Another great selection from my mom’s book club this past year was Ben McIntyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal. Full disclosure: I really like spy stuff. It took me a while to get into James Bond, but I am particularly fond of Daniel Craig’s portrayal. I love CIA analysts thrust into the field from Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October (the best one, obvi) to Tony Mendez in Argo. And The Night Manager is probably my favorite TV show of 2016 thus far. Despite all of this, I’ve never really read much spy-based fiction or non-fiction (except for The Pink Carnation series, which, while delightful, we can all agree doesn’t really fall into the same category). So I was really excited to pick up McIntyre’s account of British double-agent, Kim Philby.
McIntyre chooses as his lens Philby’s relationship with best friend and fellow spy, Nicholas Elliott. Both had difficult relationships with their distant fathers, went to the same schools and university, joined the same clubs, and were recruited by MI-6 at the same time. And yet only one became a double-agent for the Russians from WWII through the Cold War. So the question becomes, how do two men with such strikingly similar experiences end up with such drastically political and social views?
Of course, McIntyre explores that in depth, along with Philby’s activities both within and without the British government, the massive effect he had on multiple espionage efforts, and his quick rise through the ranks at MI-6. But most importantly, he explored Philby’s relationship with Elliott. Despite the fact that may of Philby’s actions on behalf of the Russian government had direct consequences for Elliott, Philby seemed to genuinely consider Elliott a friend, which makes “The Great Betrayal” even more compelling. It was a betrayal of queen and country, but it was also a betrayal of decades of close friendship. Elliott’s entire professional and even personal world were turned upside-down upon the discovery of Philby’s extracurricular activities. This was someone with whom he had grown up, vacationed, and trusted professionally and personally with his life essentially. As such, the scene where Elliott confronts Philby is both tense and heartbreaking, years of friendship being shattered in the process.
McIntyre is an incredibly compelling writer, and the non-fiction account reads as thrillingly as any John Le Carre novel (or so I assume–Le Carre wrote the Afterword, so he probably agrees with my assessment. Also, my dad has specifically requested that I mention Le Carre’s novel, Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, which he pointed out is the novel that most closely resembles Philby’s story and is the greatest spy novel he’s ever read). However, by framing it within the context of Philby and Elliott’s relationship, McIntyre really pounds home not just the political and security costs of Philby’s allegiance but the personal costs as well. Philby is not just a caricature of a Russian spy but a man with complex emotions and beliefs who ultimately makes a decision to hurt those he personally cares for (along with thousands he has never met) in order to uphold his ideals and beliefs. Elliott humanizes the monster. It creates a much more nuanced understanding of a much more complicated period of history than most people realize (though I suspect most readers will still abhor Philby for what he did).
Besides all that, it is a cracking good story, and McIntyre’s research is exhaustive, utilizing many previously unavailable official documents. Plus, many of the European, North African, and Middle Eastern locals are portrayed just as glamorously as they seem in movies of the era. (Because what’s a good spy story without gorgeous, exotic locations?) I really enjoyed this book, and I appreciate McIntyre maintaining the intrigue and glamour of the “spy genre” while maintaining academic integrity and revealing the, at times, truly heart-wrenching story behind the most effective double-agent in British history and his best friend.