Friday, January 29, 2016

Charm's Cold Mask: Ben Macintyre's "A Spy Among Friends"

“The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse--who can understand it?--”Jeremiah, 17:9

“. . . if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country” -- E.M. Forster

“Betrayal is a repetitious trade . . . ” --John le CarrĂ©, A Perfect Spy.

We’re all Monday-morning armchair generals. At one time or another, we all shout, “How could they not know!?” in indignant response to a surprise, that, to someone standing on the outside at a later time, seems as obvious as mud.

But for those at the center, the perceptions can be wildly different. You really can’t see the forest for the trees, even if the forest is on fire.

Case in point: Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (with an afterword by John le CarrĂ©). Macintyre is the of author of Operation Mincemeat, another terrific true-life story of twentieth-century espionage, the kind of book for which you'd happily starve in your chair.

Besides being a cracking suspenseful experience, A Spy Among Friends leaves you with many questions to ponder: the uses and treachery of charm; the opaqueness of people; the appeal and immoral nature of the spy business; the pleasures, dangers and debilitating impacts of living a secret life in a secret world. And how even the sharpest of us often miss what’s right in front of our nose.

Most significantly, it’s also about how little we know one another; how we come to fool ourselves about others in our lives, the ones we sometimes mistakenly call, with all our hearts, “friends.” Friendship is an act of faith, and like many such acts, it can end in betrayal.

My knowledge of Philby (who was the most successful agent in “The Cambridge Five” spy ring) was tangential until now, mostly gained through novels such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (declared one of the great novels of postwar England by Salman Rushdie, no less), films such as Another Country and a surprisingly dull British series, Cambridge Spies.

The Cambridge Five spy ring is legendary among Cold War historians and, especially, spy buffs: It started in 1934, when the Cambridge-educated Kim Philby started spying for Stalin’s Soviet Union against the West. For nearly the next thirty years, he fooled everyone in his circle, friends and family alike. He became the “perfect” spy.

This is, in part, also a story about class. The son of a colonial administrator and raised in England’s often brutal public school system, Philby rose to join Britain’s best and brightest. He had, in Macintyre’s words, “that inborn faith in his right, and ability, to change and rule the world.” These are attributes no ambitious member of any empire can do without.

There was also ideology. Philby was turned on to Communism in 1934, like many of the 1930s generation (including, I was told, my own college-age mother, in faraway Illinois). With Nazism on the rise as the world sank into the Great Depression, seemingly due to unregulated capitalism, communism, as cleverly represented by Soviets, seemed the right response and best option for tens of millions of people around the globe.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, as the old saying goes.

But while the romance faded for many—especially after Stalin made his pact with Hitler on the eve of World War II—it never faded with Kim Philby. He remained a true believer, loyal above all to the abstract ideology. “I have always operated on two levels,” he once said, “a personal level and a political one. When the two have come into conflict, I have had to put politics first.”

For the upper class in the British caste system, becoming a spy for the Empire was absurdly easy. There were no real background checks, as we know them. Only a whisper in the right ear, a call on “the old school tie” (not the sartorial kind, as I once imagined) and presto--the door opened into a clubby, booze-drenched, smoky secret world, elite and exclusive.

Trust was bestowed automatically, as it was on Kim Philby and his fellow spies, four other Cambridge political romantics: Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross, Guy Burgess, and Donald Mclean. Working separately within MI6 (the equivalent of the CIA), these five members of this “league of gentleman,” stole every secret they could lay their hands on, photographing and turning over huge caches of documents to their Soviet masters.

By comparison, the West had nothing on the Soviet KGB in those years. Advantage here to the Soviets. The Cambridge Five caused widespread and bloody damage. Every effort to subvert to Soviet rule was thwarted once they learned what the West was up to. It could reasonably be said this “great betrayal” both intensified and prolonged the Cold War.

In 1951, Burgess and McLean were exposed and, tipped off by Philby, fled to the Soviet Union. The more amazing part of this story was how Philby managed to hang on and keep up his front for another ten years, despite growing suspicion.

