“The best English novel since the war.”—Philip Roth
“Brilliantly written.”—The Washington Post
“Le Carré’s best book, one of the enduring peaks of imaginative literature in our time.”—Los Angeles Times
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From the New York Times bestselling author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy;Our Kind of Traitor; and The Night Manager, now a television series starring Tom Hiddleston. John le Carré’s memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, is now available from Viking.
Over the course of his seemingly irreproachable life, Magnus Pym has been all things to all people: a devoted family man, a trusted colleague, a loyal friend—and the perfect spy. But in the wake of his estranged father’s death, Magnus vanishes, and the British Secret Service is up in arms. Is it grief, or is the reason for his disappearance more sinister? And who is the mysterious man with the sad moustache who also seems to be looking for Magnus?
In A Perfect Spy, John le Carré has crafted one of his crowning masterpieces, interweaving a moving and unusual coming-of-age story with a morally tangled chronicle of modern espionage.
“The best English novel since the war.”—Philip Roth
“Brilliantly written.”—The Washington Post
“Le Carré’s best book, one of the enduring peaks of imaginative literature in our time.”—Los Angeles Times
Chapter One In the small hours of a blustery October morning in a south Devon coastal town that seemed to have been deserted by its inhabitants, Magnus Pym got out of his elderly country taxi-cab and, having paid the driver and waited till he had left, struck out across the church square. His destination was a terrace of ill-lit Victorian boarding-houses with names like Bel-a-Vista, The Commodore and Eureka. In build he was powerful but stately, a representative of something. His stride was agile, his body forward-sloping in the best tradition of the Anglo-Saxon administrative class. In the same attitude, whether static or in motion, Englishmen have hoisted flags over distant colonies, discovered the sources of great rivers, stood on the decks of sinking ships. He had been travelling in one way or another for sixteen hours but he wore no overcoat or hat. He carried a fat black briefcase of the official kind and in the other hand a green Harrods bag. A strong sea wind lashed at his city suit, salt rain stung his eyes, balls of spume skimmed across his path. Pym ignored them. Reaching the porch of a house marked "No Vacancies" he pressed the bell and waited, first for the outside light to go on, then for the chains to be unfastened from inside. While he waited a church clock began striking five. As if in answer to its summons Pym turned on his heel and stared back at the square. At the graceless tower of the Baptist church posturing against the racing clouds. At the writhing monkey-puzzle trees, pride of the ornamental gardens. At the empty bandstand. At the bus shelter. At the dark patches of the side streets. At the doorways one by one.
"Why Mr.Canterbury, it's you," an old lady's voice objected sharply as the door opened behind him. "You bad man. You caught the night sleeper again, I can tell. Why ever didn't you telephone?"
"Hullo, Miss Dubber," said Pym. "How are you?"
"Never mind how I am, Mr. Canterbury. Come in at once. You'll catch your death."
But the ugly windswept square seemed to have locked Pym in its spell. "I thought Sea View was up for sale, Miss D," he remarked as she tried to pluck him into the house. "You told me Mr. Cook moved out when his wife died. Wouldn't set foot in the place, you said."
"Of course he wouldn't. He was allergic. Come in this instant, Mr. Canterbury, and wipe your feet before I make your tea."
"So what's a light doing in his upstairs bedroom window?" Pym asked as he allowed her to tug him up the steps.
Like many tyrants Miss Dubber was small. She was also old and powdery and lopsided, with a crooked back that rumpled her dressing-gown and made everything round her seem lopsided too.
"Mr. Cook has rented out the upper flat, Celia Venn has taken it to paint in. That's you all over." She slid a bolt. "Disappear for three months, come back in the middle of the night and worry about a light in someone's window." She slid another. "You'll never change, Mr. Canterbury. I don't know why I bother."
"Who on earth is Celia Venn?"
"Dr. Venn's daughter, silly. She wants to see the sea and paint it." Her voice changed abruptly. "Why Mr. Canterbury, how dare you? Take that off this instant."
With the last bolt in place Miss Dubber had straightened up as best she could and was preparing herself for a reluctant hug. But instead of her customary scowl, which nobody believed in for a moment, her poky little face had twisted in fright.
"Your horrid black tie, Mr. Canterbury. I won't have death in the house, I won't have you bring it. Who is it for?"
Pym was a handsome man, boyish but distinguished. In his early fifties he was in his prime, full of zeal and urgency in a place that knew none. But the best thing about him in Miss Dubber's view was his lovely smile that gave out so much warmth and truth and made her feel right.
"Just an old Whitehall colleague, Miss D. No one to flap about. No one close."
"Everyone's close at my age, Mr. Canterbury. What was his name?"
"I hardly knew the fellow," said Pym emphatically, untying his tie and slipping it into his pocket. "And I'm certainly not going to tell you his name and have you hunting the obituaries, so there." His eye as he said this fell on the visitors' book, which lay open on the hall table beneath the orange nightlight that he had fitted to her ceiling on his last visit. "Any casuals at all, Miss D?" he asked as he scanned the list. "Runaway couples, mystery princesses? What happened to those two lover-boys who came at Easter?"
"They were not lover-boys," Miss Dubber corrected him severely as she hobbled towards the kitchen. "They took single rooms and in the evenings they watched football on the television. What was that you said, Mr. Canterbury?"
But Pym had not spoken. Sometimes his gushes of communication were like phone calls cut off by some inner censorship before they could be completed. He turned back a page and then another.
