Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Ben Macintyre has an evidently profound interest in the world of espionage, as evidenced by his large number of non-fiction books in the matter. In A Spy Among Friends, one of his bestselling books, he explores the life, relationships, thoughts and actions of Kim Philby, a British MI6 agent who spied for the Soviet Union for over three decades before being successfully extracted.
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Ben Macintyre Offers Perspective on Kim Philby
Espionage between powerful countries doesn’t elicit the same interest from the public as it did during the years of the Cold War, slipping into the realm of shadows and clever technology as it ought to. Relatively little might be known about the spies of today, but over the years many of those from the past have emerged with their stories, and arguably few present as fascinating a case as Kim Philby, whose life is explored in Ben Macintyre‘s A Spy Among Friends.
To those interested in the subject, the name is well-known to the point of being legendary, and there has never been a shortage of studies on his biography. One of the most prolific spies in the history of the practice, he was an MI6 agent who spent just over three decades spying on his own kind for his handlers in the Soviet Union.
Philby’s formative years didn’t contain any events which might have overtly pushed him over the edge to become a traitor. Born in a wealthy family with a famous father, his upbringing was no different than most boys of his class, forced into emotional hardening and lacking in parental supervision. He eventually found made his way into Cambridge, where he acquainted himself with the communist philosophy, and fell into the sights of some strategic recruiters.
From there on out begins his life as a double agent, along with four friends of his, all of them later dubbed as the Cambridge Five (Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross and Philby). Their collective saga would last for over thirty years and brought irreparable harm to both British and American secret services.
Many angles have been taken to try and understand Philby‘s motives and actions, and in his book Macintyre goes through the man’s life in chronological fashion while weaving a narrative hanging on the people who surrounded him at the time. In other words, he tries to show him through the eyes of the many who knew him, most of them people he flawlessly duped for decades on end.
The Crucial Connections in A Spy Among Friends
Over thirty years after his open defection to the Soviet Union, I think it’s fair to say a considerable amount of information has been assembled and published about Philby‘s case, enough to form a comprehensive picture even if every single question hasn’t been answered. While I personally haven’t read all the literature available about the topic, the author’s approach in A Spy Among Friends does feel like it has some unique benefits to it.
Before moving on, I would like to point out Ben Macintyre is a highly-respected name when it comes to history, having published numerous other highly-acclaimed works centred on Cold War espionage. He provides sources for every single fact he presents, and whenever he chooses to speculate about incomplete information he clearly points it out and encourages the reader to think for themselves on it.
With this out of the way, I was actually quite surprised by the amount of information the author managed to gather about the many people who surrounded Philby over such a long stretch of time. Even the less important people are given proper introductions and their connections to Kim, not always apparent, are always explained concisely without any fluff.
On the subject of friendship, I’d prefer to say as little as possible.― Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends
There is one extremely interesting facet of espionage Macintyre sheds light on, at least in my opinion, it’s the amount of incompetence and unfounded trust which reigned supreme in the earlier days of MI6 and the CIA. In part, by looking at the various people who worked at and headed those organizations, Macintyre provides a reasonable explanation as to why Philby was caught so late and was able to cause so much damage, despite having been flagged and thoroughly investigated at a certain point.
Because Philby never really worked alone (his job was, after all, extracting information from people) Macintyre can use his approach to simultaneously take us through the various operations he performed while also adding quotes here and there which slowly help to form a complete picture of the man. While it is true people’s opinions are heavily subjective, they’re all honest, and some truly penetrating in the clever insight they contain, especially those by Nicholas Elliot, Philby‘s best friend.
The Man Behind the Mask
Naturally, a book about Kim Philby must ultimately explore the man himself, and not only through the eyes of others. In this regard we’re quite lucky; seeing as how he successfully defected to the Soviet Union, he has made and written quite a few statements in order to explain his actions, without ever seeking justification and approval. From start to finish, he remained a Cambridge gentleman.
The book is chock-full with quotes straight from the horse’s mouth on the topics of politics, friendship, ideology, personal convictions, and more. While Macintyre does condemn Philby‘s actions here and there for the agents whose deaths they led to, he does his best to maintain a neutral perspective for the most, and doesn’t omit to look at the other side of the coin, at who those agents were and what they were planning to do.
Many have tried to determine the true reason Philby chose his course in life, and in A Spy Among Friends Macintyre makes a solid case for the answer being regrettably simple and obvious: ideological conviction. He was simply a true believer who dedicated his life to a cause, and never seemed to waver in his beliefs.
It cannot be so very surprising that I adopted a Communist viewpoint in the 1930s; so many of my contemporaries made the same choice. But many of those who made that choice in those days changed sides when some of the worst features of Stalinism became apparent. I stayed the course.― Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends
At the same time though, we learn to see him as anything but a simple man. More precisely, he is pictured as perhaps the world’s greatest actor, the lies and jokes pouring out of him like a waterfall and charming virtually all those who came into his sphere of influence. We have to make do with the fact we’ll likely never know what was happening inside that head of his, but thanks to the sum of the information presented in this book, we can make quite a good guess.
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Ultimately, the author leaves it up to us to decide what kind of person he was, whether he ought to be reviled, respected, or both, and what type of fate he deserved for his actions. As with many complex topics, there probably is no single right answer, but the book pushes you to find your own right answer, something much more valuable in my opinion.
The Final Verdict
A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre is one of the best materials you could find on the topic of Kim Philby‘s lifelong work as a spy. Written almost like a thriller, rich with facts and quotes, it also attempts to explain the man’s psyche and his decisions from different standpoints.
If you’re interested in the Cold War and the spy games it gave birth to, or are looking for a place to begin your journey into Philby‘s biography, then I can confidently say this book is everything you’re looking for.
I have always operated on two levels, a personal level and a political one. When the two have come into conflict, I have had to put politics first.― Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends
Ben Macintyre is a British author, columnist and historian who is currently also a writer for The Times newspaper. He touches on all topics from current affairs in the world of politics to controversies in our history, and he is the author of numerous novels, including The Napoleon of Crime and The Man Who Would be King.