The Myths of Kim Philby

Reprinted from Washington Decoded.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
Ben Macintyre
Crown. 384 pp. $27

In A Spy Among Friends, author Ben Macintyre portrays Harold A. R. “Kim” Philby as a charming, glamorous double agent, a Marxist Scarlet Pimpernel, able to confound British and American intelligence officials even after his complicity as a Soviet spy should have been apparent to all. The New York Times named A Spy Among Friends one of the top 50 non-fiction books of 2014, and it has been praised by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Walter Isaacson, and David Ignatius, among others.

While the book is an entertaining read, Macintyre’s account of Philby as the Perfect Mole is deeply flawed. A Spy Among Friends perpetuates several myths: it misstates Philby how Philby was viewed by the intelligence communities in Britain and the United States; it downplays the critical role of the FBI and the VENONA intercepts in exposing Philby and his fellow “Cambridge Five” spies; and it ignores perhaps Philby’s most significant “great betrayal”—the role that he and his fellow agents, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, played in passing American military plans to Moscow during the Korean war.

Macintyre centers his narrative around Philby’s friendship with fellow MI6 official Nicholas Elliott, a story suggested by John le Carré (aka David Cornwell) as one worthy of telling; le Carré accordingly contributes an afterword to the book.  Yet this angle, allegedly the “best untold spy story of the Cold War” according to Macintyre and le Carré, isn’t particularly compelling. Elliott was a rather conventional, clubbable intelligence officer whose main claim to fame was believing in Philby until his friend’s guilt became impossible to deny. Rather than thinking for himself, Macintyre simply doubled-down on le Carré’s rendering of the Philby saga. Le Carré is famously invested, of course, in the symbolic importance of Philby-as-Master-Spy, elusive betrayer of a decadent Establishment. The famous fictional mole at the Circus, Bill Haydon, was a thinly-veiled stand-in for Philby in le Carré’s celebrated novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The Legend of Philby’s Charm

It’s true that many within Philby’s insular, hard-drinking Oxbridge circle succumbed to what Macintyre calls his “golden charm,” and were shocked when the truth emerged. Graham Greene, who worked with Philby during the Second World War, never abandoned his hero-worship of Philby, even visiting him in Moscow after he defected.

But that was not how Philby was universally perceived. Others in British intelligence weren’t as entranced. Senior MI6 official Patrick Reilly, for example, objected strenuously to the idea of Philby as future head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) when it was proposed in the early 1950s. “I’m not particularly sensitive,” Reilly later explained,  “but it was the only time in my life when I felt, ‘There is something wrong with this fellow.’”[1]

When Philby arrived in Washington in 1949 to become the British liaison to American intelligence (replacing Donald Maclean), he failed to impress many of his new colleagues. The FBI’s Robert Lamphere expressed surprise that this stammering Englishman was a top SIS official: “Kim Philby was seedy and spoke with a stutter. His clothes were loose-fitting and shabby, and his face and figure had few notable features. I could hardly believe that this unimpressive man was being spoken of as a future chief of MI-6, in line for a knighthood.”[2]

Soon, the CIA’s Frank Wisner suspected Philby of betraying Albanian émigrés, who were engaged in a series of ill-founded covert operations aimed at spurring a revolt in Communist Albania. The CIA’s counterintelligence chief, William King Harvey, came to distrust Philby as well. Allen Dulles, then the Agency’s deputy director of intelligence, also developed reservations about Philby. Dulles shared his concerns with CIA director Walter Bedell Smith in 1951, who alerted deputy director William Jackson and Jackson moved to shut off Philby’s access to top-secret information.[3]

Macintyre fails to mention any of this. He sticks to the myth of Philby’s golden charm (“Philby loved Washington, and Washington loved him”) and apparently accepts at face value Philby’s dismissive views of his American colleagues:

There was Johnny Boyd, assistant director of the FBI (“by any objective standard, a dreadful man”); Frank Wisner, head of the Office of Policy Coordination (“balding and self-importantly running to fat”); Bill Harvey of CIA counterintelligence (“a former FBI man . . . sacked for drunkenness”); CIA chief Walter Bedell Smith (“a cold, fishy eye”);  deputy CIA head and future chief Allen Dulles (“bumbling”); Bob Lamphere of the FBI (“puddingy”); and many more.[4]

Philby shared these opinions in his autobiography, My Secret War. In retrospect, it’s clear they reflect his pique that he couldn’t charm and fool the “plodding” plebian Americans the way he had some of his colleagues at home. In fact, British counterintelligence was shoddy. Klaus Fuchs, the physicist who passed atomic secrets to the Soviets, was cleared six times by Roger Hollis, future director general of MI5 (the British equivalent of the FBI). One of the Cambridge Five, Anthony Blunt, estimated that there were twenty or thirty more Soviet moles well placed within the British government; others, like MI5’s Peter Wright, believed the numbers were higher.[5]

It was an American operation—the VENONA decrypts of Soviet cable traffic—that directly led to the unmasking of both Fuchs and the Cambridge spies. A cable that pointed to a high-placed British penetration agent, HOMER, in Washington led investigators to Donald Maclean. When Maclean, along with Guy Burgess (a second secretary at the British Embassy who was living in Philby’s house), bolted for Moscow in late May 1951, the damning links to Philby were obvious.

For all intents and purposes, Philby’s usefulness as a Soviet agent ended with the defections of Maclean and Burgess. Throughout A Spy Among Friends, Macintyre Venonaargues that senior members of the British and American intelligence establishment accepted Philby’s protestations of innocence. The record, instead, suggests that MI6’s defense of Philby was more about protecting bureaucratic turf and a reflexive closing of ruling-class ranks. There was no support for Philby in the United States, and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, for one, argued vigorously for public exposure of Philby’s treachery.