"I don't think I'll do casuals any more," Miss Dubber said through the open kitchen doorway as she lit the gas. "Sometimes when the doorbell goes I sit here with Toby and I say: 'You answer it, Toby.' He doesn't of course. A tortoiseshell cat can't answer a door. So we go on sitting here. We sit and we wait and we hear the footsteps go away again." She cast a sly glance at him. "You don't think our Mr. Canterbury is smitten, do you, Toby?" she enquired archly of her cat. "We're very bright this morning. Very shiny. Ten years younger, by the look of our coat, Mr. Canterbury is." Receiving no helpful response from the cat, she addressed herself to the canary. "Not that he'd ever tell us, would he, Dickie? We'd be the last to know. Tzuktzuk? Tzuktzuk?"
"John and Sylvia Illegible of Wimbledon," said Pym, still at the visitors' book.
"John makes computers, Sylvia programs them, and they're leaving tomorrow," she told him sulkily. For Miss Dubber hated to admit there was anyone in her world but beloved Mr. Canterbury. "Now what have you done to me this time?" she exclaimed angrily. "I won't have it. Take it back."
But Miss Dubber was not angry; she would have it, and Pym would not take it back: a thickly knitted cashmere shawl of white and gold, still in its Harrods box and swathed in its original Harrods tissue paper which she seemed to treasure almost above their contents. For having taken out the shawl she first smoothed the paper and folded it along its creases before replacing it in the box, then put the box on the cupboard shelf where she kept her greatest treasures. Only then did she let him wrap the shawl round her shoulders and hug her in it, while she scolded him for his extravagance.
Pym drank tea with Miss Dubber, Pym appeased her, Pym ate a piece of her shortbread and praised it to the skies although she told him it was burned. Pym promised to mend the sink plug for her and unblock the waste-pipe and take a look at the cistern on the first floor while he was about it. Pym was swift and over-attentive and the brightness she had shrewdly remarked on did not leave him. He lifted Toby on to his lap and stroked him, a thing he had never done before, and which gave Toby no discernible pleasure. He received the latest news of Miss Dubber's ancient Aunt Al, when normally the mention of Aunt Al was enough to hurry him off to bed. He questioned her, as he always did, about the local goings-on since his last visit, and listened approvingly to the catalogue of Miss Dubber's complaints. And quite often, as he nodded her through her answers, he either smiled to himself for no clear reason or became drowsy and yawned behind his hand. Till suddenly he put down his teacup and stood up as if he had another train to catch.
"I'll be staying a decent length of time if it's all right with you, Miss D. I've a bit of heavy writing to do."
"That's what you always say. You were going to live here for ever last time. Then it's up first thing and back to Whitehall without your egg."
"Maybe as much as two weeks. I've taken some leave of absence so that I can work in peace."
Miss Dubber pretended to be appalled. "But whatever will happen to the country? How shall Toby and I stay safe, with no Mr. Canterbury at the helm to steer us?"
"So what are Miss D's plans?" he asked winningly, reaching for his briefcase, which by the effort he needed to lift it looked as heavy as a chunk of lead.
"Plans?" Miss Dubber echoed, smiling rather beautifully in her mystification. "I don't make plans at my age, Mr. Canterbury. I let God make them. He's better at them than I am, isn't he, Toby? More reliable."
"What about that cruise you're always talking about? It's time you gave yourself a treat, Miss D."
"Don't be daft. That was years ago. I've lost the urge."
"I'll still pay."
"I know you will, bless you."
"I'll do the phoning if you want. We'll go to the travel agent together. I looked one out for you as a matter of fact. There's the Orient Explorer leaves Southampton just a week away. They've got a cancellation. I asked."
"Are you trying to get rid of me, Mr. Canterbury?"
Pym took a moment to laugh. "God and me together couldn't dislodge you, Miss D," he said.
From the hall Miss Dubber watched him up the narrow stairs, admiring the youthful springiness of his tread despite the heavy briefcase. He's going to a high-level conference. A weighty one too. She listened to him step lightly along the corridor to room 8 overlooking the square, which was her longest let ever, in her whole long life. His loss has not affected him, she decided in relief as she heard him unlock the door and close it softly behind him. Just some old colleague from the Ministry, no one close. She wanted nothing to disturb him. He was to remain the same perfect gentleman who had appeared on her doorstep years ago, looking for what he had called a sanctuary without a telephone even though she had a perfectly good one in the kitchen. And had paid her in advance six-monthly ever since, cash-cash, no receipts. And had built the little stone wall beside the garden path for her, all in an afternoon to surprise her on her birthday, bullied the mason and the bricklayer. And had put the slates back on the roof with his own hands after the storm in March. And had sent her flowers and fruit and chocolates and souvenirs from amazing foreign places without properly explaining what he did there. And had helped her with the breakfasts when she had too many casuals, and listened to her about her nephew who had all the schemes for making money that never came to anything: the latest was starting up a bingo hall in Exeter but first he needed the capital for his overdraft. And received no mail or visitors and played no instrument except the wireless in foreign, and never used the telephone except for local tradesmen. And never told her anything about himself except that he lived in London and worked in Whi tehall but travelled a lot, and that his name was Canterbury like the city. Children, wives, parents, sweethearts -- not a soul on earth had he ever called his own, except his one Miss D.
"He could have a knighthood by now for all we know," she told Toby aloud as she held the shawl to her nose and inhaled its woolly smell. "He could be Prime Minister and we'd only ever hear it from the television."
