Book Review: Gentleman Traitor (1974) by Alan Williams

Alan Williams was an accomplished foreign correspondent during the Cold War. He turned his hand to writing thrillers and used his overseas experience, including some close calls behind the Iron Curtain, to considerable advantage. It is unsurprising that his mind should have turned to the case of Kim Philby for this, his seventh spy thriller.

Williams’ connections in the literary world ensured that his books were well received by the critics, but, although sometimes compared with Ian Fleming, his fame has not endured. Nor will this book. The reason why becomes clear if one compares it with the work of Le Carré. (This is a little unfair as it is a matter of comparing his work to the writer who most acknowledge as the master in this field, but it serves nonetheless.) First, Le Carré understands intelligence work. His details, often underplayed, are absolutely accurate. This authenticity in his work is crucial. Secondly, Le Carré understands that the dramas of the world of espionage are often small and personal (though no less devastating for that). He can do as much with a single, quiet death as most thriller writers can do with a dozen shattered corpses. Williams would be a good example of the latter.

Williams is a professional writer. He knows how to write and there is no doubting the details of time and place in his work. He is a man who has travelled and it shows. Of espionage and of Philby – especially Philby – he knows far less. Apparently Williams was inspired by a chance encounter in Beirut, shortly before Philby finally defected to Russia in 1963. The two did not speak, but Williams at least saw the great spy. It is a shame that Williams did not do more research to back this up. We now know a great deal about Philby. Of course much of what we know has been uncovered or published since this book was written (for instance Blunt was not exposed until 1979) but then Williams moved in a world where he had access to people who had actually known Philby. It would be nice to have seen some evidence in the book that he had spoken to some of them. The Kim Philby in this book does not ring true with the man who betrayed an entire service. This weakens the book. This Philby is not a master spy we can believe in.

The great question for many years for the British public (and in particular the mystery that led ex-MI5 officer Peter Wright to break ranks and write Spycatcher) was: were there any other Soviet moles like Philby who might still be lurking in either the government or the secret service? Understandably, Williams plays with this idea, but, having raised the spectre that haunted the British Establishment for so long, he does not really tackle it. He does not seem to understand the Atlantean catastrophe that would have followed from the exposure of such a man (and it would have been a man or men in those days, never a woman). When the moment does come, it is passed over like a damp squib. The book ends in a rather similar manner.

The other weakness of this thriller is that Williams does not know much of spycraft. There are too many deaths, too many one car follows and too many burly heavies waiting in the wings. One can see why he was compared with Fleming. But he does get one thing right: the use of private agencies to do the dirty work. Even in the seventies this was a factor and it is one that has grown exponentially with increased government oversight of the agencies.

Overall this is a perfectly serviceable little thriller, but it does not linger in the mind. It does a disservice to Philby and it does not have much value as a commentary on the espionage world of its day.

[NB Our book reviews are not assessments of the literary value of the work. They are written by intelligence professionals and are concerned with the book’s accuracy, relevance to the realities of espionage, place in espionage history, etc.]

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