After the Maclean-Burgess defections, CIA director Smith dispatched an ultimatum to Stewart Menzies, MI6 chief, demanding that London remove Philby—or Smith would cease all collaboration with the British. Smith sent a note to a British colleague about Philby:  “I hope the bastard gets his. I know a couple of Albanian tribesmen who would like to have half an hour apiece with him.”[6]

Contrary to the picture Macintyre paints, top MI6 officials also reluctantly recognized that Philby was most likely the Third Man. James Easton, assistant to Menzies, accepted the American case against Philby (“a practiced liar and . . . therefore capable of anything”). Menzies, who retired in 1952, “suffered from nightmares, apparently to do with Philby”—which is hardly the profile of a man at ease with the idea of Philby’s innocence. MI5’s Dick White informed both Menzies and his successor, John Sinclair, that Philby was a security risk and most likely guilty of espionage (White was named head of MI6 in 1956).[7]

Philby’s replacement in Washington, John Bruce-Lockhart of MI6, began his first meeting with Smith by saying, “Walter, what happened with Philby and those other bastards is the greatest betrayal I know. My job here is to make sure there is a way past that.” (Despite the reference to a “Great Betrayal” in his book’s subtitle, Macintyre doesn’t include this quote).[8]

Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan’s infamous public exoneration of Philby in the House of Commons in 1955 was driven by British political considerations, not by what MI5 had concluded about Philby’s complicity. Macintyre concedes that point, yet argues: “But within the CIA it was generally agreed that if MI6 considered him trustworthy, and Harold Macmillan had said he was innocent, then Philby must be clean.”[9]

The idea that the CIA considered Philby “clean” is laughable. Michael Howard Holtzman, one of Angleton’s biographers, noted: “This [Macmillan’s comments on Philby] did not go down well with the Central Intelligence Agency, where Angleton, along with most others was convinced that Philby was the Third Man.” Phillip Knightley observed, “After Philby, the special relationship was never to be the same again, and his treachery so poisoned the minds of some CIA officers that . . . they were never again able totally to trust even their closest colleagues.”[10]

Macintyre argues that Angleton continued to believe in Philby’s innocence throughout the 1950s. (Philby defected to the Soviets in January 1963). While Angleton may have been fooled by Philby prior to 1951 (and even then, there are suggestions that he suspected his British colleague), it’s hard to believe he would have ignored the list of lies Philby had told over the years that were documented by the FBI and MI5. Even if Angleton had remained skeptical about the case against Philby, the senior leadership of the CIA (Smith, Dulles, Wisner, etc.) had no such illusions.[11]

Philby and Korea

There are no index entries for “Korea” and “Korean War” in A Spy Among Friends, a startling omission. The most fascinating, and unresolved, questions about the Cambridge spy ring, revolve around its impact on the Korean War. In the early years of the conflict, Maclean headed the American desk in London, while Philby and Burgess had access in Washington to not only high-level strategic intelligence (for example, Truman’s thinking on the use of atomic weapons) but also to US war plans.

General Douglas MacArthur and other US commanders complained repeatedly in 1950 and 1951 that their North Korean and Chinese adversaries appeared to have advance knowledge of their plans. William Manchester, in his biography of MacArthur, KwarAmerican Caesar, wrote: “James M. Gavin, an officer untainted by McCarthyism, recalls that during his service in the last critical months of 1950, the enemy repeatedly displayed an uncanny knowledge of UN troop deployment.” According to Manchester, Gavin became “quite sure now that all of MacArthur’s plans flowed into the hands of the Communists through the British Foreign Office.”[12]

In 1955, General James Van Fleet told US News & World Report that: “The enemy would not have entered Korea if he did not feel safe from attack in Northern China and Manchuria. My own conviction is that there must have been information to the enemy that we would not attack his home base.”[13]

Anthony Cave Brown, author of Treason in the Blood (still the definitive biography of Philby) noted in a 1994 C-SPAN interview that many officials thought that “through Philby, the Soviet government learned enough about the deployment, the limitations of the force, the lengths and breadths of the strategy in Korea to be able to launch the Chinese counteroffensive at the right place, at the right time with the right weight and with terrible destructive force. If my opinion was asked for—and it often is on this case—I would say that Philby did, in fact, provide the Soviets with that type of information.”[14]

That Macintyre ignores this angle in his book may reflect both his Anglocentrism (the focus in A Spy Among Friends rarely strays from London and environs), and also, perhaps, an unconscious desire to absolve Philby of his role in the deaths of thousands of American and, yes, British soldiers. At one point Macintyre describes Philby as a “kind lover, a good friend, a gentle father, and a generous host. He had a talent for tenderness.” It’s hard to square that portrait with a man whose betrayals caused thousands of battlefield deaths and prolonged the Korean War.[15]

The Failure of British Security Policy

Armed with the VENONA decrypts and the revelations of former Soviet spies like Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers, US counterintelligence moved aggressively to uncover and remove highly placed penetration agents. The Truman Administration’s clumsy federal loyalty program, which prompted some 3,000 or so government employees to resign and led to few hundred dismissals, undoubtedly eliminated some active or potential moles.

