Young Philby

Written by Robert Littell
Review by Kristen Hannum

Bestselling suspense novelist Robert Littell follows the career of Kim Philby, a notorious Cold War secret agent—or double agent? triple agent?—beginning with Philby’s recruitment by communists in Vienna in the 1930s, as fascist jackbooted police wipe out the communist resistance to Austria’s fascist dictatorship. Philby saves a smart young Jewish communist from the jackbooted police who were wiping out the communist resistance to Austria’s fascist dictatorship. He brings her home to his upper-crust slice of London and marries her, but after he agrees to become a Soviet spy, they must divorce, since she’s a known communist.

Philby travels as a journalist to cover Spain’s Civil War where he writes dispatches for the conservative London Times, putting him in the center of Great Britain’s right wing, Nazi-appeasing circles. The book ends with a twisty epilogue as Philby flees to Moscow in 1963, to live out the rest of his life. A deadly and damning subplot takes place in Moscow during Stalin’s purges, with Stalin himself putting in an appearance in one of the later chapters. The elusive undercurrent throughout is Philby’s relationship with his famous father, an advisor to the king of Saudi Arabia and a behind-the-scenes player himself.

Littell tells the story with humor and elegant vigor through eight narrators’ points of view, plus an omniscient narrator for the epilogue. His writing is so fluid and compelling that there’s no bother moving from one thread to another. This is a book like a Russian kachina doll, with each colorful figure revealed to be hollow, but with another inside it. Best of all, that last little doll to be exposed has its own satisfying yet enigmatic surprise. Recommended.