A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre *****

A Spy Among Us Kim Philby     This was a real page-turner, which says a lot, given that I already knew how it would end. I read the historical fiction version by another author and was fascinated by it, but also wondered what was fact and what was invented. Macintyre take his job so seriously that 25% of the book is citations. You KNOW he’s not making this up!

A great big thank you goes to Net Galley and Crown Publishers for the free read; that said, yes, this one is worth buying. I haven’t read anything else by Macintyre, but now that I have seen what he can do, he’ll be on my to-read list!

Kim Philby is considered by many to have been the world’s greatest spy. Perhaps the phrase should be “best known spy”, since the best spies are never found out. But that’s a digression. The fact is that this British-born, upper-class man was drawn to the ideas of Bolshevism at exactly the time that Lenin’s legacy became corrupted and Stalin held sway. It didn’t matter to Philby, nor did the purges and the reign of terror that occurred when Stalin went slightly bonkers and began seeing betrayal in every corner, executing lifelong friends over imagined treason. And one has to wonder, given the level of material comfort and exclusive old-boy club pampering that Philby enjoyed on the ground, exactly how much he truly believed in the class struggle, and how much of what he did was done for the sheer joy of deceit and skullduggery.

The most amazing thing to me, in reading this excellent, compelling narrative, was how much he did and how many lives he cost before he was discovered, and even then, that his life was spared. I can well understand that the British government preferred not to endure the public humiliation of having its grievous errors known to the world. Why they didn’t cap the guy behind the ear or arrange for a dreadful tragedy is harder to understand. And it all boils down to class: Elliott, who believed himself to be Philby’s closest friend for decades, from fresh-scrubbed youth to middle age, simply said, when later interviewed, that Philby was “One of us.”

If you are a U.S. citizen and are patting yourself on the back because you live in a ‘meritocracy’ in which antiquated notions like breeding are not factored into one’s fate, think again. How many millionaires, let alone billionaires, do you see on Death Row in the US of A?


The skill of the writer became most apparent to me when I read the ending, including a passage by the famous John le Carre. The passages in which Elliott is quoted verbatim set my teeth on edge. What a detestable individual, so smug! “Stiff upper lip” indeed. A stick stuck somewhere else came to mind.

Yet Mcintyre reinvents him in order for us to have a sympathetic protagonist to offset our villain. His nonfiction narrative reads like a spy thriller; in making his text as readable as well written fiction, he joins the formidable ranks of Barbara Tuchman and Isobel Wilkerson. Not many people are capable of such pacing and plot-spinning when confined by the actual facts.

Highly recommended to general audiences.

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