In Britain, it was a different story. The American approach to security was derided as excessive, McCarthyite, and consequently there was never a proper vetting of the intelligence agencies and the Foreign Service. Had it not been for VENONA, Fuchs and Maclean would not have been exposed. It’s quite possible that Kim Philby might have become SIS chief, placing a Soviet penetration agent at the head of British intelligence. During the late 1940s and 1950s, there was no George Smiley figure ready to ferret out and unmask the traitors. It’s no wonder that British intelligence was marginalized post-Philby and post-Suez, a bitterly-resented relegation that appears to have encouraged a lasting strain of snobbish anti-Americanism by British elites, as reflected in le Carré’s decades-long negative portrayal of the American “cousins.”[16]

    A Spy Among Friends offers an entertaining and amusing account of the fading English elite in all its eccentric glory—a comic Downton Abbey view of the British intelligence establishment. As a serious work of historical scholarship, however, Macintrye’s book leaves much to be desired.


Jefferson Flanders is an independent journalist and author who has contributed to Washington Decoded in the past.  His novel, The North Building, in part explores Kim Philby’s role in passing American military secrets during the Korean War.

 

[1] Tom Bower, The Perfect English Spy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 103.

[2] Robert J. Lamphere, The FBI-KGB War (Macon, GA: Macon University Press, 1995), 130.

[3] Anthony Cave Brown, Treason in the Blood (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 422; Leonard Mosley, Dulles: A Biography of Eleanor, Allen and John Foster Dulles and Their Family Network (New York: The Dial Press/James Wade, 1978), 284-285.

[4]Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (New York: Crown, 2014), 132.

[5] Robert C. Williams, Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 97.

[6] Mosley, Dulles, 285.

[7] Brown, Treason, 442-443; Stephen Dorril, MI6 (New York: The Free Press, 2000), 494; Bower, Perfect English Spy, 132-134.

[8] Quoted in Gordon Thomas, Secret Wars: One Hundred Years of British Intelligence Inside MI5 and MI6 (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2009), 131.

[9] Macintyre, Spy Among Friends, 226.

[10] Michael Howard Holtzman, James Jesus Angleton, the CIA, and the Craft of Counterintelligence (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press), 134; Philip Knightley, The Second Oldest Profession  (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 276.

[11] In 1950, Israeli intelligence officer Teddy Kollek, later mayor of Jerusalem, encountered Philby on a visit to CIA headquarters. Kollek remembered attending Philby’s marriage to an Austrian Communist, Litzi Friedmann, in Vienna in 1934 and he promptly recounted as much to Angleton. This incident is not mentioned in A Spy among Friends. (See Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel’s Intelligence Community (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), 91-92.

[12] William Manchester, American Caesar (New York: Back Bay Books, 2008), 597.

[13] Verne W. Newton, The Cambridge Spies: The Untold Story of Maclean, Philby, and Burgess in America (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1991), 295.

[14] C-SPAN Booknotes, Anthony Cave Brown: Treason in the Blood, Program Air Date: 15 January 1995.

[15] Macintyre, Spy Among Friends, 215.

[16] While John Bingham, the model for le Carré’s fictional George Smiley, worked for MI5 in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, he played no role in the investigation of Philby or the other Cambridge spies or George Blake, a MI6 official who betrayed scores of agents behind the Iron Curtain. See Michael Jago, The Man Who Was George Smiley: The Life of John Bingham (London: Biteback Publishing, 2013).

©2015 by Jefferson Flanders

Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2015

Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2015

Here are my picks for the best spy novels of 2015. Some of these thrillers may make the bestseller lists, and others may prove to have a narrower reader appeal. Please note that I’m partial to historical fiction about espionage that has a literary flair; the novels I’ve selected reflect that bias.

(Click for my list of 2014’s top spy thrillers and 2013’s top spy thrillers ).

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon – TOP SPY NOVEL OF 2015

Leaving Berlin may be the most suspenseful of Joseph Kanon’s historical spy thrillers, a beautifully-crafted and evocative novel set in the ruins of 1949 East Berlin. Kanon’s The Good German took place a few years earlier, in 1945 Berlin, and he has an affinity for the city and its culture (just as novelist Alan Furst does for Paris between the wars.)

Leaving Berlin

The novel’s protagonist is Alex Meier, a German-Jewish author who has spent the Second World War in Hollywood but has now run afoul of Congressional investigators who want him to “name names,” which as a matter of principle he won’t. No longer welcome in America, Meier finds himself warmly welcomed by the Soviet authorities ruling Berlin. But Meier has struck a secret, Faustian bargain with the CIA—in exchange for his eventual readmission to the U.S., where his twelve-year old son lives, he will spy on the Russians and their German Stalinist helpers.

Meier is not the only literary exile returning to post-war Berlin; Kanon includes two real-life figures—Bertolt Brecht, the German Marxist poet and playwright, and the anti-Fascist writer Anna Seghers (the pseudonym adopted by Anna Reiling)—who have also decided to live under Communism in the hopes of building a new society, a Workers’ Paradise.

Meier finds a city full of contrasts. Berliners can still travel between the Soviet, American, French, and British sectors. At the same time, however, the Soviets are trying to force the Allies to leave by cutting off access to the food and coal necessary for the city’s very existence. The West has responded with the Berlin Airlift, and the sight and sound of airplanes flying overhead is a constant reminder in Leaving Berlin of a growing Cold War tension that Meier can’t escape.

The novel explores the moral and psychological costs of betrayal. The CIA expects Meier to spy on his German friends from the past, including the beautiful aristocrat Irene von Bernuth, once his lover; the German secret police (the K-5, later known as the Stasi) are recruiting informants; and the Russians are setting the stage for a purge of Party members who suddenly find themselves labeled as counter-revolutionaries because they’ve made the wrong joke.

