Kim Philby was a unique individual who lived a fascinating life as one of the most successful spies the world has ever seen. Outwardly a loved and respected member of the community, the man spent decades secretly betraying the people and governments who supported him.
Ben Macintyre opts to approach the Philby saga not as an academic presenting research but as a storyteller revealing a drama being played out against the all too real backdrop of international war. He adeptly weaves together a cohesive and riveting story line utilizing quotes gleaned from interviews, biographies, journals, and other surviving documentation. The author openly admits that many exact details will never be known, and that his version of events required “judgements about the credibility of different sources,” which “is not an exact science,” but ultimately is “as close to a true story as [he] can make it.”
Even if only largely true, the story has all the twists and turns of a thrilling spy novel. The fact that the actions of these individuals shaped the outcomes of very real wars, influenced international relations, and directly contributed to the lives…and deaths…of thousands of people around the world just makes the whole thing all the more fantastic. Macintyre presents characters which are often deep, conflicted, and borderline surreal, yet simultaneously sympathetic and relatable. He paints a vibrant picture of the unique time and culture within which these personalities thrived: a Britain where the upper class ruled, and one’s status and personal connections made all the difference.
These men were, perhaps, as close as the world has known to real life James Bonds. It’s certainly no coincidence that Ian Fleming was a contemporary and often an acquaintance of these same individuals. Their exploits, even without the central thread of treachery, make for some compelling reading.
Kim Philby’s betrayal was so thorough and successful, the story at time borders on classic movie theater horror. The protagonist’s companions haplessly, tragically, work against their own self interest, while the audience is forced to stand by, helplessly watching as the villain, who seems so obvious in retrospect, works his craft. The fact that the victims were not only real, innocent people, but some of the most powerful governments of the world, is jarring.
A Spy Among Friends is about as much of a page turner as a book about real life human history gets. Macintyre does a superb job of bringing the material to life in a way which is thorough, accessible, and dramatic. I highly recommend it, regardless of one’s personal interest in, or knowledge of, the Philby case.