Review: A Spy Among Friends

A Spy Among Friends:  Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre

U.S. Edition:  Crown, 2014.  Hardcover, 384 pages.  Includes afterwards written by John Le Carré.
U.K. Edition: Bloomsbury, 2014. Hardcover 368 pages.

I first read about Kim Philby briefly in MacIntyre’s Double Cross, his book on the Double Cross operation in World War II.  When I found out this book was coming out, I knew I had to read it.  It was well worth it.spy among friends cover

The book opens by providing a background on Kim Philby and several of his colleagues before World War II broke out.  Philby became sympathetic to the communist cause while attending Cambridge and was recruited to serve as a Soviet spy.  The majority of the book covers the 1930s to the 1960s.  When World War II began, Philby became an MI6 officer, a role that allowed him to feed British intelligence to the Soviets.  In the years that followed, he was given increasing roles of responsibility within MI6 while still serving as a double agent.  He also struck up a friendship with Nicholas Elliott, a fellow agent who was also on the fast track at MI6.  Also discussed in briefer details were the rest of the Cambridge Five, with a focus on Guy Burgess, and how they made their way into MI5, MI6, or the Foreign Office and Philby’s American friend and counterpart, James Angleton.

Initially during World War II, Philby trained Special Operations Executive (SOE) operatives in clandestine propaganda.  By 1941, he found himself in charge of counter-intelligence operations focused on the neutral, yet hotbed for espionage, nations of Spain and Portugal. During the next two years, North Africa was added to the territory he managed and he became the head of Section V, the counter-intelligence section. Elliott meanwhile, started out managing counter-intelligence operations for Holland, later being transferred to the MI6 office in Turkey, another spy hotbed.  When the book enters the Cold War era, Philby’s first assignment took him to Turkey to oversee MI6 operation (1947).  By 1949, Philby was attached to the British Foreign Office in the United States.  When two of Philby’s colleagues defected, he came under suspicion for having helped.

The basic facts mentioned above are an outline.  I could by no means mention more without ruining the book or its ending.  MacIntyre did an excellent job weaving together the stories of Philby, Elliott, Angleton, and the rest of the Cambridge Five.  The many sub-stories and details make this book a page turner.  He also did a great job providing background information on the other players in the story: MacIntyre provided enough we knew their roles and how they came into play regarding Philby’s story while not making them a major focus.  The same idea applied when he discussed the different sections within the intelligence community.  I also liked how he covered all the various theories that emerged over the years to let readers know what ideas were discussed regarding Philby’s motives and why his closest friends were that easily deceived.

The overall theme tying the story together is that of friendship and betrayal.  Philby had strong friendships with Elliott and Angleton and he used them.  Not only did he pass along information he learned from them to the Soviets, he treated them like family.  Elliott and Angleton never suspected he betrayed their trust and their countries’ trust until it was too late.  Both espoused the “old boy’s network” idea that one of their own could do no wrong.  Not only did this protect Philby after his colleagues’ defection, it also is what allowed him to maintain his positions for so long. It was interesting to see how these bonds were first formed and then unraveled and the impact it had on Elliott and Angleton.

At the book’s end was an afterward by John Le Carré.  It mainly consisted of transcripts of notes taken when Le Carré met with Elliott before Elliott passed.  Most of the information had already been covered within the book.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.  It releases in the US tomorrow (7/29/14).

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2 thoughts on “Review: A Spy Among Friends

  1. Ironically, the first time I recall seeing the name “Kim Philby” is in the third book of the Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia MacNeal that you introduced me to! After seeing the name in MacNeal’s book, I went on an internet search to see if “Kim Philby” was a real person and lo and behold, he was! BTW, I enjoyed the third book in the series the best so far, and am waiting to get book four (on hold through my local library!).

    • Linda, funny you should mention that! I wondered if anyone would notice that Philby made a cameo in His Majesty’s Hope along with Ian Fleming! Fleming also makes the occasional brief appearance in A Spy Among Friends. I’m glad you loved the third Maggie Hope book. It was my favorite too! Enjoy The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent when you get it!

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