Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Young Philby: A Novel

Young Philby: A Novel

4.0 2
by Robert Littell

See All Formats & Editions

An elegant, twisty spy story by a true master of the craft



Bestselling novelist Robert Littell employs all his considerable skills in telling the story of Kim Philby through the eyes of more than twenty true-life characters. As each layer is revealed, the question arises: Who really was this man?


When Kim


An elegant, twisty spy story by a true master of the craft



Bestselling novelist Robert Littell employs all his considerable skills in telling the story of Kim Philby through the eyes of more than twenty true-life characters. As each layer is revealed, the question arises: Who really was this man?


When Kim Philby fled to Moscow in 1963, he became the most infamous double agent in history. A member of Britain's intelligence service since World War II, he had risen to become their chief officer in Washington, D.C. after the war. The exposure of other members of the group of double agents known as the Cambridge Five led to the revelation that he had been working for Russia for even longer than he had been part of MI6. Yet he escaped, and spent the last twenty-five years of his life in Moscow.


In Young Philby, Robert Littell tells the story of the spy's early years. In the words of his friends, lovers, and Soviet handlers we see the development of a fascinating, flawed man who kept people guessing about his ideals and allegiances until the very end.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Philby's career as a high-level British intelligence officer who was secretly passing secrets to his masters in Moscow has often been fictionalized, by authors as notable as John le Carré and Graham Greene. What Littell adds to the mix is an abundance of black humor as well as a suggestion—whispered about for years—that Philby, the infamous Soviet spy, might actually have been loyal to Britain all along, and it was therefore the Soviets who were fooled. That's a minority opinion, but it reflects Littell's view of espionage as a hall of mirrors…For readers who savor both history and absurdity, this fascinating novel is not to be missed, and I persist in my belief that Littell is one of the most underrated of American novelists.
—Patrick Anderson
Publishers Weekly
Littell (The Company) offers an episodic, multifaceted look at the making of one of the world’s most notorious double agents, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, better known as “Kim” (after the hero of Kipling’s famous novel). After a prologue set in 1938 Moscow, the novel proper opens in 1933 Vienna, where Philby plans to aid refugees from Nazi Germany, but is really looking “for adventure, a cause to believe in, comradeship, affection, love, sex.” He finds all of them, neatly bound up in Hungarian-born Communist activist Litzi Friedman, who eventually becomes his wife and introduces him to the Communist Party. As “one of the last romantics,” Philby is an easy convert, but the inevitable question is what motivated him to betray his country. Littell provides no easy answers, though in a coda he suggests a tantalizing rationale for Philby’s actions. Readers should be prepared for an overwhelming amount of period detail that robs the narrative of any substantial momentum.Agent: Ed Victor, Ed Victor Ltd. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
A dizzying, "what if" take on (in)famous British spy Kim Philby. In 1963, Kim Philby, a member of British Intelligence, was exposed as a double agent working for Russia. The case continues to provide a mother lode for spy novels, and in this latest, Littell (The Stalin Epigram, 2009, etc.) spins the story even further, building to a finish that suggests the story still offers at least one more stunning "shoe drop." Littell's narrative follows the outlines of Philby's private and public lives, which here are inextricably linked. The story unfolds in a series of first-person accounts from friends, lovers and contacts who knew Philby at key junctures in his career as an agent. There's Litzi Friedman, who first puts callow but wary Philby in touch with the Russians when he visits Vienna; Guy Burgess, Philby's flamboyantly gay classmate at Cambridge, whom Philby enlists as a spy for the Soviets; Frances Doble, a film star who romances Philby as he reports on the Spanish Civil War for the London Times; and Philby's father, Harry St John Bridger Philby, aka "the Hajj." From these narratives emerges a mural of the history of espionage before, during and after World War II, as well as an in-depth portrait of Philby, who becomes a canny informant despite his fear of the sight of blood. The narrators speak with distinctive voices, yet the chapters are unified by the dark lens of Littell's mordant take on spies and their craft. As in The Company (2002), Littell shows particular skill at recreating pulse-quickening epic scenes of conflict--the Russian-backed uprising against Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, the war against fascist dictator Francisco Franco, and the horrors of Stalin's kangaroo courts and of Moscow prisons. Veteran Littell remains unbowed by commercial pressures to speed up the text. Elegantly written paragraphs and speeches running to half pages distinguish his work. A Cold-War spy novel for the top shelf.
From the Publisher

