A thriller of spies and betrayal … by Philby’s grandchild
Charlotte Philby’s novel examines a parent’s path into a ‘dark world’
Philby is a promising surname to spot on the spine of a spy thriller. But for author Charlotte Philby being the granddaughter of Britain’s most famous communist double-agent has not always been quite so handy.
The writer, who has just landed a book deal with Harper Collins for her debut novel, The Most Difficult Thing, has grown up with the legacy of Kim Philby’s betrayal and defection to the Soviet Union in 1963.
“When I think about what Kim did what I’m always left with – and more so now that I have children of my own – is how do you walk out on your family?”, said Philby. “What compels a person to do that? And then I started to wonder what would happen if the person who walked out – regardless of their motivations – was a woman?”
Her thriller, described by its publishers as a cross between John le Carré’s The Night Manager and Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard, straddles the genres of modern domestic drama and classic spy mystery and it opens with a mother who is intending to leave her family for ever.
The common assumption that her grandfather followed “a linear path leading to what he did” is wrong, Philby, 35, believes. So instead her book concentrates on how family and friends are treated once a key decision has been taken and the world becomes “darker and uncontrollable”.
She and her late father, the spy’s eldest son, John, both had to live with continuing speculation about the motivation for Philby’s treachery.
“His story does not really go away, because there is no conclusion. Kim died when I was five, so I had a limited amount of direct interaction. But I do have a strong sense of being in Moscow with him and my family,” she said. “What happened has coloured my life and, of course, formed a large part of my dad’s sense of himself.”
Her father, who died in 2009, took pride in her grandfather’s “great integrity” and “revered his intelligence and charisma”, said Philby, a journalist who grew up in London. “He also respected his rebelliousness and his refusal to toe the line. Like Kim, my dad never cared to follow the crowd or abide by the rules.”
The novelist has never been ashamed of her family name, but says it has given her a grim understanding of the lasting impact of espionage. As a child she remembers the phones being tapped and the knowledge that their home was under surveillance.
The Most Difficult Thing will be published by Borough Press (HarperCollins) in hardback in spring 2020. Website: charlottephilby.com
Charlotte Philby remembers being in Moscow with her grandfather, below, when she was a small child and describes how he has coloured her life.