Wednesday, January 7, 2015

I Spy

Cambridge University where Kim Philby's spy ring met in the 1930's (Photo: Christian Richardt)
My favorite nonfiction book of 2014 was A Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre. So much has been written about the Soviet spies hiding in plain sight at the center of the British establishment during the Cold War that you might think yet another book unnecessary. But MacIntyre proves that assumption wrong. He approaches the well known story of the Cambridge spies from the point of view of Philby’s best friend Nicholas Elliott. Elliott worked alongside Philby for years, placing unquestioning trust in his friend and sharing secrets from the highest levels of the British government. Elliott even defended Philby when he first came under suspicion, but ultimately was the one chosen to confront the traitor with proof of his crimes. Philby not only betrayed his country, he betrayed his friends. This personal story adds emotional depth to the cold facts of the case.

McIntyre got the idea for this book from none other than John le Carré, the great spy novelist, who knew Philby personally during his career at MI6. Philby was the model for the character of the traitor in le Carré’s most famous work, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Not surprisingly the Philby story has inspired many other novelists, with varying degrees of success. Here are a couple of my favorites:
  • The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming. On the strength of this novel, Cumming was dubbed the John Le Carré of his generation. He imagines there was a sixth spy in the Cambridge spy ring who has remained unexposed into his old age. Now he is ready to tell his story to a journalist but there are forces determined to silence him.
  • Young Philby by Robert Littell. Littell’s work always receives stellar reviews but he is not as well known as he deserves to be. Here he imagines Philby’s youthful spying exploits and suggests that maybe he was actually a triple agent working against the Soviet Union.
But fiction cannot really compete with fact when it comes to the Cambridge spies. One of the most amazing stories is that of Anthony Blunt. He was a distinguished art historian who had served as curator of the Queen’s art collection for years when he was exposed as a spy in 1979. Blunt confessed and was given immunity, though he was stripped of his knighthood. Miranda Carter tells his story in Anthony Blunt: His Lives, one of the most intriguing biographies I have ever read. Blunt’s story inspired Irish novelist John Banville to write The Untouchable, a psychological study of how an elderly man, a respected establishment figure, reacts to his sudden exposure as a spy.

Whether you prefer your spies served up as fact or fiction you can always find plenty to read on your library shelves. Ask a librarian for suggestions or check out these lists:
Happy New Year, and happy spying!

Rita T.

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