One reason for the Cambridge Five’s success was that they received enormous of unwitting help from their side. On Philby’s part, that involved following the old adage about holding your friends close, but your enemies closer

Macintyre brilliantly centers his narrative around that very idea. In this case, the ideological enemy Philby embraced most closely was one Nicholas Elliott, another proud product of the upper-crust British establishment, and, I think, this book’s most tragic figure.

Philby and Elliott met in 1940 when World War II was well underway and Philby had been spying for the Soviets for six years. Both men shared the British talent for offhand humor. For his part, Elliott was immediately enthralled by Philby’s ultra-smooth charm (to which he also added a stutter, a brilliant detail deepening the deception). Already members of the same tribe, the two of them joined MI6, an even more elite and terribly secret society.

Spies keep their secrets from the world, but, when alone among themselves with the blinds drawn and liquor gushing, even the most scrupulous can’t shut up. Especially when being charmed and entertained by someone as affable as Kim Philby. Everybody loved Philby. Everyone wanted to be his friend. The Soviets couldn’t have had a better mole.

Blinded by Philby’s rising star, the British spy establishment spent years cheerily feeding top secret information to Philby who, in turn, fed it right to his Soviet spymasters. Perhaps this was less of a problem when both sides were united against a common enemy like the Nazis, but once World War II ended and the Cold War began, it certainly became one once the former allies became enemies.

During this time, both Philby and Elliott worked their way up the British intelligence establishment, sometimes working together, sometimes not, but always in touch professionally, and especially personally. Philby also became great friends with, and simultaneous betrayer of, CIA cofounder and head James Jesus Angleton, a strange and even horrific individual, whose betrayal by Philby turned him into a clinical paranoid who nearly destroyed the CIA.

Philby encouraged and nurtured these relationships with breathtaking cold duplicity, even as his own handlers on the Soviet side were being murdered in Stalin’s purges. No one, nothing mattered but the Cause.

No wonder the Cold War never seemed to end. The Soviets had more than our number—they had the whole damn Rolodex.

Even after suspicion fell on Philby in 1951 after the defection of Burgess and McLean (following Philby’s tip-off), Elliott and the MI6 establishment stuck by him. Philby was dismissed from MI6 for a time, but was eventually allowed back in.

But his Boy Wonder days were over. Philby would never be fully trusted again. Add to that, he was sinking into a whirlpool of alcoholic dissolution, common throughout the secret world, where severe stress is almost constant. And when Soviet defectors started crossing over with stories of an “Agent Stanley” and witnesses from Philby’s youthful past started filling in other details, what most everyone outside the Philby circle suspected became obvious.

Even so, according to Macintyre, Elliot and his bosses in the British government couldn’t bring themselves to arrest Philby: He had burrowed so deep and risen so high in MI6, even becoming chief liaison between the British Government and the CIA, that trying him on charges of treason and espionage would have only added to the already terrible damage, exposing more secrets, further ruining international relationships.

After Elliott finally confronted Philby in a Beirut hotel room in 1963, a conversation evidence shows as excruciatingly polite as only the British can be, he and his government stepped back and allowed Philby to slip away . . .

 . . . to Soviet oblivion as it turns out. Though well-treated on his arrival in Moscow, Kim Philby was never allowed to feel at home. “In Britain,” Macintyre writes, “Philby was too British to be doubted; in Russia, he was too British to be believed.” In the end, Philby, a man who transcended Forster’s choice to betray both friends and country, turned against Communism, but too late to do him or anyone much good.

As he did in Operation Mincemeat, Ben Macintyre tells a terrific, absorbing story, full of human detail and a sharp eye for individual quirks, especially among British eccentrics (Philby kept a wild fox as a pet, for instance, while Elliott was a relentless kidder with a flair for the off-color joke.)

But Operation Mincemeat was the story of a wartime success. A Spy Among Friends is a much darker, even tragic, story of betrayal that does credit to no one. It’s the kind of book you close with a head shake and a sad sigh.

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Splendid Villains #1: Alan Rickman

Alan Rickman, who passed away recently (to great disappointment and surprise), was a terrific movie villain, one of the best to ever stride the screen. Like all fans of movie bad guys, I was thrilled to my toes by his debut as Hans Gruber in 1989’s Die Hard, a scene-stealing turn worthy of Sidney Greenstreet’s in The Maltese Falcon.

