Excerpt from A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Spy Among Friends

Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

by Ben Macintyre

A Spy Among Friends
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2014, 384 pages
    May 2015, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Print Excerpt

Friends: noun, general slang for members of an intelligence service; specifically British slang for members of the Secret Intelligence Service [or MI6].


If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. Such a choice may scandalize the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police. It would not have shocked Dante, though. Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome.

—E. M. FORSTER, 1938


There is a voluminous literature on Kim Philby, including the invaluable pioneering work of writers such as Patrick Seale, Phillip Knightley, Tom Bower, Anthony Cave Brown, and Genrikh Borovik. But to many readers Philby remains opaque, like the cold war itself, often alluded to but little understood. Moreover, in recent years the release of much previously classified material, along with authorized histories of MI5 and MI6, has shed new light on both that conflict and Philby's place within it.

This is not another biography of Kim Philby. Rather, it is an attempt to describe a particular sort of friendship that played an important role in history, told in the form of a narrative. It is less about politics, ideology, and accountability than personality, character, and a very British relationship that has never been explored before. Since the MI6, CIA, and KGB files remain closed, much source material is secondary: the evidence of third parties, often expressed in retrospect. Spies are particularly skilled at misremembering the past, and the protagonists in this story are all guilty, to some extent, of distorting their own histories. Many of the "facts" about the Philby case are still hotly disputed, and theories, conspiratorial and otherwise, abound. Some of the more contentious issues are discussed in the endnotes. Much that has been written about Philby derives from memory or speculation without documentary support; some is colored by propaganda, and some is pure fantasy. Until and unless the official files are released in their entirety, a degree of mystery will always be attached to these events. For the narrative historian this creates particular challenges. Presented with conflicting accounts, different viewpoints, and divergent recollections, I have had to make judgments about the credibility of different sources and choose which of the many strands of evidence seem to run closest to reality. Others will doubtless disagree with my choices. This is not an exact science, but what follows is as close to a true story as I can make it.

This book does not purport to be the last word on Kim Philby. Instead, it seeks to tell his story in a different way, through the prism of personal friendship, and perhaps arrive at a new understanding of the most remarkable spy of modern times.

Beirut, January 1963

Two middle-aged spies are sitting in an apartment in the Christian Quarter, sipping tea and lying courteously to each other, as evening approaches. They are English—so English that the habit of politeness that binds them together and keeps them apart never falters for a moment. The sounds of the street waft up through the open window, car horns and horses' hooves mingling with the clink of china and the murmured voices. A microphone, cunningly concealed beneath the sofa, picks up the conversation and passes it along a wire, through a small hole in the wainscoting, and into the next room, where a third man sits hunched over a turning tape recorder, straining to make out the words through Bakelite headphones.

The two men are old friends. They have known each other for nearly thirty years. But they are bitter foes now, combatants on opposing sides of a brutal conflict.

Excerpted from A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre. Copyright © 2014 by Ben Macintyre. Excerpted by permission of Crown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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