A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal - Ben Macintyre

Still as riveting as everything else Macintyre writes, but this book is definitely less fun than ZigZag or Double Cross. In fact, it's downright depressing. And how could it be otherwise? At its heart, this book is about a terrible, immeasurably costly betrayal.

While the book describes the life of Kim Philby, the infamous Russian double-agent who actually headed counterintelligence the USSR, it doesn't ever really explain the man himself, possibly because with Philby, it's not really possible to ever determine what was real. Certainly Macintyre seems to have given up on that task. And with the eponymous character an enigmatic villain, we're left to choose protagonists from the men that Philby duped: Nicholas Elliott, James Jesus Angleton, and the other figures of the spy game. And in the end, everything they did, every action they made, is tainted or destroyed by Philby. So many lives were lost by their attempts in the Cold War, from assassinated defectors to murdered nationalists whose identities Philby leaked to his masters. As some later admitted, it would actually have been better if they had done nothing at all, and Philby's betrayal continues to have repercussions to this day. For how can one ever trust anyone if a traitor can hide for so long?

The book has all of Macintyre's sly asides, but not even his rendition can make the story fun, or even simply satisfying. I wanted Philby to be disappointed with the USSR he found. Certainly his wife claimed he tried to slit his wrists, but in that leaked video from the 1980s, he seems utterly self-satisfied and content. And with Philby, how can one ever conclude which attitude was real and which fake? I wanted some sort of final stand, some case in which Elliott or Angleton genuinely got the better of Philby, even if unconsciously, and thereby saved lives. But it really never happened. The book is of course utterly readable and addictive, and if you get lost in the words and the wackiness and can briefly forget the bigger picture, quite fun-- there's something insanely wonderful, for example, about the Russians not believing their double agents' reports about Double Cross because, in their paranoia, they assumed their own agents had been doubled as part of the Double Cross scheme those same agents were telling them about-- but at the back of it all, there is always Philby and the terrible tragedy of it all.

I can think of one good thing that came out of reading it: I can no longer disparage ridiculous spy story plots whose final twist is that the Big Boss is actually a sleeper agent. After all, it already happened (at least) once.