In most of his villainous roles, Mr. Rickman played the civilized and smooth ultra-sophisticate type: courtly, often British, definitely with an international flair. They speak with mellifluous diction and take their tea every afternoon at four on the chimes, heartlessly sipping Earl Gray with their pinkies up, as they watch their minions torture and toy with the hero. If they tend toward the Germanic—like Herr Gruber--they might listen to Beethoven Quartets as they beam at der Fuehrer’s portrait.  (You can always tell the Bad Guy: he’s the one with manners and good taste!)

Rickman was both a great villain and the very best of actors, as he proved time and again throughout the 1990s and 2000s, in films such Sense and Sensibility, and the achingly bittersweet Truly, Madly, Deeply

As Rasputin

And he could also play characters from society’s lower depths. If you can find it, watch his Emmy-winning, unforgettable turn as the title character in HBO’s Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny. Here, Rickman played the flip side of Hans Gruber, as the rough, pseudo-mystical peasant opportunist who helped bring down the Romanov Dynasty. Alan Rickman could play lowlife villainy with a panache equal to his upper crust characters.

Rickman demonstrated one of my favorite Hitchockian adages: the better the villain, the better the movie. He was the only—really the only—good thing about Kevin Costner’s lumbering Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as George, Sherriff of Nottingham (putting him in direct line with another great well-mannered scoundrel, Claude Rains from the still-best Errol Flynn Robin Hood.) A hammy performance? Sure, just what a movie like that needed.

Another striking Rickman memory comes from the first Harry Potter film, The Philosopher’s Stone. Just when that picture was threatening to sink to the bottom of my cold pond of memory, Alan Rickman as Severus Snape bounded into the classroom and for a short time, ruthlessly grabbed the movie all to himself like a kitten he’s eager to drown. The rest of the movie is vague to me, and I never saw any of the sequels.

And now that he’s gone, I’m considering setting out on the Harry Potter journey after all, just to watch Alan Rickman (I can doze through the rest.) I said it once before here and I’ll say it again: Snape starring Alan Rickman, and then everybody else, preferably cowering and running in terror. It would have been a great movie.

Like all the greats in his particular class (among them Basil Rathbone, Conrad Veidt, Vincent Price, and James Mason), Rickman’s villainy played to a sneaky feeling that civilization is but a disguise for the brute beneath; their pinpoint style and snobby manners are mere seductive filigree and Satanic hypocrisy. Their elegant surfaces reflect in an inner vileness; these surfaces can’t be trusted. They may even be sexually fluid, though you very seldom see them locked in embrace.

Such men, as they mostly are, float over or glide past like airships, separate from the physical grime and sleepless nights experienced by the those with the Spirit of Conscience. Regarding themselves as free from consequences, they do as they damn please, and make it look very easy.

That’s part of a splendid villain’s appeal, that sense of wish fulfillment. While Alan Rickman and his ilk allow us to focus and unleash our hatreds in a relatively harmless direction, they can also live out a secret dream. Especially for many males who live with fear and boil with resentment and disgust at our tormentors who may also be simultaneously be our inferiors.

His characters may live in some kind of Movie Hell, but Mr. Rickman himself surely lives in heaven.

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Friday, January 15, 2016

2015: A Few Favorite Things


The year of our Lord, 2015, seemed an especially rough year for our species and our home, Planet Earth. It was a struggle here at the tiny Burchfield Estate, as well: Ship masts peering over the horizon only to sink away beneath the rim, as I watched from the windswept dock, hands stuffed in my empty pockets, frustration gnawing like a starving dog.

In anticipation of the publication of my latest novel Butchertown, I returned to blogging in 2015 after a year’s abeyance. The book has not passed through the publishing birth canal yet. But the likelihood that it will happen now grows sharply—there is a ship coming in. So I pray and keep pushing.

During 2015, I posted mostly book reviews here, mostly fiction. They’re faster, easier to write. Especially when you’re writing for free, a practice I recommend to no one.

I attended only a few theatrical films. Cable series are rather difficult to cover, though, nowadays, they’re my favorite narrative medium. They cover such a vast, convoluted skein of time, they’re a little hard to discuss with anyone who’s not already hip to their novelistic groove. And I’m not one of those everyday binge watchers, a hollowed-eyed fan zombie: “In this neato fantastic episode of The Pompous Dead, Earl devours Betty’s head, then makes her ears into watch fobs. This symbolizes the second term tyranny of THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION!”