Very faintly Miss Dubber heard above the rattle of the wind the sound of singing. A man's voice, tuneless but agreeable. First she thought it was "Greensleeves" from the garden, then she thought it was "Jerusalem" from the square, and she was halfway to the window to yell out. Only then did she realise it was Mr. Canterbury from upstairs, and this amazed her so much that when she opened her door to rebuke him, she paused instead to listen. The singing stopped of its own accord. Miss Dubber smiled. Now he's listening to me, she thought. That's my Mr. Canterbury all over.
In Vienna three hours earlier, Mary Pym, wife of Magnus, stood at her bedroom window and stared out upon a world which, in contrast to the one elected by her husband, was a marvel of serenity. She had neither closed the curtains nor switched on the light. She was dressed to receive, as her mother would have said, and she had been standing at the window in her blue twin-set for an hour, waiting for the car, waiting for the doorbell, waiting for the soft turn of her husband's key in the latch. And now in her mind it was an unfair race between Magnus and Jack Brotherhood which of them she would receive first. An early autumn snow still covered the hilltop, a full moon rode above it, filling the room with black and white bars. In elegant villas up and down the avenue, the last camp fires of diplomatic entertainment were going out one by one. Frau Minister Meierhof had been having a Force Reduction Talks dance with a four-piece band. Mary should have been there. The van Leymans had had a buffet dinner for old Prague hands, both sexes welcome and no placement. She should have gone, they both should, and swept up the stragglers for a scotch-and-soda afterwards, vodka for Magnus. And put on the gramophone, and danced till now or later -- the swinging diplomatic Pyms, so popular -- just the way they had entertained so famously in Washington when Magnus was Deputy Head of Station and everything was absolutely fine. And Mary would have made bacon and eggs while Magnus joked and picked people's brains and acquired new friends, which he was so tirelessly good at. For this was Vienna's high season, when people who have clammed up all year talked excitedly of Christmas and the Opera, and tossed out indiscre tions like old clothes.
But all that was a thousand years ago. All that was until last Wednesday. The only thing that mattered now was that Magnus should drive up the avenue in the Metro he had left at the airport and beat Jack Brotherhood to the front door.
The telephone was ringing. By the bed. His side. Don't run, you idiot, you'll fall. Not too slowly or he'll ring off. Magnus, darling, oh dear God, let it be you, you've had an aberration and you're better, I'll never even ask what happened, I'll never doubt you again. She lifted the receiver and for some reason she couldn't work out sat in a heap on the duvet, plonk, grabbing the pad and pencil with her spare hand in case of phone numbers to take down, addresses, times, instructions. She didn't blurt "Magnus?" because that would show she was worried about him. She didn't say "Hullo" because she couldn't trust her voice not to sound excited. She said their whole number in German so that Magnus would know it was she, hear that she was normal and all right and not angry with him, and that everything was just fine to come back to. No fuss, no problems, I'm here and waiting for you like always.
"It's me," said a man's voice.
But it wasn't me. It was Jack Brotherhood.
"No word of that parcel, I suppose?" Brotherhood asked in the rich, confident English of the military classes.
"No word from anyone. Where are you?"
"Be there in about half an hour, less if I can. Wait for me, will you."
The fire, she thought suddenly. My God, the fire. She hastened downstairs, no longer capable of distinguishing between small and large disasters. She had sent the maid out for the night and forgotten to bank up the drawing-room fire. It was out for sure. But it was not. It was burning merrily, and all that was needed was another log to make the early morning hour less funereal. She put it on, then floated round the room prinking things -- the flowers, the ashtrays, Jack's whisky tray -- making everything outside herself perfect because nothing inside herself was perfect in the least. She lit a cigarette and puffed out the uninhaled smoke in angry kisses. Then she poured herself a very large whisky, which was what she had come down for in the first place. After all, if we were still dancing I'd be having several.
Mary's Englishness, like Pym's, was unmistakable. She was blonde and strong-jawed and forthright. Her one mannerism, inherited from her mother, was the slightly comic stoop from which she addressed the world, and foreigners in particular. Mary's life was a record of fine deaths. Her grandfather had died at Passchendaele, her one brother, Sam, more recently in Belfast, and for a month or more it had seemed to Mary that the bomb that had blown Sam's jeep to pieces had killed her soul too, but it was her father, not Mary, who had died of a broken heart. All of her men had been soldiers. Between them they had left her with a decent inheritance, a fiercely patriotic soul and a small manor house in Dorset. Mary was ambitious as well as intelligent, she could dream and lust and covet. But the rules of her life had been laid down for her before she entered it and had been entrenched with every death since: in Mary's family the men campaigned while the women lent succour, mourned and carried on. Her worship, her dinner parties, her life with Pym had all been conducted on this same sturdy principle.
Until last July. Until our holiday in Lesbos. Magnus, come home. I'm sorry I raised a stink at the airport when you didn't show up. I'm sorry I bellowed at the British Airways clerk in what you call my six-acre voice and I'm sorry I waved my diplomatic pass around. And I'm sorry -- I'm terribly sorry -- I phoned Jack to say where the hell's my husband? So please -- just come home and tell me what to do. Nothing matters. Just be here. Now.