“A dizzying, 'what if' take on (in)famous British spy Kim Philby. … Littell shows particular skill at recreating pulse-quickening epic scenes of conflict--the Russian-backed uprising against Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, the war against fascist dictator Francisco Franco, and the horrors of Stalin's kangaroo courts and of Moscow prisons. … A Cold-War spy novel for the top shelf.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A riveting read.” —Frederick Forsyth

Library Journal
The story of double agent Kim Philby is well known but little understood. What were his motivations and, finally, his ideals? Best-selling author and Gold Dagger winner Littell tries to answer those questions by reconstructing Philby's early life, as told from the perspectives of 20 real-life characters. Look for excerpts at Scrib'd, Watpad, and Issuu.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.86(w) x 8.38(h) x 0.99(d)

Read an Excerpt

Young Philby

A Novel

By Robert Littell

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Robert Littell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-01365-1



Where an Englishman Wanders into the Wrong Century

The Englishman came from another planet looking, no doubt, for adventure, a cause to believe in, comradeship, affection, love, sex. His luck, he found someone who dyed her hair so often she was no longer sure of the original color: me. We were roughly the same age — he was twenty-one and fresh from university when he made his way to my flat in the center of the city — but any resemblance between our life lines ended there. I was half Jewess and half not, with the two parts of my identity in constant conflict; I'd been a Zionist fighting for a distant Jewish homeland before I joined the Communists fighting for Austrian workers nearer to hand. I'd been married and divorced (when I discovered that my husband preferred to sleep in Palestine than with me). Once I'd even been thrown into an Austrian jail for two weeks for my Communist activities that came to the attention of the police; I'd been caught letting my spare room to a certain Josip Broz, who turned out to be a Croatian Communist wanted in half a dozen Balkan countries. (He would hold party meetings in my apartment, pointing to one or another of the comrades and giving them assignments with the words Ti, to — You, that. He did this so regularly we nicknamed him Tito.) My stint in prison wasn't wasted; I discovered that, for want of a mirror, a girl could see her reflection in a cup of coffee well enough to apply lipstick, without which I feel unprotected. Despite my arrest, my clandestine work for Moscow Centre had fortunately gone undetected. You could make the case that I was at the opposite end of the spectrum from a vestal virgin. I had taken lovers when it pleased me to take lovers but I was careful to keep an emotional distance between us, which is why they invariably ended up becoming former lovers. The truth is, I'd never really been intimate with a male of the species before the Englishman. Intimate in the sense of taking pleasure from giving pleasure. Intimate in the sense of feeling that waking up mornings next to a stark naked Homo erectus was an excellent way to begin the day.

Ah, the Englishman ... You won't believe how innocent he was when he appeared on my doorstep: handsome in a timid sort of way, painfully unsure of himself, suffering (I later learned) from chronic indigestion, talking with an endearing stammer that became more pronounced when the subject turned to social or sexual intercourse. I could tell right off — girls are born with a sixth sense for body language — he'd never gotten laid, at least not by a female. Whether by a male is another matter entirely. Late one night, when we could hear artillery shells exploding in the workers' quarter across town, the Englishman downed a schnapps too many and told me he'd been b-b-b-b-b-buggered, as he put it. I never did discover if this initiation took place at one of those posh British boarding schools that don't light grate fires until water freezes in the faucets or later at Cambridge. I happened to have had enough intercourse with the King's English, not to mention the King's Englishmen, to know what buggered meant. Forgive me if I don't share the details. I'm rambling. Oh dear, I do ramble when I talk about the Englishman. Yes, I was saying that, sexually speaking, he was green behind the ears when he fell into my life. I would have been surprised to learn he'd ever set eyes on a young woman's breast, much less touched one. He certainly didn't know how to unfasten a brassiere. When we finally got around to sharing a bed, which was ten days after he moved into my spare room, it quickly became apparent he had only a theoretical notion of feminine anatomy. But, to his credit, in sex as in espionage, he was a quick study.

"Where did you learn to fuck like that?" I drowsily asked him the morning after that first night.

"You b-bloody well taught me," he said. "Your org-gasm is on my lips. I can taste it."

This, friends, turned out to be quintessential Philby, Kim to his mates, Harold Adrian Russell to the upper-crust English swells who happened by our table to sponge cigarettes when we took tea, as we did almost every afternoon, even in winter, on the terrace of the Café Herenhoff.