Nevertheless, I’ll say without equivocation that in terms of sheer quality, artistry and interest, television has surpassed traditional movies. The little black box in the living room is no longer scorned as the scrawny little brother sleeping under the stairwell.

No, movies are not dead as an art form, but barring any massive shifts and fractures in the economics and technology of media, feature films are no longer as central in our culture as they once were. The old borders have faded. It’s all filmmaking, all cinema, now.


My 2015 resolution was to read and review new fiction, a resolution that, with chins up, I declare kept.

However, keeping this resolution alerted me to how much of an outlier I am among the Internet’s readers and reviewers when Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, the biggest fiction hit of 2015, failed to bring me to a standing ovation. True, it may because I’m a “Guy” and “don’t get it because you’re a Man and we all know what They are.” But then again, there was the odd choice on the author’s part to present four distinctive POV characters singing in the same narrative voice, flattening and confusing the narrative.

Then again, maybe some Great Deep Avant-garde point was being made that I failed to grasp, thanks to my crude male brain. I’m not much for writing negative reviews. (Not because I’m a nice guy, but because I’m not being paid. If I’m going to spend twelve hours of my life in order to go all Anthony Lane on a bad book, I need to be paid.) But Girl on the Train, while not terrible, grew pretty stale by the end.

Mostly positive reviews: the price you pay for free writing.

My favorite new novel of the year was World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane. This was the conclusion of a three-part epic detailing the rise and lonely violent fall of a Boston Irish gangster in the early 20th Century, when such men were, sometimes understandably, embraced by the public imagination. I’d not read the earlier books, but that seemed to make no difference to me. It was an excellent novel, a wonderful read.

Also pleasing was David Corbett’s Mercy of the Night a sad and penetrating suspenser set in Northern California detailing the efforts of a troubled ex-lawyer to intervene in the crisis of a young teenage addict and lowlife, as they both struggle to escape their respective shadows.

Most everyone wanted to greet Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman with flowers and fireworks—it opens as a beautiful portrait of rural life in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s, full of right details, funny and tender. But once the narrative clumsily tears the mask off Atticus Finch to reveal the racist underneath, it starts to read like an author’s--very urgent and deeply sincere—first novel, clumsy with anger and urgency to say “something important.” Much heat, but very little light. The kind of book we all wrote in our twenties. At least I did….

I also enjoyed Dry Bones, the latest Longmire modern Western yarn by Wyoming’s Craig Johnson; and Peter Straub’s Perdido, a dense enigmatic novella about a young man whose parents return home from vacation much changed, a tale woven with serpentine poetry.

More positive thoughts go for The Whites by Richard Price, and The Martini Shot a collection of short stories and novellas by George Pelecanos.

In non-fiction, I liked Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Mystery, a colorful, entertaining survey of the mostly British authors who laid much of the groundwork for crime fiction as we know it now. It was the only new nonfiction I read all year. I resolve for 2016 is to fix that.


Meanwhile, I found, as always, much to like in old books. (Is this some sort of nostalgia bias? Am I merely an Old Fart blind to the zeitgeist, despite my hip n’ trim goatee? O Twenty-first Century Man, you worry so! After millennia of fearing about the World to Come, you fret over the storms of cyberspace, rather than the real storms, purple on the real horizon!)

Though we starve from famine
And burn with hate
I guess we’ll be havin’
To argue The Hateful 8!

It’s hard to choose among the best of the old, but my re-reading of Ted Lewis’s Get Carter provided plenty of two-fisted pleasure on its hard-boiled journey over the rusty plains of 1960s Northern England. My first ride with Jack London’s The Sea Wolf—also my canon classic of the year--also took me a gritty, mostly fabulous journey through the Pacific seas of the 1890s.

Additional fun was found following the winding prose of Ramsey Campbell’s The Long Lost about an act of Good Samaritanship gone eerily wrong and Michael Innes’ consistently amusing Appleby’s Answer. I’ll also enjoyed my second reading of Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day, a book so well-regarded during its time that it both won an Edgar Award and was further enhanced by its film adaptation, Topkapi.

