A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre
Published on February 11, 2022
Reviewed by Stephen Bacchetta
Ben Macintyre, a British historian, author, and columnist for The Times, has made a career writing about the art of espionage, primarily focusing on the period leading up to and including the second World War. His 2014 book A Spy Among Friends chronicles the life of Kim Philby, one of the most successful and notorious double agents in history. As Philby rose through the ranks in the British intelligence system, he secretly and skillfully passed along classified knowledge to the Soviet Union. Macintyre explores not only the manner in which Philby betrayed his country, but how he was able to deceive his friends and colleagues in the Foreign Office, particularly Nicholas Elliott.
Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott had incredibly similar upbringings. Both were born into prominent British families, both had distant fathers, both went to Cambridge University, and both eventually found their way into the Secret Intelligence Service, learning the arduous craft of espionage at the outset of World War II. Unlike Elliott, whose staunch allegiance to his homeland never wavered, Philby started covertly working for the Soviet Union in 1934 while he was journalist. Thanks to his impressive work and the connections he had, he joined MI6 in 1940. Philby steadily climbed the ranks, all the while passing information along to his Soviet handlers. For years, Philby was largely able to escape suspicion of treason because of his background and his status as part of the British “establishment.” Nicholas Elliott fell for this ruse for almost thirty years, not only refusing to believe that his friend and mentor could hold communist beliefs, but that those beliefs may galvanize him to pass on confidential information to an enemy state.
Admittedly, the book starts slow. The author provides the necessary (yet somewhat dull) background of the two main characters, including their fathers’ temperaments, their early lives, and their years at university. A barrage of scarcely-known British and Soviet names and titles are thrown at the reader, and few stick at first reference. But Macintyre is certainly a master at building suspense, and the tone of the book quickly improves as our main characters begin their work as intelligence officers. As the exploits of Philby get more and more consequential, the reader is left hanging on every sequence.
If the source material didn’t come directly from The National Archives, one would have a difficult time believing this wasn’t a work of fiction. Macintyre takes the time to acknowledge that many of the “facts” surrounding the life of Kim Philby are disputed, as official files relating to his treachery are still unsealed and retrospective personal histories (such as the accounts this book uses as references) are often misremembered or misrepresented by key observers. Still, Macintyre does a tremendous job separating the fantasy from the reality, interjecting with his own thoughts and explaining his feelings and decisions when the narrative calls for it.
Those who love a good spy-thriller will want to grab this title. The story of Kim Philby influenced two of the most notable spy-fiction novelists in British history, John le Carré and Ian Fleming, both of whom worked for the UK’s Foreign Office and knew of Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott. Le Carré’s career in the intelligence service actually came to an end as a result of information Philby passed onto the Soviets and his 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Solider Spy was based on Philby’s duplicity. Ian Fleming was known to be a good friend of Nicholas Elliott, and Ben Macintyre describes the series of events that inspired Fleming to write Thunderball.
A Spy Among Friends not only illustrates the incredible adventure of espionage that is prevalent in works of spy-fiction, but it goes a step further, shining a light on the humanizing aspects of real-life spying—friendships, marriages, parenting, dinner parties, hobbies, etc. Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliot were more than the ideologies and allegiances that consumed their thoughts and guided their decisions; Macintyre was able to show the people they were outside of the spy game.
A two-part documentary based on Ben Macintyre’s research surrounding Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott entitled Kim Philby: His Most Intimate Betrayal was released in 2014. In total, Macintyre has written thirteen books, the majority of which focus on espionage in 19th and 20th century Europe. His most recent book, Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy, was published in 2020 and quickly became a bestseller.
Kim Philby: “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.”
Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