Around the Institute

Book Review: ‘A Spy Among Friends,’ by Ben Macintyre

July 24, 2014  • Walter Isaacson

When devouring this thriller about Kim Philby, the high-level British spymaster who turned out to be a Russian mole, I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a novel. It reads like a story by Graham Greene, Ian Fleming or John le Carré, all of whom make appearances, leavened by a dollop of P. G. Wodehouse. But, in fact, “A Spy Among Friends” is a solidly researched true story. The London journalist Ben Mac­intyre, who has written nine previous histories chronicling intrigue and skulduggery, takes a fresh look at the grandest espionage drama of our era. And like one of his raffish characters relaxing around the bar at White’s, that venerable clubhouse of England’s old boys’ network, he is able to play the role of an amusing raconteur who can cloak psychological and sociological insights with dry humor.

The story of Philby and his fellow Cambridge University double agents has been told many times, most notably by Phillip Knightley and Anthony Cave Brown, as well as by Philby himself and two of his four wives. Macintyre, who draws on these and other published sources, was not able to pry open any archives or uncover startling new revelations. Instead, he came up with a captivating framing device: telling the tale through Philby’s relationship with Nicholas Elliott, a fellow Cambridge-educated spy who was, or thought he was, Philby’s trusted friend. In doing so Macintyre has produced more than just a spy story. He has written a narrative about that most complex of topics, friendship: Why does it exist, what causes people to seek it and how do we know when it’s real? The world of upper-crust young Englishmen provides a rugged yet rewarding terrain for such an exploration. Taught on the playing fields of Eton to shield themselves from vulnerability, they mask their feelings for one another with jokes, cricket-watching, drinking and “a very distinctive brand of protective dishonesty.”

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