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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
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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!
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
What a great story, and Macintyre does a great job telling this 30 year long spy story. Unbelievable deception, but TRUE!Published 1 day ago by Kevin D. Monroe
Review of Macintyre’s A spy among friends by Paul F. Ross
Spy stories have to be fascinating (“How do they do it? Read more
Wonderful and somewhat tragic story about the divisiveness of ideology. Two men with nearly identical backgrounds but one had a secret. Read morePublished 4 days ago by Donald Van Bomel Jr.
Beautifully written and meticulously researched. Reads like a novel and proves that real life is stranger than fiction some times.Published 4 days ago by Liath
This might be the definitive story of Kim Philby. Amazing how he lasted from the 1930's into the 1960's, before defecting to Russia. Great readPublished 8 days ago by D. J. Singer
Not as well written as I hoped, more history and less intriguePublished 13 days ago by Philip Erdmann
Terrific book all the way through. Suspenseful, funny and smart. Philly is an amazing character and it reads like a novel.Published 18 days ago by Michael Beckerman