But I skip ahead — the tale is best told chronologically. Try to imagine my stupefaction when, responding to a knock so tentative it was almost inaudible, thinking it was the Negro come to deliver coal, I opened the door of my three-room flat to find a young gentleman shifting his weight from foot to foot in excruciating uncertainty, a rucksack hanging off one lean shoulder, a small but elegant leather valise on the floor next to his swanky albeit scuffed hiking boots. My first fleeting thought was that I was in the presence of someone who had wandered into the wrong century. He had the soft pink cheeks of an adolescent who almost never needed to shave; disheveled hair with the remnant of a part in the middle; wrinkled flannel trousers with a suggestion of a crease; frayed trouser cuffs pinched by metal bicycle clips; a belted double-breasted leather motorcycle jacket with an oversized collar turned up; a beige silk scarf knotted around his throat; motorcycle goggles down around his neck; a worn leather motorcycle bonnet, the kind someone might have worn when motorcycles were first invented, hanging from a wrist. "There is no number on your door," he said, "but as you are b-between six and eight, I decided you must be seven."

I worked my fingers through my freshly minted blond pageboy to see if the chemist's peroxide was still damp. "What were you hoping to find at number seven?" I demanded, laying the foundation for the emotional wall I meant to raise between us.

My visitor, speaking English with the barest curl to his upper lip, said, "I was led to b-believe I might be able to let a room at Latschgasse 9, ap-partment number seven."

The more he stammered, the more I saw my emotional wall crumble. "And who led you to believe that?"

"One of the comrades at the Rote Hilfe Alliance that assists p-persecuted refugees."

"What brought you to Vienna?"

"My motorcycle brought me to Vienna. I took the liberty of p-parking it in your courtyard next to the rubbish b-bins."

"I am not inquiring about your mode of transportation. I am inquiring about your motivation."

"Ahhh. Motivation." I remember him shrugging in confusion. I was to discover that clichés irritated him, the more so when they spilled from his own lips. "Vienna is where the action is," he said. "Or will b-be. I came to do my p-part."

I thought about this. "Are you saying you rode a motorcycle all the way from England to do your part?"

"Not counting the channel, it's only nine hundred miles, give or take." He favored me with a shy smile. "If I may be so b-bold, what about you?"

"What about me?"

"Why are you in Vienna?"

"I have a rendezvous with history." In those days, like these days, one couldn't be too vigilant. "Don't change the subject. How did you know about Rote Hilfe?"

"One of my professors at Cambridge is a wheel in the B-British Communist P-Party — he gave me a letter of introduction to the Austrian Committee for Relief from German Fascism. I can show you the letter."

He started to reach into his rucksack but I waved him off. Anyone could produce a letter. "What is the address of Rote Hilfe? Which comrade gave you my address?" I stood ready to slam the door in his perplexed face if he answered incorrectly.

He produced a small spiral notebook from an inside breast pocket and, moistening the ball of a thumb on his tongue, started to leaf through the pages. I could see they were chock-filled with neat, almost microscopic, handwriting. "Right. Rote Hilfe is situated at Lerchengasse 13, up three flights, right as you come off a very seedy stairwell indeed, down four doors and B-Bob's your uncle." He looked up. "Oh dear, I don't suppose you're familiar with B-Bob's your uncle."

"I am able to figure it out," I said. "Go on."

"Yes. Right. The Rote Hilfe office consists of four rooms, one of them with used clothing spilling from cartons p-piled to the ceiling, another crawling with shabby soaks whom I took for Communists hounded out of Germany by Herr Hitler after the Reichstag fire. The ones who weren't p- playing sixty-six were sleeping in their overcoats on mattresses set on the floor. The whole apartment stank of cooked cabbage, though I never saw a stove where cabbage might be cooked. As for the comrade who gave me your address, I only know his nom de guerre. His friends called him Axel Heiberg. They had a good laugh at my expense when they got around to explaining that Axel Heiberg was the name of an island in the Arctic Ocean."

"Do you always do that?"

"D-do what?"

"Mark down everything you see in a notebook?"

"Actually, yes. When I was eleven my sainted father dragged me off on a grand tour of the Levant — Damascus, B-Baalbek, B-Beirut, Sidon, Tyre, Tiberias, Nazareth, Acre, Haifa, Jerusalem, you name it, I've been to the souk. He ob-bliged me to keep a journal. I've been more or less at it since." He held out a pale palm. "Philby," he said. "Harold Philby. Kim to my very few friends."

"Why very few?"

"In my experience Homo sapien usually disappoints. Only Homo Sovieticus rises to the historical occasion — challenging industrial Capitalism, National Socialism and its fuehrer, and your dreadful Dollfuss here in Vienna."

