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Young Philby: A Novel by Robert Littell
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Young Philby: A Novel

by Robert Littell

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REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

Young Philby is an interesting semi-fictionalization of Kim Philby's early life, positing the fact that he may, in fact, have been a triple agent, working overtly for the British, covertly for Communist Russia, and even more covertly for the British again. Littell doesn't quite pull it off, mainly due to a lack of any truly convincing evidence in favor of the theory, but he leaves things sufficiently vague that anything becomes possible.

The book is arranged as a series of first-person reminiscences by various individuals who at one time or another knew Philby. These include his Soviet controller Theodore Maly, his co-spy Guy Burgess, and his first wife Litzi Friedmann. Littell attempts to write in what he hopes is their own unique voice, and generally pulls it off (though I found the Burgess chapters a bit too OTT). Through each individual account a picture emerges of the enigma Philby that's subtly different from the one we all think we don't know.

The writing is crisp, and unlike his mammoth epic The Company it's a pretty slim book, clocking in at a shade over 200 pages. ( )
  StuartNorth | Nov 19, 2016 |
REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

Young Philby is an interesting semi-fictionalization of Kim Philby's early life, positing the fact that he may, in fact, have been a triple agent, working overtly for the British, covertly for Communist Russia, and even more covertly for the British again. Littell doesn't quite pull it off, mainly due to a lack of any truly convincing evidence in favor of the theory, but he leaves things sufficiently vague that anything becomes possible.

The book is arranged as a series of first-person reminiscences by various individuals who at one time or another knew Philby. These include his Soviet controller Theodore Maly, his co-spy Guy Burgess, and his first wife Litzi Friedmann. Littell attempts to write in what he hopes is their own unique voice, and generally pulls it off (though I found the Burgess chapters a bit too OTT). Through each individual account a picture emerges of the enigma Philby that's subtly different from the one we all think we don't know.

The writing is crisp, and unlike his mammoth epic The Company it's a pretty slim book, clocking in at a shade over 200 pages. ( )
  StuartNorth | Nov 19, 2016 |
Ambiguity is all-important in this absorbing insight into Kim Philby’s early activities; entirely fitting for an exploration into the intrigue of international espionage. This slim novel is narrated like a kiss-n-tell unauthorised biography, with events being revealed through the words and deeds of Philby’s contemporaries.

Many of the episodes and escapades have the ring of historical verisimilitude about them… yet the whole book is one giant ‘what if?’ It all feels perfectly plausible, such is author Robert Littell’s skill at blurring the boundary between actual events and imaginary happenings.

Similarly, this is one of those books which hoodwinks the reader as to its ultimate destination. For the first half I spent most of the time admiring the historical detail and the fast-change cast of characters, who parade onto the stage, tell their snapshot of the story and then exit the limelight. Philby himself is always at the centre of the story but – once again, entirely appropriately for a spy – he’s also always slightly out of focus. Each interpretation of his early career adds more colour to the picture but very little clarity.

The brilliance of this book is that none of this is told in the stuffy tones of a history textbook. Instead the plot romps along with bawdy eccentricity, indulging in all sorts of explicit extra-curricular activity with a huge dash of story-telling panache. Every episode of Philby’s life adds complexity and uncertainty to the overall story, veering from gleeful subversion to sexual indulgence to sinister menace as the pages turn. Even though we know the historical facts, Littell still creates an atmosphere of tense uncertainty; a genuine cliff-hanger moment where all could be undone by the whim of a dictator.
(There's more detail on plot and character over at
https://murdermayhemandmore.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/young-philby-the-secret-origin-of-an-infamous-spy/ )

So, a very different type of espionage thriller. One to entertain people who are fascinated by tradecraft and by subtle secrets. Not a Bourne Ultimatum or a 007 shoot-em-up, but something infinitely more thought-provoking.
9/10 ( )
  RowenaHoseason | Jun 22, 2016 |
A fictionalized account of supposed British-Soviet double agent Harold "Kim" Philby and how he was recruited into both MI5 and the KGB. Littell supplies a twist near the end, and some supporting evidence to make it interesting. ( )
  Hagelstein | May 16, 2016 |
Tracing the early career of the most notorious double agent of the Cold War, Littell provides us with a series of distinct narrative voices and points of view, from a soviet intelligence analyst to recruiter and communist activists in pre-war Austria and a royalist actress in Civil War Spain as Philby embraces this new iteration of the Great Game with aplomb and natural talent. This is a readable, witty, vivid and enthralling portrait on a young man, a well-educated aristocratic scion of a vanishing age of empire, set on a course to shake the world. Littell rounds the whole thing out with a daring twist that should tickle the fancy of any espionage fan, however credible they might find it. ( )
  Nigel_Quinlan | Oct 21, 2015 |
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A work of suspense based on true-life historical characters imagines the early years and long-time Russian allegiance of double agent Kim Philby, whose 1963 defection from Britain's intelligence service to Moscow exposes the Cambridge Five double agents and raises innumerable questions about his ideals.… (more)

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