Ben Macintyre The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War

Last updated date: June 18, 2019

DWYM Score
9.1

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We looked at the top 1 History Books and dug through the reviews from 6 of the most popular review sites including Good Reads, The Globe and Mail, The Guardian, The Cipher Brief, Spybrary, Foreign Affairs and more. Through this analysis, we've determined the best History Book you should buy.

Overall Take

In our analysis of 72 expert reviews, the Ben Macintyre Ben Macintyre The Spy and the Traitor placed 5th when we looked at the top 10 products in the category. For the full ranking, see below.

Editor's Note July 2, 2019:
Checkout The Best History Book for a detailed review of all the top history books.

Expert Summarized Score
8.9
6 expert reviews
User Summarized Score
9.6
545 user reviews
Our Favorite Video Reviews
What experts liked
It carries all the qualities of what Macintyre has so justly become known for – precise research leading to even-handed assessments, and, where possible, using first-hand accounts to reduce the level of speculation that is otherwise so enticing to those attempting to understand the past. The Spy and The Traitor represents Macintyre’s finest work to date and has the makings of an instant screenplay.
- The Globe and Mail
Macintyre’s prose is elegant and enlivened with occasional asides that are eminently quotable, as well as inevitable nods to the classics of the spy genre, above all John le Carré.
- The Guardian
MacIntyre takes us through Gordievsky’s political and social maturation process in great and colorful detail, painting a picture of a young man of privilege who slowly and skillfully worked his way up the KGB bureaucracy, which the author describes as bloated, inefficient and, at times, downright incompetent.
- The Cipher Brief
October 9, 2018 | Full review
So you want me to tell you about a book John le Carre calls “The best true spy story I have ever read”? I found The Spy and the Traitor to be Ben Macintyre’s finest work. With this project he took a riveting, complex, important slice of Cold War history and wove it into a book as exciting as the best thriller novels. Using cliche expressions such as “I couldn’t put it down” and “the pages seemed to turn on their own” come to mind. They’re accurate.
- Spybrary
November 20, 2018 | Full review
Even a reader not enamored of spy stories will have trouble putting this one down. The whole story, including Gordievsky’s return to Moscow, where, unbeknownst to him, he had been unmasked to the KGB by Aldrich Ames, their man in the cia, followed by his harrowing, made-for-Hollywood escape from the Soviet Union, unfolds with a pace and drama that recall the novels of John le Carré.
- Foreign Affairs
What experts didn't like

From The Manufacturer

Ben Macintyre is a writer-at-large for The Times of London and the bestselling author of A Spy Among Friends, Double Cross, Operation Mincemeat, Agent Zigzag, and Rogue Heroes, among other books. Macintyre has also written and presented BBC documentaries of his work.

An Overview On History Books

  • You’ll likely choose a history book based on an event you simply want to learn more about. If you’re fascinated with the history of man, Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” will appeal to you. Gregory A. Freeman’s “The Forgotten 500” focuses on 500 specific men, covering Operation Halyard, which was part of World War II. Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” homes in on American history, tossing out the history taught in schools with the goal of teaching the unvarnished truth about our country. Donnie Eichar’s “Dead Mountain” tells the fascinating story of nine experienced hikers who died mysteriously after inexplicably exiting their tent during a camping trip.
  • Readability is huge with a history book, especially if you prefer a more casual, laid-back approach to storytelling. Gregory A. Freeman’s “The Forgotten 500” reads like a suspense novel, taking you along on the adventure. Donnie Eichar’s “Dead Mountain” is also immensely readable, retelling an already riveting story based on years of research. Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” on the other hand, is 464 pages and does tend to read a bit like a textbook.
  • The best history books go beyond merely telling a story, instead conveying a theme that can serve as a mirror of what humanity is going through today. Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” poses questions that make readers think. The author explores the reasons behind humans building large populations, compared to other primates that keep things small.
  • Some historical novels are worth reading simply because they tell a story that’s long overdue to be told. Gregory A. Freeman’s “The Forgotten 500” brings to light the men who had to fight hard to get back to their families, also acknowledging those who died for their right to do so.
  • Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” is not objective, but that’s part of the book’s charm. With passion, the author tells the stories of the Americans often forgotten in history books — namely women and people of color, as well as factory workers and immigrant laborers.
  • Donnie Eichar’s “Dead Mountain” tells the well-known Dyatlov Pass mystery, which has yet been solved. Although Eichar does detail the facts leading up to the hikers’ mysterious sudden departure from their tent into the blustery cold, snowy night, the rest is his own theory into what happened. He does pull as many facts as possible into making those statements, and his theory is better than most of the others that have been proposed in this case.
  • As valuable as all the other factors are, if the historical novel you’re reading isn’t accurate, it isn’t worth reading. Even when a book is accurate, though, you’ll usually find the author has no choice but to occasionally inject a personal opinion or two. In Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” for instance, the author structures an argument that the agricultural revolution was one of the biggest mistakes in history. Gregory A. Freeman’s “The Forgotten 500” shows a bias toward Draza Mihailovich, who was a Yugoslav Serb and friend of the U.S. during World War II. Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” does assert heavily that the ruling class’s oppression of a part of the population is to blame for everything that has happened in America. In Donnie Eichar’s “Dead Mountain,” the author offers a scientific, weather phenomenon-related explanation for nine people rushing from a tent, separating and later being found dead in various conditions.

DYWM Fun Fact

There have been many theories about the Dyatlov Pass Incident since it happened in 1959. The tent had been cut open from the inside, and there were eight to nine sets of footprints leading to the edge of the nearby woods. What caused the hikers to cut a hole in the tent and run? All nine had died from hypothermia, but why they ran, and why they couldn’t make their way back to the tent later, remains a mystery. Some experts have theorized an avalanche, but there were no signs that an avalanche had happened. Experts have explored the possibility that the team stumbled into a radioactive weapons testing area and were forced out of their tent due to that. More recent theories have dismissed those, using what science knows today to provide a more plausible explanation for what happened there.

The History Book Buying Guide

Writer and philosopher George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But before you can remember the past, you first must know about it. History class probably taught you all the basics, but it’s up to you, as an adult, to take a deep dive into various events.

The history section of a bookstore is as diverse as any other genre. It captures a span of centuries and events, covering everything from mysterious happenings to war heroes. As you browse, you’ll likely be drawn to the type of subject matter that best suits your interest. But more goes into a good historical novel than the topic it’s covering.

With any historical telling, you’re getting one person’s perspective on the events. A good author will conduct thorough research and even conduct numerous interviews in order to present all the facts to the reader. But many historical books are written with at least a little bias, as the author can’t possibly provide every single perspective. Make sure before you read that you’re going to get as accurate a portrayal as possible, rather than simply reading an author’s thoughts on what happened.

That said, there are some history books that require a bit of speculation. Even historical experts sometimes contribute their thoughts to these books. If you’re reading about a war, for instance, you may only get one side’s perspective, requiring you to pick up another book to get the full picture.

In the end, though, whether a history book is enjoyable or not will have a lot to do with how it’s written. Some history books are very straightforward, like a textbook, but many others inject humor or the author’s unique voice into the writing to keep you turning the page. Read a few pages of the book before you buy to make sure the writing suits your own personal tastes.