Finding herself standing before the double doors to the dining room, she pushed them open, switched on the chandeliers, and, whisky in hand, surveyed the long empty table glistening like a lake. Mahogany. Eighteenth-century repro. Counsellor's grade, nobody's taste. Seats fourteen with comfort, sixteen if you double up on the curved ends. That bloody burn mark, I've tried everything. Remember, she told herself. Force your mind back. Get the whole story straight in your stupid little head before Jack Brotherhood rings that doorbell. Step outside yourself and look in. Now. It is a night like this one was, crisp and exciting. It is Wednesday and our night for entertaining. And the moon is like the moon tonight except for a bite out of one side. In the bedroom, that fool Mary Pym who notched up one A-level and never went to university stands with her feet too wide apart putting on her family pearls while brilliant Magnus her husband, a First at Oxford and already in his dinner-jacket, kisses the nape of her neck and does his Balkan gigolo number to try to get her in the party mood. Magnus of course is in whatever mood he needs to be in.
"For God's sake," Mary snaps more roughly than she intends. "Stop fooling and fix this bloody clasp for me."
Sometimes my military family gets the better of my language.
And Magnus obliges. Magnus always obliges. Magnus mends and fixes and carries better than a butler.
And when he has obliged he puts his hands over my breasts and breathes hotly on my bare neck: "Please, my dullink, have we not time for most divine perfect moment? No? Yes?"
But Mary is, as usual, too nervous even to smile and orders him downstairs to make sure Herr Wenzel the hired manservant has fetched the ice from Weber's fish-shop. And Magnus goes. Magnus always goes. Even when a sharp smack across Mary's chops would be the wiser course, Magnus goes.
Pausing, Mary lifted her head and listened. A car engine. In this snow they come up on you like bad memories. But, unlike a bad memory, this one passed.
It is dinner; it is the diplomatic happy hour, it is as good as Georgetown in the days when Magnus was still an upwardly mobile Deputy Head of Station with the post of Chief of Service squarely in his sights and everything is mended between Magnus and Mary except for a black cloud that night and day hangs over Mary's heart, even when she is not thinking of it, and that cloud is called Lesbos, a Greek island in the Aegean wholly surrounded by monstrous memories. Mary Pym, wife to Magnus, Counsellor for Certain Unmentionable Matters at the British Embassy in Vienna and actually the Head of Station here as everyone unmentionable knows, proudly faces her husband across Mary's silver candelabra while the servants hand round Mary's venison, jugged according to her mother's recipe, to twelve unmentionably distinguished members of the local intelligence community.
"Now you also have a daughter," Mary firmly reminds an Oberregierungsrat Dinkel from the Austrian Ministry of Defence in her well-learned German. "Name Ursula -- right? She was studying piano at the Conservatorium when last heard of. Tell me about her." And to the servant, quietly as she passes: "Frau Wenzel. Mr. Lederer two down has no red sauce. Fix."
It was a pretty night, Mary had decided as she listened to a recitation of the Oberregierungsrat's family woes. It was the sort of night she worked for, had worked for all her married life, in Prague and Washington while they were rising and now here where they were marking time. She was happy, she was flying the flag, the black cloud of Lesbos was as good as blown away. Tom was doing well at boarding-school and would soon be home for the Christmas holidays, Magnus had rented a chalet in Lech for skiing, the Lederers had said they would join them. Magnus was so resourceful these days, so attentive to her despite his father's illness. And before Lech he would take her to Salzburg for Parsifal and, if she pressed him, to the Opera ball because, as they liked to say in Mary's family, a gal loves a hop. And with luck the Lederers could join them for that too -- the children could spend the night together and share a baby-sitter -- and somehow with Magnus these days extra people were a comfort. Glimpsing Pym down the candlelight she darted a smile at him just as he slipped away to engage a deaf mute on his left. Sorry about being touchy earlier, she was saying. All forgotten, he was telling her. And when they've gone we'll make love, she was saying, we'll stay sober and make love and everything will be fine.
Which was when she heard the phone ring. Exactly then. As she was transmitting those loving thoughts to Magnus and having a desperately happy time with them. She heard it ring twice, three times, she started to get cross, then to her relief she heard Herr Wenzel answer it. Herr Pym will return your call later unless it's urgent, she rehearsed in her mind. Herr Pym should not be disturbed unless it is essential. Herr Pym is far too busy telling a funny story in that perfect German of his which so annoys the Embassy and surprises the Austrians. Herr Pym can also do you an Austrian accent on demand, or funnier still a Swiss one, from his days at school there. Herr Pym can put you a row of bottles in a line, and by pinging them with a table-knife, make them chime like the bells of the old Swiss railway, while he chants the stations between Interlaken and the Jungfraujoch in the tones of a local station-master and his audience collapses in tears of nostalgic mirth.
Mary lifted her gaze to the far end of the empty table. And Magnus -- how was he doing at that moment, apart from flirting with Mary?
Going great guns was the answer. On his right sat the dread Frau Oberregierungsrat Dinkel, a woman so plain and rude, even by the standards of official wives, that some of the toughest troopers in the Embassy had been reduced to stunned silence by her. Yet Magnus had drawn her to him like a flower to the sun and she could not get enough of him. Sometimes, watching him perform like this, Mary was moved to involuntary pity by the absoluteness of his dedication. She wished him more ease, if only for a moment. She wanted him to know that he had earned his peace whenever he chose to take it, instead of giving, giving all the time. If he were a real diplomat, he'd be an Ambassador easily, she thought. In Washington, Grant Lederer had privately assured her, Magnus had exerted more influence than either his Station Chief or the perfectly awful Ambassador. Vienna -- though of course he was enormously respected here and enormously influential too -- was an anticlimax, obviously. Well it was meant to be, but when the dust settled, Magnus would be back on course, and the thing here was to be patient. Mary wished she was not so young for him. Sometimes he tries to live down to me, she thought. On Magnus's left, similarly mesmerised, sat Frau Oberst Mohr, whose German husband was attached to the Signals Bureau at Wiener Neustadt. But Magnus's real conquest, as ever, was Grant Lederer III, "he of the little black beard and little black eyes and little black thoughts," as Magnus called him, who six months ago had taken over the American Embassy's Legal Department, which meant of course the reverse, for Grant was the Agency's new man, though he was an old friend from Washington.