Kanon has fashioned a suspenseful and engaging story against this backdrop. As Dieter, a former Berlin cop now working for the Americans, and one of the more appealing characters in the book, explains to Meier “in this business at some point you have to trust somebody.” Who Meier can trust—and how the personal can trump the political—becomes the fascinating question at the heart of Leaving Berlin, and one that commands the reader’s attention until the very last page.

One Man’s Flag by David Downing

It’s 1915 and British intelligence agent Jack McColl is back, defending the far-flung Empire as the First World War rages in Europe. David Downing introduced McColl in Jack of Spies and he’s a likeable character, an English patriot who also sympathizes with the Indian and Irish nationalists chafing under imperial rule.

One Man's Flag

Jack has been tasked with disrupting plots against His Majesty’s control of British colonies, and that puts him in tight spots from Darjeeling to Dublin. At the same time, One Man’s Flag follows the travels of the feminist American journalist Caitlin Hanley—McColl’s estranged love interest—who chronicles the brutal war on the Western front.

One Man’s Flag is an engaging read, chock full of adventure and history. The British Empire held together until after the Second World War, when demands for independence and self-determination by its colonies could no longer be denied. Until then, the Foreign Service and intelligence agencies of the Crown fought a holding action, and Downing’s Jack McColl novels should offer an intriguing short course on this somewhat ignored history.

The Mulberry Bush by Charles McCarry

The desire for revenge—for payback against those who have wronged us—taps into deep evolutionary impulses. We must punish offenders to deter others who might be tempted to wrong us. Harsh, public reprisals discourage future offenses, or to cast revenge in a more positive light, it acts to encourager les autres into better behavior.

The Mulberry Bush

Charles McCarry’s latest, The Mulberry Bush, is an intriguing novel that employs the spy thriller genre to explore the theme of revenge. McCarry, a former CIA field operative, is best known for The Tears of Autumn, which offers an inventive conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination, and the political intrigue Shelley’s Heart, which John J. Miller of the National Review has endorsed as one of ten great conservative political novels.

The plot in The Mulberry Bush is quite simple: the son of a disgraced American intelligence officer becomes a spy himself in the hopes of damaging the institution he believes has ruined his father’s life. The novel is told from the first person perspective, and the protagonist—never identified by name—becomes a skilled field agent as he climbs the career ladder within the agency (called only Headquarters in the book) preparing for a day of reckoning. He meets and falls in love with a beautiful Argentinian woman, Luz, whose parents are revolutionaries, casualties of the Dirty War waged by the Argentine military government in the 1970s. She also wants retribution for the loss of her father and mother, and she blames the Americans for their support of the junta’s torturers. Together, they weave an intricate plot against Headquarters involving Latin terrorists and Russian spies. They have not accounted for the Law of Unintended Consequences, however, and events quickly spiral out of control.

Much of The Mulberry Bush is beautifully written and artfully plotted, leavened with bits of sly humor. McCarry is particularly biting when he writes about the willingness of radical elites to sacrifice their working class foot soldiers. The novel also some interesting things to say about love and betrayal.

In the end, however, The Mulberry Bush suffers from an identity crisis of sorts: it’s not quite realistic espionage fiction, nor is it a full-throttle conspiracy-driven thriller. McCarry asks the reader to suspend disbelief once too often. Russia’s FSB (the successor to the KGB) is portrayed as a modern-day SMERSH (of James Bond fame) with tentacles everywhere. The quasi-Maoist Latin American terrorist network in the book is pure fantasy. For my money, the thriller elements don’t add anything to the novel, and detract from McCarry’s intelligent consideration of the psychic costs of getting even.

The English Spy by Daniel Silva

In the past, I haven’t included any of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels in my top spy thrillers lists. While his books are well-written and carefully researched, I’ve found Silva’s penchant for over-the-top plot twists and casual violence somewhat off-putting. But on the 2015 list I’m including The English Spy, the fifteenth in the Allon series, because of how Silva paints a disturbingly accurate picture of current Russian and Iranian intentions. As Silva noted in a recent “Meet the Press” interview, his very negative portrayal of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow Rules (2008) has proven to be spot on; it appears that his depiction of the Russian-Iranian intelligence collaboration in The English Spy is playing out in the Mideast today.

The English Spy

In The English Spy Israeli super-agent Gabriel Allon teams up with a former SAS operative in hunting down a veteran IRA bomber who has murdered a member of the British royal family. As the story unfolds, Allon learns that the Russian FSB may be involved, and that there are more targets for bombing in the United Kingdom.

What’s different about The English Spy is how Silva’s novel directly criticizes the Obama Administration’s handling of Russia and Iran. In media appearances, Silva has been skeptical about the Iran nuclear deal and its lack of “anytime, anywhere” inspections. It’s a sad commentary that this former journalist and thriller writer has a better understanding of current foreign policy realities than does the State Department and White House.

The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr says it was the encouragement of Ivan Held, president of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, that caused him to write yet another Bernie Gunther novel, even though Kerr wondered whether the character was played out after nine books. Held was proved correct by The Lady from Zagreb. There’s nothing tired or overly derivative about the novel, which features former Berlin homicide detective Gunther caught up in the dangerous internal politics of a Nazi Germany gone mad.

The Lady from Zagreb

In his latest adventure, Gunther must dance to the tune of the notorious Joseph Goebbels, the German Minister of Propaganda, who has become besotted with a mysterious Croatian actress named Darla Dresner. Goebbels tasks Gunther with persuading Dresner to star in a Nazi propaganda film, a job that takes him from Berlin to the killing fields of Croatia and then to the placid streets of Zurich.

