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In From the Cold

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NY Times Review of Books

WALTER ISAACSON

JULY 24, 2014

 

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 Whites, that venerable clubhouse of Englands 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 Philbys relationship with Nicholas Elliott, a fellow Cambridge-educated spy who was, or thought he was, Philbys 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 its 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.

 

(Snip)

 

There he became friends, in the Philbyesque sense of that word, with another excessively fascinating character in this book, James Jesus Angleton, who was rising in the ranks of the C.I.A. Angleton was a little like one of the rare orchids he would later cultivate, Macintyre writes, alluring to some but faintly sinister to those who preferred simpler flora. He was obsessed with rooting out spies and moles, but he missed the biggest one in his midst, indeed became enamored of him. Just as Elliott took to carrying around the same umbrella as Philby, Angleton wore the same homburg hat.

 

(Snip)

 

____________________________________________________________________________

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal Hardcover

Ben Macintyre (Author), John Le Carre (Afterword)

 

Kim Philby was the greatest spy in history, a brilliant and charming man who rose to head Britains counterintelligence against the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold Warwhile he was secretly working for the enemy. And nobody thought he knew Philby like Nicholas Elliott, Philbys best friend and fellow officer in MI6. The two men had gone to the same schools, belonged to the same exclusive clubs, grown close through the crucible of wartime intelligence work and long nights of drink and revelry. It was madness for one to think the other might be a communist spy, bent on subverting Western values and the power of the free world.

 

But Philby was secretly betraying his friend. Every word Elliott breathed to Philby was transmitted back to Moscowand not just Elliotts words, for in America, Philby had made another powerful friend: James Jesus Angleton, the crafty, paranoid head of CIA counterintelligence. Angleton's and Elliotts unwitting disclosures helped Philby sink almost every important Anglo-American spy operation for twenty years, leading countless operatives to their doom. Even as the web of suspicion closed around him, and Philby was driven to greater lies to protect his cover, his two friends never abandoned himuntil it was too late. The stunning truth of his betrayal would have devastating consequences on the two men who thought they knew him best, and on the intelligence services he left crippled in his wake.

 

Told with heart-pounding suspense and keen psychological insight, and based on personal papers and never-before-seen British intelligence files, A Spy Among Friends is Ben Macintyres best book yet, a high-water mark in Cold War history telling.

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