After reading two excellent novels in recent months about Soviet spies recruited at Cambridge University – Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan and Red Joan by Jennie Rooney – I was intrigued by Ben Macintyre’s biography of Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five spies recruited by Arnold Deutsch in the mid-1930s. Philby worked for Britain’s secret intelligence service (SIS or MI6) during the Second World War and the early years of the Cold War before his activities as a double agent for the NKVD and KGB were finally uncovered in 1963.
‘A Spy Among Friends’ is not just about Philby – the focal point of the book is actually his friendship with fellow MI6 intelligence officer, Nicholas Elliott. Having first met Philby nearly thirty years earlier, Elliott believed he knew him better than anyone else until that fateful meeting in Beirut in 1963. Rather than a dry and lengthy description of the intricacies of Cold War ideologies, Macintyre’s sharp psychological insight into Philby’s “addiction” to deception and how he managed to evade detection for so long is what makes ‘A Spy Among Friends’ such a compulsively readable account of his life.
Many elements of Philby’s life are still shrouded in mystery. Most notably, questions remain open about whether or not Elliott and MI6 deliberately allowed Philby to defect to the Soviet Union in order to avoid public scandal and a trial. Macintyre presents compelling evidence and analysis to suggest this may well have been the case. The different ways in which Philby’s family, friends and colleagues reacted to the revelations about his double life is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the story. While some claimed to have “known all along” that something was amiss, others like James Jesus Angleton, the chief of counter-intelligence at the CIA, never really got over the betrayal which they felt was personal as well as political.
The story of Kim Philby is a fascinating one and Macintyre has the narrative skill to truly bring it to life. Without full access to official papers, Macintyre says that ‘A Spy Among Friends’ does not set out to be “a definitive history” of Philby. However, it is still an insightful and entertaining biography of one of the most notorious spies of the twentieth century. Highly recommended.