Underground Men

A Perfect Spy

by John le Carré
Knopf, 475 pp., $18.95

It is nearly midnight in Vienna. Magnus Pym is saying goodbye to his dinner guests while his second wife Mary is itching to make love with him. Pym, counselor at the embassy, is really head of the British Secret Intelligence Service station; and the last guests to leave are Grant Lederer, who is his opposite number in the CIA, and his sexy wife. But the Pyms do not make love that night or ever again. During dinner Pym had got a call from London. It is from Jack Brotherhood, the officer who recruited him thirty-five years ago into SIS (what used to be called MI6 or “the Firm”) to say that his father had died. “I’m free,” says Pym.

Free from what? Free to do what? Free from an incubus that had sat on his shoulder all his life. For Pym’s father was a con man who collected women, horses, cronies, and gigantic debts, a master at living on credit (“a temporary liquidity problem”) until he ends in smash with twenty-six companies bankrupt—only to talk himself out of his troubles and begin embezzling again from a fresh lot of gullibles. All Pym’s life this crook who has deluded himself as much as others and even once stood for Parliament (naturally as a free enterprise Liberal) has turned up to shame him, hug him, and remind him with tears in his eyes what Pym owes to him: whereas in fact he has often left his son stranded to beg and lie his way out of his difficulties.

Pym is now free to do what he has longed to do—to write his autobiography and explain to all the people in his past why he behaved as he did and to tell his own son Tom his story. To do so he disappears after the funeral to a lodging house in Devon run by a disagreeable old spinster that no one knows about—a “safe” house like those he provided for his agents in the past. There he settles down to write for dear life before the end comes.

For the end is in sight. Famous though he was in SIS for running a network of Czechoslovak agents, his posting to Vienna was odd. Previously as deputy head of the Washington station he was thought to be a possible head of the British secret service. But the CIA, by computer analysis of the Czech embassy radio traffic, suspects Pym to be a double agent: wherever he serves, a Czech agent turns up and then the traffic increases. Indeed he has to fly back from Washington to face a hostile interrogation at SIS headquarters. Not too hostile of course; but he is shunted onto a side track. So it is back to Vienna where Lederer, bubbling with false bonhomie at the dinner, is after him. So, Mary suspects, is Lederer’s wife. Mary has other suspicions. A holiday in Corfu with their son Tom had been wrecked by some …

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