No one writes about deceit and subterfuge so dramatically, authoritatively or perceptively … to read A Spy Among Friends is a bit like climbing aboard a runaway train in terms of speed and excitement. –Daily Mail Book of the Week

Reads like a thriller

By Roger Childs

Ben Macintyre is to spy writing what John Le Carré is to spy writing. The essential difference is that whereas Le Carré pens fiction, McIntyre’s writing is all true. Many reviewers have commented that Macintyre’s books read like thrillers and compare the author to Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and Le Carré.

He has written many book on spies and in “A Spy Among Friends” he focuses on the greatest and most infamous double agent of all time – Kim Philby. For 30 years he virtually fooled everybody from his wives and close friends to MI6 and the CIA. This was a man who was utterly charming in social situations, had superb skills in recruiting spies and managing surveillance operations, and won the admiration and respect of the intelligence communities on both sides of the Atlantic. That was until 1951 when Philby tipped off Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean that the net was closing and it was time for them to head for Moscow. After this there was suspicion, but no proof, that he was The Third Man.

The ace of spies

Kim Philby had the classic establishment upbringing that opened the door to working in the secret service. He was from an upper class family, went to a public school and Cambridge, and was a popular member of the London clubs. With this background, he was regarded as a jolly good chap and seemingly above suspicion. MI6 had no hesitation in giving him a job in the late 1930s. 

He had become a communist while he was at university in 1933 and spent time as a journalist for The Times in the Spanish Civil War. The Russians recruited him in the mid-1930s and his first wife was an Austrian communist. During World War Two, once the Russians became a German enemy, MI6 and Philby’s focus was on defeating fascism. However in the cold war that followed he was highly successful in undermining every British and American initiative in support of anti-communist groups in the Soviet bloc. He sent hundreds of brave men and women to their deaths without any remorse.

Wherever Philby went he was highly popular and women found him very attractive, He has four wives and many affairs. After the defections of Burgess and Maclean, MI5 and the FBI were convinced that Philby was The Third Man, but he always denied it. He was sacked from the secret service, but MI6 led by Nicholas Elliott stood by the man. He was cleared by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and in November 1955 Philby invited the press to his mother’s flat in London where he gave a virtuoso performance of convincing lying. Elliott worked hard to get Philby reinstated and eventually succeeded in getting him a posting in Beirut.

The talented Nicholas Elliott

He had the same upper class credentials as Philby and was his closest friend. Elliott was very successful as a spymaster for MI6 and rose quickly through the ranks. In postings to the Netherlands, Istanbul, Berne, Vienna and Beirut he performed brilliantly for his masters and like Philby was very popular with his colleagues. 

The friends shared a liking for cricket, parties where they drank prodigious amounts of alcohol, and off-colour jokes. Elliott was Philby’s greatest supporter and, needless to say, was shattered by revelations of the latter’s duplicity and treason.

A wonderful read

Ben Macintyre has produced a classic with “A Spy Among Friends: Philby and the Great Betrayal”. He has done an enormous amount of research to produce this enthralling analysis and description of the life of the master double agent and his friends, notably Nicholas Elliott and American James Angleton. 

In just 286 pages he covers this amazingly complex but fascinating story of friendship, arrogance, ambition, stupidity and betrayal. The text is backed up with a number of photos, a detailed index and comprehensive footnotes. Highly recommended.