"Grant's a piss artist," Magnus would complain of him, as he complained of all his friends. "He has us all round a big table once a week inventing words for things we've been doing perfectly well for twenty years without them."
"But he is fun, darling," Mary would remind him. "And Bee's terribly dishy."
"Grant's an alpinist," Magnus said another time. "He's stacking us all in a neat line so he can climb over our backs. You just wait and see."
"But at least he's bright, darling. At least he can keep up with you, can't he?"
For the truth was, of course, that given the limitations of any diplomatic friendship, the Pyms and the Lederers were one of the great quartets, and it was just Magnus's perverse way of liking people to kick at them and pick holes in them and swear he would never talk to them again. The Lederers' daughter Becky was the same age as Tom and they were practically lovers already; Bee and Mary got on like a house on fire. As to Bee and Magnus -- well frankly Mary did wonder sometimes whether they weren't the tiniest bit too friendly. But, on the other hand, she had noticed that with quartets there was always one strong diagonal relationship even if it never came to anything. And if it ever did come to something between them -- well, to be absolutely totally frank, Mary would be quite willing to take her revenge with Grant, whose lurking intensity she found increasingly to be rather a turn-on.
"Mary, cheers, okay? A great party. We're loving it."
It was Bee, for ever toasting everyone. She was wearing diamond earrings and a décolleté which Mary had been eying all evening. Three children and breasts like that: it was bloody unfair. Mary lifted her glass in return. Bee has typist's fingers, she noticed, crooked at the tips.
"Now Grant, old boy, come on now," Magnus was saying, in his half-serious banter. "Give us a break, be fair. If everything your gallant President tells us about the Communist countries is true, how the devil can we do a deal with any of them?"
Out of the corner of her eye Mary saw Grant's droll smile stretch until it looked like snapping in itchy admiration of Pym's wit.
"Magnus, if I had my way, we'd set you up on a big Embassy carpet with a shaker full of dry Martinis and an American passport and magic you right back to Washington and have you pick up the Democratic ticket. I never heard a seditious case put so well."
"Draft Magnus for President?" Bee purred, sitting up straight and pressing out her breasts as if somebody had offered her a chocolate. "Oh goody."
At which point the ostentatiously menial Herr Wenzel appeared and, bowing elaborately over Magnus, murmured in his left ear that he was required urgently -- forgive, Excellency -- on the telephone from London -- Herr Counsellor, excuse.
Magnus excused. Magnus excuses everybody. Magnus picked his way delicately between imaginary obstacles to the door, smiling and empathising and excusing, while Mary chatted all the more brightly to provide him with covering fire. But as the door closed behind him something unforeseen occurred. Grant Lederer glanced at Bee, and Bee Lederer glanced at Grant. And Mary caught them at it and her blood ran cold.
Why? What had passed between them in that one unguarded look? Was Magnus really sleeping with Bee -- and had Bee told Grant? Were they momentarily joined, the two of them, in perplexed admiration of their departed host? In all the turmoil since, Mary's answer to those questions had not budged an inch. It wasn't sex, it wasn't love, it wasn't envy and it wasn't friendship. It was conspiracy. Mary was not fanciful. But Mary had seen and she knew. They were a pair of murderers telling each other "soon" and the soon was about Magnus. Soon we shall have him. Soon his hubris will be purged and our honour restored. I saw them hate him, thought Mary. She had thought it then, she thought it now.
"Grant is a Cassius looking for a Caesar," Magnus had said. "If he doesn't find a back to stab soon, the Agency will give his dagger to someone else."
Yet in diplomacy nothing lasts, nothing is absolute, a conspiracy to murder is no grounds for endangering the flow of conversation. Chatting busily, talking children and shopping -- hunting frantically for an explanation for the Lederers' bad look -- waiting, above all, for Magnus to return to the party and re-enchant his end of the table in two languages at once -- Mary still found time to wonder whether this urgent telephone call from London might be the one her husband had been waiting for all these weeks. She had known for some while that he had something big going on, and she was praying it was the promised reinstatement.
And it was at this moment, as Mary remembered it while she was still chatting and still praying for her husband's luck to change, that she felt his fingertips skip knowingly over her naked shoulders as he returned to his place at the head of the table. She hadn't even heard the door, though she'd been listening for it.
"Everything all right, darling?" she called to him over the candelabra, playing it openly because the Pyms were so frightfully happily married.
"Her Maj in good shape, Magnus?" she heard Grant enquire in his insinuating drawl. "No rickets? Croup?"
Pym's smile was radiant and relaxed but that didn't always mean too much, as Mary knew. "Just one of Whitehall's little rumbles, Grant," he replied with magnificent casualness. "I think they must have a spy here who tells them when I'm giving a dinner party. Darling, are we out of claret? Jolly mingy rations, I must say."
Oh, Magnus, she had thought excitedly: you chancer.
It was time to get the women upstairs for a pee before coffee. The Frau Oberregierungsrat, who held herself to be modern, was inclined to resist. A scowl from her husband dislodged her. But Bee Lederer, who by this time in the evening was disposed to become the great American feminist -- Bee left like a lamb, peremptorily handed out by her sexy little husband.
