I was shocked by how much I liked this book. I was forced to read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in grad school and hated it, so nothing less than the endorsement of Philip Pullman could induce me to try out John Le Carré once more. Apparently, it’s one of Pullman’s favorite books.
A Perfect Spy begins in earnest when British spy Magnus Pym receives a phone call telling him his father has died. He immediately disappears, leaving his wife and son, and instigating a manhunt from British intelligence, a manhunt that becomes more urgent following the revelation that Magnus may have been selling secrets to the Czechs.
The chapters alternate perspectives. Every other chapter follows Magnus’ wife, Mary, and his superior officer and friend, Jack Brotherhood, as they race to find Magnus. These chapters have the typical spy-movie feel, as we see the practical intricacies of locating a trained spy in hiding unfold against a backdrop of uncertain loyalties: Mary loves Magnus, but begins to realize that she doesn’t know him as well as she thinks she does, and Jack defends Magnus’ integrity against gathering evidence that he has been posing as a double agent.
In alternate chapters, Magnus writes a book to his young son, Tom, though he occasionally addresses Jack and others. We realize that at the same time the secret service agents are searching for Magnus, he is on a search to find himself in the pages he writes. This search is fraught with complications, as Magnus’ identities are as numerous as the roles he has played in his life as a spy.
Magnus’ cognizance of his fractured identity is partly indicated by the fact that he refers to his younger self in the third person, as “Pym.” He also assumes the identity of “Mr. Canterbury” while he is in hiding. Through Magnus, Le Carré introduces a cast of characters from Magnus’ past, who exist for him not as real people, but as Dickensian caricatures that loom larger than life. Magnus himself lies at the center of this network as a dark David Copperfield. His mentally ill mother, Dorothy, along with his father’s mistress, the fragile and promiscuous Lippsie, together make a kind of Dora Copperfield, an idealized notion of maternal love that is taken from Magnus too soon. Magnus’ father, Rick Pym, is a picaresque con-man who resembles a sociopathic Mr. Micawber. Rick is only one of Magnus’ “fathers”; Jack Brotherhood, along with Magnus’ friend and mentor, Axel, also influence him. In David Copperfield, David tells the story of how he is able to reconcile his conflicting identities, and in the end becomes an author. Magnus, too, becomes an author, but the same qualities that make him a perfect spy make it impossible for him to pinpoint any one identity as his real self.
Couched in the trappings of a spy thriller, A Perfect Spy depicts a man asking the same kinds of questions David Copperfield asks in what is perhaps Charles Dickens’ best novel: Who can I trust? How do I tell right from wrong? How do I know who I love? What kind of person do I want to be? In other spy novels I’ve read, the chase, the action, the intrigue, are all the point of the novel. We read thrillers to be titillated and diverted, and I certainly love to be so diverted by a book whenever I can. But A Perfect Spy uses the media of the spy novel to transcend its genre in a way that made me feel I was discovering something, even as I knew that thousands of readers before me had already made the same discovery.