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Originally published Sunday, July 27, 2014 at 6:02 AM

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‘A Spy Among Friends’: Kim Philby, a master of betrayal

Ben Macintyre’s “A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal” looks at the shocking story of Kim Philby, the British intelligence agent who betrayed his country by spying for the Soviet Union, from the perspective of his most loyal friend.

Seattle Times book editor


‘A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal’

by Ben Macintyre

Crown, 368 pp., $27

British author Ben Macintyre has made a life’s work of chronicling the oddball adventures and brilliant deceptions of the British secret service during World War II. In his trilogy “Agent Zigzag,” “Operation Mincemeat” and “Double Cross,” Macintyre resurrected the stories of a band of charming eccentrics who played the deadliest of games — namely, gaming the Germans. Running double agents, planting false information on a corpse washed up on a Spanish beach, using a network of double agents to successfully sell the Germans on a bogus scenario for D-Day — Macintyre, a storyteller of wit and insight, retrieved these feats of strategy, intelligence and courage from the dustbin of history.

In “A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal,” Macintyre flips the legend on its ear, telling the story of the traitorous British agent who double-crossed the double crossers.

If you follow spy literature, you know the name Kim Philby. One of the so-called “Cambridge Spies,” he and four others were recruited at Cambridge in the 1930s to spy for the Soviets. John le Carré based his novel “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” on the Philby case.

Le Carré’s brilliantly told tale of betrayal was, of course, fiction. The true story is, if anything, more fantastic.

Philby, a closet Communist, began spying for the Soviets for ideological motives. But as war commenced, his betrayal of British secrets took on a deadly strategic significance — in the war’s early stages, Germany and the Soviet Union were allies.

A father of five, social charmer and ladies’ man, Philby sent hundreds of people to their deaths.

He identified anti-Nazi Catholic dissidents in Germany. As the war ended the Soviets executed them, surmising that they would oppose Communism after the war. He sent an Istanbul-based Russian couple aiming to defect into the arms of the KGB; last seen, they were bandaged head to foot, being loaded into a Soviet Transport aircraft. They later were tortured and executed.

Despite Philby’s involvement in these misadventures he was promoted, promoted again and even considered as a candidate to head MI6, Britain’s equivalent of the CIA. He was sent to America as MI6’s representative, where he used his friendship with CIA legend James Jesus Angleton to gather deadly intelligence on clandestine strategies both American and British.

All this has been told many times before. Macintyre goes at it from a different angle, through the eyes of Kilby’s loyal friend Nicholas Elliott. Another highly placed British intelligence officer, Elliott protected Philby until bitterly late in the game.

As a storytelling strategy this is only partially successful. Elliott seems of a piece with so many other MI6 men fooled by Philby. His English class snobbery was such that he simply couldn’t believe that one of the “right sort,” a member in good standing of the British elite, could be capable of such treachery. It’s hard to feel sympathy for Elliott when his class-bound blindness achieved such devastating results.

As a portrait of a sociopath, however, this story retains its mesmeric power. Even after he had survived one round of investigation into his activities, Philby couldn’t stop spying. “Philby enjoyed deception,” Macintyre writes. “Like secrecy, the erotic charge of infidelity can be hard to renounce.”

Le Carré provides an eerie afterword, telling how Nicholas Elliott summoned him to a confessional session for his version of events, as a bemused le Carré heard the inside version of the tale he’d already told. It’s an eerie coda to a dark and unsettling story.

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