The Master Spy

Knightley, a British journalist who has written extensively about espionage, based his study on twenty years of correspondence with Philby and six days of interviews a few weeks before the spy’s death in May, 1988. He shows how Philby, while at the University of Cambridge in the 1930’s, gradually embraced communism and was recruited, along with classmates Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Anthony Blunt, by Soviet intelligence.

The most compelling part of Philby’s story is his rise in Great Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), which he joined at the start of World War II, soon becoming head of counterintelligence. After the war, he was considered heir to the leadership of SIS before he was compromised in 1951 when Burgess and Maclean defected to the Soviet Union. Philby lost his position of influence but, since no one could prove he was a double agent, continued working for the British until his own defection in 1963. He spent his remaining years in Moscow as a high-ranking officer in the KGB.

Despite betraying his country, causing the deaths of dozens of agents, mistreating the first three of his four wives, neglecting his five children, and being an alcoholic, Philby was a man of great charm and dedication, qualities that account for his success with the British in fighting Nazi Germany and as a double agent. Knightley, who admires Philby for the strength of his convictions, admits that his account is far from all there is to say about this spy involved in many of this century’s most significant events; clearly, there is no one explanation for Philby’s complex motivations.