A Perfect Spy, published in 1986, has been lauded by fans and critics alike as John Le Carre‘s magnum opus.
The plot centers around the life of the main character, Magnus Pym, a British intelligence agent. The novel covers much of his life, from early childhood, and a little before that; to his adolescent days in boarding schools, college days in Oxford, of the circumstances behind his decision to become an agent, up to the present.
The novel alternates between Pym’s childhood life, narrated by Pym – growing up with father, who was sketchy, at best, and the present, told from the point of view of different characters, about Pym as a British intelligence officer, presumably missing, and a danger to the agency.
As a child, Pym was an agreeable boy with a penchant for wanting to please everyone around him, to the point re-inventing himself to suit whatever crowd he was with at the time, including telling fantastical stories which were less than truthful, depending on who was listening. Perhaps one could say that he had the perfect qualities to someday become a perfect spy.
I found the first few chapters of A Perfect Spy rather slow and uninteresting. These first few chapters were devoted mostly to Pym’s father and other early influences. As the book continues, and as Pym reveals more and more about his life, the reader starts to question the truth behind the story of Pym – is Pym being entirely truthful in his narration, or is everyone else?
Contrary to my earlier belief (and post), Le Carre’s famous agent, George Smiley was not in A Perfect Spy at all. I haven’t read many spy novels (this is just my second), but A Perfect Spy doesn’t seem to me like the typical spy novel. This is not the easiest novel to read, and it certainly is not short, so I would recommend this novel only to fans of semi-spy stories, and of course to John Le Carre fans – then again, I’m sure fans of John Le Carre have already read this book…
After reading the book, I watched the 7-part BBC mini-series starring Peter Egan as the adult Magnus Pym, and I was a bit disappointed. The mini-series left out a lot of important characters and events in Pym’s young life. The mini-series might seem confusing to someone who has not read the novel before. Between the novel and the mini-series, I would recommend the novel – forget about the mini-series altogether.
A Perfect Spy (1986) – John Le Carre
Sceptre; 680 pages
Personal rating: 2.5/5