Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “A Perfect Spy” as Want to Read:
A Perfect Spy
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

A Perfect Spy

really liked it 4.00  ·  Rating details ·  18,706 ratings  ·  959 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.

Immersing readers in two parallel dramas -- one about the making of a spy, the other chronicling his seemingly imminent demise -- le Carre offers one of his richest an
Paperback, 590 pages
Published December 31st 2002 by Scribner Book Company (first published March 12th 1986)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about A Perfect Spy, please sign up.
Popular Answered Questions
This question contains spoilers... (view spoiler)
This answer contains spoilers… (view spoiler)

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
really liked it Average rating 4.00  · 
Rating details
 ·  18,706 ratings  ·  959 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of A Perfect Spy
Mar 24, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: espionage, thriller
"Life is duty... It’s just a question of establishing which creditor is asking loudest. Life is paying. Life is seeing people right if it kills you."

I’ve been reading John le Carré’s espionage novels like I would that little bag of my favorite dark chocolates that I hide in the bottom drawer of my refrigerator. Not one right after the other, because honestly, there are other treats I like to indulge in as well. There are the Reese’s peanut butter cups and the Trader Joe’s roasted pistachio toffe
Sep 02, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: espionage
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
Le Carré writes beautifully, let's get that out of the way straight off, but something about this left me a little disappointed. It did have a lot to live up to: not only is it often considered his best work, it's sometimes considered anyone's best work. Philip Pullman reckons A Perfect Spy is ‘one of the finest novels of the twentieth century’, while Philip Roth said it was ‘the best English novel since the war’. Other Philips also speak highly of it.

It begins with the arrival of a man in a sma
Oct 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2013
“Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.”
― John le Carré, A Perfect Spy


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 br
Dec 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: crime, fiction, 20-ce, uk, espionage
Forget that this novel happens to be written in the Cold War spy genre. That’s incidental. It is in every sense literary fiction and as such contains some truly astounding pages. One caveat: the male-female relationships seem oversexed in a way that was the convention in the 1980s. The criminal father aspect reminds somewhat of Geoffrey Wolff’s fine memoir, The Duke of Deception. The author’s very good at creating hateable males. He does it by making them misogynists. ...more
May 27, 2009 rated it did not like it
Shelves: unfinished
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
Set in the cold war, A Perfect Spy by John le Carré is a compelling novel with a psychological depth rarely found in the genre. The book focuses on Magnus Pym, to whom the title alludes. Magnus is a model spy of the age; he is ambitious and glamorous with a beautiful wife and an intelligent son. Unfortunately, he is the star of British Intelligence, and unbeknown to them, he is also fiercely loyal to a spymaster who lurks behind the Iron Curtain.

When Rick Pym, Magnus' Father, dies, Magnus' world
Feb 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was a brilliant story. At first I wasn't going to give it any stars because it seemed more like a stream of consciousness story and not a novel as we know it. But as I got into the story and its flow, I got sucked in.

And this is a stand alone story. It has nothing to do with Smiley and The Circus. So if you have never read a LeCarre story before, this is a good introduction to his writing style.
Lewis Weinstein
Jul 01, 2009 rated it it was ok
Years ago I read this and gave it 5*****. I tried to re-read it (it's included reading for our Oxford course next summer), but found it disjointed and extremely difficult to follow, with little in the way of cohesive plot. Occasional paragraphs/pages were full of tension and beautifully written but there were not enough of these. I put it aside after 142 pages. ...more
Magnus Pym is a perfect spy. He is groomed for it from birth by his wretched and criminal father, Rick. He has learned to lie, to pretend, and to betray, but he has never learned who he truly is. He is a man caught between worlds and putting on a different face for everyone he knows, so that his controller, his wife, his best friend, his father and even his son, all know a different man and none of them is the real man, the Pym who talks to himself when alone.

John le Carre is, IMHO, one of the b
Sep 09, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A Perfect Spy (1986) by John le Carré is quite hard work for the first two thirds of the book however I stuck with it and was really glad I did. In the final third it comes together beautifully.

I was also pleased I'd already read John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman, as A Perfect Spy is very autobiographical and much of the plot concerns John le Carré's own upbringing, and in particular his appalling conman father Ronnie Cornwell who masqueraded as a successful entrepreneur making and los

Description: Magnus Pym -- son of Rick, father of Tom, and a successful career officer of British Intelligence -- has vanished, to the dismay of his friends, enemies, and wife. Who is he? Who was he? Who owns him? Who trained him? Secrets of state are at risk. As the truth about Pym gradually emerges, the reader joins Pym's pursuers to explore the unsettling life and motives of a man who fought the wars he inherited with the only weapons he knew, and so became a perfect spy.

