Real life spy Kim Philby had a level of charm that fictional spy James Bond could only aspire to. To meet Philby, it seemed, was to fall under his convivial sway. Thus, when it was disclosed in 1963 that this very proper, well-placed and Cambridge-educated Englishman had been spying for the Soviet Union since 1934, two people were particularly shaken by the revelation: Nicholas Elliott, his longtime drinking buddy and colleague at MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, and James Angleton, the zealous spymaster at America’s Central Intelligence Agency. Both men had regarded Philby as the supreme exemplar of their shadowy trade. Of course, he was.
The focus of A Spy Among Friends is the fragility of trust in the spy business. Apart from the pain of losing his best friend when Philby was outed and subsequently fled to Russia, Elliott also suffered the embarrassment of having brought Philby back into MI6 after he had been nearly exposed as a spy a few years earlier. Angleton never recovered from Philby’s betrayal, which made him paranoid and suspicious of everyone he worked with.
Both Elliott and Angleton tried to rewrite history to show that Philby hadn’t fooled them as completely as the records show he did. From Philby’s perspective, though, his story was of unwavering allegiance to the noble cause of worldwide communism, a goal that trumped nationalism and friendship. That dozens, maybe hundreds, of undercover agents were killed as a direct result of his dissembling never appeared to bother him.
British author and historian Ben Macintyre (Double Cross, Operation Mincemeat) does a masterful job of bringing these intriguing personalities to life and of recreating the World War II and Cold War milieus that forged their passions and alliances.
Spy novelist John le Carré, who served under Elliott in MI6, provides a poignant afterword concerning his former superior’s attempts to purge himself of Philby’s ghost.