A Perfect Spy (1986) by John le Carré

A Perfect Spy BY John le Carre. Scribner. Paperback, 608 pages. $17.

The cover of A Perfect Spy

By 1986, when A Perfect Spy hit the Times list, John le Carré had already established himself in two distinct, not intrinsically related ways. His earlier novels, especially The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), had secured his place among those writers, like Harold Robbins and Herman Wouk, who could be counted on to produce best sellers with a regularity guaranteed to warm the coldest publisher’s stony little heart. Unlike Robbins and Wouk, however, le Carré worked in an easily identified genre, the spy novel, and had so managed to elevate its standards that his books, self-evidently superior to efforts like The Carpetbaggers and Marjorie Morningstar, seemed barely to be generic at all. Had his novels not delivered the narrative goods of accelerating suspense and gathering dread, they would hardly have attracted readers in such numbers; but what made le Carré so different from everyone else with boatloads of fans was his capacity for locating the purely generic pleasures within the more resonant, character-centered satisfactions of what is called the literary novel. By doing so, he demonstrated the essential artificiality of this division by reverting to the immersive storytelling manner of writers like Scott, Dickens, and Stevenson, for whom narrative tension emerged from deeply imagined conflicts, characters, and settings.

A Perfect Spy ratchets up one of le Carré’s most emotionally complex themes, the correlation between artist and spy, by flooding its story of a cornered MI5 agent named Magnus Pym with biographical details, all ripe with feeling, from the author’s own childhood as the son of a charming and flamboyant con man who was criminal to the core. Le Carré’s disastrous father is the model for Rick Pym, who creates within his watchful offspring a lifelong sense of shame and a bottomless capacity for duplicity. Betrayal is his patrimony, to be squandered wherever he goes. As the acts of treachery done to him and committed by him mount up, Pym slides into a grim fragmentation intensified by le Carré’s giddy technique. Rotating between third- and first-person points of view, the book incorporates addresses by the narrator to himself-as-other, an imaginative leap I’ve never seen any other author dare to attempt. A Perfect Spy is my favorite of le Carré’s novels: Here, with no George Smiley to divert the underlying anguish into conventional spy-story channels, it flashes and gleams like the treasure it is.

Peter Straub is the author of seventeen novels—including Ghost Story, Koko, Mr. X, and, most recently, A Dark Matter—and two collaborations with Stephen King, The Talisman and Black House.