A dizzying “what if” take on (in)famous British spy Kim Philby.
In 1963, Kim Philby, a member of British Intelligence, was exposed as a double agent working for Russia. The case continues to provide a mother lode for spy novels, and in this latest, Littell (The Stalin Epigram, 2009, etc.) spins the story even further, building to a finish that suggests the story still offers at least one more stunning “shoe drop.” Littell’s narrative follows the outlines of Philby’s private and public lives, which here are inextricably linked. The story unfolds in a series of first-person accounts from friends, lovers and contacts who knew Philby at key junctures in his career as an agent. There’s Litzi Friedman, who first puts callow but wary Philby in touch with the Russians when he visits Vienna; Guy Burgess, Philby’s flamboyantly gay classmate at Cambridge, whom Philby enlists as a spy for the Soviets; Frances Doble, a film star who romances Philby as he reports on the Spanish Civil War for the London Times; and Philby’s father, Harry St John Bridger Philby, aka “the Hajj.” From these narratives emerges a mural of the history of espionage before, during and after World War II, as well as an in-depth portrait of Philby, who becomes a canny informant despite his fear of the sight of blood. The narrators speak with distinctive voices, yet the chapters are unified by the dark lens of Littell’s mordant take on spies and their craft. As in The Company (2002), Littell shows particular skill at recreating pulse-quickening epic scenes of conflict—the Russian-backed uprising against Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, the war against fascist dictator Francisco Franco, and the horrors of Stalin’s kangaroo courts and of Moscow prisons. Veteran Littell remains unbowed by commercial pressures to speed up the text. Elegantly written paragraphs and speeches running to half pages distinguish his work.
A Cold-War spy novel for the top shelf.