A Perfect Spy 1987 BB
Nancy Oakes
Dec 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 16, 2012 added it
Shelves: 2012, fiction
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
Paul Ataua
Oct 27, 2021 rated it liked it
The book moves between two parallel stories, one focusing on the sudden disappearance of a spy and the other a long historical introduction to his upbringing and his becoming a spy. Le Carré is always a good read, but I didn’t enjoy this as much as many of his other works. The two stories didn’t really fit together well as they might have, and while the seemingly shorter sections about his vanishing peaked my interest, the seemingly longer ‘growing up’ sections left me frustrated. As always, sti ...more
Jul 25, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Gretchen Rubin
I don't usually read thrillers or spy novels, but this is a fascinating portrait of a character. It's one of those novels where your sense of reality changes from chapter to chapter. ...more
Steven Godin
Feb 26, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This isn't the type of book I would have normally bought or borrowed (although I did like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold read a few years ago) but it came to me as a birthday present last November from a relative who didn't have the foggiest idea as to my literary tastes. I would have felt guilty if I didn't at least try and read it, so, as not to interfere with my regular reading I pigeoned it in for the weekends only. It took a good hundred pages or so to truly get into it, and what I thoug ...more
Feb 20, 2012 rated it did not like it
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
Aug 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing

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
Jan 26, 2008 rated it it was ok
A strange hybrid. The sections of the book concerning Pym's disappearance and the effect it has on his family and colleagues are good solid stuff. Unfortunately too much of the book is taken up with Pym's terribly over-written autobiography, that just goes on and on and on and on and on and on. Excruciating. ...more
Sep 12, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
I found this novel formidable. As far as I know, the author wrote it based on Kim Philby's life who later defected to the then USSR as a senior citizen there till his death. The title also reminds me of 'A Perfect Crime' I read in an anthology, a book I borrowed from the College of Education Library, BKK. ...more
Feb 14, 2015 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Laura by: Bettie
From BBC Radio 4:
1/3. 'Love is whatever you can still betray. Betrayal can only happen if you love.' So says Magnus Pym, the spy of the title; and he has betrayed a lot in his life - countries, friends and lovers. When Magnus disappears after his father's funeral MI6 launches an urgent manhunt to prevent his defection. Dramatised by Robert Forrest.

2/3. When Magnus Pym disappears after his father's funeral MI6 launches an urgent manhunt to prevent his defection. But Pym is on a search of his own
Simon Mcleish
Dec 10, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: owned
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
Oct 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: spy-mystery
Hmmm. Will have to think about this. Since I knew the ending and the book is long, an element of disaffection. Very rich in character, and in description... literature, not genre, to be sure (as Philip Roth had it).
Matthew Kresal
Jul 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
The best John le Carre, the making of a perfect spy-- a boy who grows up with a conman father, who wants something to believe in, but also, has all the skills necessary. Brilliant beyond belief.
Jack Horan
May 10, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant Cold War novel heavily based on the author's own troubled childhood. I'm obv a stan but this is one of the best books I've ever read. ...more
Apr 16, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2010
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 tha ...more
Sonali V
Sep 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was such a great book by such a great writer that I am approaching this review with trepidation, not sure that I will be able to do justice to it. But that's how great books leave you feeling, I suppose. It is about the making of a perfect spy, his background, education, needs, his actions and the consequences of all that. I could not help comparing it with the book before last that I read and reviewed, how thin how incompetent that was in comparison. Here we get the story from several poin ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
Catching up on Cl...: A Perfect Spy 143 64 Mar 28, 2020 09:57AM  
Goodreads Librari...: This topic has been closed to new comments. Please add page count 6 23 May 02, 2017 06:59PM  
Goodreads Librari...: Combine editions please 2 40 Dec 21, 2016 06:57AM  
Miss Dubber 2 22 Aug 08, 2016 05:01AM  
World Mysteries a...: A Review of the International Spy Museum 9 18 Feb 20, 2013 09:47AM  
Metafilter: Let's talk here about A Perfect Spy. (Spoilers are likely.) 24 235 Jun 07, 2012 10:21AM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré: Summary  Study Guide
  • The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre Summary  Study Guide
  • Ensimmäinen piiri 1
  • Berlin Game (Bernard Samson, #1)
  • Blood of Victory (Night Soldiers, #7)
  • Slow Horses (Slough House, #1)
  • John le Carré: The Biography
  • Dead Lions (Slough House, #2)
  • Our Man in Havana
  • Hari-Hari Bahagia di Bullerbyn
  • The Sprouts of Wrath
  • Terminal Objective (American Mercenary, #6)
  • Lyrics
  • Archetype Cards [Booklet and Card Deck]
  • Jordanetics: A Journey Into the Mind of Humanity's Greatest Thinker
  • Other People
  • Writing A Novel with Ulysses III
  • One Fat Englishman
See similar books…
See top shelves…
John le Carré, the pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell (born 19 October 1931 in Poole, Dorset, England), was an English author of espionage novels. Le Carré had resided in St Buryan, Cornwall, Great Britain, for more than 40 years, where he owned a mile of cliff close to Land's End. ...more

Related Articles

If you want a great book recommendation (or three), here at Goodreads we have a tip for you: Ask an author! Not only are authors very...
114 likes · 11 comments
No trivia or quizzes yet. Add some now »
“Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.” 106 likes
“You could be the perfect spy. All you need is a cause.” 14 likes
More quotes…