"Young Philby" by Robert Littell (St. Martin's, November 2012)

"Young Philby" by Robert Littell (St. Martin's, November 2012) Credit: Handout

YOUNG PHILBY, by Robert Littell. Thomas Dunne / St. Martin's, 268 pp., $24.99.

Let us now praise Robert Littell, whose spy novels have given many of us vast pleasure over the years. I've particularly enjoyed the surreal ones, such as "The Sisters," in which two demented old-timers at the CIA set in motion a plot to kill President Kennedy that no one stops, because exposing it might harm the agency. Or "Legends," about a spy who has had so many false identities that he no longer knows who he is.

In "Young Philby," Littell finds much that is seriously strange in the career of Harold Adrian Russell "Kim" Philby (1912-88), the most famous real-life spy of the 20th century. Philby's career as a high-level British intelligence officer who was secretly passing secrets to his masters in Moscow has been fictionalized by John le Carré, Graham Greene and others. Littell adds an abundance of black humor as well as a suggestion that Philby might actually have been loyal to Britain all along. That's a minority opinion, but it reflects Littell's view of espionage as a hall of mirrors.

Littell tells his story via 20-odd sketches of Philby presented by his friends, lovers, British colleagues and Soviet handlers, most of them real-life figures. In Spain during its civil war, Philby is ordered by Moscow to assassinate the fascist leader Gen. Francisco Franco. Philby, who has no stomach for killing anyone, stalls, with the approval of his sensible Soviet handler in London. The handler is soon called back to Moscow and executed for the failure of this crazy mission, although Philby survives.

This leads to a top-level meeting in Moscow, at which a female analyst warns Stalin that Philby might be a British spy and declares, "It defies credibility that SIS is staffed with imbeciles who didn't notice that state secrets were being leaked to Moscow." But of course, that imbecility is precisely Littell's point. Throughout the story, the Soviets are forever executing people who were loyal, while the Brits are forever trusting people who were not.

There's more absurdity when Philby, as a journalist covering the 1939 "Phony War" in France, is taken to view the celebrated Maginot Line, the fortresses that were supposed to protect France from German invasion. He meets a tank commander named de Gaulle who insists that the fortresses are useless because "The Germans will not attack them, they'll simply go around them." He's right, but no one in power will listen.

In Washington after the war, Philby was friendly with James Jesus Angleton, the CIA's celebrated red-hunter, who Littell suggests might have suspected Philby and taken action that led to his eventual downfall. But the truth of that remains a mystery, like so much in the murky world of espionage. For readers who savor both history and absurdity, this fascinating novel is not to be missed.

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