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A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal Hardcover – July 29, 2014
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Q&A with Author Ben Macintyre
Q. What inspired you to turn your hand to Kim Philby—greatest spy of the Cold War—and, in particular, to examine his story through the lens of his closest relationships and greatest betrayals?
A. A SPY AMONG FRIENDS was born out of a conversation with John le Carré some years ago, in which I asked him—while walking on Hampstead Heath—which was the best untold spy story of the Cold War, and he replied unhesitatingly, “The friendship between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott.”
Q. Where (or how) did you conduct most of your research, and did you encounter any difficulties or roadblocks along the way?
A. My research was a combination of archival research, gathering material from private sources, and interviews with individuals, including some in the intelligence services. The principal roadblock is the fact that MI6 has not released its Philby files, and probably never will. MI5 [the security service], however, is much more open, and a quantity of new material relating to Philby has recently been released.
Q. In the research you did for this book, what single fact or story most horrified you?
A. The sheer extent of the bloodshed Philby unleashed by betraying Operation Valuable, the inaptly named mission to insert insurgents into communist Albania: hundreds were killed, and many entire families were wiped out.
Q. Do you think Philby’s betrayal had lasting effects on either the British secret services or their relationship with our own CIA?
A. Certainly. The intelligence relationship between London and Washington, so warm and valuable during the war, went into a sharp decline as a result of the betrayal by Philby and the other Cambridge spies: the CIA never saw MI6 (and MI6 never saw itself) in quite the same light again.
Q. What’s the most exciting thing that has happened to you as a result of your career as a writer?
A. For this book, being able to explore Kim Philby’s abandoned and derelict apartment in Beirut was probably the most atmospheric moment of the research process. I stood on the balcony, pitted with bullet holes from Lebanon’s civil war, from which he signaled his Soviet controller that he needed to flee. The next day, he absconded to Moscow.
Q. What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
A. I would love to think I would have made a good spy, but on reflection, having been immersed in this world for nearly eight years, I think I would be hopeless at intelligence work—an inability to keep a secret being one of my main failings. I suspect if I did not write, I would be teaching history.
Q. Did you make an effort to read other books or watch movies about Kim Philby before you wrote this book? Are there any others you’d recommend after reading A Spy Among Friends?
A. There are several excellent books about Kim Philby, and almost no good films. Of the straight biographies, Phillip Knightley’s Philby: KGB Masterspy is probably still the best, having the benefit of several interviews with Philby before his death. Oddly, Philby has inspired more great fiction, on the page and on-screen, than good nonfiction.
Q. What “comfort” books do you keep in order to re-read when you are in need of something really good?
A. When I am writing, I find that I dip back into John le Carré, who provides just the atmospheric lift and inspiration I need. For pure, unadulterated relaxation and pleasure: Wodehouse, Waugh, and William Boyd.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. Almost certainly, more spies. I have found that writing about real espionage offers an extraordinary backdrop for exploring all the concepts that fascinate us in fiction: loyalty, betrayal, friendship, politics, and love. The history of intelligence is opening up as never before, as more and more secret material is released into the public domain.
“Working with colorful characters and an anything-can-happen attitude, Macintyre builds up a picture of an intelligence community chock-full of intrigue and betrayal, in which Philby was the undisputed king of lies…Entertaining and lively, Macintyre’s account makes the best fictional thrillers seem tame.” –Publishers Weekly [starred]
“Gripping and as well-crafted as an episode of Smiley’s People, full of cynical inevitability, secrets, lashings of whiskey and corpses.” –Kirkus Reviews [starred]
“Ben Macintyre has a knack for finding the most fascinating storylines in history. He has done it again, with this spellbinding tale of espionage, friendship, and betrayal. Written with an historian’s fidelity to fact and a novelist’s eye for character, A Spy Among Friends is one terrific book.” —David Grann, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost City of Z
"Ben Macintyre is one of the most gifted espionage writers around. In A Spy Among Friends he weaves an absorbing tale of deceit and duplicity, of treason and betrayal. With exquisite detail and masterful control, Macintyre unveils the dark and treacherous interior worlds in which spies live." —Annie Jacobsen, author of Area 51 and Operation Paperclip
"In this spellbinding account of friendship and betrayal, Ben Macintyre masterfully describes how the Cambridge-educated Kim Philby evaded justice by exploiting the incestuous snobbery of the British old-boy network, which refused to believe that one of its own could be a major Soviet spy. As riveting as Macintyre’s earlier books were, this searing portrait of Britain's ruling class is even better." —Lynne Olson, bestselling author of Citizens of London and Those Angry Days
“Ben Macintyre has written a truly fabulous book about the "fabulous" Kim Philby—the suave, dedicated, and most intriguing spy of the entire Cold War era. Philby and his colorful Cambridge comrades are endlessly fascinating. But Macintyre tells the devastating story in an entirely new fashion, with new sources and an astonishing intimacy.”
—Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and author of The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames
“I have seldom had a better read than A Spy Among Friends. It reads like a thriller, a thriller of a peculiarly intricate and at times frightening sort, but you just can’t stop reading it.” —Lady Antonia Fraser, author of Marie Antoinette: The Journey
“The Philby story has been told many times, but never with such sensitivity. Almost inadvertently, Ben Macintyre, a Times columnist, provides a devastating critique of the British class system and the disasters that result when people assume they know people… A Spy Among Friends is an extraordinary book about a sordid profession in which the most important attribute is the ability to lie…. Macintyre’s focus on friendship brings an intimacy to this book that is missing from the cardboard stereotypes that populate spy novels and conventional espionage histories…I’m not a lover of spy novels, yet I adored this book.” –The Times of London
“Macintyre writes with the diligence and insight of a journalist, and the panache of a born storyteller, concentrating on Philby's friendship with and betrayal of Elliott and of Angleton, his pathetically dedicated admirer at the top of the CIA. Macintyre's account of the verbal duel between Elliott and Philby in their final confrontation in Beirut in 1963 is worthy of John le Carré at his best.”–The Guardian
“A Spy Among Friends, a classic spookfest, is also a brilliant reconciliation of history and entertainment…An unputdownable postwar thriller whose every incredible detail is fact not fiction…[a] spellbinding narrative…Part of the archetypal grip this story holds for the reader is as a case study in the existential truth that, in human relations, the Other is never really knowable. For both, the mask became indistinguishable from reality…A Spy Among Friends is not just an elegy, it is an unforgettable requiem.” –The Observer
“Ben Macintyre’s bottomlessly fascinating new book is an exploration of Kim Philby’s friendships, particularly with Nicholas Elliott… Other books on Philby may have left one with a feeling of grudging respect, but A Spy Among Friends draws out his icy cold heart…This book consists of 300 pages; I would have been happy had it been three times as long.” –The Mail on Sunday
“Such a summary does no justice to Macintyre's marvellously shrewd and detailed account of Philby's nefarious career. It is both authoritative and enthralling... The book is all the more intriguing because it carries an afterward by John le Carré.” –The New Statesman
“No one writes about deceit and subterfuge so dramatically, authoritatively or perceptively [as Ben Macintyre]. To read A Spy Among Friends is a bit like climbing aboard a runaway train in terms of speed and excitement–except that Macintyre knows exactly where he is going and is in total control of his material.” –The Daily Mail
“Philby's story has been told many times before–both in biography and most notably in John le Carre's fictional masterpiece Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy–but never in such exhaustive detail and with such panache as in Ben MacIntyre's brilliant, compulsive A Spy Among Friends… Reads like fiction, which is testament to the extraordinary power of the story itself but also to the skills of the storyteller…One of the best real-life spy stories one is ever likely to read.” –The Express
“Ben Macintyre has written an engaging book on a tantalising and ultimately tragic subject. If it starts as a study of friendship, it ends as an indictment.” –The Spectator
About the Author
BEN MACINTYRE is a writer-at-large for The Times of London and the bestselling author of Double Cross, Operation Mincemeat, Agent Zigzag, The Napoleon of Crime, and Forgotten Fatherland, among other books. Macintyre has also written and presented BBC documentaries of his work.
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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!
Macintyre does highlight one thing perhaps not widely appreciated, though it was previously pointed out by Graham Greene: Philby was among other things an effective manager, a leader who inspired loyalty in his team because he repeatedly demonstrated loyalty to them. While it's true that he came from the right social background, that alone does not explain why for decades he was protected by the solidarity of "a chosen brotherhood." (pg. 185) What's more telling is that he seems to have been genuinely liked by everyone at MI6, even though they separately loathed each other.
Philby may at times have suffered from having chosen to lead a double life, but I suspect he also took some pleasure in disguising himself without resorting to make-up or masks, simply relying on having the right background, a winning personality and conversational skills. A risk-taker without remotely being a Bond-like adventurer, he enjoyed deciding who would get to know how much of the truth, and which version of it. He must also have relished the opportunity to play God, determining who lived or died without his victims ever suspecting that he was the ultimate arbiter. "Victims?" one imagines Philby saying with Harry Lime – "don't be melodramatic."
Macintyre's new angle comes from his refocusing our attention on Philby's relationship with his closest friend – and fellow intelligence officer – Nicholas Elliott. Elliott was perhaps the most likeable member of the well-connected set who enabled Philby to remain undetected, if not entirely unsuspected. Whatever it was that finally convinced Elliott of Philby's treachery (the theory offered here is not entirely believable), it came as a severe shock to his system. Macintyre describes well how shaken he must have felt at suddenly confronting a truth he had so long and so confidently denied. The title of this book is "A Spy Among Friends," but a more accurate one might have been, "Intelligence Agents Have No Friends."
For a more detailed version of this review, see my blog: hamiltonbeck.wordpress.com
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!