In Switzerland Bernie tangles with Gestapo thugs and OSS agents controlled by Allen Dulles (the future CIA chief) while falling heads-over-hells for the glamorous movie star, who has a few secrets of her own. Gunther must find a way to protect a woman he now loves without signing his own death warrant, a challenge he (not surprisingly) proves capable of meeting.

It’s hard to categorize Kerr’s novels. While they often employ traditional crime story elements (an unsolved murder or two) and feature a former cop, they also involve a fair amount of political intrigue and, at times, conventional espionage. At the same time, Kerr is interested in the compromises his subversive Everyman, Bernie Gunther, must make to stay alive and in what he can salvage of decency and love in a world seemingly without morality.

The Swimmer by Joakim Zander

The English translation of Joakim Zander’s The Swimmer arrives with considerable advance praise: author Joseph Finder lauds it as “comparable to the best of Le Carré,” and Kirkus Reviews calls it a “compulsively readable page-turner with unexpected heart.”

The Swimmer

There’s no question that Zander, a Swedish author and lawyer, has carefully read Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy ( The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) and many of Larsson’s elements turn up in The Swimmer: a female punk hacker, corrupt lawyers, sinister conspiracies, Sweden in the winter, and even a sly meta-reference to Lisbeth Salander. A blurb on the novels’s inside book flap trumpets “Homeland meets Stieg Larsson.”

While an engaging beach or airport read, The Swimmer doesn’t live up to the literary hype—it’s more Dan Brown than John Le Carré. Zander understands how to keep a thriller moving, and he successfully borrows Brown’s technique of brief chapters ending with an unresolved conflict or crisis. Yet the novel is driven by an implausible plot (daylight gun battles in Brussels and Paris?) and a lazy Euro-left stance toward Islamic jihadism that—after the Charlie Hebdo attack and the rise of ISIS—is completely out of touch with current reality.

Zander’s novel focuses on American misdeeds in the War on Terror, echoing some of le Carré’s concerns explored in A Delicate Truth and A Most Wanted Man, but without Le Carre’s restraint and appreciation of nuance. (Zander does adopt le Carre’s reflexive anti-Americanism which remains fashionable in many European circles.)

The characters in The Swimmer aren’t fleshed out: there’s a deep-cover CIA agent, a bunch of young Swedish lawyers of varying backgrounds (a plucky feminist, an academic of Middle Eastern heritage, a sleek, corporate striver), a ruthless group of American intelligence contractors, and (of course) that punk-culture hacker. The narrative switches back and forth between Stockholm, Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam, the U.S., and the Middle East and Zander is at his best in his description of the varying urban landscapes.

Every reader, and reviewer, has her or her prejudices. I could do without Zander’s repeated references to brand names (Helly Hansen, Volvo, Nike, Elsa Beskow, Svenskt Tenn, Nespresso, Turnbull & Asser, iPhone, and Montblanc in the first 30 pages alone.) At least if there’s a movie version, product placement won’t be a problem.

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

Olen Steinhauer takes some risks with All the Old Knives, writing a stripped-down spy thriller that focuses on character rather than action, and the personal rather than the political. Forewarned is forearmed—readers looking for page-turning derring do will be disappointed but those intrigued by a deeper consideration of how intelligence officers struggle to balance loyalty and love will be rewarded.

All the Old Knives

The novel takes place in the recent past and is set primarily in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Henry Pelham, a CIA agent based in Vienna, meets Celia Harrison, his former colleague and lover, for dinner at a “foodie” restaurant. Celia is married, with two children, but Henry still carries a torch for her. He has a professional reason for meeting her, however: the Agency is investigating a skyjacking at the Vienna airport six years earlier involving jihadist terrorists. Henry needs Celia’s recollections of how the CIA station handled the crisis, which ended tragically.

As they discuss the hostage situation and the past over a leisurely dinner, some disturbing questions emerge. Did someone in the Agency help the terrorists? Who? If so, why? At the same time, Henry has another more personal question he wants answered: why did Celia decide to break it off with him immediately after the crisis and leave the CIA?

All the Old Knives doesn’t boast an elaborate and complex plot, nor are the twists and turns Steinhauer introduces particularly surprising (or completely plausible); the strength of the novel lies in its exploration of Henry and Celia and why they have been drawn to intelligence work and to each other. They are flawed—adept at lying, wary of intimacy, ruthless when cornered—and, in the end, made for each other.

(Click for my list of 2014’s top spy thrillers and 2013’s top spy thrillers ).


Copyright © 2015 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Click to view the video trailer for Jefferson Flanders’ critically-acclaimed: First Trumpet Cold War trilogy.

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Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2014

The news of late has included Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA digital espionage, Senator Diane Feinstein’s public quarrel with the CIA over its alleged spying on Senate staffers, and cloak-and-dagger operations in Crimea and the Ukraine (ordered by former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin). Can spy novelists craft fiction in 2014 that’s as intriguing and surprising as reality? Thankfully for those of us who enjoy the genre, some of those writing spy thrillers today are up to the challenge.

My picks for these top espionage novels published in 2014 include some contemporary tales as well as spy fiction with a historical flavor (which I find more appealing as a reader than techno-thrillers).

(Click for my list of 2013’s top spy thrillers and 2012’s top spy thrillers ).

