A thriller of spies and be­trayal … by Philby’s grand­child

Char­lotte Philby’s novel ex­am­ines a par­ent’s path into a ‘dark world’

The Observer - - News - Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Me­dia Correspondent

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

Pho­to­graph by Roo Lewis

Char­lotte Philby re­mem­bers be­ing in Moscow with her grand­fa­ther, be­low, when she was a small child and de­scribes how he has coloured her life.

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