If you’re a long-time blog reader, you know that I can be pretty enthusiastic for some of my favorite authors. So, brace yourselves, gentle readers. I have a new favorite author I want to talk about. 🙂
Ben Macintyre is a Cambridge-educated writer who started his career focusing on biographies of intriguing historical rogues before narrowing his focus more specifically to tales of espionage. His espionage nonfiction about spies, double agents, and spyhunters is superb nonfiction–well-written, well-reasoned, and well-researched–that is every bit as exciting as a spy novel. Macintyre is as equally adept at describing dinner parties as he is thrilling chase scenes, and he makes both type of action equally as compelling in his page-turners. His books deal with complicated people of sometimes murky personal motivation, and he’s fair-minded and insightful in his analysis and skilled at making them, if not relatable, understandable.
I was going to pick one of his books to review before deciding why not just write about two.
A Spy Among Friends, Macintyre’s 2014 book, covers familiar territory if you know your Cold War history. It’s the story of Kim Philby, one of the most infamous moles in the history of espionage. Philby was a popular, respected, trusted MI6 agent who spent his entire career passing secrets to the Soviets. His betrayal, when it was discovered, absolutely shook American and British intelligence agencies to their core. Philby’s story has generated its fair share of books and movies over the years, but Macintyre goes at it from a different angle.
He’s less interested in what we think we already know about Philby and more interested in the social circles that Philby used to his advantage. Philby was a double agent for decades partially because he was very good at it, but his success also very much was because his coworkers and superiors refused to accept Philby could be a spy. He was “one of us”–from a wealthy, educated, influential family. He went to all the right schools and knew all the right people.
In the tony upper-class world of mid-century MI6, where background checks consisted of calling relatives to ask if they knew the applicant and where state secrets were routinely shared during chummy cocktail parties, it was unthinkable that “one of us” would actually be “one of them.”
Just as important to Philby’s story in Macintyre’s book is the parallel tale of one of Philby’s closest friends, Nicholas Elliott, who shared Philby’s privileged background but not his role as a double agent. A fellow member of MI6, he was initially one of Philby’s staunchest defenders.
Philby was undoubtedly an odd duck who remained a mystery to most of the people in his life, but Macintyre does a wonderful job of capturing the milieu Philby lived in and the devastating damage his treachery did to both his country and his social circle. It’s a fascinating story of friendship, betrayal, espionage, and some of the most hilariously awkward dinner parties I’ve ever read about.
And as a bonus, I just learned that the book is being adapted into a British TV series, starring Guy Pearce as Philby and Damian Lewis as Elliott and currently being filmed. It’s not slated to appear until next year, but this gives you ample time to read the book and be ready. 🙂
As interesting as A Spy Among Friends was, the real standout for me in Macintyre’s bibliography is his most recent book, Agent Sonya. So much so that I asked Julie to add it to our collection. (Thanks to Julie for kindly doing so!)
Agent Sonya is the story of Ursula Kuczynski. Unlike Philby, she was never going to be seen as “one of us” to the British intelligence community. Born into an intellectual, upper-class German Jewish family, Kucyznski was motivated to join the communist party in her teens, largely as a reaction to the rise of the Nazi party. Before marrying, her work background was bookish and not at all indicative of a life of espionage–she worked as a librarian and for a publisher. However, while living abroad, she was recruited as a spy by a legendary agent, Richard Sorge.
What then followed was an espionage career that lasted nearly 20 years and took her to China, Poland, Switzerland, and then England. Unlike many of her cohorts, Kucyznski was never captured or killed by rival intelligence agencies, and she also was never a victim of the Soviets’ brutal habit of purging their own agents. Indeed, she even retired from the spy life on her own terms, after a career in which she became a Red Army colonel and served as the Soviet Union’s most valuable agent in England during WWII. Indeed, her work is largely responsible for the Soviets gaining highly classified information on the atom bomb.
Like Philby, Kucyznski didn’t arouse suspicion in people. To her friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, she was a friendly, down-to-earth housewife and mother. Her one foray into employment during her life as a spy was as an innocuous door-to-door bookseller. Even the MI5 agents tasked with watching her underestimated her. By day, she cooked and cleaned and raised her kids while also arranging meetings with her own agents, and by night, she sent coded messages to Moscow. The result is a thrilling tale of high-stakes espionage that spans multiple countries and 2 continents, set against the backdrop of the Great Depression and WWII.
I’ve not seen that Macintyre’s book on Kucyznski has been optioned for adaptation like his Philby book, but I certainly hope someone eventually makes a film or TV show about such an inherently cinematic story.
Recommended for those who enjoy the work of Leo Marx and John Le Carre.
*A Spy Among Friends is also available as an ebook on Libby.
Have you read these books? Are you a Ben Macintyre fan? What’s your favorite spy story? What are you reading? Tell us in the comments! As always, please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on either of these items or to place them on hold.