Books Paper Scissors Bookclub : March 2023

Review of Ben McIntyre’s The Spy and the Traitor


Always a risk, putting a non- fiction book out in a predominantly fiction reading group … however, this one was a success with ( almost) everyone.  For those it didn’t please entirely, the negatives were minor gripes and niggles - safe to say that nobody’s copy was flung out the car window on the way home.

So, if the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, let’s deal with the niggles first. Is Ben McIntyre a learned and well-informed historian? Yes of course. But is he also entrenched in his well to do, British heritage where all things Blighty are marvellous (especially Mrs Thatcher!) and his tone comes across as masculine, slightly arrogant and dismissive of other cultures ..? Also yes.

But… there are so many extraordinary details in the story that most of us were just fascinated by the intricacies of the entire playbook. We were left with a sense of an ‘elaborate dance’, all worked out with a fragile trust - and a deception that runs very deep.  There was humanity, diplomacy, politics and above all a palpable sense of real danger.

The discussion of ‘what makes a spy’ and ‘what motivates a spy’ were well covered by McIntyre and were a great conversation starter for book club. An overall sense of loneliness, a lack of family closeness, a commitment to idealogy, perhaps? Or just money and ego?  We particularly enjoyed the fascinating parallel between Gordievsky’s deception of his wife and family, alongside his deception of his colleagues and country.

Right now the situation in Russia/Ukraine  makes this book feel particularly prescient and still relevant in a world where global trust is at a low level not seen since the Cold War.  Those of us old enough to remember the timelines were probably a bit shocked to learn how many British establishment figures had a significant engagement with communist Russia.

More than 70% of us would read another Ben McIntyre book- and he has eight more to choose from! He writes a book well, with great pace, idiosyncratic details and structure making it immensely readable. The historians amongst us wanted perhaps a few more details, or extra context, but perhaps the focus on pace and readability is what gives McIntyre’s books a much wider audience.

It is a readable, page turning route into history, with great insights into the Cold War and as such really recommended for anyone seeking to engage a bit more with history lessons!  It was also a good book club choice with so many details to ponder.

April 15, 2023 by Books Scissors

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