I remember being so moved by this declaration that I clasped his hand in both of mine. "Litzi," I said, perhaps a bit more eagerly than I would have liked. "Litzi Friedman, Latschgasse 9, apartment number seven. I pried away the seven to throw off the police if they should come around looking for me again. Tickled."


"Tickled to make your acquaintance, of course. Do come in."

* * *



"Zahlungsmittel in German. Fizetoeszköz in Hungarian. Valuta in Italian. Argent in French. Money in the King's English, which is a language you speak more or less fluently."

It will have been early in the evening of Kim's second day in Vienna; I'd been too tactful to raise the subject the first day. We'd just gotten back to Latschgasse 9 after picking up packets of leaflets at a secret albeit primitive underground printing press and delivering them to workers' militia headquarters in the great housing projects off the rim road. I will confess it was exhilarating to ride on the back of Kim's Daimler motorcycle. I became a bit giddy looking up at the church steeples and what the Americans call skyscrapers (some of them ten or twelve stories high) soaring over my head as we sped through the narrow streets of the Innere Stadt. A light rain had begun falling when we turned onto Latschgasse, plastering my shirt to my skin. I noticed that my Englishman (as I'd begun to think of him) didn't notice. Food for thought: Was the problem with his eyes or what our Viennese Doktor Sigismund Freud calls the libido? Back at my flat, I changed into a dry shirt and dried my hair on a towel, then set out sandwiches and some flat beer and raised the delicate matter of rent. "Yes, money. British pounds. Austrian schillings. German Reichmarks. How much do you have?"

"Are we talking c-cash?"

"We are not talking IOUs. Of course we're talking cash."

"Ahhh. Yes. Well. My sainted father paid me for typing up the manuscript of his b-book — he rode a bloody camel across the Arabian desert from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea in forty-four d-days. Hell of an exploit — T. E. Lawrence thought only an airship could cross what the Saudis call the empty quarter. Make d-damn good reading if father could find a p-publisher who didn't think our Lawrence of Arabia owned the copyright to desert sagas. Didn't help that the footnotes were in Urdu, which my father speaks fluently. Or was that Persian? Hmm. About the money, I have loose change left over from that odd job, plus the hundred quid he gave me for my b-birthday."

A hundred pounds was a fortune in working-class Vienna. "You actually have one hundred pounds sterling?"

He nodded.

"Show it to me."

Kim was sitting on one of the kitchen chairs we'd carried into the parlor for the committee meeting later that night. He rested his left ankle on his right knee, unlaced the hiking boot and pulled it off. Then he produced the wedge of bills that had been taped to the underside of the tongue in the boot. He handed the money to me. I counted it. There was a hundred pounds sterling, all right, in crisp five- and ten-pound notes. The bills were so new I feared the ink would rub off on my fingers.

"How long did you plan on this lasting?"

"Actually, I thought, what with living on the proverbial shoestring, I m- might be able to stretch it to a year."

"Twelve months?"

"That's the usual length of a lunar year."

I snatched up a pencil and began doing sums on the back of an envelope, converting pounds to schillings, adding up what he would need for rent and board. "In Vienna you can eat for six schillings a day if you're a vegetarian." I looked up. "You are a vegetarian?"

"I am now."

"Good. I read an article in our Socialist newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung suggesting the average person lives 2.4 years longer if you don't eat meat."

"Does your b-budget include cigarettes?"

"How much do you smoke?"

"A pack a day."

"Haven't read anything suggesting cigarettes are bad for your health. But you'll have to cut back all the same to pinch pennies."

"If I smoke less than a pack a day I s-stutter more. You're also forgetting petrol for the motorcycle, assuming we continue to make use of it in Vienna."

"Oh, we will certainly use it. I'll get our transport committee to pay for the petrol." I tallied up the columns. "I think seventy-five quid will see you through the lunar year." I counted out seventy-five pounds and handed it back to him.

He looked down at the bills, then up at me. "What are you planning to do with the other twenty-five?"


Excerpted from Young Philby by Robert Littell. Copyright © 2012 Robert Littell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

ROBERT LITTELL is the author of sixteen previous novels and the nonfiction book If Israel Lost the War, written with Shimon Peres, President of Israel. He has been awarded both the Gold Dagger and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for his fiction. His novel The Company was a New York Times bestseller and was adapted into a television miniseries. He lives in France.

Brief Biography

Martel, France
Date of Birth:
January 8, 1935
Place of Birth:
Brooklyn, New York
B.A., Alfred University, 1956

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Young Philby: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Tcasscros More than 1 year ago
I picked this up with great anticipation. It was more of a yawner than a truly suspenseful spy story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago