"Love is whatever you can still betray... Betrayal is a repititious trade." (from: A Perfect Spy)
Concentrating on his signature themes of love and deceit, Le Carre gives us what is perhaps the definitive account of the psychology of betrayal. Following the death of his father, the disturbed and grieving spy Magnus Pym withdraws from the world and begins a series of reflections on his life while his wife and spymasters frantically try to find him. The 'public' action of this search, and the personalities of those conducting it not only provide an effective foil for the intensely personal and sometimes dark nature of Pym's inner search, it also amplifies the moral theme of the book--that there is no clear line between good and bad, and that our best intentions are no guarantee of goodness--especially when there are secrets involved.
Le Carre spent a long time honing his voice for this powerful novel. His writing in the decade or so before this book was published (in 1986) displays the trademark qualities of detail and subtlety that a cold war spy needed, and Le Carre's spare prose mirrors the Machiavellian cold war game his stories centre around. In this work--strongly influenced by the real-life death of his father--he reached the height of his powers. On top of his renowned ability to make highly technical plots gripping, Le Carre adds a new quality--the wistful--and it works as well as in anything by Graham Greene--another gimlet-eyed writer who had connections with the spying trade. Le Carre packs more feeling into this work than in all his other novels put together and the effect is both disturbing and intensely moving. Pym is sententious and elegant in his reveries, and his Hamlet-like angst stays with us, provoking difficult questions, long after the book is closed.
A perfect Spy is not a happy tale. The description of the young Pym and his father playing football along a Dorset beach "from one end of the world to the other" is a rare moment of joy that is nevertheless saturated in pathos--for we know that Pym's dissolute father will spoil the moment yet again soon.
Several of Le Carre's previous novels (Small Town in Germany, The Spy who Came in from the Cold, and especially the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy trilogy) are examples of fine literature that just happen to centre around the world of espionage, but since 1980 he has also dropped some Desmond Bagley-ish shoot-em-ups into the mix too, which, although well crafted, rather let his literary reputation down. A Perfect Spy is a first class novel (one reviewer described it as one of the best British novels since the war) and in my opinion remains his finest.