“Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.”

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? 

Brown Baggers will meet to discuss The Yellow House by Sarah Broom on Thursday, October 21. Please email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

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 estankovics@jmrl.org.

Books Mentioned: 

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

Hoffman’s Hunger by Leon de Winter (not owned by JMRL; suggest a purchase if you’re interested!)

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell (read the JMRL blog post)


  1. I read “A Perfect Spy” intending to participate in the book club. But I’m afraid I’ve become somewhat of a recluse to join the group that day. I enjoyed some aspects, such as the capitalizations of words, such as the Lovelies, the Firm, the Mothers, etc., and a casual conversational storytelling tone. But I couldn’t keep track of characters or which generation was in the present. I tried writing down each character as I came across them, but gave up and just read it. I read the blog and, like others, was waiting for something to happen.
    I started to read the “Tinker Taylor” novel for the mystery group, but it was even more confusing that the “Perfect Spy.” A third of the way into it, I decided it wasn’t worth it. There are too many other books I want to read to waste my time on it.

    • For so many readers — or maybe all of us! — it’s so liberating to realize we can put down a book. I know there are hardcore “finishers” out there who take great pride and pleasure in finishing each book, but for me, I love to start and stop books all the time. Glad to hear you enjoyed the conversational tone of this one, and the unique styling of certain nouns. That didn’t come up in our discussion. You are welcome to join Brown Baggers any month that you would like. We also value your commenting! Thank you!

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