Ended 2020 reading the first couple George Smiley novels by LeCarré, which put me in quite the mood for for more spy stuff. My mom had a couple of Ludlum novels lying around when I was a kid, but I found them so impenetrable I bounced off of the entire genre from that point forward. I vastly preferred the books that started off with the spies failing and things falling into immediate full-blown war; seemed more interesting to me as a Cold War Kid absolutely terrified of nukes.
Now that I'm older, these quieter but no-less-desperate stories of handfuls of individuals possibly causing/changing globe-shattering events has a more resonant draw. And, in many cases: they actually happened.
After a couple of LeCarré's fictional spy tales, I was in the mood for some actual non-fiction about real ones. And a book on the Cambridge Five in general, and Kim Philby in particular, fits that bill wonderfully.
The Cambridge Five, of which Kim Philby was the key member, is probably the Soviet's greatest espionage coup of the entire Cold War. They turned a bunch of dudes at the top of MI6 and the UK Foreign Office and were able to basically blow every British op they tried to run for decades.
That's, to me, somehow NOT the most interesting part of this story. The real story here is how Philby, by having the background of and being able to portray himself credibly as a proper English Gentleman, was given an amount of benefit of the doubt that is frankly unfuckingbelievable.
When the book is more focused on that aspect is when I enjoyed it most.
The suspicions around Philby, the first evidence, came to light DECADES before MI6 actually tried to take him in for good. But... he was part of Society. The right people trusted him, regardless of the increasing evidence that they probably should not, and thus he got to keep on keeping on.
A Spy Among Friends moves along nicely enough, not quite at LeCarré speeds, but it is quite readable for a non-fiction work. Macintyre writes about spies and spying well, situating Philby and the various other characters in his tale well, both in terms of place and time, and in their likely headspace as the events played out.
He uses all the available materials to tell this story, and is able to weave a coherent whole out of it all. Any disappointment lies in that a lot of that whole is woven out of, at best, circumstantial evidence, and the author's own suppositions. A lot/most of the records on both the Western and Soviet sides about all of this stuff remains classified. And some of the most-key figures are dead, and didn't leave any clarifying deathbed notes. And what they did write after the fact tends to be colored by whatever emotions they had to process once they realized they had been gulled so thoroughly by a guy they all considered a very close and trustworthy friend thanks to their own class and cultural biases.
So, while I enjoyed the book quite a bit, the realization that nobody still knows why Philby did what he did, or why guys like Nicholas Elliot or James Angleton, veteran, capable spies all, fell for it for so long, hangs over the proceedings. Macintyre has some good, deeply informed guesses, but they're still just that.
That said, this is probably the best single volume to read if you're not an academic and just want a well-written book that covers the life and crimes of Kim Philby as fairly and accurately as the admittedly limited sources allow. If certain archives ever open up, I suspect a much better book will be written, but it won't be due to the quality of the writing, at least.