only way to credit the author's view is if a deep knowledge of Flora Solomon suggested her allegations had more than surface weight. But the author doesn't know who she was, so that cannot be the basis for his judgment.
Another example of repeated material from different sources concerns Philby's possible attempts to contact his wife after his flight to Moscow. In one place we are told, "a scruffy stranger knocked on the door of the apartment on the rue Kantari, thrust an envelope into Eleanor's hand, and disappeared back down the stairwell." Later the book describes, "an `unmistakably Russian' man had appeared at her door and declared, `I am from Kim. He wants you to join him. I'm here to help.'" The inconsistencies are so great that again it seems that the author doesn't know that he's describing the same event, and at least one of the descriptions must be wrong.
With all the time that has passed since Kim Philby played his double game, and all the books that have been written by insiders and serious researchers, there are still major points of controversy. That's understandable when you consider that all the insiders are professional liars with axes to grind and potential Draconian legal penalties to consider; and that official records are classified or leaked (or in some important cases, apparently destroyed) in consideration of political effect rather than truth or justice.
The author of A Spy Among Friends claims to shed light by close consideration of the nature of friendship and group loyalty among a class of eccentric upper-class heavy-drinking inbred dilettantes scarred by early childhood encounters with Colonial Victorian holdover fathers and institutions. That might be true, but it would require far more precision and accuracy than can be gained from a spicy mélange of popular accounts.
The book is well-written and entertaining, but has to be regarded as fiction.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on April 22, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
This is an excellent, readable account of Kim Philby's life, and indeed of the whole culture of espionage from the lead-up to the Second World War, through the war years, and then into the period of the Cold War, when Russia, not Germany, was seen as the enemy by the West, and particularly by the UK and America. Author and journalist Ben Macintyre is clearly fascinated by the subject of espionage as he has written several other factual books on this topic. His research is extensive, and this particular book has a revealing postscript by John le Carre, who of course also worked in the Secret Service.
Macintyre starts his book with that very well known, and also in some ways, given the time of its writing, (1938) that very shocking statement by the novelist E.M.Forster:
"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country"
What in the end the Forster quote implies is that `country' like ideology itself, can, taken to an extreme, lead to the devaluing of an individual life. The ism elevated above the humans who live within the ism, or believe the ism. Fidelity to the ism (nationalism, specific faith or political ideology ism) can lead to the terrible things that happen when not just the other person's ism, but indeed, the person themselves, becomes expendable for the sake of devotion to MY ism.
The fascinating dichotomy in this book however, became the clash between the `club' - an upper class, public school, Oxbridge educated elite - a friendship of same background, bonded together with heavy drinking, those who were loyal to those friends, and would never betray their friends, and those, like Philby, whose loyalty was to the country of ideology. There was an extremity in both positions. Philby was willing to betray and sacrifice individual lives as he played his game of double bluff, ostensibly high up in MI6, whilst in reality, serving the KGB. But the intelligence agencies, both in the UK and at that stage, in the States, had high up individuals who were unable to comprehend that a man of `our class' could possibly be a traitor to his class, or to the politics of his class, or to his country.
Kim Philby was above suspicion for so long, not just because he was so clearly `one of us' with absolutely the `right background', but because he was possessed of fatal (for others) charm. If you look at the real derivation of the word - a charm is a piece of magic, an enchantment, a spell, something thought to possess occult power. Kim Philby's charm clearly DID `subdue by secret influence'. As Macintyre explains
"Beneath Philby's golden charm lay a thick substratum of conceit; the charmer invites you into his world, though never too far and only on his terms"
By all accounts, Philby, in that markedly English upper-class way, did not ever discuss real things - emotions, political beliefs - repeatedly, colleagues talk about him as good fun, ironic, witty - and sometimes these skilful tools can be absolutely used to parry away real intimacy,
What shocks also is what an incredibly heavy drinking culture the worlds of MI6 and the CIA were. It seems as if most of the high up personnel must either have been drunk or nursing hangovers most of the time!.
"Alcohol was so much a part of the culture of MI6 in those days that a non-drinker in the ranks could look like a subversive or worse"
The 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
The story of Philby's eventual `outing' after decades of successfully living the lie, and of how and why (possibly) he did not end up, like some lower placed double agents, tried and imprisoned, but escaped to Moscow to live out his days, is cogently argued. Some less highly placed double agents, whose `betrayals' cost fewer agent's lives lost, fewer state secrets betrayed, were imprisoned for many years - John Verrall, for example. Philby, like Burgess and Maclean, were able to flee the country - in the case of Burgess and Maclean this was engineered by Philby, in the case of Philby, it wasn't another agent, but, but ..........you'll have to read this excellent book!
I received this as a digital review copy from the publisher
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
The mind of a fanatic is amazing which is the only way that the appallijg betrayal of Kim Philby can be explained. Author Ben Macintyre's account making absorbing reading which is consistent with his past books like Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat.
