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A Spy Among Friends: Book Review

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As a product, myself, of the privileged British boarding school/Oxbridge education system, I know a thing or two about the stiff upper lip, the Old School ethic, and loyalty. The upside is what used to be, at least, the best education in the world and the opportunities it affords, along with a refined accent that makes you sound a lot smarter than you actually are and a sometimes deceptive, self-deprecating charm that allows you to get along with everyone with ease and grace -- so long as you skate along the surface. Because the downside is a tight-lipped emotional immaturity that can cut you off from the world and, behind the facade, prevent you from developing any truly deep relationship.

These thoughts occur as I finish reading this excellent tale of that infamous gang of five Cambridge graduates whose treachery wreaked decades worth of damage on the intelligence agencies in pre- and post-WWII Britain and America. A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre is a gripping account of that period, beginning in the 1930s, when bright -- and privileged -- young people on both sides of the Atlantic looked with empathy at the post-Depression plight of the working classes and thought to find in communism an answer to injustice, poverty, and war. Most were cured of their idealism by a glimpse at Stalin's Soviet Union. Some, tragically, like Kim Philby, never were.

Philby, along with his fellow conspirators Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean caught the bug at Cambridge. Burgess and Maclean, notoriously, were exposed and defected to the Soviet Union in 1951. Incredibly, Philby, the mastermind who rose through the ranks of MI6 to a position of respect and authority and who facilitated his friends' escape, managed to elude detection and rehabilitate himself, serving the interests of his Soviet bosses for another decade before being himself exposed and taking the escape route to Moscow. Macintyre skillfully exposes the schoolboy mentality, the willful blindness and the misplaced loyalty of Philby's "friend" Nicholas Elliott and other members of the British upper crust who dominated MI6, overlooking the increasingly obvious signs of his treachery. If Macintyre is to be believed -- and his research seems thorough -- the lives of these people were dominated by foolishly promiscuous relationships experienced through a haze of alcohol. They simply never grew up.

I was thoroughly engrossed in this book, beginning to end. It has all the suspense of a good spy novel, and its characters are a complex mix of charm, eccentricity, intelligence and wit. And it offers a great--and mostly troubling -- insight into the behind-the-scenes workings of those we entrust with the most important of our political and military secrets.