Thursday, November 20, 2014
Review: A SPY AMONG FRIENDS, by Ben Macintyre
Here's another great page-turner by one of my favorite writers of nonfiction. Actually I think Ben Macintyre may be the only writer of nonfiction whose books I will pick up and read without hesitation. A Spy Among Friends tells the story of Harold "Kim" Philby, one of the most notorious spies in the history of espionage- his rise and fall, and the friendships that helped him all along the way.
A scion of the upper class, Philby fit right in the gentlemens' club that was MI6. He became a Soviet agent early on and as he rose through ranks of MI6 he handed over an unknowable amount of intelligence to the Soviets, intelligence gleaned from both his official duties and his lively and often alcohol-fueled social life. For Philby, as for much of MI6 the way Macintyre portays it, work and play were one and the same. But Philby always had the upper hand as operations were ruined, plans went afoul and people went to their deaths while he bantered and partied his way through countless lunches, dinners and soirees with his friends.
Macintyre tells Philby's story, which has been told before many times, through the lens of the most important of those friendships, which he shared with fellow MI6 operative and gentleman Nicholas Elliott. Elliott was, like Philby, a product of the British upper class and lived much the way Philby lived- traveling the world, drinking heavily and giving his all to his work while also maintaining a conventional home life. Problem was, while Philby's work, not to mention his marriage, wasn't what anyone thought it was, Elliott remained Philby's staunchest defender until proof of Philby's treachery became incontrovertible.
Along with friendship, Macintyre emphasizes both the role of the British class system in helping Philby maintain his position within MI6, and the role of alcohol in making his treachery possible on a personal level. Philby seemed to have always been drunk, and alcohol seemed to lubricate the relationships he depended on to keep him from detection. He would probably have drawn attention to himself if he hadn't drunk as much as he did. And it's not surprising that someone emotionally detached enough to do what he did, would need to use a drug to maintain that detachment. Alcohol abuse and mental illness lead to the sad fate of his second wife Aileen and ruined the life of Guy Burgess, Philby's fellow traitor. And being a "member of the club" was what helped Philby hide in plain sight in the first place.
It's a sad story when you get right down to it. Lives ruined, lives destroyed, and all for nothing. I found the book almost impossible to put down, even though a quick browse of Wikipedia told me the end of Philby's story. But I wanted to know the why and the how, and see what happened to Elliott and how he felt as a result. It's easy to imagine at least some of how he must have felt. Macintyre portrays him as stalwart to the end, not defending his former friend but moving on and keeping his upper lip stiff. The story is the product of a specific time and place in history, yet what makes it universal is the unwavering commitment that Philby had to Communism, the same kind of political devotion we still see all the time. Philby's story is the cost of that devotion, in many kinds of coin. Nothing could make him feel remorse or regret or even make him waver in his commitment, right to the end of his life.
If you've enjoyed any of Macintyre's previous books (I've read Double Cross and Agent Zigzag; Operation Mincemeat is still on my shelf to read, and he's got a bunch of others) you definitely need to pick this one up. Otherwise I'd recommend it to readers interested in the Cold War and espionage generally. It's a really engaging, terrific fun bit of history, and history that's actually quite tragic when you get down to it. Philby was a bad man whose actions hurt a lot of people and really amounted to nothing in the end. What a waste.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.