Brown Baggers Book Club met virtually on Thursday, September 16 to discuss A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré. Le Carré passed away on December 12, 2020, right before our annual potluck selection meeting, sparking interest among our members to read one of his famous espionage novels. Le Carré worked for both the Secret Service and the Secret Intelligence Service in the 1950s and 60s, hence the pen name (Foreign Office officers were not allowed to publish under their own names). A Perfect Spy draws heavily from his life as a professional spy and as half of a troubled duad — the main character’s relationship with his father is based on Le Carré’s relationship with his own father, who was a con man “of little education, immense charm, extravagant tastes, but no social values” (LitLovers).
Sounds interesting, right? Especially when it has come to be known as Le Carré’s “masterpiece.” So how did our readers respond? Put quite frankly, we had our fair share of halfhearted shrugs; readers were often “waiting for something to happen.” They found the writing flat, lifeless, convoluted, and arduous. The experience was like driving through fog; every few pages the fog would clear, and the book would move quickly, but then it would quickly bog down again. Most people found the novel a little slower than anticipated, but one reader held nothing back as he gave his impression: finishing the book, he felt he was “worshipping at the altar of masochism.”
Was there anything to be had here? Yes! Some readers (albeit a very slim minority) stated the novel was excellent (but they too had a bone to pick — the novel being too depressing). Others appreciated that part of the journey of reading a spy novel is the process of deciphering and organizing code names and true alliances. Related, we had readers who enjoyed the trickery, secrecy, and “trappings of spydom.”
There was also the character study of the lead, Magnus, and his father. Readers described the father as a “despicable and interesting” character. The two love each other, but the father ultimately destroys the son, creating him to be the “perfect spy” (a euphemism for soul-selling). We had interesting conversations about love and loyalty which harkened back to the classic games of morality: would you let a bus filled with children (all strangers) die to save your family? Is any one person worth more than another? Do some of us have an obligation to be selfless and impartial that others of us do not share? And how does patriotism fit into all of this? Can an abstraction such as country, value, belief, or religion trump a human being? In summary, our readers found this one more intellectually interesting than exciting.
How would you answer the questions found above? If you read the book, did your reading shape your answers in any way? Has any book ever shaped a belief you hold?
If you’ve read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré and would like a chance to discuss it, consider attending the Mystery Book Group‘s virtual discussion on Tuesday, September 28, 1-2:30 pm. For more information, email Evan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
Call for the Dead by John le Carré
Smiley’s People by John le Carré