Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Perfect Spy: John le Carré

This is a very long book. The edition I read was a mass market paperback, 517 pages of very small print. I loved reading every page and I did not want it to end. I am very thankful to Mathew Paust at Crime Time who offered to send me the copy he had read. Otherwise, who knows when I would have gotten around to reading this book.

Magnus Pym, a British spy assigned to an important post in Vienna, has disappeared. After he gets a call that his father has died, he leaves for the funeral in London, but he doesn't return when expected. His wife is worried but his fellow agents are even more concerned and mount a search for him. Being the gifted spy that he is, Pym easily eludes them for the majority of the book.

A Perfect Spy by John le Carré revolves around Magnus Pym's relationship with his father, Rick, a con man who uses everyone in his life to achieve his own goals. Pym's mother died when he was young, so Rick has been the major influence in his life.

Pym's wife and son also feature prominently, as do various people in the espionage and diplomatic community who want him located as soon as possible. Le Carré keeps the reader guessing throughout. Where has Pym disappeared to and why? My sympathies were with the young Magnus, mostly ignored by his father but occasionally useful to him, and with Mary and Tom, his wife and son.

The tale is told in alternating chapters. One chapter is Magnus writing the story of his life for his son, the next puts the focus on a family member or a colleague who is attempting to track him down. More than one reviewer talked about being initially put off by this structure, but this is exactly the type of book I love. And the alternating chapters serve a purpose. The story Magnus tells us is complex and illuminating but can also be a bit overwhelming; the switch to the pursuit of the missing spy gives a needed change of pace.

Some reviewers say that A Perfect Spy is not espionage fiction so much as it is the story of a man's life (and his relationship with his father). However, there is plenty of spycraft going on in this book, enough to keep me happy.

This story is mostly autobiographical. John le Carré's mother died when he was very young and his father was a con man who spent some time in prison.

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Publisher:  Bantam, 1987. Orig. pub. 1986.
Length:     517 pages
Format:     Paperback
Setting:     UK, Vienna
Genre:      Espionage fiction
Source:     A gift.

18 comments:

  1. I have this one. I have to be in the mood to read this writer. I'm curious to see how I like the structure of the story as it's not something I like either. But then I hate epistolary novels but loved Bram Stoker's Dracula. Go figure. --Keishon

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    1. The writing was at times confusing for me, Keishon, because Pym refers to himself sometimes in third person, sometimes in 1st person. But the subject matter was perfect for me and I like stories with multiple viewpoints. So it worked for me.

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  2. Good review. I've not read this one yet, but I prefer his earlier, shorter works: call or the Dead, Murder of Quality, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I still might try The Perfect Spy. Your review encourages me.

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    1. I always figure I can give up on a very long book if I am not enjoying it, Tim, but with le Carre I cannot imagine that happening to me.

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  3. Correction. Call for the Dead.
    Damn autocorrect!

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  4. I admit, Tracy, this is one I've not (yet) read. Still, I really like John le Carré's writing, and I can see how you'd be drawn in, even though the book is a long one. Interesting how elements of his own story are woven into the story...

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    1. I do like stories about family dynamics, Margot. And it explains why le Carre wrote so well about this type of relationship.

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  5. The length kinds of puts me off a bit, I kind of think I could read three other books in the same time span it would take for this one. You do make it sound good though and it's lurking in a tub somewhere.
    He's just had a memoir published over here - THE PIGEON TUNNEL. I wonder if it covers any of the same ground?

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    1. Col, now that I have gotten into reading books by le Carre, the length does not bother me so much for his novels. I know I will enjoy the writing and not get bored in the middle. The Honourable Schoolboy was about the same length and I did feel it slowed down at places, but not this one.

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    2. Forgot to say about THE PIGEON TUNNEL, Col. I just saw a review of that and it appears it does. I will definitely be reading it eventually.

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  6. I do think this is a really major book in the le Carre canon - it is certainly the most autobiographical (the father figure is acknowledged as being very close to the author's) and I love how it often reads like TINKER TAILOR but from the point of view of the mole!

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    1. I never thought of that, Sergio. A very good point, TINKER TAILOR looked at differently.

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  7. I thought this title looked familiar! ;) Glad you enjoyed it, Tracy.

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    1. I did, Mathew. Many, many thanks to you for sending it to me. It is definitely a novel I will reread, even though it is so long. But I may try to find a copy with larger print next time.

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  8. Tracy, I plan to read this book someday, soon. I think le Carré would be readable in any length. You don't notice the size of his books as you read.

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    1. Exactly. I agree, Prashant. I bought a lot of books by le Carre at the book sale because now that I have read several I am willing to try anything by him.

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  9. This is on my list - I've read a lot of John le Carre, but never rush to the next one. But with yours and other's reviews, Perfect Spy does sound like a must-read.

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    1. The next le Carre novel I will read will be Smiley's People, Moira. Then I will move on to another non-Smiley book, maybe A Small Town in Germany. I may have read some of his books back in my younger days, but reading them now I note no familiarity, so not sure anymore. But it is great getting to them now.

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