In nonfiction, Looking for a Ship, John McPhee’s chronical of the changing world of cargo freighters and their crews, written in the 1990s, was a favorite. Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed got my respect by virtue of sheer energy and color, and also the sense of an ideologue’s dream world starting to crack in the face of murderous reality.

Finally, Curiosity of the Year goes to Aldous Huxley’s Jesting Pilate, a 1920s travel book that was more than just a nearly blind, 1920s English tourist dissing the Taj Mahal. It was also a neat picture of a certain mind in its time and place.


I did make it to a couple movies this year, though I wrote very little about them. The best discovery I made, was the Australian horror tale The Babadook and its star Essie Davis in a shattering performance at brilliant odds with her turn as Phryne Fisher on PBS.

I also found Bridge of Spies one the most engrossing and entertaining of the films I saw, thanks more to the acting of Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance as the Good American and Dedicated Communist Spy respectively who find themselves on the same side of things. It’s not Steven Spielberg’s best, but still better than most.

And speaking of Mr. Rylance, another happy discovery, I also loved his performance in the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I’d not read the book--most unfortunately--and found the filmed drama kind of flat, but Rylance is such a still presence. He’s one of those actors who hint at great depths without even a shiver in his eyes.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was goofy James Bondian fun (even with Tom Cruise, who never clicks as an action hero with me, I don’t give a damn what box office receipts say). The original James Bond was on hand for Spectre, seemingly the last, if not the best, of the Daniel Craig era (I’ll have more to say when it emerges in video.)

Holmesians starving for more Sherlock Holmes after the BBC Sherlock! concluded another grandly entertaining series, at least had Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellan as the great detective in his dotage from where his genius still glimmers (though I wondered why it wasn’t simply broadcast as a PBS Masterpiece Mystery).

While Mad Max: Thunder Road swam in praise, I was put off by its clattering 21st-Century franticism. It seemed to claw at the heels of the teenage audience to keep it from walking out, while leaving the rest of us, some old fans of The Road Warrior, muddled and numb. “Excellent politics!” one wonder-struck critic cried. “So fucking what?” I grumbled, as I kicked the back of the seats on my way out, like an old man booting children off his lawn. “In my day, sonny, we watched action movies where we knew what was going on!”

Again, I found much more excitement and pleasure on that small screen in my living room. I can’t heap enough praise on FX’s The Americans, a knife edge thriller about Soviet sleeper agents struggling with increasing desperation to keep their radical souls pure while living the high-life in 1980s America. Great filmmaking, great performances from all around. I look forward to its return—and likely conclusion—this spring.

That show may well have inspired a companion series of sorts to Deutschland 83, a German produced series show on the Sundance Channel, about another Soviet spy, an East German sent to penetrate the Allied High Command in West Germany early in the Reagan years. That too provided plenty of suspense and tension, conveyed with great skill and intelligence.

The second season of the French-produced ghost series The Returned (about the dead trying to adjust to life among the living) provided more eerie intrigue, though its plot threads grew knotted and shaggy. I like how it conveys the uncanny over the merely shocking, but can’t escape the nagging feeling that it’s played all its cards. Even so, it’s coming back for a third season.

More successful to me was the Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul. I was initially skeptical that much could be made of what amounted to supporting comic relief in Breaking Bad, and the series does seem to take its sweet time. But, in great part due to Bob Odenkirk as Saul and the wily Vince Gilligan, series creator, we’re looking forward to season two.

I also liked season two of Fargo a better than season one, probably because of the introduction of more action-thriller elements (meaning some great shoot-outs). But also because of its eerie compositions of the Midwestern landscape and the performances of Patrick Wilson, Kristin Dunst and Jeremy Plemons, the latter two perfect advertising for the old adage, “Crime Does Not Pay.”

Finally, there were good-byes. The FX series Justified did not end as I predicted here, with Raylan paying a price for his insouciant gunplay and one other major character biting the dust. We liked it anyway.

And we said a half-good-bye to longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll. Half good-bye, because he is still very much among us. Do pay his site a visit. And tell him Burchfield sent you!

Time to get on with 2016. Peace and Joy to you all. Can’t make it perfect. But we’ll try to make it better.

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.