Book review: A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré

An upstanding British spy has a past murkier than the North Sea in John le Carré’s cool, poised classic


Despite being a fan of TV espionage (I will watch anything with handsome spies sitting in smoky rooms, from ludicrous, bonkers Spooks to ludicrous, serious London Spy) my enjoyment of dramatised spy stories has never translated into books. Graham Greene’s murky world of post-war espionage in The Quiet American and his wonderfully comic novel Our Man in Havana are the closest I’ve come to the genre on the page.

And where else should I start investigating spy novels than with the master of the genre, John le Carré whose appeal has been given another boost with the recent super slick, beautifully peopled, totally ridiculous BBC production of The Night Manager. I enjoyed The Night Manager as much as I laughed at it, so I was keen to explore his written word and see how it compared to this campy, tense adaptation.

His 1986 novel A Perfect Spy is a dense doorstopper that follows the charming, mysterious Marcus Pym – a husband, father, respected member of The Firm, and the “greatest con I knew” according to his boss, Jack Brotherhood.

In the past and present, Marcus spins lies, creates personas to such an extent that even he no longer knows who he is. We begin at the end, just after the death of his estranged father an event that has tipped him over into an abyss that he’s been teetering on the edge of his whole life. His dad, Rick Pym (based on le Carré’s own father) was a crook, an old school cockney criminal who will charm your life savings from you and you’ll be glad he did.

The Pym we meet at the beginning is a seemingly upstanding English gent, his sometime landlady of the bed and breakfast retreat in an unnamed British coastal town is charmed by her ‘Mr Canterbury’. But unbeknown to her, Marcus is sitting locked in his attic room, spilling out his secrets and his past on paper, nurturing a burn box that holds information that could blow the USA and the UK apart. The race is on to find him, from his boss at M16 Jack Brotherhood, his wife Mary to his Czech agent Axel. Who will find Pym first?

As we follow the search, we move across time and the continent as we re-visit Marcus’ difficult boyhood to unravel his present. He sees his mother carted off to a mental institution, her stand-in, Libbie’s, twisted body after she jumps to her death. It is, as a great spy book should be, full of intrigue and suspense, but what I found most thrilling was le Carré’s writing. His style took me by surprise. I hadn’t accounted for the spymaster being such a beautiful writer, I always assumed his bestsellers were brash and plot driven, but his words are frequently lovely, even delicate despite his prose being as dense as the air in a room of chain-smoking spies. There is no easy chronological order to A Perfect Spy, his structure is fluid as we move between past and present with little fanfare.

I expected a heavy hand to write this most macho of genres, but the human relationships le Carré weaves are far bigger page turners than discovering which side of the iron curtain the protagonists are on. I didn’t always find A Perfect Spy an easy read, it was at times dense enough to be impenetrable, it’s aloof and unemotional and the female characters are willow-o-wisps, falling into either 1950s cookie cutter wives or sexy PAs who seduce their bosses with their minxy ways.

But while I may not be about to defect to the world of spies in fiction, I’ve definitely been caught in its web of intrigue.


Book Review: The Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

In my younger days I used to pick an author and work my way through their oeuvre before inevitably growing weary of their voice, becoming increasingly annoyed at the repeated themes and overused words and phrases that would crop up in many of the writer’s novels. I tired of Alice Walker’s relentless anger; J.G Ballard’s over use of similes; Jeanette Winterness’ opaque prose and George Orwell’s bleakness. (I’ve gone back to them all, and have learnt to love them again).

But despite hoovering up as many Graham Greene books as I could lay my hands on (i.e., as many as the library had) it was still never enough. There are so many Greenes, and, even with the religious thread weaving its way through many of his later novels, his narrative and themes were varied enough that I never felt that I’d heard it all before. There’s the funny, satirical Greene (Travels With My Aunt and Our Man In Havana), the shady, murky Greene of The Quiet American where as much lies in the shadows as on the page; the brutal, thuggish Green that reared its head in Brighton Rock (my least favourite) and the obsessive, love-struck writer of The End of the Affair (my favourite).

The Stamboul Train, nabbed from a friend’s bookshelf while cat sitting, introduces some of his major themes. It has traces of the same murky, secretive, claustrophobic world of The Quiet American, with a streak of violence and a smatter of religion-angst that will appear with greater force in other well-known Greene works.

The story is set on the Orient express as it weaves its way through a snowy Europe with a cast of characters each with their own demons and desires that all slot together as the train nears its destination. Dr Czinner, a Serbian dissident communist leader, is on his way back to lead a revolt, that, unfortunately for him, kicks off a few days early while he’s barely through Germany. To add to his woes, a British journalist, Mabel Warren, a ferocious bulldog of a reporter, recognises him in Cologne and attempts to blackmail him into giving her an exclusive story.

Myatt meets Cora Musker and, attracted by her slim figure, lends her his compartment and, later, his bed. But he’s also got one eye on the elegant Janet Pardoe, Mabel’s paid companion, who’s also caught the attention of cockney writer Mr. Savory.

Jumping on board at Cologne is on-the-run murderer Josef Grünlich who is a downright bad ‘un, but crafty enough to continue getting away with it. Josef, along with Cora, gets caught up in the arrest of Dr. Czinner just over the Hungarian border in the Serbian town of Subotica, which, from Greene’s descriptions, is the most desolate place in the world. Greene’s not one for hyperbole and his stark prose can sometimes stripe the humanity from his characters, but at this point, he builds the tension to the point where my heart was beating as loudly as Cora’s as she huddled in amongst empty grain sacks in a barn with only the dying Czinner for company.

There are, as is so often the case in novels pre-dating the 1960s, some uncomfortable racial and gender stereotypes. Myatt is the caricature literary Jew that you can trace back to Shylock – all big nose and shrewdness. To make it even worse, Greene congratulates both himself and his characters on liking Myatt despite him being Jewish. How kind! This is particularly ironic considering the book was published in 1932 and, as we all know, the world took a very, very large anti-Semitic step backwards.

Equally as objectionable was the portrayal of Mable Warren, the predatory lesbian who hates men and becomes obsessive about the women she loves (who are rather too beautiful to love her back). Had our Graham ever met a lesbian? From this shoddy representation, I doubt it.

There are plenty of loose ends – Greene wouldn’t want to make things too neat for us would he? Does Cora survive? Will Myatt, who did rather heroically try and rescue her only to balls it up and come back with Josef instead, now marry the glamorous (and half-Jewish!) Janet? And will Josef ever get his just deserts?

Greene originally filed The Stamboul Train under his ‘entertainments’ and admitted, in 1974, that he wrote it to make a bit of money. “In Stamboul Train for the first and last time in my life I deliberately set out to write a book to please, one which with luck might be made into a film. The devil looks after his own and I succeeded in both aims”.

So while The Stamboul Train may not up there with his very best – although he still casts a fascinating web of intrigue and duplicity – it gave him enough financial freedom to allow him to go on and write some of the finest novels in the English language.

Suzanne Elliott