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Unless you’re involved in espionage it’s unlikely you’ll ever know what that world is truly like. We can hazard a guess it’s not the glossy shaken Martini and fancy sports car world we see portrayed in the James Bond movies, that the truth is rather less glamorous. John Le Carre worked both as a spy and a handler in the early cold war years, and it’s this formative experience we trust lends such authenticity to his work. Coupled with that we have a unique voice, bleakly charismatic, like an old English folksong. When it comes to writing about spies, there’s nobody else I can take quite as seriously as John Le Carre.

The emphasis of your typical Le Carre spy story isn’t the gadgets, fast cars and guns but the people themselves and through this the revelation that spies are often deeply vulnerable, flawed, fragile individuals, chosen by their handlers for the ease with which they can be manipulated. Then there are the handlers themselves – in Le Carre’s world usually of a classically educated public school background, as is Le Carre. Then there are the people they work for, and of course the tiresome bureaucracy of it, and then the politics, the ambition, the vanity. In other words it’s a distinctly human world, rich in deception, duplicity and betrayal, and one in which people occasionally meet with a terrible end.

In the Perfect Spy, we are introduced to Magnus Pym, an intelligence officer working under cover of the diplomatic service who finds himself sidelined to a posting in Vienna which is a bit of an espionage backwater. The reason? For years, and secretly, his masters, but especially the Americans, have doubted his reliability, and suspected he might in fact be a double agent. When he suddenly disappears, the assumption is that it’s true, that Pym has been spying for the other side and has now defected. The chase is then on to catch him and limit any damage he might do. But Pym has not crossed over – yet. He’s gone to ground in a nameless English seaside town, where he pens his life-story for the benefit of his son, Tom.

As Pym’s story unfolds we discover a man of many layers and many faces – always an actor playing to an audience, always walking a tightrope of love and betrayal. The son of a con-man and a black-marketeer, even his upbringing was one of deception and spin, but as the novel unfolds we begin to feel the yearning in Pym, and the search for the one thing that’s authentic in himself.

Too deliberate and nuanced to be called a thriller, this is more like reading a piece of existential literature, with giant characters, impossibly conflicted and totally believable. Le Carre’s bleak world-view is as infectious as it is at times repulsive, and nowhere is that world view better portrayed than here.

Pym’s potential nemesis is his one time handler, Jack Brotherhood, sometime friend, most times bully and arch manipulator, a man so deeply intimate with Pym over the decades that Pym’s disappearance has led to him being sidelined in the investigation. But while the career types chase their tails, and the CIA with its vast resources muscles in on the hallowed ground of British espionage, it’s Brotherhood, the crafty old field hand, who painstakingly closes in on Pym.

The story unfolds mainly from two viewpoints, Pym’s and Brotherhood’s, but remember both of these men areĀ  spies, which makes neither of them entirely reliable narrators, leaving the reader to bounce around between them in the most dizzying and fascinating way in the search for our own truth amid the smoke and mirrors. Thus, slowly, we form a picture of where Pym has come from, what it takes to be the perfect spy, also the baffling nature of what it is, exactly, that Pym has done, and of course, as the net closes in, what it is he’s about to do.

Often cited as the best of Le Carre’s many novels. If you’re not familiar with him, this is a really good place to start.

 

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