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

The protagonist of Midnight in Europe, Cristián Ferrat, joins the line of urbane, charming, and quietly courageous heroes imagined by Alan Furst in his historical spy fiction. Ferrat, a Spaniard living in Paris and working for an American law firm, is enjoying the good life when the Spanish Civil war erupts in 1936. He’s recruited by the Republican government to help in procuring arms for its hard-pressed army, a difficult task because of the arms embargo on Spain observed by France, England, and the United States (but not by Germany and Italy, who eagerly supplied weapons to the Nationalists).

Midnight in Europe

Ferrat is no ideologue—he tells the head of security at the Spanish Embassy that he believes in parliamentary democracy and is an anti-fascist, but that he doesn’t spend much time on politics. Since the Spanish Civil War involved a bitter and primal struggle between Nationalists on the right and Loyalists on the left, it’s an interesting choice by Furst to make his main character relatively apolitical. Ferrat is at heart a romantic sophisticate—a magnet for women—but not a passionate man; he will support the Republic as best he can, but he isn’t ready to blindly sacrifice his career, or his family, for the Loyalist cause.

Ferrat teams up with a well-connected operator named Max de Lyon who knows the shady world of arms trading. Soon, they’re off to Berlin, Warsaw, Rumania, and Greece as they try to scrounge up anti-aircraft ammunition that they can ship to the Republicans in Spain. Ferrat and de Lyon must outwit Nationalist and German intelligence officers on their trail, and somehow pry loose the needed munitions from the Soviets.

Furst’s beautifully crafted prose is on full display in Midnight in Europe, and the novel is a delight to read. Once again, Furst offers a sobering portrait of the realities of European life in the 1930s as the Western democracies belatedly began to realize the existential threat that Adolf Hitler’s resurgent Germany posed.

A Colder War by Charles Cumming

The dissolution of the Soviet Union may have ended the Cold War, but as Charles Cumming highlights in A Colder War, the adversarial relationship between Russian and Western intelligence agencies persists. Since Cumming’s novel was published in England in spring 2014, the tension between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the U.S. and European Union has risen, dramatically.

A Colder War

This resurgent conflict makes it easier, in one sense, to craft a popular spy thriller, but it also challenges an author—especially an English one—to move beyond John le Carré’s now worn-out trope of Oxbridge MI6 spies searching for Russian moles while sneering at the vulgarity of their American “cousins” in the CIA. Cumming only partially succeeds in escaping these cliches—the confrontations between MI6 and the CIA in his novel seem more urgent and dramatic than those with the SVR—but he does cleverly draw on current geopolitical events (including the civil war in Syria) to give his book a more up-to-the-moment feel.

Cumming’s hero from 2012’s A Foreign Country, Thomas Kell, returns from bureaucratic limbo to investigate the suspicious death of a senior British agent in Istanbul, just as a series of recruited MI6 operatives are blown. Is there a connection between the agent’s death in a plane crash in Greece, and leaks of top secret information? Kell doggedly pursues the truth, in Turkey, the Ukraine, and in London, and Cumming knows how to keep the reader turning the page. I did find myself wondering whether MI6 had the money for the elaborate human and electronic surveillance portrayed in the novel (Britain has slashed its military and intelligence budgets over the last decade), but that’s a minor quibble. To his credit, Cumming is willing to explore his characters’ emotional lives, an element too often missing in today’s spy thrillers.

Warburg in Rome by James Carroll

While James Carroll’s book has one of the less catchy titles for a thriller—it’s Warburg in Rome, not Bond in Rome—it’s nonetheless a challenging and intriguing read. In the novel, Carroll addresses the role of the Roman Catholic Church in shielding Croatian fascists and German Nazis after World World II and shepherding them to Argentina (the infamous “ratline”). Carroll, an accomplished novelist and historian (and a former Catholic priest), infuses Warburg in Rome with a righteous indignation that challenges the preconceptions of the reader in ways that few novels in the genre do.

Warburg in Rome begins as the war in Italy is winding down and it focuses on two Americans, David Warburg, a Treasury Department official sent to help with the growing refugee crisis, and Kevin Deane, a New York priest close to Archbishop Francis Spellman. Warburg hopes to rescue as many Jews as he can from Hitler’s Final Solution in Italy and Hungary and other parts of the collapsing Nazi empire. Shocked and disillusioned by the hostility and indifference he encounters, Warburg increasingly sees the Vatican, and elements of American intelligence, as more interested in developing allies—whatever their crimes during the war—for the upcoming struggle with Stalin in Central Europe than in addressing the plight of Jews.

While Warburg in Rome is structured along the lines of a traditional thriller, Carroll highlights the disturbing history of this postwar period through a series of extended verbal clashes between Warburg and Deane over the Church’s complicity in assisting Nazi murderers and the nature of anti-Semitism. We learn more of this disturbing story as we meet some of his other characters—the alluring Marguerite d’Erasmo, a Red Cross official; Jocko Lionni, an Italian-Jewish resistance fighter; a young German priest, Father Lehmann, who assists the Nazis; and an anti-Semitic American intelligence agent, Peter Mates. The extended dialogue involving these characters slows the pace of the book, which some action-oriented readers may not like, but it provides a deeper historical context and offers a convincing and devastating indictment of those upper-echelon Church officials who so willingly harbored the fugitive war criminals of the Third Reich.

Jack of Spies by David Downing

David Downing, the creator of the John Russell series of thrillers set in Nazi Germany, has ventured into the intrigue surrounding the start of World War One in his latest novel, Jack of Spies. His latest protagonist, Scotsman Jack McColl works for the Royal Navy Intelligence Service and has been tasked with sussing out whatever mischief the Germans are plotting in various corners of the globe.

