A Perfect Spy

by John Le Carré

Hardcover, 1986





New York : Knopf, 1986.


Magnus Pym, the perfect spy, has disappeared. His colleagues, superiors, and wife are baffled. During the search for Pym a clandestine chain of operations is unearthed.

Media reviews

In his work, Mr. le Carré shows an advanced sense of irony. His characters work hard to find the truth, or to conceal it, and in the end the truth never seems to matter all that much. Life is a sort of endless agitation over unplumbable depths. If Rick Pym inadvertently made Magnus Pym into a perfect spy - a man with loyalty, but no object for that loyalty, a man who at one time or another betrays everyone with whom he has an important connection - then Mr. le Carré's father inadvertently made John le Carré into a perfect spy novelist - intimately aware of the dynamics of love and loyalty as tools to be used in the covert manipulation of men, knowledgeable in the uses of the lie, cognizant of the fragility and vulnerability of those whom life, in one way or another, has badly hurt. I accuse Mr. le Carré of no immodesty in this conceit. The books, after all, are there. He is a perfect spy novelist.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Widsith
Le Carré writes beautifully, let's get that out of the way straight off, but something about this left me a little disappointed. It did have a lot to live up to: not only is it often considered his best work, it's sometimes considered anyone's best work. Philip Pullman reckons A Perfect Spy is ‘one of the finest novels of the twentieth century’, while Philip Roth said it was ‘the best English novel since the war’. Other Philips also speak highly of it.

It begins with the arrival of a man in a small English village. He is using a false name, he is carrying a mysterious bag, he has apparently just come from a funeral. In a guest room, he sits down to write his story; and thenceforth the book alternates between an espionage thriller that crisscrosses Cold War Europe, and a personal narrative about growing up in postwar Britain.

I found the first of these strands considerably more interesting than the second, which is clearly based on le Carré's own childhood. The book therefore has much autobiographical interest (and had even more before 2016, when le Carré authorised a biography and then wrote his own). Like the book's protagonist, Magnus Pym, le Carré grew up without a mother and in the shadow of a confused relationship with his conman father, and the dynamic of this relationship is a major focus of the novel. I mostly found it a distraction, and was anxious to get back to what I felt was the main story.

Part of the problem is that the two parts never really mesh very well. The idea mooted is that growing up with an overbearing confidence trickster as a father has predisposed Pym to a life of international espionage; well, le Carré may have felt this to be true in his own case, but I don't find it very convincing in this novel. It feels like two books have been stapled together.

It's particularly frustrating because the bits that work are so excellent: beautiful descriptions of Europe, in this case mostly Austria and Switzerland (‘the spiritual home of natural spies’), a flawless depiction of how diplomats track a potential defector, and the kind of perfect thumbnail character sketches that le Carré is so consistently good at:

She had greying hair bound in a sensible bun and wore a necklace of what looked like nutmeg. When she walked, she waded through her kaftan as if she hated it. When she sat, she spread her knees and scraped at the knuckles of one hand. Yet her beauty clung to her like an identity she was trying to deny and her plainness kept slipping like a bad disguise.

His books are always able to demonstrate exactly how politics boils down to conversations between frustrated people in drab meeting-rooms. The conversations in le Carré books are the set pieces: they are as exciting as car chases or fistfights, and this book is no different. Much hinges on the cagey relationship between British ‘espiocrats’ (to use one of le Carré's later coinages) and their CIA counterparts, and the author has a lot of fun contrasting the well-spoken, supercilious clarity of the Brits with the managerial jargon of the Americans:

‘…the ah Agency position overall on this thing – at this important meeting, and at this moment in time – is that we have here an accumulation of indicators from a wide range of sources on the one hand, and new data on the other which we consider pretty much conclusive in respect of our unease.’

(This is an affliction that has long since spread to this side of the Atlantic.) At moments like these, I felt inclined to give the book the benefit of the doubt, and was willing myself to like it more than I did. But the flashbacks were just too obtrusive and took too long to get to their point – things don't really get going until a third of the way in, which for a six-hundred-word book is a hell of a long time to make people wait. There is a sneaky sensation that the author was doing this more for himself than for us (he later talked about the book as therapy).

‘Love is whatever you can betray,’ reflects the main character. ‘Betrayal can only happen if you love.’ The theme of betrayal – to one's loved ones and to one's country – is a powerful one, even if I felt it got a bit smothered. The book is studded with brilliance – but not perfect, to me, by a long shot.
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LibraryThing member thorold
This is essentially Le Carré's usual theme: the romantic young hero, frustrated in his quest for something to be loyal to by a broken home and a boarding school education, drifts into a career of deception and espionage. But in this novel, the last of his Cold War epics, it appears in its most highly developed form, fleshed out into a complete Bildungsroman charting the development of Magnus's relationship with his father, Rick, a professional con man. Magnus wants to love Rick, but at the same time needs to distance himself from Rick's criminal activities; he finds himself in much the same situation with his friend Axel and with Jack Brotherhood, the man who recruits him into a career in spying.
The technical business of spying is much less important in this book than Le Carré's inquiry into what deception does to personal relationships - Magnus may be a Perfect Spy in that he seems to be able to subordinate everything to the requirements of professional cover, but what does that really mean for his life and for those around him? The result is very much a novel, not a thriller, but we still find Le Carré's usual delight in language: the professional jargon of the spies is an important feature as usual, but there is also the whole new world of Rickspeak to discover, a marvellous set of catchphrases and clichés of the 30s/40s underworld that run through the book and link the Rick incidents together.

Definitely one of his best. It works nearly as well in the TV series, which I happened to see a rerun of recently, as in the book.
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LibraryThing member viking2917
Ok, I just read this for the third time. It's a masterpiece. You can't count yourself a reader of spy novels unless you've read this.
LibraryThing member poulantik
Espionage and the modern world described in exquisite language. top notch. This is one of his best.
LibraryThing member Netherto
The book borrows elements both from his earlier book, "Little Drummer Girl," and the author's own life to make a daunting, sobering tale that offers insight both to the life of the "spy" and the life of the novelist.

The first several chapters, about the main character's boyhood, were harrowing -- difficult to get through. But they laid the groundwork needed to make the rest of the story fall into place.… (more)
LibraryThing member CommonReeda
i think le Carre gets better all the time and although I liked the Smiley novels I thought this was a cut above. The hunt for the missing Magnus Pym makes a really good spy story with lots of twists and the story behind it, his relationship with his dodgy dad adds another dimension.
LibraryThing member oapostrophe
I became engrossed in this book. So many fascinating characters and relationships, twist and turns, surprises, heartbreak. Magnus Pym, spy, comes to terms with his many lives after the death of his father Rick, a larger that life con man. The examination is thorough and brutal. A truly wonderful novel.
LibraryThing member kvrfan
Leave it to John Le Carre to take the glamor out of the spy business. This is not a thriller, but largely a character study of Magnus Pym, whose life is spent wrestling with the shadow his father has cast upon his life. His father made his living as an epic con man, and it becomes clear that there is but a hair's-breadth of difference between the skills required to be a good con man--lies, deceit, and charm--and a good (indeed, a perfect) spy.… (more)
LibraryThing member tommi180744
Could there be a better novel in the Spy Thriller genre?
Well, this may not be a 'perfect' example, but it is surely a very near thing: Certainly a defining work by the Author exhibiting his most creative qualities as a writer of the very best fiction.
How literary prize-givers such as Mann-Booker neglected this literary, contemporary masterpiece and other tomes by Le Carre in favour of undoubtedly lesser works by alleged leading novelists will forever be to the discredit of such awards bodies and shaming on the snobbish assessment of what constitutes GREAT FICTION NOVELS.
SEE FOR YOURSELF: Read A PERFECT SPY and discover line by line the evolution of Magnus Pym, as a very accurate, perceptive light is shone on the personal and wider world of a modern British-Cold War 'warrior' of sorts!
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LibraryThing member BBcummings
Long and verbose. Get the feeling it is somewhat auto-biographical, which is depressing to me.

Not uncommon for Le Carre, the characters are pathetically morose.

Difficult to get through.
LibraryThing member rossarn
Loses points for a fairly boring ending.
LibraryThing member BooksForDinner
One of his greatest works. Part espionage, part bildungsroman, part autobiography, all great. Would rate as the full five but the end seemed a bit rushed (Not that it is easy to rush a 600 page novel!), and what I thought may have been important times in Pym's life were glossed over, despite this being more of a coming of age story than a full life account.… (more)
LibraryThing member joeld
There's a lot to chew on here. The writing is great and the complex, nonlinear structure does a lot to break things up and to bring you inside the minds of the characters. Le Carrè is a master of the complexities of real human beings. It's definitely not a thriller or a page-turner though, and I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending. I suspect that this is the kind of book that will grow on me, but time will tell.… (more)
LibraryThing member AJBraithwaite
Loved it - one of those books I didn't want to stop reading. The characters are so well drawn that you feel like you know them.

Must mention the appalling quality of the conversion of the ebook though - it's obvious that the Penguin Canada edition was never proof-read as the text has a number of OCR issues. My favourite was the sentence which read "The stairs were lined with portraits of rude men." That has been making me laugh all day.… (more)
LibraryThing member jerry-book
He is my favorite cloak and dagger writer.
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
If you prefer the typical movie/TV/007 sort of spy story with its improbably high-paced thrill, you probably won't like this book. John Cornwell's (aka Le Carre) books show us a more authentic portion of that world and puts a very human face on it. Intelligent and well written.



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