I suppose the only consolation is that Philby did not appear to be a happy man when he eventually reached the Soviet Union, tha land of his dreams and died in lonely exile.
The 'old boy's network' which shielded him for so long is supposed to be a a remnant of the past so that another Philby could not happen today, but I wonder...
'A spy among friends' is excellent reading which I would recomment to anytne who wants a great spy thriller well rearched and entertainingly written.
23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
British author Ben Macintyre is an excellent writer who has written at least three other books about spies and WW2 and the Cold War. Each of them is very good, and Macintyre adds a degree of humor otherwise missing in many other books on the subject. His new book, "A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal" is another in a long line of good books on espionage. The problem with this book - and with me as the reader and the reviewer - is that I am so disgusted with the men Macintyre writes about - particularly Kim Philby - that I just didn't enjoy the book as much as his previous books.
Kim Philby was one of the great spies in 20th century history. A prolific gatherer of information in pre-WW2 Europe, during the war, and the Cold War afterwards for Great Britain, he was equally if not better at betraying the Brits to the Russian KGB and the NKVD. He was part of the "Cambridge Five" spy ring and fled to and died in the Soviet Union after being unmasked by the British Intelligence in the 1960's. (He was almost caught several times before but tidily arranged for his potential exposers' deaths so as to keep his double-crossing a secret.)
Kim Philby was part of the British "Old Boys' Network" of Oxbridge graduates from elite British families. If your father was well-known and respected, chances are you - the son - would be, too, and welcomed into intelligence work. That's how Kim Philby and many others - including Nicholas Elliott - got into the "spy business". Ben Macintyre writes well about these men and you'll probably enjoy the book. Just don't be surprised if you feel like you need a shower after finishing it.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2014
The tales of espionage and international intrigue told in film and in the pages of fiction pale in comparison to real world events. Ben Macintyre chronicles in his new book, A Spy Among Friends, the lives and careers of history’s greatest spy and best friend, Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliot. The journeys of these men from the classrooms of Britain’s finest public schools into the covert world of spy craft in the early days of World War II through to a living room in a Beirut apartment building in the zenith of the Cold War while dealing family and politics is a page-turner beyond question.
Macintyre shows throughout the book how Philby’s personality and the ‘old boy’s network’ allowed him to last so long as a double agent while also cultivating loyalty from friends in both MI6 and CIA that later supported him when it was believed he was a double agent by investigators. He also explains how Philby’s career path, behind a desk, allowed his access to vast amounts of information to send to his Soviet handlers and to be on the lookout for anything that could expose him. Yet Macintyre’s inclusion of Elliot gives the reader a view into the field work of intelligence during the Second World War and the Cold War throughout Europe and the Middle East. It is in relating Elliot’s career and exploits that one realizes that Hollywood can make good stories, but can’t compare to real life.
Throughout the book Macintyre shows the real friendship that Philby and Elliot had until the very end when the former’s betrayal was finally exposed. Throughout the book famous intelligent officers and double agents liter the pages, including Ian Fleming, revealing how many people rubbed shoulders with one another. The only thing the damped the reading of this book was John Le Carre’s afterword which was primarily selections from discussions with Nicholas Elliot who spun is own versions of events in the later years of his life. Save for that tacked on addition, this book is a must read for those interested in Cold War espionage.
I received a Uncorrected Proof of his book via LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A Spy Among Friends is both a unique and thought provoking read.
Unique because unlike many books about spies and spying, A Spy Among Friends is focused on the interpersonal facets of intelligence work. There is little discussion of spycraft or operational details. Instead, Ben Macintyre explores the psyches of three men whose careers and lives were mightily intertwined: Kim Philby, Nicholas Elliott, another elite member of MI6, and James Angleton, the legendary CIA officer. All three, over a period from the Second World War through the Cold War, were simultaneously helping each other and betraying one another. The consequences of their actions are well known; from Guy Burgess' defection to the USSR right before British intelligence was going to arrest him to the destruction of files to cover up the CIA's enabling role in Philby's activities, these three men were at the center of it all. Juggling and obfuscating professional ambition, personal life, and ideology was unavoidable and inescapable for them. Nobody, not even their own families and closest friends, knew the complete picture.
Thought provoking because the Kim Philby case is simultaneously archaic and immediately relevant in today's world. The resurgence of tension and competition between Russia, the major European Union countries, and the United States is bringing back many of the political, economic, and human rights conflicts that arose during the Cold War era. It is a sure bet that the intelligence rivalry between "East" and "West" has intensified as well, with the new twist that low-level workers who are not social elites have the ability to do as much, if not more, intelligence damage to a country as Philby did. Present day informants such as Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden would have found it extremely difficult or impossible in Philby's era to access the quantity and quality of documents they stole. Further, somebody like Snowden probably would not even have been allowed into the clubby and incestuous intelligence world of the 1940's, 50's, and 60's due to his lack of educational pedigree and social connections. These changes have significant implications for counterintelligence work that still have not been fully recognized, as shown by the failure of the NSA to contain or even perceive Snowden's activities until after he went public.