Jack of Spies

It’s a brave choice by Downing to focus on the Great Game just prior to the outbreak of the war—he enters territory well-explored by John Buchan and Erskine Childers and unlike those early 20th-century authors, he can’t assume that his readers will automatically root against “the Huns.”

Downing’s solution: Jack McColl, his hero, acknowledges that the Brits are far from perfect, and is quite sympathetic to the independence movements in India and Ireland, but sees the Germans under the Kaiser as even more flawed. His romantic interest is a spirited Irish-American feminist journalist who sides with the underdog. Jack of Spies takes us to China, San Francisco, New York, Paterson, NJ (site of the famous millworkers strike), Ireland, Scotland, England, and Mexico. While the novel might have benefited from fewer locales, the historical context is fascinating. I’ll confess I didn’t know about the battle of Veracruz in 1914, where American Marines fought the forces of Mexican dictatorl Victoriano Huerta. (And I also didn’t know Woodrow
Wilson had demanded that Huerta salute the American flag!)

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

In The Cairo Affair, Olen Steinhauer combines elements of the whodunit and the spy novel, adds in some international intrigue, and produces an entertaining page-turner that, at a deeper level, considers the nature of betrayal, personal and political.

The Cairo Affair

Intelligence agencies need those willing to betray, to cast aside old loyalties, to become double agents or moles. Beyond its practical uses, betrayal can be thrilling, a means to settle old scores, a way to add excitement to life. One character in The Cairo Affair quotes the French demimonde writer Jean Genet: “Anyone who hasn’t experienced the ecstasy of betrayal knows nothing of ecstasy at all.” Steinhauer’s exploration of this theme is what elevates this novel well above its procedural surface.

Steinhauer’s novels are driven by intricate plots, and The Cairo Affair is no exception. Set primarily in Egypt during the Libyan civil war of 2011, the action begins with the sudden gangland-style assassination of an American diplomat, Emmett Kohl, in Budapest and follows his widow, Sophie, as she tries to discover why he has been killed.

As several narrators tell the story—Sophie Kohl, CIA agent Stan Bertolli, American security contractor John Calhoun, and Egyptian intelligence officer Omar Halawi—it becomes clear that Kohl’s murder has something to do with a CIA-created covert operation called Stumbler. WikiLeaks has revealed some aspects of Stumbler—a clever touch by Steinhauer—but its true goal, to advance American commercial interests in the region by controlling the Libyan uprising, has been hidden. Sophie travels to Cairo, but her search to uncover the truth is complicated by her own troubled past. It is Halawi, a man of old-fashioned morality, who puts together the puzzle pieces and, in the end, allows Sophie to decide what sort of justice she will pursue.

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

Robert Harris is known for getting the details right in his historical fiction—as can be seen in his novels Enigma and Pompeii and even in his best-selling (and counterfactual) Fatherland which imagines a triumphant and believable Third Reich in 1964 as Adolf Hitler approaches his 75th birthday.

An Officer and a Spy

In An Officer and a Spy, Harris takes on the controversial Drefyus Affair and succeeds in crafting an intriguing thriller—quite a feat since many readers will know the resolution of this scandal which roiled French society at the turn of the century.

Harris breathes life into all of the major figures in the case: Captain Alfred Dreyfus, unjustly accused of passing secrets to the Germans, convicted, and sentenced to an inhumane imprisonment on Devil’s Island; Colonel Georges Picquart, the principled head of French counter-espionage who realizes the real traitor is a dodgy major by the name of Ferdinand Walsin Esterházy; the scheming Minister of War, General Auguste Mercier, who has his eyes on higher political office; the courageous journalist Émile Zola who defends Dreyfus, highlights the antisemitism and corrupt military justice involved, and the case an international cause celebre.

While Colonel Picquart is the hero of the novel, Harris doesn’t shy away from portraying his flaws. Picquart shares the prejudices of the French officer class of his time: he doesn’t particularly care for Jews, he’s disdainful of homosexuals, and he has little use for calculating politicians or meddling journalists. But Picquart, an idealist, also believes in the time-honored military virtues of honor and integrity. His stubborn commitment to finding the truth leads him to risk his career, and his personal happiness, as he pursues justice for Dreyfus.

Harris fuses elements of the spy novel, detective story, and courtroom drama in An Officer and a Spy. It’s an entertaining retelling of a pivotal episode in the history of Third Republic France, one that helped shape French politics for much of the 20th century.

American Romantic by Ward Just

A case could be made that American Romantic doesn’t belong on this list of spy novels. There aren’t any traditional spies in the book, and Ward Just doesn’t rely on any of the tried-and-true (and overused) plots commonly found in thrillers. But Harry Sanders, an American diplomat and the American romantic of Just’s title, does become involved in a secret mission in Vietnam that alters his life and his career in profound ways. American Romantic considers the role secrecy plays in organizations, in families, and in marriages, and thus, I would argue, deserves attention by any reader intrigued by the covert and clandestine—personal and political.

American Romantic

There are echoes of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn in the early chapters of Just’s novel—we are introduced to Americans, Innocents Abroad, baffled by a culture and people whose outlook is so different, so opaque, that the tragic and violent conflict in Indochina that followed should have come as no surprise.

There’s more to American Romantic than a consideration of how the United States dealt with the demands of imperium after winning World War II. Just doesn’t neglect the personal lives of his characters. Sanders has a brief affair with a German woman in Vietnam and never quite resolves his feelings for her. He must deal with small and large tragedies in his marriage. After diplomatic postings in Asia, Africa, and Europe, Sanders becomes a permanent expat, retiring to France and not his native New England—a telling statement about his progressive detachment from his own countrymen and culture.

