The Perfect Spy, John LeCarré (Penguin Books, 1986 {Penguin Audio, Narrator: Michael Jayston)

(Espionage, Mystery, Post-Modern)

Grade: Γ — (Gamma) A good or even fantastic book within the genre, possibly worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that is likely to be unappealing to individuals who are not fans of a given genre.

In brief:

The Perfect Spy by John LeCarré is an extremely well crafted novel that uses memory and memoire to produce a non-linear narrative.  The book tells the tale of British Intelligence Officer Magnus Pym, who mysteriously goes AWOL after his father’s death and may, or may not, have been a double agent. LeCarré himself has described The Perfect Spy as his “most autobiographical book”, which is clearly only the case up to the point of inspiration.  It is extremely well told, though perhaps a bit slow to hook the reader due to its meanderings in Pym’s early life.  Once hooked, however, the reader can see how critical those early portions are to the tale, and its stylistic continuation throughout the book remains key to one’s enjoyment.  Having said that, and despite this being perhaps his best written book, it is also my least favorite of LeCarré’s Cold War period novels. For reasons I go into in the full review, I would recommend putting this towards the end of my LeCarré Reading List.  None-the-less it is a marvelously told tale that is well worth the read.

Setting:

Mostly Europe and bits in North America, from just before World War II to the mid-to-late 1980’s.  (i.e. the life of an Intelligence Officer who was active throughout the majority of the Cold War).

In Depth:

John LeCarré has described The Perfect Spy as his “most autobiographical book”[1] though one can safely assume that such a correlation is very limited and really only applies very loosely to any episodes in the novel.  Even so, one can see how he mined his own experiences for inspiration and perhaps that is my problem with this book. In many ways, reading this book is a spoiler for his other novels, for in it we see his own writing tradecraft too clearly revealed to the eye.[2]  Shadow versions of some of the best characters of his large library of novels haunt this book; specters of Ricki Tarr, Otto Leipzig, Gerald Westerby,  Elsa Fennan, and even Bill Haydon (to name a few) come too fully to the forefront.  To that end, after reading this book I felt a bit like a man who has learned the tricks of his favorite magician and so lost some of the sparkle of his performance.

Having said that, the actual storytelling of this novel is, perhaps, the finest example of his writing I have seen. His ability to tell a non-linear tale is remarkable, and though the pace is slow in the beginning of the book, the reasons for this come to the forefront as the story goes on. The proof of this is that the resolution of the novel is blatantly clear at the opening of the novel, and yet the reader is uncertain until very close to the end what exactly will happen even though s/he has a very good idea.  Indeed, it is a mystery novel in which there are no secrets withheld, and yet one remains uncertain as to how each mystery will conclude until after it has concluded.

As for the plot, The Perfect Spy is the story of British Intelligence Officer Magnus Pym, who mysteriously goes AWOL after his father’s death.  It is told through multiple third person perspectives and in the first person narrative of a memoire of sorts being written by Pym himself.  The ‘mystery’ of this novel, if mystery is the right term, is what exactly happened to Pym and what, exactly his is up to.  Throughout the book one is uncertain if he is a traitor whose cover is blown or a hero of sorts who is coming to grips with his life after the death of his father.  By using a combination of narrative forms, this question is slowly revealed and the most grey of all of LeCarré’s morally ambiguous tales is formed.

So, to that end I am torn; this is an extremely well written book with an extremely interesting (albeit slow) tale, but I didn’t like it all that much. It is a must read for any fan of LeCarré, but I would recommend not reading it until you have read the rest of his Cold War series and even then giving yourself a fallow period of a couple of years so that you forget the details of what you already know.  I have little doubt it would appeal to fans of ‘Literary Fiction’ even if they do not generally like mysteries or espionage books, and yet reading it may take the shine of his other novels if one likes what one sees.

In brief, therefore, it is a very well written, well plotted literary-esque novel that I just didn’t enjoy as much as it deserved.  Even so, once I was a third of the way through it, I couldn’t put it down until well after I was done with it.

Notes about the Audio Edition:

If you’re in a hurry, let me just sum it up by saying it is a brilliantly produced audiobook which I enjoyed listening to more than I enjoyed reading the book form of the novel.  Michael Jayston‘s reading pulls one through the slow bits brilliantly.  Now, having said that, and as that this is LeCarré most autobiographical book, it seems only fitting that I give a bit of a confessional as well. Please indulge me:

Have you ever been at a party having a pleasant conversation with a stranger suddenly realized that they are someone famous or whose work you’ve admired?  That is exactly how I felt when I realized that Michael Jayston, the narrator of all of Penguin’s LeCarré Audiobooks that I have reviewed this year, was in fact Michael Jayston (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0419785/) the actor who I have admired for years.  Michael Jayston, a Shakespearean actor who has appeared with the likes of Laurence Olivier, is perhaps best known for his roles in Nicholas and Alexandra, Jane Eyre, Zulu Dawn, not to mention his appearances in such series as Dr. Who, Foyle’s War, Emmerdale, Eastenders and countless other films and series.

More to the point, and perhaps most amusingly, he played Peter Guilliam in the absolutely brilliant 1979 version of John LeCarré’s masterpiece, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  Indeed, it was his portrayal of Guilliam that forever formed my image of what Guilliam was like and how he behaved.  In fact, even when I picture actions taken by Guilliam in Smiley’s People I picture Jayston in that role despite the fact that Michael Byrne, another very fine actor, took that role the TV version of the book.

So, funny enough, it is little wonder that I admire Jaytson’s work in his brilliant narrations of the LeCarré books.  Here, as before, he brings life to the characters without his acting getting in the way of the writing.  Indeed, the remarkable versatility in the roles he has portrayed on stage and screen is highlighted in these books as he proves his skill in yet another venue: that of the narrator.

’nuff said.  You get the point. Jayston’s reading of The Perfect Spy adds to the telling of this tale and indeed, though my own age difference may also have come into play, I found listening to this volume more enjoyable than I had found reading it so many years ago.

In short: great narration and a well produced audiobook.


[1] Le Carré, John; Matthew Joseph Bruccoli, Judith Baughman (2004).  Conversations with John LeCarré. USA: Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 104–105, 118.

[2] Oh ho!  Aren’t I clever… sorry.  I just couldn’t help it.

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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