John Le Carré

A Perfect Spy

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A Perfect Spy Summary

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A Perfect Spy (1986) is a suspense and spy novel by one of England’s most celebrated authors of that genre, John le Carré. The Oxford-educated author briefly worked for the Foreign Service and MI5 during the Cold War. By his own admission, this novel is le Carré’s most autobiographical. The novel has been adapted to both television by the BBC (1987) and radio by BBC Scotland (2017). The story is about Magnus Pym, a British intelligence officer who disappears after his father’s funeral. The intelligence service hunts for him and discovers that for most of his career, Magnus has been a spy working for Czechoslovakia. Running throughout the novel is the idea that we never truly know anyone else. Every character seems to have “versions” of themselves that they build according to what they need to accomplish.

The novel is nonlinear, bouncing back and forth between the present-day manhunt and revelations of Pym’s treachery, and the past events leading up to it. It begins with Pym and his plan to disappear for reasons unknown. He holes up at a small boardinghouse under a false name. While in the boardinghouse, Pym begins writing a letter to his teenage son Tom, who is away at boarding school. The letter is part explanation, part reckoning with Pym’s own father’s antics and Pym’s own life, and part confession. The first chapter integrates the narratives; afterward, the chapters switch between Pym’s point of view and a revolving list of everyone else involved. Periodically, as if he knows that his colleagues will also read his written documents, he addresses Jack Brotherhood in his musings, as well.

Back in Vienna, Pym’s colleague Jack Brotherhood discovers that Pym is missing when he doesn’t make his flight back. A defection team searches through Pym’s house, looking for any evidence of subversion. Jack interrogates Pym’s wife, Mary, herself once part of the foreign service, asking her to recount recent events and how Pym reacted to the news of his father’s death. They catch onto the fact that he was passing secrets to the Czechs very quickly, especially when they find hidden equipment that the British service didn’t issue him.

Meanwhile, Pym keeps writing his story to his son in a garbled mix of points of view: he sometimes breaks his own narrative with a first-person proclamation, but he writes his own story in the third person, calling his younger self “Pym.” He describes his childhood, his parents, and the way he learned spy lessons early by virtue of surviving and working with his father. He learns the power of listening when people talk unguardedly; he learns self-reliance, distrust, and how to lie and build a façade. Once sent to boarding school, he learns how to create trouble and deflect suspicion away from himself.

In Vienna, Mary recounts the family’s recent trip to Greece as Pym’s idea. He told her that he wanted the summer to spend with her and Tom. Tom is the one who notices that two men who speak German might be following them, but she thinks nothing of it. As her tale unfolds, inconsistencies and clues that something wasn’t right emerge, including offhand conversations she remembers having with Tom about seemingly random people who interact with Pym. Jack tells Mary that the trip had been a sham; when the joint committee with the Americans Pym was involved with expressed concern that he might be a little too close to Eastern European jobs, Jack told Pym to get out of Vienna until things were settled. Jack now realizes that he put his faith in Pym unwisely and that Mary might have known something was wrong all along.

Back in Pym’s recollections, he writes more about his experiences at school and the ways he started practicing diplomacy and how to groom assets with favors. He also learns how to recruit and handle “female agents” although this mostly looks like his awkward teenaged attempts at seduction. His writings in Chapter 6 start addressed to Tom, but he switches attention to Jack, speaking about himself as another person, or another version of himself. In the few paragraphs of real-time narrative, Pym combs through newspapers for secret messages from the Czech secret service. He continues addressing Jack in his writing in Chapter 8. Chapter 8 also reveals Jack and Pym’s first meeting when they were young, and Jack recruited Pym.

Jack visits Tom at school. Tom turns out to be very similar to a young Pym—keen, observant, with a natural bent for spycraft. Jack wants to know what Pym may have confided to his son, the contents of the letters Pym wrote to him, as well as things that Tom had observed about his father. Jack mentions the trip to Greece Tom had taken with his parents and asks after the odd characters that had spoken to his father. He finds out that his own mistress, a woman who works on the Fifth Floor of the secret service, was also Pym’s mistress. Pym had seduced, strung along, and gotten Kate to steal documents for him; he had even contacted her after he had officially gone missing. She gives Jack the documents.

As the novel progresses, a tangled knot between the characters begins to emerge. Jack continues to hunt Pym and unravel the mystery of whom he worked for, why, and how. He knows that Pym was compromised, but the service thinks the evidence is circumstantial and they aren’t ready to believe that Pym was working for the Czechs. Jack keeps gathering evidence and building his case until they have no choice but to believe him. It is revealed that Pym had been having an affair with both Grant and Bee Lederer, American agents who were recalled to Langley. Mary continues playing hostess to two members of the secret service defection team, Georgie and Fergie, whose job is to surveil her and all her communications in case Pym tries to contact her.

At the end of the novel, Pym is found at the boardinghouse. He has dinner with his landlady, Miss Dubber, for the last time and goes upstairs after he receives a phone call at the house for the first time. When he answers and the line goes dead, he understands they have found him. He finishes the letter to Tom, dumps his files in a wastebasket where they will be found, and then shoots himself in the head.