Macintyre, in any case, is a fine writer, as readers of any of his previous books already know. He writes in a clean, clear, accessible style and has quite an eye for eccentric details of people and organizations. Macintyre liberally peppers his books with these drolleries and consequently keeps his narratives from becoming dry recitations of dates and historical facts.
Bottom line: anybody with an interest in the Cold War, international relations, or the personal aspects of espionage should like this book. Four stars.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 15, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Well researched and detailed.
An extraordinary insight into this past era.
Certainly stranger than fiction.
Nice insight into MI5 and MI6
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This excellent book by the London journalist, Ben Macintyre, is suspenseful and indeed reads almost like a novel. One has to keep reminding oneself that Kim Philby’s spying for the Soviet Union resulted in hundreds of deaths. Surprisingly, despite the opening of Soviet–era archives in recent years, the book contains no startling new revelations. It does, however, contain much new interesting information about such incidents as “Operation Valuable” (an attempted infiltration of Communist Albania) and Commander Crabb’s attempt to photograph the underside of a warship that brought Comrades Krushschev and Bulganin on a “goodwill” visit to the United Kingdom. Both projects ended in failure due to Kim Philby‘s passing on of information about them to his Soviet handlers.
I don’t think I have ever read such a damning indictment of the English upper class as emerges from this book. Even Gilbert and Sullivan could not have invented more eccentric characters. Their names alone are risible. We have, for example, Hester Harriet Marsden-Smedley, a journalist who first casually suggested to Philby that he might want to become involved with the Secret Services. Then there is Sarah Algeria Marjorie Maxse, a Conservative Party panjandrum and a member of MI6, who recruited Philby on the basis of a report from Valentine Vivian (also known as Vee-Vee), the deputy head of MI6, who knew Philby’s father. Vee-Vee gave the quintessential definition of England’s old boys’ network: “I was asked about him, and said I knew his people.”
We also encounter the grossly eccentric Hillary St. John Bridger Philby, Kim Philby’s father, who converted to Islam and became an advisor to King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia. One can add Helenus Patrick Joseph Milmo a barrister who interrogated Philby and who looks from his photograph like a character out of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury.” Then there is Sir Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugesson, His Majesty’s Ambassador to Ankara, who developed the habit of bringing home official papers to the ambassadorial residence where his valet, an Albanian petty criminal by the name of Bazna, was able to copy the documents and pass them on to the Nazis.
This book differs from other books about Philby in that it tells the tale through Philby’s relationship with Nicholas Elliott, a Cambridge-educated British spy, who was Philby’s closest friend and strongest defender even after Philby came under suspicion following the flight to Moscow of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess after Maclean's exposure as a Soviet agent. Mr. Macintyre tries to make a kind of heroic figure out of Elliott. Elliott became Philby’s friend and began to worship him “with a powerful male adoration that was unrequited, unsexual and unstated.” However, it is clear that Elliott was a total dupe and just another eccentric member of the British old boys’ club who overindulged in alcohol and whose main pleasure was the telling of risqué jokes. I do not share Mr. Macintyre’s admiration of Elliott. He did not hesitate during bibulous lunches to relate confidential information to Philby who promptly passed it on to his Soviet handlers.
Mr. Macintyre drops only hints here and there as to why he thinks Philby did what he did. He indicates that Philby was not really an idealist who was committed to the Communist cause. For Philby spying was a kind of game and became in the long run a form of addiction. Mr. Macintyre suggests, correctly I think, that Philby’s famous escape to the Soviet Union from Beirut was no accident. He could easily have been prevented from escaping. However, the old boys were not all that anxious for one of their own to be tried publicly at the Old Bailey where their ineptitude would be displayed before the British public. They preferred the matter to remain concealed by the provisions of the Official Secrets Act. They therefore almost pushed Philby into making his escape.
It is somewhat galling that Philby went unpunished for his treachery. However, in some respects, his exile to the Soviet Union may have been the best punishment of all. Here was this bon vivant who loved champagne, haute cuisine and every other kind of luxury forced to live in the dull, gray and cheerless atmosphere of Moscow. Sadly for him, there were no posh watering spots such as he was accustomed to frequenting in London. Additionally, Philby was an unwelcome guest and was assigned a minder who was there nominally to protect him, but whose actual job was to monitor his every movement. Guy Burgess suffered a similar fate as amusingly depicted in the short BBC Television film “An Englishman Abroad” by Allan Bennett and starring Crystal Browne and Alan Bates.
Ben Macintyre relates a story in which there were no good players. Only J. Edgar Hoover, who has a cameo role in the book, emerges as a person with any common sense and that says it all!