Sunday, July 27, 2014

New Nonfiction on Spy Kim Philby: Two Lively Reviews and an Interview

The espionage novels of John Le Carré, for me, are more than classic spy fiction -- they are the material I go to repeatedly when I want to analyze for myself how a gifted storyteller can deepen a sentence or passage, open a character, revel in rich description without slowing the action.

So I listened eagerly to this morning's National Public Radio interview with author Ben Macintyre, whose new book is A SPY AMONG FRIENDS: KIM PHILBY AND THE GREAT BETRAYAL. And it's a sign of how fiction can become part of us that I thought, "Amazing! The way Macintyre described him, Kim Philby was enormously like Le Carré's character Bill Haydon!"

And that's almost exactly backwards. Le Carré built Bill Haydon, nemesis of his loyal British spymaster George Smiley, after considerable research into Kim Philby. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) was the result, ten years after the end of Philby's espionage career.

The review of A SPY AMONG FRIENDS in today's New York Times book review section uses a quote from Le Carré at the end of the review, in a very satisfying way. In fact, the novelist adds an afterword to Macintyre's new book, sharing notes from his 1986 interview with Nicholas Elliot, a fellow spy (loyal in this case to the British) who hero-worshipped Kim Philby until Philby's shocking life as a double agent, working for the Soviets, was revealed.

What makes Macintyre's book especially appealing to me is his willingness to dive into Philby's psychology -- as well as Macintyre's established record of portraying the English with nine previous books that unearth and vividly capture betrayal and crime among the "well-dresssed British men in danger" (Boston Globe reviewer Matthew Price's phrase).

For a delicious set of view of the book, check out today's review and the interview (which will be available as an audio file after noon today). As NY Times reviewer Walter Isaacson wrote, "I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a novel." This book will be a great treat for fans of espionage fiction, and for those who love a classic British mystery.

The New York Times review is here.

The Boston Globe review is here.

And for the NPR review, click here.

No comments: