A Perfect Spy
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A Perfect Spy

3.96 of 5 stars 3.96  ·  rating details  ·  7,804 ratings  ·  266 reviews

John le Carre's classic novels deftly navigate readers through the intricate shadow worlds of international espionage with unsurpassed skill and knowledge, and have earned him unprecedented worldwide acclaim.

Magnus Pym, Britain's premier spy, has vanished—sending intelligence communities on a frenzied international manhunt. As the search plays out, so does a chain of cland

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Mass Market Paperback, 518 pages
Published April 1st 1987 by Bantam (first published May 1986)
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Community Reviews

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Helen
Let me start this review with these words; this book is devastating. It is the best writing John Le Carre has ever done, and will ever do.

That's not to say that it's a better spy novel than Tinker Tailor or The Spy Who Came in From the Cold; it's not. If spycraft is what you crave, it's here, but it definitely takes a back seat to everything else. In A Perfect Spy, Le Carre's writing rises easily to the level of the 20th Century's greatest authors.

After the death of his father, Magnus Pym, debo...more
James
Magnus Pym, the hero of A Perfect Spy, was raised by his psychopathic, con-man father and thwarted from developing his own identity; instead he was forced to play different roles while helping to carry out his father’s various schemes. Privately he knows he is something more than all the roles he’s played, but what? That’s the mystery, that’s the enigma that pulses throughout the novel.

John Le Carre has written a book which condenses the full weight of modernity’s existential crisis into what a...more
Wendy
I picked up this book since it was on a list of most influential novels according to one of my issues of Mental Floss magazine, but I just couldn't force myself to get through it. I read about 100 pages of some of the most impenetrable prose, full of confusing switches in point of view, setting, and time period before I set it aside. The army of characters that dropped in like paratroopers made it hard to keep the names straight and at some point, I stopped trying. I just never got into the stor...more
Juanita Rice
I have read this book almost countless times. I have tried to make schematics of its complex structure, to understand the grand architectonics upon which Le Carre built an absolute monument to the grand art of running and being an "agent."

The narrative time from the first action of the novel to its last may be something less than a month, but the lives it recounts cover some sixty complicated years. As the "perfect spy" ironically and compulsively, angrily and lovingly, pens a series of biograp...more
Nancy Oakes
I recently found a review of this book ( here ) that notes that A Perfect Spy is a kind of what-if autobiographical account of John LeCarre himself (fictionalized, obviously). Whether this is or is not the case, this is one of the best novels I've read this year.

Magnus Pym, intelligence agent for the British, has gone to London after the news of his father Rick's death. He is supposed to return to Vienna, where he and his wife Mary are currently stationed, but instead he sends his luggage on ho...more
August
Philip Roth, himself, claims on the book's cover that it is "the best English novel since the war". I find that hard to believe, but I can understand why Roth would like it. It is structurally sound and Magnus Pym, the perfect spy, is a memorable character. Personally, though, I wasn't really impressed. It is a long book (700pages), jumping back and forth in time, lots of characters and a narrator who, somewhat schizophrenically, never refers to himself using the first-person singular pronoun. W...more
Wale
I got through half-way in this book and had to drop it. What did it for me were the long narratives of flashbacks into the main character's past which I suppose were meant to unveil gradually to the reader who the main character really was and the ultimate motives behind his actions. They were quite murky and tedious and I didn't have the patience to really delve into them. I my opinion they detracted from the clarity and fluidity that should be salient traits of any good prose (from the Latin w...more
Thomas
Le Carre does Dickens...but he's not Dickens. There are two intertwined narratives in the book, one describing the main character's background and childhood (which, as has been noted, shares many details with the author's own childhood), the other describing his contemporary dilemma as a spy on the run. The contemporary man-hunt stuff is fun, thrilling, suspenseful; it would have made a good spy novel in itself with a little more development. The sections dealing with the character's childhood a...more
Darwin8u
Remembrances of loyalties past. In some of le Carré's novels you feel haunted by the ghosts of Conrad, Greene, Nabokov, etc. In 'The Perfect Spy', I went back and forth about whether le Carré was building this novel to be Dickensian spy novel or a Proustian spy novel.

I still haven't quite figured it out. All I know is that it worked; it was brilliant. It was beset by elements of Proust, Dickens, le Carré's own father, and le Carré himself. In a story about multiple fathers, why can't it be both...more
Simon Mcleish
Originally published on my blog here in August 2001.

One of le Carré's non-Smiley novels, A Perfect Spy is far more about the psychological pressures which create a secret agent than about the mechanics of spying itself. It is part of le Carré's move away from writing genre thrillers that really began with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Magnus Pym is quite a senior operational officer, who has been running networks of British spies in Czechoslovakia for many years. After the death of his father Ric...more
Steve
This story centres on a father, Rick, and son, Magnus, relationship and its overall effects on the son on his chosen path in life. Rick Pym is a con man, a very convincing con man with able lieutenants in Syd, Perce, Muspole, and Cudlove, together they con everyone about everything imaginable taking Liberal politicians, the clergy, educational establishment right up to the grandest hotels in the land, both at home and abroad. There are women, girls, lovelies they are called all through the story...more
John
The first hundred or so pages of A Perfect Spy seem designed to disorient: after a charming opening where Magnus Pym descends upon a quiet English shore town for what appears to be some much-needed R&R ("Hello Mr. Canterbury," the woman greets him upon opening the door, catching the alert reader off guard and perhaps already sounding an alarm in the reader's mind), we cut to Vienna, where Pym's wife apparently doesn't know where her husband is, and over the pages that follow it becomes clear...more
Fiona


The Sunday Times reviewer calls this 'a perfect work of fiction' and le Carre's masterpiece. I can't disagree. This is a fantastic read - a real page turner, intelligently written and often very funny. I'm a fan of JleC's anyway but I'm now in awe of his artistry and expertise in reeling in and hooking his readers. It's not often these days that I struggle to put a book down. My only regret is that I've finished it and will find it a hard act to follow for the depth of the main characters, for i...more
Matthew Kresal
There are novels which can only be described by a single word: epic. John le Carre's A Perfect Spy, published originally in 1986, is one of those novels to be certain. It is a tale that stretches right across half the twentieth century in the form of the life of Magnus Pym, the perfect spy of the novel's title. The novel is also, in fine le Carre tradition, a fine cross between the spy thriller and a human drama and is all the better for it.

The story revolves around the life and times of Britis...more
Jim
My holiday standby. Allegedly an autobiographical work, this took the cahracterisation that was missing in the novel above and showed how it really should be done. Infact, it was almost over-done by le Carre, as the main players in this book slowly unwound their past histories and interweaving destinies for us to ponder over. Le Carre doesn’t need set pieces to build suspense and action, as this happens in the thoughts and deeds of his people. What motivates them, how they became what they are,...more
Gary
A Complete Masterpiece. The funny thing about this book was the way it ensnares the reader. It began slowly, almost boring, but eventually I became so intrigued by Pym and who he really was that I couldn't put the book down. Pym had such a sadness throughout the story, his childhood especially but the relationship between he and his father was the most interesting. It's said that this work is largely auto-biographical of le Carré (his father was something of a con-artist and he never really knew...more
Steve
Reread and finished today. Even for Le Carre, a most complex psychological exploration of what it takes to live a life of espionage, treading between both sides in the final decade of the cold war. Though it takes place in real time in just one month, the story line jumps back and forth through six decades of the live of the "perfect spy," Magnus Pym. We gradually come to understand how his relationships growing up, notably with his con-man father, shaped the complex, contradictory character he...more
Jim Leckband
I loved the story of how a spy is born - from the conman father to the conman spy handlers. Everybody has an angle, but Magnus does not live...(edit 6 months after the review: apparently I didn't finish this sentence when I first wrote this. Damned if I know what I was thinking then. I don't think I meant that Magnus dies...)

Magnus Pym is always wanting to believe in something and is often wrong. He betrays the people and things most able to help him to the people who are just using him. The pro...more
Dan
Since the classic "The Day of the Jackal" -- the only spy/thriller-type book I've ever read -- is one of my all-time favorite vacation reads, I thought I'd pick up another in the same relatively light genre to tide me over while doing some recent traveling. Note: IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR LIGHT READING, DO NOT CHOOSE "THE PERFECT SPY." At least early on, I found it so impenetrable that I almost made it the second book in my 37 years that I didn't finish. Actually, though, I'm glad I stuck with it;...more
Gerald
I should say, I just reread this book. As I do every so often with the brilliant novels of John Le Carre, aka David Cornwell, former British intelligence analyst and god-knows-what-he-can't-say. I reread them because, genre aside, he's such a masterful stylist of the English language.

The book's metaphors (shared with his other works) are also just right. The spy as "close observer" is the reader--as the very same. The spy as double-agent, as betrayer, is the inverter of love, the man in the mirr...more
Sujeetha
OK! Where do I begin to write about this superbly crafted novel. They do not write spy stories like this anymore, which is a shame. Le Carre has a done a good job crafting the characters with minute precision, but that is not even the highlight of the story. The pinnacle is his non-linear storytelling structure, oft-times mixing the past with present. It is an intricate plot and I wish any film-maker who wants to make the film does it ample justice. You cannot help but fall in love with the prot...more
Marc
This is a wonderful book, a Cold War spy novel in which all of the espionage occurs offstage, and where the dramatic tension derives almost entirely from domestic and family affairs. The prose is quintessential le Carre--lots of cloak-and-dagger jargon effortlessly interwoven with pithy dialogue and vivid description--but the book's complex structure and ambition are unlike anything else of his that I've read. For sheer thrills and classic spy intrigue, this is no match for The Spy Who Came in f...more
Chris
Crossposted at The Fish Place>

You see, what I like about Le Carre is the total lack of James Bond cool factor. Like the Looking Glass War, this will just leave you speechless. Wonderful BBC production as usual. If you have seen Law and Order UK, Harriet Walker is part of this cast.
Phani Tholeti
Misnomer. Epic boring. Dull, drab and unnecessarily prolonged and wordy and descriptive and ... I wanted one word to describe this so called "autobiographical" epic novel. If its to be autobiographical, at least it should have been mentioned, I'd have given it a skip. But I really can write a book about how Magnum Pym's son would cry and curse his father trying the jumbled up, incomprehensibly dense and wordy details about his relationship with his father.
When you have read about the book, and s...more
Sue
Was very helpful to read other Goodreads comments after starting the book as I found it quite confusing. But really liked it once I got used to the deuces: two people Pym was writing to (Tom/Jack), the switching of persons telling the story (first person/third person), and the two time periods (past/present). Hated the ending but it made perfect sense. Also, as the book unfolded, Pym's profound decisions became clear too.

My question at the end was this: how did he become who he was? First thoug...more
Vivek Mathews
An unusual Le Carre book in that its focus is not on an ongoing mission but on an autobiography written by a spy on the run. This book essentially seeks to deconstruct the mind of a spy and the various qualities he must possess such as the the constantly cheerful deameanour, the suppression of personal feeling and the consequences of this lifestyle.
The switching of perspective,location and time can at times be a little confusing but once you get accustomed to it,it is manageable. All in all a r...more
Tieg
Jul 15, 2009 Tieg is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
More of a how-to or self-help than a thriller (not sure what Powell's was thinking with that sorting...), it's the best book I've read in some time.

The bad news? Apparently to be the perfect spy, you need to have a trickster father and grow up in Britain, so I'm thinking my odds are getting longer still.

Seriously -- the central question of identity is excellent, perhaps even forward-thinking, and more than just a thriller, it really does turn the knife on the question of what, exactly, makes us...more
Jean Farrell
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I recently read A Spy Among Friends, about Kim Philby, which has an Afterword by John Le Carre, and then saw A Most Wanted Man, the movie based on another John Le Carre novel, and was just really in a mood for a good spy book, and realized that I had never actually read any Le Carre. I did a search for the best Le Carre, and this book was nominated in an article in The New Yorker, so I decided to give it a go.

I started it as an audiobook, on a long drive, and the...more
Jim
A fantastic read by a master of the genre, perhaps even his best work - certainly a personal favourite.

An old cliche, but even I found myself - whilst reading this book alone on a train from Sydney to Newcastle (circa 1988)- deciding that I was henceforth, or at least for the duration of the journey, to be a 'Mr. Cambridge' and invent a persona for this character of mine so that engaging in idle conversation on the train I could be someone completely different . . . and no-one would even guess!...more
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John le Carré, the pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell (born 19 October 1931 in Poole, Dorset, England), is an English author of espionage novels. Le Carré has resided in St Buryan, Cornwall, Great Britain, for more than forty years where he owns a mile of cliff close to Land's End.
More about John le Carré...
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy The Spy Who Came In from the Cold Smiley's People The Russia House The Constant Gardener

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“Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.” 55 likes
“He was learning to live on several planes at once. The art of it was to forget everything except the ground you stood on and the face you spoke from at that moment.” 3 likes
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