A PERFECT SPY by John le Carré
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Note from Kirkus' Vintage Review Editor:

As publishers rush to sell a multitude of their most vibrant, beachy summer reads, we feel a little outpaced: there are still loads of classics we haven't conquered yet. Some readers tackle the latest hot reads each summer, and some return - or discover - the books they've been wanting to read for a while. We'll be getting re-acquainted with John le Carré's A Perfect Spy, his character study from 1986 of Magnus Pym. At the time, our critic assessed the novel as le Carré's "richest, most unabashedly Dickensian prose yet."


The "perfect spy" in this bitter, stately le Carré novel--more character-study than thriller--is Magnus Pym, 50-ish, a senior spymaster for Britain, based in Vienna. . .but now, suddenly, disappeared, after returning to England for the funeral of his old father, Rick. Where has Pym gone? Is he a traitor on the run, a double-agent? Those are the questions that face Pym's aging mentor, Jack Brotherhood, and Pym's second wife, Mary (mother of their teen-aged son); they find themselves trying to defend Pyro to the powers, that-be, to their CIA allies--as evidence accumulates to suggest that smooth, charismatic Pyro, who masterminded a network of Czech informers, was indeed working for the Czechs all along. Meanwhile, however, the reader knows exactly where Pyro is: he is holed up in a south Devon coastal town, fussed over by a doting landlady in a Victorian boardinghouse, writing his elegant, ironic, spacious memoirs. And, in chapters that alternate with the Vienna-based sleuthing, Pyro-sliding with surprising ease between first-person and third-person narration--sets down "Word for word the truth. No evasions, no fictions, no devices. Just my overpromised self set free." He recalls above all father Rick, an irresistible, incorrigible con-man who used, betrayed, everyone who loved him--including wife Dorothy (who went mad), a lovely Jewish refugee named Lippsie (who committed suicide), and Pyro himself. Pyro remembers how, following Rick's example, he learned "to live on several planes at once," to cultivate surface charm; he sees himself as someone doomed to become a "divided city" from the start--doomed to forge new loyalties only to betray them, doomed always to serve two masters at once, "to pacify and reconcile." Indeed, Pyro recalls how he betrayed father Rick, how he betrayed the best friend of his youth, a Czech refugee named Axel. And, above all, Pyro recalls how, meeting Axel years later, when both of them had become spies (on opposite sides), it became impossible not to betray his country. . .rather than his friend. ("Does it amaze you that Pyro, by making bonds with the forbidden, should be once more escaping from what held him?") There's a modicum of tension here as the search for Pyro heats up: mentor Jack, after interviews with all of Pym's intimates, comes to believe that his protégé is indeed a traitor; wife Mary, after a chilling scene with Czech spymaster Axel (also in pursuit of Pyro), comes up with the clue that finally leads the British agents to Devon--for the grim, inevitable conclusion. And, in the first half, at least, there's a basic mystery to ponder: is or isn't Pym a traitor? But, to an even greater degree than in le Carré's previous spy novels, suspense takes second place here to psychological texture and morality-play dynamics. The result can be somewhat repetitious, not entirely convincing (Pym's self-psychoanalysis seems a bit simplistic), more than a little preachy. Still, if less masterly than either the Karla trilogy or The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, this is a much plainer, finer accomplishment than The Little Drummer Girl--while the long memoir sections allow le Carré to write his richest, most unabashedly Dickensian prose yet: occasionally self-conscious or precious, often stirring, magical, gravely joyous.
Pub Date: May 1st, 1986
ISBN: 0143119761
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1986


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