Book review: A Perfect Spy

With the White House apparently having turned into some kind of “Russia House”, who needs an excuse to read a few thrillers by John le Carré? Especially, after the announcement that another Smiley thriller will be published later this year.

As a kick-off, I dipped into the novel which according to le Carré himself was his John le Carré A Perfect Spymost autobiographical one – when it appeared. “A Perfect Spy” was published in 1986. Much later, he made a similar claim about “A delicate truth” (2013).

“A Perfect Spy” does not end well for its main character Magnus Pym. The reader is introduced to him, while he arrives in a coastal village in England, calling himself Canterbury. He rents a secret hideaway where he starts writing a long letter, more of an autobiography, addressed to his son Tom.

Meanwhile, Magnus second wife is in Vienna. She is waiting for a Jack Brotherhood to arrive and is rehearsing her version of events. Something seems to have happened at Lesbos. Moreover, Magnus’ career was blighted by whatever happened in the USA.

The story is mostly told in flash-backs by various characters, though flashbacks alternate with scenes taking place in the present. The change in timeline and point of view slowly reveals events to the reader.

Magnus has done a well-planned runner. He received the news his father died a few days earlier, while dining with an American couple in Vienna. They met Magnus and his family, while the latter were stationed in Washington.

Magnus and his family were transferred to Vienna under some kind of cloud. At Lesbos, Magnus’ wife and son Tom witnessed odd things.It becomes clear the escape to England is Magnus bid for freedom. He spied for several masters.

While Magnus writes his autobiography, various intelligence services are trying to track him down. One of the nastier chapters is the one describing how Jack Brotherhood, treats Tom to an outing while pumping the naive and innocent boy for information which might betray where Magnus is.

There are plenty similar chapters which illustrate betrayal and treason in various forms. Magnus has no qualms about betraying people or ensuring others are punished. According to Magnus, it all started before he was born, when his father played his first successful confidence trick.

Everybody who meets Magnus’ father comes under his spell. Magnus’ mother becomes a victim, as does the German girl who partly raises Magnus. Of course, Magnus is a victim too, as he tries to please first his father and then all kinds of father-figures.

Magnus compares his life with running around a table keeping plates spinning; like some kind of Chinese circus act. It soon becomes clear, what he keeps spinning are his various lives or personae. Despite all this, Magnus is not an unsympathetic character. As other characters remark, he is searching for love and friendship, yet the moment he finds these, he has to destroy them.

“The moral rot”, as some reviewers call it, plays an important part in this novel. The message seems to be, that a perfect spy is unable to juggle all the different covers and demands. All the characters show signs of “moral rot” and the only way to freedom is death.

This book is a combination of psychological thriller, spy-novel and autobiography. For fans of the thriller and spy-stories, it may lack action. For those who like psychological novels, it is interesting that le Carré reveals autobiographical facts by using his fictional character Magnus Pym. Magnus’ father is closely based on le Carré’s own. Like Magnus, le Carré spent time at horrid boarding schools. Like Magnus, he was taken to Switzerland for skiing holidays and later studied in Bern.

Wondering how close the fictional “A Perfect Spy” is to real life? You may like to read Sisman’s biography on John le Carré. Le Carré’s autobiography, “The Pigeon Tunnel”, is also available.

As for le Carré’s “The Russia House”, it was the spy thriller which appeared after “A Perfect Spy”. It ends happier for its main character.

The  new Smiley thriller is called “A legacy of spies”. It will be published this autumn. Can’t wait? Le Carré published a long list of spy-thrillers, many of which were turned into tv series or films, available on DVD.

“A Perfect Spy”, John le Carré, first published 1986 is available through Amazon, in paperback, kindle and other versions.
“John le Carré, the biography”, Adam Sisman, 2015, is also available through Amazon.


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