Have you ever been so ticked off at the characters in a book that you wanted to yank them through the print and slap them? For me, it’s usually those comedies of manners in which the whole plot could be resolved by someone taking a deep breath and speaking their mind. In A Spy Among Friends, it’s the real people with the sense of privilege and identity that assumes, against all evidence, that one of your chums couldn’t possibly betray your country.
Nicholas Elliott, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess all came to the highest circles of British government through the same path. After a middling Oxbridge education, a friend of Pater puts a word in the ear of a fellow Club member, and suddenly Military Intelligence or the Foreign Service has a new acolyte. Wear the club tie and handmade suits, drink heavily, and send others into harm’s way. The problem is that four of these five men had a loyalty higher than the institutions that made them. They were spies for the Soviet Union.
Kim Philby pulled off probably the greatest intelligence coup in history. Taken in total, his career as a Soviet spy spanned 30 years, enabling him to betray Republicans in Spain’s Civil War, anti-Soviet cells in Russia, military and counter-intelligence operations during World War II, anti-Nazi factions in Germany, Allied agents, and infiltrators hoping to destabilize their Eastern Bloc countries. He was also able to protect Russian spies in the West, including Burgess and Maclean, either from detection or arrest, by tipping them off. He charmed his way into the inner circles of British and American intelligence, creating a vast pipeline of secret information that flowed on a river of booze and weekend parties directly to the KGB. He didn’t do it for money, he didn’t do it for excitement—he did it for ideology.
Nicholas Elliott was perhaps Philby’s closest friend, and his greatest victim. Time after time Elliott shared operational details with Philby, then wondered why those operations spectactularly failed, with fatal consequences for the people on the ground. He couldn’t picture that Philby, whose charm and drinking ability easily elicited critical secrets from their circle, was the source of those betrayals. Elliott even subverted investigations into Philby’s background for 12 years, playing up the idea that the working class detectives from MI5 had no right to question the aristocrats of MI6. And on his word, MI6 closed ranks to protect Philby. When Philby finally defected in 1963, Nicholas Elliott was the last British intelligence agent to talk with him.
Ben Macintyre does a great job bringing that culture of entitlement to life, effortlessly capturing the atmosphere of the British Empire’s last bastion without making it seem cliche. While he occasionally talks about tradecraft and agent recruitment, his interest really lies in dissecting the old boy network. An afterword by John Le Carre, which is really a collection of snippets, shows that Nicholas Elliott seems never to have overcome that trust in connexions. Looking back at all he’d tried and failed to accomplish, it really made me want to reach into the book and slap him. I just didn’t have my white gloves on.
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