"A Perfect Spy," is one of the more thoughtful works of British author John LeCarre, whose masterworks include The Spy Who came in from the cold,Smiley's People, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It has been made into a BBCTV television series of the same name (John Le Carre's A Perfect Spy), starring Peter Egan. Le Carre, one of the greatest of the spymasters, had first hand experience of spying: he was, of course, an actual British spy, for five years, under his birth name, David Cornwell. According to internet biographers, the author was, in fact, embedded in Soviet territory when he was blown by Kim Philby, most famous post-war British secret service traitor. Philby's treachery might well have doomed LeCarre. When LeCarre published "A Perfect Spy" in 1986, much-honored American novelist Philip Roth declared it "the best English novel since the war." It is LeCarre's most personal, autobiographical novel, detailing, as it does, how a con man father much like LeCarre's own, (Richard Thomas Archibald Cornwell), creates a perfect spy and counterspy in his son. Interestingly enough, the book also mentions Philby, and his partners in traitor-hood, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, by name. The story is well backgrounded, and engrossing: it opens with one of the author's writing trademarks, a good set piece; gives us generous helpings of another of the writer's trademarks, the midnight meetings of the spy managers, the "Whitehall Mandarins;" it has a resonant, complex plot, and his usual good dialogue/descriptive writing. Magnus Pym is here the perfect spy, double-dealing with zest. We are apparently supposed to think he's like this because his father Rik was an outside-the-law confidence trickster who enjoyed his work, and maybe that is enough to explain the son's behavior, who knows. Certainly most readers will not find either main character particularly likable; whereas Rik and his troops seem at least always to be having a good time. Magnus is portrayed as being a nasty little boy from the beginning. Interestingly enough, we must assume this material is intensely personal to its author. He's described his own father as a conman, and both author and his character Magnus have studied and worked in the German-speaking world. In fact, he's repeated these elements in several books, as he's repeated the seaside hideout, even the nickname "Tiger," here, used by father to son; in "Single and Single," the conman father is called "Tiger" himself. But I didn't find the novel interesting as a whole. It's more than 500 pages long, and, from the beginning, the story runs along two tracks: one, the childhood-youth of Magnus Pym, that made him what he was, and two, the defensive activities of the secret service once he's blown. Not until page 300, much longer than many non-devoted readers will persist, does it get to the interesting section, his actual life as a spy/counterspy. Recommended only to devoted fans of the author.
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