Monday, October 27, 2014

A Spy Among Friends: A Book Review

The e-book was provided by the publisher.

A Spy Among Friends, by Ben Macintyre

Much has been written about Kim Philby, the notorious British turncoat who operated freely for thirty years. Author Ben Macintyre takes a different approach in his presentation, giving us a view from those who thought that they knew Philby because they were close personal friends.

The book is a page-turner, with the very spy craft that inspired Ian Fleming (himself a member of the club), but it is the old boys network that really stands out. To read about a man being recruited and then admitted into the highest echelons of British intelligence because he was a Cambridge man and public school boy is to realize that the class system was not totally wiped out by the social changes brought on by the First World War.

The case of Kim Philby is as much a cautionary tale of class privilege as it is a story about the privileged being used in ways that broke their social rules, and the shock that kept them blind to the betrayal of one of their own.

Using the words of those who thought they were Philby's great friends, the author explains how the false narrative woven by Philby protected him from being outed. The closeness, the camaraderie, all served to insulate him from exposure and furthered his career. What comes across in the narrative is the frustration and total befuddlement of the men of MI6 who watched every attempt to undermine the Soviet Union upended, aware that someone had tipped the enemy off but utterly unaware that it was the very man they discussed their plans with.

As the story concludes, Mr. Macintyre maintains the focus on the friends, those who were betrayed so thoroughly. How they reacted to that betrayal, and what changed in the espionage game, bring the story full circle.

A fascinating glimpse into the everyday lives of spies makes for an intriguing read that is difficult to put down once you've begun.

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