Harry St. John Bridger Philby is perhaps best known as the father of the British intelligence agent and traitor Harold Adrian Russell "Kim" Philby, who defected to the U.S.S.R. in the early 60s and spent the rest of his life there. St. John Philby was, in his own right, and interesting, intelligent, opinionated, and charismatic figure, a typical British eccentric who converted to Islam but had enthusiastic interests that were particularly British anyway. He was closely allied with Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia and its first king, right up until the monarch's passing, and was in some ways perhaps the most influential non-Arab in the formation of Arabia after World War I. This book is the only biography available in English of this interesting bundle of contradictions.
Monroe is an interesting writer, and takes an even more interesting view of Philby and his world. The author adopts the attitude that if Philby doesn't know about something, or it doesn't happen within his view, then she leaves it out of the account of his life. So, as a for instance, Philby was, according to the author, very close to the British Arabist of the teens and 20s Gertrude Bell. However, when they fell out of touch, she leaves the narrative without another mention of her. Her tragic suicide isn't mentioned. The same goes for T.E.Lawrence, who was more of a contemporary than a friend; as long as he has a part to play in the narrative he's there, but his decade-long exile isn't mentioned, nor his death in a motorcycle accident in 1935. Philby's son, Kim, is only mentioned as working in the Foreign Office, when in fact he was a relatively senior figure in Britain's intelligence community: in the early 1950s, he was MI6 Chief of Station in North America, a post that was usually assigned to those who would next be the chief of British intelligence. Instead, suspicion he was a spy led to his retirement, and ultimately defection. Beyond mentioning the retirement (amid "rumors" of his disloyalty) the author mentions none of this in the book, apparently thinking that it has no bearing on Philby's life itself. The strange thing, of course, is that when the son's defection occurred, the father's eccentricities were put forward as a possible explanation. Apparently there's some recent scholarship that suggests that Kim was originally recruited by the Soviets to spy on his father, who was at that time at the height of his influence in Saudi Arabia.
This is a well-written, valuable book, in spite of the blinders the author adopted when viewing Kim's treason and the facts surrounding it. Since it's the only book on Philby available in English, it's a surprise it's not more available, though I suppose that his obscurity makes this inevitable: I guess part of my point is that he shouldn't be so obscure in the first place.