Review: The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre

9780241186657As compulsive and pulse-pounding as any thriller I’ve read this year — any year, actually — Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and Traitor recounts the life of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer turned MI6 spy, who will go down in history as one of the greatest and most influential assets of British intelligence.

In A Spy Among Friends  still my favourite Ben Macintyre book, though this one comes close the author explored the hidden truth of Kim Philby’s treachery, who is perhaps the most infamous double agent. ‘Philby tasted the powerful drug of deception as a youth, and remained addicted to infidelity for the rest of his life,’ wrote Macintyre, explaining that while Philby’s motivations for switching allegiances were originally rooted in communist ideology, it was his innate desire to burrow into the most exclusive of clubs — into a society so secret and insulated — that drove his prolonged sedition. The same question that drove A Spy Among Friends drives The Spy and the Traitor: what caused a seemingly loyal agent to turn?

Oleg Gordievsky was a secret agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service for more than a decade. Admitted to the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations before eventually being recruited to the KGB, he was content to eschew his partiality for democracy when the Berlin Wall went up and continue carrying out his orders. Of course, disenchantment with one’s profession occurs in every line of work; it’s not necessarily enough to warrant treason. But for Gordievsky, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was the last straw; a final provocation, the nail in the coffin of Gordievsky’s belief in the Soviet system. He was ripe for the turning, and he became such a prized operative to the British that his true identity was withheld from the country’s allies — including America’s Central Intelligence Agency.

But when the CIA eventually learned Gordievsky’s identity, a disgruntled officer named Aldrich Ames  — discontented with his lot in life and his standing within the agency — decided to sell secrets to the Soviets, which set in motion Gordievsky’s spectacular escape from Moscow to the West. Macintyre’s storytelling here is filmic, cutting back and forth between the various players involved, masterfully ratcheting the suspense. Not even Daniel Silva or John le Carré, with the benefit of their imaginations, could conjure a getaway as riveting as Macintyre’s retelling of Gordievsky’s.

ISBN: 9780241186664
Format: Paperback / softback (234mm x 153mm x 29mm)
Pages: 384
Imprint: Viking
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 20-Sep-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: SAS Rogue Heroes – The Authorized Wartime History by Ben Macintyre

9780241186633Last year I was blown away by Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends and quickly worked my way through much of his back list. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction; and I especially don’t read a lot of history — though that’s gradually changing, through no conscious effort on my part — but Macintyre’s work is nothing short of exceptional, blending fact with a fast-paced narrative that’s reminiscent of page-turning thrillers. His latest book, SAS Rogue Heroes: The Authorised Wartime History, takes aim at Britain’s Special Air Service — the SAS — and provides incredible insight into its formation, and its exploits during World War II. What separates Macintyre’s book from others, besides his pedigree, is that Macintyre has been granted access to the previously-clandestine SAS archives. As such, he provides illumination previous books on the subject have not, and provides the definitive account of the SAS’s operations during the Second World War.

The soldiers in the SAS were a rowdy, undisciplined, breed of men, who somehow functioned as a small, independent army dedicated to inflicting a disproportionate amount of damage to the enemy. Founded by renegade David Stirling, they were essentially a group of guerrillas who ducked behind enemy lines and created havoc. They broke the established rules of warfare — in fact, some of their deeds were considered rather “unsportsmanlike” to their superiors — and demonstrated incredible courage and tenacity.

The book is split into chapters which essentially spotlight specific missions, and personnel. The disparate mindsets of the SAS soldiers is particularly interesting, and it’s incredible that such a colourful cast of characters were able to gel, and become such a potent attacking force. Despite their bravado, and in certain circumstances, downright coldness and barbarity, Macintyre paints these men as real people, with real emotion coursing through their veins; they just didn’t have an outlet for that pent up rage and sadness that naturally ensues in wartime. There is real physiological insight here, which is often overlooked for analysis of operations and combat.

SAS Rogue Heroes: The Authorised Wartime History ranks up there with Ben Macintyre’s finest work. This is a book that will make you appreciate the extremes the men of the SAS were put through in order to change the course of the war. An incredibly insightful, inspiring, and action-packed read. Even if you’ve previously read about the exploits of the SAS during World War II, this book is a vital addition to the canon.

ISBN: 9780241186633
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 384
Imprint: Viking
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 22-Sep-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

A Spy Among Friends“I have always operated on two levels,” the infamous British double agent Kim Philby once said. “A personal level and a political one. When the two have come into conflict I have had to put politics first.” But such an explanation belies the hidden truth of Philby’s treacherous motivations explored in Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends; ‘Philby tasted the powerful drug of deception as a youth, and remained addicted to infidelity for the rest of his life,’ writes the author. While Philby’s motivations were originally rooted in communist ideology, it was his innate desire to burrow into the most exclusive of clubs – into a society so secret and insulated – that drove Philby’s prolonged sedition. Contrary to the nervous stutter that blotted his speech, Kim Philby was an egotist and a cold-hearted manipulator. His story sounds like fiction, and thanks to Macintyre’s fluent prose, it reads like a grand spy novel, too.

Philby’s betrayal, and that of the other members of the Cambridge Five, has been recounted in several tomes. Manintyre’s version uses the prism of friendship to present the tale from a fresh perspective, focusing on another MI6 Intelligence Officer, Nicholas Elliott, who retained a strong relationship with Philby for the duration of the traitor’s career, and who never had an inkling of his compatriot’s disloyalty. It can make for uncomfortable reading. Elliott, who enjoyed a commendable career, was a staunch advocate of Philby, putting his reputation on the line on more than once occasion for the sake of his pal. The reader, benefitted by hindsight, can’t help but feel for Elliott as he protests Philby’s innocence and goes above and beyond for his friend: the turncoat’s actions on behalf of the Soviet Union lead to the deaths of hundreds of personnel. How much of that burden weighed on Elliott’s shoulders? We’ll never really know; being a typical Englishman, ably stoic, Elliott was hardly one to vent aloud. Macintyre can’t offer decisive comment on the matter, but intersperses the finale of his text with extract from various materials, leaving the reader to ultimate decide.

A Spy Among Friends highlights the inherent flaws of the intelligence services – in particular the ‘old boy network that existed at the time – and examines the complexity of espionage, ultimately underlining the importance of luck and fortune that’s essential – or was, at least – to a long career. Evidence shows Philby’s treachery deeply impacted the USA’s Counterintelligence Chief of the time, James Jesus Angelton, who became increasingly untrustworthy of everyone in his ranks. Angleton took it personally – Philby was, after all, a friend; and Macintyre constantly hammers home this point: Philby’s actions had horrific consequences in terms of deathly statistics, but it was the personal betrayal that stung most, and resonates most deeply.

With A Spy Among Friends, Macintyre has added another gem to his glittering collection of works and cemented his reputation as one of the most palatable historians writing today.