"Now comes the punch," says Jack Brotherhood contentedly, in Mary's imagination.
"There is no punch."
"Then why are we shaking, dear?" says Brotherhood.
"I'm not shaking. I'm just pouring myself a small drink waiting for you to arrive. You know I always shake."
"I'll have mine straight, please, same as you. Just give it me the way it happened. No ice, no fizz, no bullshit."
Very well then, damn you, have it.
The night is ending as perfectly as it began. In the hall Mary and Magnus help the guests to their coats and Mary cannot help noticing how Magnus, whose life is service, stiffens his arms and curls his fingers with each successfully negotiated sleeve. Magnus has invited the Lederers to linger but Mary has covertly countermanded this by telling Bee, with a giggle, that Magnus needs an early night. The hall empties. The diplomatic Pyms, ignoring the cold -- they are English after all -- stand valiantly on their doorstep and wave farewell. Mary has an arm around Pym's waist and she is secretly poking her thumb inside the waistband of his trousers at the back and down the partition of his buttocks. Magnus does not resist her. Magnus does not resist. Her head rests affectionately on his shoulder as she whispers sweet nothings into the same ear Herr Wenzel employed to summon him to the telephone and she hopes that Bee will notice their lovey-doveyness. Under the porch light -- Mary luminously youthful in her long blue dress, Magnus so distinguished in his dinner-jacket -- we must have looked the picture of harmonious married life. The Lederers leave last and are the most effusive. "Dammit, Magnus, I don't remember when I had such a good time," says Grant, with his quaint, rather faggy indignation. They are followed by their bodyguard in a second car. Side by side the very English Pyms enjoy a moment of shared disdain for the American way.
"Bee and Grant are terrific fun, really," says Mary. "But would you have a bodyguard if Jack offered you one?" There is more to her question than mere curiosity. She has been wondering recently about the odd people who seem to loiter outside the house with nothing to do.
"Not bloody likely," Pym retorts with a shudder. "Not unless he'll promise to protect me from Grant."
Mary extracts her thumb, they turn and arm in arm go indoors. "Is everything all right?" she asks, thinking of the phone call. Everything is absolutely fine, he replies. "I want you," Mary whispers boldly and lets her hand brush across his thighs. Smiling, Pym nods and pulls at his tie, loosening it apparently in preparation. In the kitchen the Wenzels are waiting to leave. Mary can smell cigarette smoke but decides to ignore it because they have worked so hard. On her deathbed she will remember that she took the conscious decision to ignore their cigarette smoke: that her life at that moment was so relaxed, Lesbos so far away, her sense of service so complete, that she was able to consider matters of such massive triviality. Pym has the Wenzels' money ready for them in an envelope plus a handsome tip. Magnus will tip with his last fiver, thinks Mary indulgently. His generosity is something she has learned to love even when her more frugal upper-class approach tells her he overdoes it: Magnus is so seldom vulgar. Even when at times she wonders whether he is overspending and she should offer him some from her private income. The Wenzels leave. Tomorrow night they will do another party at another house. The Pyms in close harmony move to the drawing-room, hands linking and breaking and ranging freely for the ritual foreplay of a nightcap and a gossipy post-mortem. Pym pours a scotch for Mary and a vodka for himself but unusually does not remove his jacket. Mary is fondling him explicitly. Sometimes in these cases they don't manage to get up the stairs.
"Super venison, Mabs," says Pym. Which was what he always does first: congratulate her. Magnus congratulates everyone all the time.
"They all thought Frau Wenzel cooked it," says Mary, feeling for the top of his zip.
"Then sod them," says Pym gallantly, rejecting the whole fatuous diplomatic world for her with a sweep of his forearm. For a moment Mary fears that Magnus has had one too many. She hopes not for she is not pretending: after the worries and fatuities of the evening she wants him very much. Handing Mary her glass, Magnus raises his own and drinks to her silently: well done, old girl. He is smiling straight down at her, his knees are almost touching hers and steady. Affected by the tension in him Mary wants him urgently here and now and gives him further clear evidence of this with her hands.
"If Grant Lederer is the third," she asks, thinking again for a moment of that murderous look, "what on earth were the first two like?"
"I'm free," says Pym.
Mary fails to understand. She thinks he is capping her joke in some way.
"I don't get it," she says a little shamefacedly. I'm so slow for him, poor love. A sudden awful thought. "You don't mean they've sacked you?" she says.
Magnus shakes his head. "Rick's dead," he explains.
"Who?" Which Rick does he mean? Rick from Berlin? Rick from Langley? Which Rick is dead who can be setting Magnus free and, who knows, making space for his promotion?
Magnus begins again. Perfectly reasonably. Clearly the poor girl has not understood. She is tired from her long evening. She's had a couple too many. "Rick, my father, is dead. He died of a heart attack at six this evening while we were changing. They thought he was okay after the last one but it turns out he wasn't. Jack Brotherhood phoned from London. Why the hell Personnel gave it to Jack to break to me rather than break it to me themselves is a secret not ours to share, presumably. But they did."
And Mary even then doesn't get it right.
"What do you mean -- free?" she shouts wildly as all constraint leaves her. "Free of what?" Then very sensibly she bursts out weeping. Loud enough for both of them. Loud enough to drown her own dreadful questions from Lesbos all the way here.
And she has half a mind to weep again now, for Jack Brotherhood, as the front doorbell sounds through the house like a bugle call, three short peals as ever.
Pym briskly drew the curtains and switched on the light. He had stopped singing. He felt nimble. Setting down his briefcase with a little grunt, he peered gratefully around him, letting everything greet him in its own good time. The brass bedstead. Good morning. The embroidery picture above it exhorting him to love Jesus: I tried, but Rick always got in the way. The roll-top desk. The bakelite wireless that had listened to dear old Winston Churchill. Pym had imposed nothing of himself on this room. He was its guest, not its coloniser. What had drawn him here, back in those dark ages, all those lives ago? Even now, with so much else clear to him, a sleepiness came over him when he tried to make himself remember. So many lonely journeys and aimless walks in foreign cities led me here, so much fallow, solitary time. He had been catching trains, looking for somewhere, escaping from somewhere else. Mary was in Berlin -- no, she was in Prague -- they had been transferred a couple of months earlier, and it was being made clear to him even then that if he kept his nose clean in Prague, the Washington appointment would be next on the list. Tom was -- good God, Tom was scarcely out of nappies. And Pym was in London for a conference -- no, he wasn't, he was attending a three-day course on the latest methods of clandestine communication in a beastly little training house off Smith Square. The course over, he had taken a cab to Paddington. Mindlessly, the instinct guiding him. His head still crammed with useless knowledge about anodes and squash transmissions. He jumped on a train that was about to pull out and at Exeter crossed the platform and took another. What greater freedom than not knowing where you are g oing or why? Finding himself in the middle of nowhere, he spotted a bus bearing a vaguely familiar destination and boarded it.
This was granny-land. This was Sunday, when aunts rode to church with collection coins inside their gloves. From his spaceship on the upper deck, Pym gazed down fondly on chimney-pots, churches, dunes and slate roofs that looked as though they were waiting to be lifted up to Heaven by their topknots. The bus stopped, the conductor said "Far as we go, sir," and Pym alighted with a most curious sense of accomplishment. I'm there, he thought. I've found it at last, and I wasn't even looking for it. The very town, the very beach, exactly as I left them all those years ago. The day was sunny and the world empty. Probably it was lunchtime. He had lost count. What was certain was that Miss Dubber's steps were scrubbed so white it was a shame to tread on them, and a hymn tune issued from the house, together with a smell of roast chicken, blue bag, carbolic soap and godliness.
"Go away!" a thin voice shouted. "I'm on the top step and I can't reach the fuse and if I stretch any more I'll pop."
Five minutes later this room was his. His sanctuary. His safe house away from all the other safe houses. "Canterbury. The name is Canterbury," he heard himself say as, the fuse safely mended, he pressed a deposit on her. A city had found a home.
Stepping to the desk, Pym now slid back the top and began turning the contents of his pockets on to the leatherette surface. As a stock-taking preparatory to a shift in personality and premises. As a retrospective examination of today's events till now. One passport in the style of Mr. Magnus Richard Pym, colour of eyes green, hair light brown, member of Her Majesty's Foreign Service, born far too long ago. There was always something rather shocking after a lifetime of symbols and codenames, about seeing his own name, naked and undisguised, splurged over a travel document. One calfskin wallet, a Christmas present from Mary. In the left side credit cards, in the right two thousand Austrian schillings and three hundred English pounds in various and elderly notes, his escape money cautiously assembled, more available in the desk. The Metro car keys. She's got the other set. Photo of family on Lesbos, everybody absolutely fine. Scribbled address of girl he had met somewhere and forgotten. He put the wallet aside and, continuing with his inventory, drew from the same pocket one green airport boarding-card still valid for last night's British Airways flight to Vienna. The sight and touch of it intrigued him. This was when Pym voted with his feet, he thought. In all his life till now, perhaps the first completely selfish gesture he had made, with the noble exception of the room where he now sat. The first time he had said "I want" rather than "I ought."
At the cremation in a silent suburb he had had a suspicion that the tiny number of mourners was unnaturally inflated by somebody's watchers. There was nothing he could prove. He could hardly as chief mourner stand at the door of the chapel challenging each of his nine guests to state his business. And it was true that Rick's erratic path through life had attracted a host of people Pym had never set eyes on and never wished to. All the same the suspicion remained with him and grew as he drove to London Airport, and became a near certainty when he returned his car to the hire company, where two grey men were taking much too long to fill in their contract forms. Undeterred, he checked his suitcase to Vienna and, with this very boarding-card in his hand, passed through immigration and sat himself in the insanitary lounge behind his Times. When his flight was delayed, he almost concealed his irritation, but still contrived to let it show. When it was called, he hurried obediently forward to join the straggling crowd on its walk to the departure gate, the very picture of a dutiful conformer. As he did so he could almost feel, if he could not see, the two men peel away for tea and ping-pong back at base: let the Vienna bastards have him and good riddance, they were saying to each other. He turned a corner and advanced towards a moving walkway but did not board it. Instead he ambled, peering behind him as if in search of a delayed companion, then imperceptibly allowing himself to be borne backward by the opposing flow of passengers. Moments later he was showing his passport at the arrivals desk and receiving the quiet "Welcome home, sir" that is reserved for those with certain serial numbers. As a la st and spontaneous precaution he had taken himself to the domestic airlines counter and enquired in a loose and general way that was calculated to annoy the busier clerk about flights to Scotland. Not Glasgow, thank you, just Edinburgh. Well hang on, you'd better give me Glasgow as well. Ah, a printed timetable, fantastic. Look, thank you very much. And you can issue me with a ticket if I buy one? Oh I see. Over there. Great.
Pym tore the boarding-card into small pieces and put them in the ashtray. How much did I plan, how much was spontaneous? It scarcely mattered. I am here to act, not brood. One coach ticket, Heathrow-Reading. It had rained on the journey. One single rail ticket, Reading-London, unused, bought to deceive. One night-sleeper ticket, Reading-Exeter, issued on board the train. He had worn a beret and kept his face in shadow while buying it from the drunk attendant. Tearing these also into small pieces, Pym added them to the pile in the ashtray and, whether out of habit or for some more aggressive reason, set a match to them and gazed into the flames with an unblinking fixity. He'd half a mind to burn his passport, too, but a residual squeamishness restrained him, which he found quaint about himself and rather endearing. I planned it to the last detail -- I who have never taken a conscious decision in my life. I planned it on the day I joined the Firm in a part of my head I never knew about until Rick died. I planned everything except Miss Dubber's cruise.
The flames dwindled, he broke up the ash, took off his coat and hung it over the back of the chair. From a chest of drawers he hauled an old cardigan, hand-knitted by Miss Dubber, and put it on.
I'll talk to her about it again, he thought. I'll think of something she'd like more. I'll pick my moment better. The important thing for her is to have a change of scene, he thought. Somewhere she doesn't have to worry.
Suddenly needing an activity, he switched out the lights, slipped quickly to the window, opened the curtains and set to work checking out the little square, life by life and window by window as the morning woke it, while he searched for tell-tale signs of watchers. In her kitchen, the wife of the Baptist minister, wearing her lovat dressing-gown, is unpegging her son's football gear from the washing line in preparation for today's match. Pym draws back swiftly. He has caught a glint of steel in the manse gateway, but it is only the minister's bicycle still chained to the trunk of a monkey-puzzle tree as a precaution against unchristian covetousness. In the frosted bathroom window of Sea View a woman in a grey slip is stooped over a handbasin soaping her hair. Celia Venn, the doctor's daughter who wants to paint the sea, is evidently expecting company today. Next door to her at number 8 Mr. Barlow the builder and his wife are watching breakfast television. Pym's eye passes methodically on, until a parked van holds his attention. The passenger door opens, a girlish figure flits stealthily through the central gardens and vanishes into number 28. Ella, the daughter of the undertaker, is discovering life.
Pym closed the curtains and put the lights back on. I will make my own daytime and my own night. The briefcase stood where he had left it, strangely rigid from its steel lining. Everybody carried cases, he remembered, as he stared at it. Rick's was pigskin, Lippsie's was cardboard, Poppy's was a scruffy grey thing with marks printed on it to look like hide. And Jack -- dear Jack -- you have your marvellous old attaché case, faithful as the dog you had to shoot.
Some people, you see, Tom, they leave their bodies to a teaching hospital. The hands go to this class, the heart to that one, the eyes to another, everyone gets something, everyone is grateful. Your father, however, has only his secrets. They're his provenance and his curse.
With a bump, he sat down at the desk.
To tell it straight, he rehearsed. Word for word the truth. No evasions, no fictions, no devices. Just my overpromised self set free.
To tell it to no one in particular, and to everyone. To tell it to all of you who own me, to whom I have given myself with such unthinking liberality. To my handlers and paymasters. To Mary and all the other Marys. To anyone who had a piece of me, was promised more and duly disappointed. And to whatever of myself remained after the great Pym share-out.
To all my creditors and co-owners incorporated, here once and for all the settlement of arrears that Rick so often dreamed of and that shall now be achieved in his only acknowledged son. Whoever Pym was to you, whoever you are or were, here is the last of many versions of the Pym you thought you knew.
Pym took a deep breath and puffed it out again.
You do it once. Once in your life and that's it. No rewrites, no polishing, no evasions. No would-it-be-better-this-ways. You're the male bee. You do it once, and die.
He took up a pen, then a single sheet of paper. He scribbled some lines, whatever came into his head. All work and no play makes Jack a dull spy. Poppy, Poppy, on the wall. Miss Dubber must a-cruising go. Eat good bread, poor Rickie's dead. Rickie-Tickie father. His hand ran smoothly, not a crossing-out. Sometimes, Tom, we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.
Copyright © 1986 by David Cornwell
“The best English novel since the war.”—Philip Roth
“Brilliantly written.”—The Washington Post
“Le Carré’s best book, one of the enduring peaks of imaginative literature in our time.”—Los Angeles Times
New York Times bestselling author John le Carré (A Delicate Truth and Spy Who Came in from the Cold) was born in 1931 and attended the universities of Bern and Oxford. He taught at Eton and served briefly in British Intelligence during the Cold War. For the last fifty years he has lived by his pen. He divides his time between London and Cornwall.
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A must read for true Le Carre fans a semi-accurate account of the growings up of the author portraid by the perfect spy Magnus Pym.
While others may prefer Le Carre's more plot based novels, this novel shows his extraordinary ability to explore the depths of character. This is probably the only spy novel I've ever cried reading.
If you enjoyed LeCarre's novels of George Smiley in the heart of the cold war, you should positively skip 'A Perfect Spy', the author's semi-autobiographical, tedious, and boring novel for which his publishing house evidently paid by the word. It harks back to his flopped Naive and Sentimental Lover, and is a drag to the very end. If I could find Mr. Cornwell, I'd ask for a refund. This book's a Perfect Bore.
Where do we start?
I found this highly acclaimed work to be just that. WORK! It was like slinging a sixteen pound sledge hammer getting through it page by page. May I have my money back
"Ok." She wlks there.