A SPY NAMED ORPHAN by Roland Philipps


The Enigma of Donald Maclean
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A tale of the tangled web spun by a Briton who spied for the Soviet Union and ended his days in Moscow exile.

Less cynical, and perhaps less effective, than his contemporaries Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, fellow members of the spy ring that came to be called the Cambridge Five, Donald Maclean (1913-1983) was a true believer in the communist cause. After defecting to the Soviet Union, he wrote to his mother that he had “done nothing of which I am ashamed and of which you need be ashamed for me.” The British government felt differently, of course. Philipps, whose grandfather worked alongside Maclean in the Foreign Office, turns in a careful though fairly bland study of Maclean and his motivations, which, though apparently pure, were given a desperate edge by a long dependence on alcohol. As the author writes, if the Cambridge University of the 1920s was a broadly conservative place, by the 1930s, in the words of the poet Julian Bell, “a very large majority of the more intelligent undergraduates are Communists, or almost Communists.” That was certainly true of Maclean, who otherwise had few of the psychological markers that Soviet spy recruiters sought—e.g., low self-esteem and distance among family members. Maclean was a solid performer as a spy, heeding instructions not to socialize with his fellow spooks inasmuch as it was “against Soviet tradecraft to allow social contacts between agents,” even as Philby and Burgess broke that rule by living together. Maclean performed his government job well, too, leading to a posting in Washington, D.C., where he enjoyed “unparalleled access…[in] the hub of the Western allies in the rapidly burgeoning Cold War.” Even so, writes Philipps, the Soviets were careful to shield him from the likes of Alger Hiss, the Venona project, and other spy operations.

A solid if sometimes plodding account, of much interest to students of espionage and counterintelligence.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-393-60857-1
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2018


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