Kim Philby was arguably Britain’s greatest spy. He was also its most destructive. Charming, debonair, dashing, Philby rose through the ranks of MI6, jousting with Nazi spy rings in World War II, then dueling with the Russians in the Cold War. Outwardly, his career was a glittering procession of advancement and ingratiation — his charm opened doors everywhere. But it was all a fraud. From the start, he was in the employ of the Soviet Union; his best intelligence went to the KGB.
Philby’s defection to the USSR in 1963 caused shock waves on both sides of the Atlantic.
Much has been written about Philby and the other so-called Cambridge spies, well-to-do men who, as students at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities, converted to the Marxist cause in the 1930s. Relevant files and documentation still remain classified, but this hasn’t stopped writers from subjecting Philby to scrutiny. Noted author Ben Macintyre is the latest to join the ranks. While he doesn’t break any hard news about Philby’s true motivations, Macintyre does here what he does best — tell a heck of a good story.
“A Spy Among Friends” is hands down the most entertaining book I’ve reviewed this year. I smacked my lips on nearly every page; anyone with a sweet tooth for the English stuff will, too. Nobody does well-dressed British men in danger like Macintyre. There is delicious sartorial detail — get me to Saville Row, stat! — tons of atmosphere, pungent pen portraits of leading and subsidiary characters, and exotic locales — Istanbul and Beirut, among them.
Macintyre’s innovation in this book is to bring a less familiar character from the Philby saga out of the shadows and into the light. His name was Nicholas Elliott, a fellow Cambridge graduate, member of the upper class, and MI6 operative who was also a close friend of Philby’s. Elliott revered his fellow spy. “Elliott hero-worshipped Philby,” Macintyre writes, “but he also loved him, with a powerful male adoration that was unrequited, unsexual, and unstated.”
“Friend”; “friendship; “friendly”; “friendliness” — these words echo across Macintyre’s text, the linchpins of the operative’s approach. He views Philby’s career through the protocols of male friendship. Philby traded on the intimacies of his relationships to ferret out information and manipulate colleagues. It was a brilliant, even sinister, skill.
At times, MI6 comes off as the world’s most exclusive — and snobbish — social club. Perhaps Macintyre plays this up too much, but I didn’t want him to stop for one minute. Much business was done over lunch and dinner at gentlemen’s clubs and swanky restaurants; Philby and Co were world-class drinkers, and alcohol — wine, scotch, pitchers of martinis — lubricated the transactions of the spy trade.
But the social aspect was an important factor in Philby’s rise. The old-boy network shielded Philby from any real suspicion until it was too late. MI6 was an outfit run by upper-class toffs; as for Philby, a poster boy of the establishment, few could imagine him being a traitor. Even his own KGB handler had a hard time believing it: “He was so completely, psychologically and physically, the British intelligence officer that I could never quite accept that he was one of us, a Marxist in the clandestine service of the Soviet Union.’’
Such qualities gave Philby vital cover for decades. His downfall was a slow-motion affair. After fellow double agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were exposed and fled to Moscow in 1951, the heat was on. Philby’s Cambridge past — and his friendship with the boorish rapscallion Burgess — came back to haunt him, but there was not enough hard evidence to convict him; still, the charges were damning enough that he could not be fully exonerated. Banished from MI6, twisting in the wind, he still had powerful protectors like Elliott backing him until the end.
Macintyre suggests that Philby’s loyalists deluded themselves — after all, admitting that Philby was up to no good called into question fundamental matters of judgment; it would be to embarrassing to admit otherwise. “A Spy Among Friends” is a potent study in the psychology of tight bonds between species of a certain class, and the poison deep in the hearts of men who played the most dangerous game.
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.