The Philby Conspiracy
The Third Man
Kim Philby, The Spy I Married
My Silent War
We have recently had a spate, if not a surfeit, of Kim Philby, the Englishman who, for thirty years—eleven of them inside the British Secret Service—spied for Russia and has now gone “home.” What he did in those years is now generally known. What he is still something of a mystery. Here are three books about him and one by him. All reveal something about the psychology of this celebrated double-agent. Inevitably the last of them, his own book, is the most revealing. I shall therefore deal cursorily with the others and devote most of this review to it, which I find the most interesting of all.
Of the first three books, the most ambitious and complete is undoubtedly that of Messrs. Page, Leitch and Knightley, the “Insight” team of the English Sunday Times. It can be described indifferently as instant history or as high-class journalism, and it has both the virtues and the faults of this, to me, unattractive genre. That is, it has behind it all the resources of high-powered modern journalism; it is enlivened by the products of interviews with living persons; and it is presented in an efficient, readable, if impersonal style. On the other hand it lacks dimension; it has no corrective context, no general background, no reflective depth. The authors have certainly established the details of Philby’s career with substantial accuracy—he himself has admitted that—although they persist in some questionable assertions, such as that he remained a “field agent” of SIS after his dismissal in 1951. They have also given full and racy biographical accounts of the two other Russian spies—also, like him, Cambridge men—with whom Philby was involved: his close friend, the fascinating, brilliant, but drunken and dirty Guy Burgess, and the distant, enigmatic, unfathomable schizophrene whose wife he has now detached in Moscow, Donald Maclean. All this gives human interest to the “Insight” book. Unfortunately its authors have ignored the duller but more important subject of Philby’s solid work against the Germans in 1941-5, which was the real basis of his rise inside the Secret Service; and they make no attempt to reconstruct the general context within which he operated, either as a British or as a Russian agent. This inevitably makes their book seem superficial. Nor is it helped by the vapid and vulgar Preface of John le Carré—an exercise in pretentious, rhetorical class-hatred which nowhere touches any point of fact and serves only to emphasize and inflate, instead of to correct, the weaker generalization of the authors.
Mr. Cookridge’s book (which also deals with the other two members of the “unholy trinity,” Burgess and Maclean) is different in every way from that of the “Insight” team. In many ways it is much worse. It is far less accurate in detail, and some of its confident assertions are hopelessly wrong. Nor is it so professional, or so lively, in presentation. On the other…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.