A Perfect Spy by John le Carré (1986)

A Perfect Spy by John le Carré is a marvellous, overflowing cornucopia of a novel, crammed with hilarious characters, wonderful insights and amazingly flexible, resourceful prose.

Plot The scaffold is a spy story, a thriller: Magnus Pym, model family man, good chap and manager of Eastern bloc agents from the decent safety of the British Embassy in Vienna, his father dies and so he returns to Blighty for the funeral. And disappears. Cue panic in Vienna, then London, spooks turning up to interview the distraught wife and the innocent son at boarding school, meanwhile the American cousins begin to suspect something’s up and maybe they’ve got yet another English traitor on their hands…

But in fact Pym hasn’t defected to Moscow; he has holed up in an out-of-season boarding house on the Devon coast where he sets to feverishly writing the story of his life, an autobiography which, as it proceeds, makes abundantly clear the psychological and personal experiences which led Pym into spying, a wandering text which is sometimes addressed to wife, Mary, sometimes to son, Tom, sometimes to colleague and recruiter Jack.

The outrageous father And central to these memoirs and to the whole book, and to the rip-roaring sense of ebullience which distinguishes it from his previous books, is the scandalously larger-than-life character of Pym’s father, the outrageous confidence trickster, con man, wide boy, devoted parent, lifelong bankrupt and king of a wandering court of hacks, cronies, spivs, dodgy lawyers and biddable ‘Lovelies’, Richard T Pym, universally known as Rick.

The Style is very confident – this is le Carré ‘s 11th novel and he has the skill and ability to turn sentences on sixpence, to move perspective or timezone in a few words, so that blocks of action interpenetrate or overlap creating a pleasurably dense fabric of multiple time frames. As a handful of days pass at Pym’s hideout, panic stricken interviews are taking place in Vienna, London and Washington, but at the same time Pym’s memoir is flashing back to events from his childhood onwards; and these multiple levels are woven with delicious skill.

Le Carré uses Thriller Standard, short, punchy sentences stripped of qualifiers:

The room is low and windowless and overlit. A uniformed guard mans the peephole. Spaced along the wall sit Frankel’s greying female assistants at their trestle desks. They have brought Thermos flasks and share each others’ cigarettes. They have done it all before, like a day at the races. Frankel is fat and ugly, a Latvian headwaiter. Brotherhood recruited him, Brotherhood promoted him, now he was taking over Brotherhood’s mess. So it goes. It is three in the morning. It is today, six hours ago. (page 215)

There are numerous pin-sharp pen profiles:

Syd Lemon was a tiny, thickset old man, these days, dressed all in brown like a rabbit. His brown hair, without a fleck of grey, was parted down the centre of his skull. His brown tie had horses heads looking doubtfully at his heart. He wore a trim brown cardigan and pressed brown trousers and his brown toecaps shone like conkers. From amid a maze of sun-baked wrinkles two bright animal eyes shone merrily, though his breath came hard to him. He carried a blackthorn stick with a rubber ferrule, and when he walked he swung his little hips like a skirt to get himself along. (page 505)

Surely as good as Dickens, as vivid, as perceptive, with just the right proportion of simile to lift and glow the crisp factuality. There is much more simile, metaphor and perceptive throwaway phrasing in this book than in his previous ones. He lets himself go more, to wonderful affect on page after page.

McGuffin Rick with his endless escapades, ever more outrageous scams, floating population of willing Lovelies and regular court of rogues and reprobates, is the Falstaff who brings the novel alive. There is a very basic level of suspense while we read Pym’s memoirs as he details his life in chronological order and wait to find out whether he truly is the spy London and Washington fear… The answer only comes around page 500 of this 600-page book and, in one way, didn’t matter much at all: I just wanted the Rick’s larger-than-life personality, and Pym’s strange mystification at his own odd life to continue.

Autobiography The short biography le Carré uses in his books cheerfully describes his education at private school, in Berne and Oxford, before going on to work for the Foreign Service and this exactly the career of the fictional Pym. In addition, his Wikipedia entry openly describes his rapscallion father who moved in various criminal milieux exactly as Rick does in the novel. It seems fair to think this is a very autobiographical text though obviously filtered and reversioned for the purposes of fiction.

The Implied Author is the point of view or character or mindset or mental and verbal habits which such a long text creates, or which we the readers create form the text. A few points are worth noting:

  • Public school Pym/le Carré ‘s public school upbringing makes him most confident dealing with this stratum of England’s jolly class system: in previous books Smily, obviously, and the clubland he moves in; Jerry Westerby the ‘honourable schoolboy’; even Charlie in The Little Drummer Girl, all the protagonists come from the 5% of the population which was privately educated and can’t help looking down on the poor unfortunate 95% who didn’t.
  • Foreign But le Carré Pym’s significant spell studying abroad, learning German to a high level, allows him to see the ridiculousness of the very class he belongs to: its primness, narrow-mindedness, prudishness, and the bumbling amateurishness which runs through all the books. le Carré effortlessly places Britishness in a wider international context which gives us readers the sense that, yes, we too are at home in foreign capitals, swanky hotels, speaking various languages, knowing about fancy wines and women.
  • Sex And Pym/le Carré are more explicit about sex than the average public school author tends to be. As Sabina says, “You are English, you are hommsexual,” and upper-class homosexuality was for the Victorian period and well into the 20th century the caricature of the stiff, repressed, sexually clumsy Englishman abroad. At the start of the novel his wife Mary, starts to fondly Pym through his trousers immediately after they’ve hosted a dinner party; and then Mary’s character changes after Pym disappears and his boss Jack Brotherhood shows up and we realise Mary was Brotherhood’s mistress until Pym arrived: and at various further points she fantasises about propositioning other men; all in a way I found a) unlikely, based on the  posh, very tightly-wrapped upper class women I’ve met; b) foreign. le Carré writes about English women as if they are free and easy in the Continental way, and in an unabashed way about sex which is not English, certainly not the pukkah public school English of the class he mostly, but not always, inhabits.

This wavering between (maybe an academic would call it ‘exploration of’) countries and cultures, loyalties, affections, classes and styles, is what lifts le Carré above the thriller or spy genre, into something richer and more interesting.

This is a really good book. If you only read one le Carré novel, this is the one.


A Perfect Spy by John le Carré, published 1986 by Hodder & Stoughton. All quotes from the 1987 Penguin paperback edition.

The TV series

The book was swiftly turned into a BBC TV adaptation starring Peter Egan.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
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