Book Review: A Spy Among Friends

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A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre is, at its root, an embellished, suspenseful tale of the most famous double-agent spy in recorded history – Kim Philby. The book is more narrative than biographical – in the book’s own words, “It is less about politics, ideology, and accountability than personality, character, and a very British relationship that has never been exposed before.” This style manifests itself as an attempt to follow Philby’s eventful life chronologically, with each event talked about in detail and many of the unimportant time periods removed for smooth transitions. Seemingly antithetical to the idea of a narrative, the book maintains the highest level of factuality possible regarding events – as the author states in the preface, “what follows is as close to a true story as I can make it.” However, Mr. Macintyre manages to pull it off spectacularly in this book. Suspense is carried between events with moment-to-moment commentary in delicate situations, embellished emotional reactions, and short authorial comments referencing the state of events at large, with hints as to what will come. In a few instances, the book hooks the reader back in, mentioning a mysterious warning regarding an upcoming life-changing event, of which there are many. Because the book is told from a descriptive standpoint with tension added secondarily, Mr. Macintyre often uses the separation of the two narrative devices as an opportunity to interlude with a quote from one or more of the involved parties reflecting on the situation at hand. This may lead to multiple pages detailing someone else’s background, or it may be a simple quote. Early on in the book, many characters are introduced rather quickly. While all are given extremely in-depth explanations of person and character, I personally found it rather difficult to keep track of all the names mentioned, and frequently found myself re-reading sections to remind myself who someone was. A whole chapter is given to the introduction of Kim Philby’s friend, Nicholas Elliott, another highly impactful British spy and a close friend of Philby. This introduction functions as a brief outline of the style of commentary on Philby’s spying career in the upcoming pages – while it is condensed to a chapter and talks only of Elliott’s life up to Philby’s entrance into the British Secret Intelligence Service, the level of detail used to describe Nicholas Elliott’s background, close friends, and schooling. The book uses an extremely rich vocabulary and feels dense at times due to the sheer amount of information compacted into each page, but maintains interest through tension and artistic embellishments depicting whole scenes with personality, emotion, and flair. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the narrative of Kim Philby’s life as a double-agent, and was amazed at the level of detail maintained factually. I would recommend this book to anyone, but do not let the sub-300 pagecount deceive you: the be prepared to invest a lot of time and energy into understanding the complex environment, both in terms of personality and politics, surrounding Kim Philby’s life.

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