Picks and Pans Review: A Perfect Spy

updated 05/12/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/12/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by John le Carré

The British spy network in Vienna is in a sweat. A longtime agent named Magnus Pym has taken a box of secrets and disappeared. Ah, but the reader knows that Pym is in a boardinghouse in an old resort town, a secret hideout he has been preparing for years. And now that he is cozily installed, he is writing the story of his life—a testament for his son. Pym's flight was triggered by the death of his father—a con man, swindler, womanizer, thief, ex-convict—but a father who loved his son dearly. (Le Carré's own father was very much the same kind of scoundrel.) It is a death that Pym feels has set him free. Le Carré's absorbing new novel then has two stories moving swiftly along on parallel tracks. One is the hunt for Pym by his colleagues, his wife and then the Americans, who have suspected for years that Pym was selling their secrets to someone behind the Iron Curtain. The other story is the autobiography that Pym is writing. It is almost Dickensian in the sheer number of eccentric characters that surrounded Pym in his youth. They're a fantastic ensemble of liars, cheats, drunken "mothers" and plotters constantly out to do someone out of money or goods. The boy who grows to maturity in this unstable circle is a man who at 17 betrays his best friend, an illegal refugee, on a whim. He is a man who exults when he is sent to Berlin: "What a garrison of spies! What a cabinet full of useless, liquid secrets, what a playground for every alchemist, miracle-worker, and rat-piper that ever took up the cloak and turned his face from the unpalatable constraints of political reality!" Later when Pym gets to the U.S. with a job in the consulate as his cover he goes wild with pleasure because the Americans are so careless with their secrets. Balancing his two co-plots deftly, Le Carré has written a complex case study of a man for whom lying is a joy, like deep breathing. There are other marvelous people too: Pym's socializing wife (who also works for "the Firm"), his supervisor and especially the amoral father who created this "perfect spy." (Knopf, $18.95)

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