There’s an elegiac tone to the novel—the postwar optimism and certainty of purpose of American elites was sorely tested as the Cold War progressed. American Romantic reflects that reality. In Washington’s corridors of power, America’s rightful place in the world seemed clear in 1945—what it should be today is not as obvious.

(Click for my list of 2013’s top spy thrillers and 2012’s top spy thrillers ).


Copyright © 2014 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Click to purchase the critically-acclaimed First Trumpet Cold War thrillers by Jefferson Flanders: Herald Square, The North Building, and The Hill of Three Borders.


Joseph Conrad and “The Secret Sharer”

Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” is usually grouped with his other sea stories for critical consideration, but the nautical setting is incidental—it is the “conflict within” that fascinated the Polish-English writer, a reflection, we can conjecture, of Conrad’s own identification as a homo duplex—a “double man.”

The Secret Sharer

English was Conrad’s second language, and he acknowledged his own dual loyalties when he told a British friend in 1903: “Both at sea and on land, my point of view is English, from which the conclusion should not be drawn that I have become an Englishman. That is not the case. Homo duplex has in my case more than one meaning.”

The immigrant Conrad struggled with this dual national identity, balancing two cultures and allegiances, knowing that he would always be considered somewhat less than truly English. Conrad understood full well the potential for alienation and conflict that such a straddling act could produce.

“The Secret Sharer,” published in 1911 in Harper’s Magazine, was, according to Conrad, based on both his own experiences as a young captain and on the highly publicized murder of a sailor on the clipper ship Cutty Sark in 1880 by the first mate (who subsequently killed himself).

Not much occurs in the “The Secret Sharer”per se: there are no shipwrecks or mutinies, no sea battles or feats of seamanship. The drama, for the most part, takes place in the mind (and heart) of the unnamed young English captain—the narrator—who has recently assumed command, his first, of an unnamed ship off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Siam (Thailand).

As the story opens, another young Englishman, Lassatt, swims to the ship, a fugitive from justice. An officer aboard the ship Sephora, Lassatt has killed a sailor during a crisis in bad weather; he openly explains his situation and acknowledges his guilt in the matter to the captain. Like the story’s narrator, Lassatt has been schooled on the Conway—the training vessel for the Royal Navy and British Merchant Marine—and the young captain immediately identifies with him.

He decides to shelter Lassatt, hiding him in his cabin, concealing his presence from the crew. It’s never made clear why he identifies with the fugitive so deeply: is it the bond between two sensitive men of the same social class? Is there an element of sexual attraction? Is Lassatt his doppelganger, his double?

Conrad’s unnamed narrator struggles with this, drawn to the fugitive, and yet aware of the twisted aspects to the relationship.

He was not a bit like me, really; yet, as we stood leaning over my bed place, whispering side by side, with our dark heads together and our backs to the door, anybody bold enough to open it stealthily would have been treated to the uncanny sight of a double captain busy talking in whispers with his other self.

“The Secret Sharer” is about duality (the text is crammed with references to “my other self,” “my double, “the secret sharer of my life,” “my intelligent double”), a common theme in 19th century literature: think of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Poe’s William Wilson, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” In fact, Conrad revised the title of the story from “The Secret-Sharer” to “The Secret Sharer” so that dualism was recognized from the start.

The question of command

While the Other Self fascinates Conrad, the story is also about command—command in the sense of commanding a ship, but also of commanding one’s destiny. One critical interpretation of the story sees the episode with Leggatt as the mechanism by which the young captain faces down his self-doubts and assumes his responsibilities as the authority figure on his own ship. Certainly the resolution of the story suggests that Conrad introduced the fugitive as a way to force his young narrator to confront the very question of command. It is an unabashedly male question for Conrad: does the captain have the strength and resolve to deserve command? Can he gain the respect of his crew—who wait to see that his titular authority is matched by competence and judgment?

Joseph Conrad

Where Conrad’s work rises above the conventional sea story is in his portrait of his hesitant, conflicted captain. The narrator confesses: “But what I felt most was my being a stranger to the ship; and if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself.” He doubts himself: “…I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.”

In contrast to this hesitancy, C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower or Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey—perhaps the two best-known protagonists in 20th century nautical fiction—rarely if ever suffer from self-doubt or second thoughts: they are “men of action” and natural leaders, cool and collected in times of crisis.

It is now clear that neither Forester (the pen name of Cecil Louis Troughton Smith) nor O’Brian (named Richard Patrick Russ at birth) were the naval experts they made themselves out to be; both fashioned public biographies that veered sharply from the truth. Indeed, Patrick O’Brian, who was neither Irish nor a retired naval officer as assumed by many readers, apparently had limited hands-on sailing skills! It is a testament to his skills as a researcher, and his imaginative powers, that he could produce the Aubrey–Maturin series. Perhaps Conrad’s stint as a sea captain freed him to explore the ambiguity of command in ways that Forester and O’Brian—concerned about “authenticity”— could not.

By the close of “The Secret Sharer,” Conrad’s young captain embraces his command, just as he bids farewell to “the secret sharer of my life.” He confronts this alone, having faced down his prior doubts (made human in the form of Lassatt?), and he now turns eagerly to this new responsibility. “Nothing! no one in the world should stand now between us, throwing a shadow on the way of silent knowledge and mute affection, the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command.”


The Amazon.com link for the reviewed story:

Joseph Conrad: “The Secret Sharer” and Other Stories


©2006, 2015 by Jefferson Flanders