In A Perfect Spy, novelist David John Moore Cornwell, known to his fans as John le Carré, rummages through the debris of the British boyhood of Magnus Pym to explore what turned an eager-to-please lad into a spymaster.
The novel opens with Magnus Pym’s disappearance into a bolt hole in Devon shortly after his father’s funeral. It’s a refuge he’s been preparing for years.
Rick Pym had been an engaging rogue who made his living by conning people out of theirs.
Magnus grew up trying to win his father’s approval by being the sort of man Rick professed to admire and being it by using all the deceits he learned from observing his father’s behavior.
Magnus mastered the arts of deceit so well that the British hired him for what they viewed as his natural talent for espionage.
It’s only after his father’s death that Magnus feels free to look back on his life and assess his own personal culpability.
In his Devon room, Magnus writes his life story, addressing much of it to his son, Tom.
Le Carré intersperses Magnus’s story with perspectives from his wife and colleagues.
The result is a novel as complex, fascinating, and ambiguous as Magnus himself.
A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré
Knopf. © 1986. 475 p.
1986 bestseller #10; my grade: A-
©2019 Linda G. Aragoni
As Americans wait for the end to the Afghan war, James A. Michener’s 1963 bestseller Caravans is a timely once more.
The novel is set in 1946. As World War II ends, the American embassy in Kabul is ordered to investigate the disappearance of Ellen Jaspar Nazrulllah, a Pennsylvania woman recently married to an Afghan engineer.
The task is given to Mark Miller, a young Jew who loves ancient history and Afghan food. He’s accompanied by an Afghan who works for the American embassy as well as for the Afghanistan government.
His search for Ellen takes Miller across Afghanistan on routes that were trod by Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan. Miller finds the missing woman, but in finding her uncovers more mysteries.
Michener is noted for his ability to weave history and fiction against a backdrop of vividly presented scenery. In Caravans, he not only does all that superbly, but also rachets up the suspense to thriller-level.
Once you start this novel, you won’t want to put it down. Later however, you’ll realize the weakness of the story: Miller cannot figure out what really motivates the missing woman, and Michener appears not to have decided either. What readers should sense as ambiguity feels uncomfortably like lack of control.
By James A. Michener
Random House, 1963
336 pages + notes
1963 bestseller # 4
My grade: B
©2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni
James Hilton’s We Are Not Alone is so British and so visual that reading it is like watching Masterpiece Theatre in your mind.
The story revolves around a harmless eccentric, David Newcome, “the little doctor” of Calderbury. Newcome is a brilliant surgeon with a childlike humility, honesty (he actually admits to now knowing everything!), and genuine concern for people. Newcome and his wife, Jessica, have little in common, except their son, Gerald, a timid boy who, depending on your point of view, has a vivid imagination or is an inveterate liar.
The doctor is called to treat a young German dancer who attempts suicide after a broken wrist prevents her from making her living. Newcome discovers Leni likes children and suggests his wife hire her to look after Gerald.
Jessica learns Leni had attempted suicide and starts wondering what else her husband hasn’t mentioned. She fires Leni just as war breaks out between England and Germany. Germans are no longer welcome in England. Newcome tries to get Leni back to Germany, but while they are on the way to the coast, Jessica is found poisoned.
Newcome and Leni die for the murder, but did they do it?
We Are Not Alone is quirky and intriguing. Its novella-length makes it a comfortable evening’s entertainment.
We Are Not Alone
By James Hilton
Little, Brown, 1937
# 10 on 1937 bestseller list
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni