A Perfect Spy

by John Le Carré

Hardcover, 1986





New York : Knopf, 1986.


When British intelligence agent Magnus Pym disappears, two desperate searches are initiated--the hunt of agents, East and West, for the missing spy and Pym's own quest to uncover the mysteries of his own past.

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 rossarn
Loses points for a fairly boring ending.
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.
LibraryThing member jerry-book
He is my favorite cloak and dagger writer.
LibraryThing member DanielSTJ
This novel did not resound with me. I didn't feel attached to any of the characters or events that were transpiring and it felt more like a chore that needed to be finished more than anything else. As I like other Le Carré novels, I'm not quite sure what happened in this one besides a dislike of the personal style and plot-line that A Perfect Spy had.

1 star.
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LibraryThing member Ken-Me-Old-Mate
Ah, John Le Carre, what can I say? A Perfect Tale
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 k6gst
I’ve read all the Karla/Smiley books, including the new one, which is great, and maybe half of the rest of le Carré. His recent memoir is also tops.

I find it interesting that the same man wrote the thrilling, taut masterpiece The Spy Who Came In from the Cold could quickly succumb to so much bloat in his following books. This one is squarely in the middle of his bloat period. I enjoyed it, but it can be tough sledding if it’s not your bag.

One of the not-unpleasurable challenges for getting into le Carré is learning his peculiar British espionage slang: lamplighters, scalphunters, mothers, the Circus, the cousins, janitors, etc. It’s never been perfectly clear how much of that is literary invention versus actual usage from le Carré’s service in MI5 and MI6. You pick it up. (It helps that some of the lecarrisms have actually jumped from the novels into general usage: he introduced the term “mole” in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). But this novel, like several of his others, features a spy that has a background in the criminal underworld, so there’s a whole ‘nother vocabulary to try to follow.

MI6 Vienna station chief Magnus Pym goes missing for reasons unknown to the Circus and his wife (herself a former “shoemaker,” i.e., forger of false documents for the intelligence service), maybe related to his work with his Czechoslovakian network. And maybe not. They scramble to find him, and figure out what to do with his network of agents (“Joes”), which the Soviets are going to roll up if he’s defected. Head of MI6 is loath to try to exfiltrate his Joes until they are absolutely certain that he’s compromised, because it would mean admitting to the Americans (“the cousins”) and MI5 (“the competition”) that they have another embarrassing mole so soon after their recent humiliation, which is not explicitly stated but understood to be the Tailor/Kim Philby defection.

Also long digressions about Pym’s upbringing by his con-man father.

About le Carré’s wandering digressions, especially in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: some of them are amazing. The recent memoir of legendary editor Robert Gottlieb, Avid Reader: A Life (2016), contains a nugget about editing le Carré that shows his gift with interesting digressions:

"[Tinker Tailor] had an extremely intricate plot, and we did a lot of work on it—totally gratifying, since David [John le Carre’s real name is David Cornwell] was one of those rare writers who loved going back to his book, rethinking, rewriting; all he needed was a suggestion that made sense to him and he was off and running. I remember saying to him that the character Connie Sachs, the superannuated spymaster who remembered everything, was so extraordinary that I wanted more of her. He couldn’t wait to get back to her, and in a week or so I had twenty or thirty terrific new pages—a few too many. No problem. A little trimming and Connie emerged in her full glory."

p. 173. (Avid Reader is a great book for anyone interested in 20th century lit.)

The backstory of Connie Sachs is not necessary to the intricate plot, but it’s interesting as hell, and she’s an amazing character. Same with much of the character of Ricky Tarr.

The Perfect Spy is recommended. (Gottlieb, by the way, called it “to me his most interesting and moving book,” p. 174. Philip Roth called it “the best English novel since the war.”)
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LibraryThing member TTAISI-Editor
This book is the worst of John Le Carré. There's just no way around it. It is ponderously slow-moving in its plot, a feeling exacerbated by a kind of literary pretension that casts much of the narrative as a message to one protagonist's son. The only reason it doesn't get one star is because Le Carré is a strong writer, for all the plot faults here.

But there is no context in which I can recommend this book, unless the intended reader suffers from insomnia.
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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 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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