The Ideal Husband

The Philby Conspiracy

by Bruce Page, by David Leitch, by Philip Knightley
Doubleday, 312 pp., $5.95

The Third Man

by E.H. Cookridge
Putnam’s, 320 pp., $5.95

Kim Philby, The Spy I Married

by Eleanor Philby
Ballantine, 192 pp., $.75 (paperback) (paper)

My Silent War

by Kim Philby
Grove, 262 pp., $5.95

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 hand the author, who has studied the world …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.