Espionage. It fascinates us. Right in our neighborhood. Even under our roof, someone could be sending telling on us. Or our country. The idea that our deepest secrets, misjudgments, impulses would suddenly be revealed as through a glass, not darkly, but brightly, is a primal fear.
Enter Kim Philby, the subject of Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends. A polished, charming, seductive, impeccable Brit straight out of Masterpiece Theater, Philby rose to the highest levels of MI5 over the twenty-plus years he spent in the English secret service. He was part of the ultimate old boy network. You went to the best schools, cultivated the best people, polished your manners and you could go anywhere. Despite your talents or industry. If you didn’t belong in the network, you didn’t get anywhere. Despite your talents or industry.
As part of this network, Philby was automatically trusted. He had talent and industry to burn to go along with that trust, and he used all of it to the limit. From the 1930’s. when he chose communism as an antidote to the menace of Naziism, he worked for the Soviets. He later insisted the virtues of ideology overrode any objections you could conjure up about the conduct of specific individuals such as Stalin. Things would ultimately come out all right.
Hiding behind that conviction (if he had any conviction at all beyond his own lust for deception) he routinely passed over the names of agents, the dates and details of undercover operations, assuring the death of hundreds if not thousands of people whose safety depended on his discretion. In the meantime, he also betrayed two wives and five children, none of whom knew of his duplicity (though his second wife eventually became convinced of his treachery, but Cassandra-like was not believed because of her own mental illness and alcoholism)
For a time in the fifties, he was even stationed in Washington, D.C., where he bamboozled the CIA as well as his own countrymen. The lone American who was not taken in was J. Edgar Hoover, but he had no jurisdiction and no credibility with the Brits. In the meantime, Philby was riding high, consorting with the likes of Graham Greene, John Le Carre (who wrote the afterword to this book), and Ian Fleming as well as lesser known cloak and dagger types.
Finally, after skating on incredibly thin ice for some time, he ended up in the drink. Enough circumstantial evidence and testimony from KGB defectors made his role undeniable, and even his old school buddies couldn’t protect him any longer.
The central drama of MacIntyre’s book is the dynamic between Philby and his pal, Nicholas Elliott. The two rose in the spy ranks together and were the very best of friends and drinking buddies. And I do mean drinking. My lord, the amount of drinking in the ranks of the “intelligence” service makes one wonder where anyone had the time or sobriety to do any espionage at all. But they did.
When Elliott finally became convinced, he became enraged at the betrayal. He convinced everyone that he was the one to confront the Judas.
What happens next, I’ll leave to you to find out when you read this novel-like tale of one of the most remarkable undercover stories of our time. Makes you wonder what might be going on in your town. Your neighborhood. Your block. Your house. Will it ever surface? Stay tuned.