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A Perfect Spy
John le Carré
A Perfect Spy 1
Table of Contents
A PERFECT SPY
JOHN LE CARRÉ, the pseudonym for David Cornwell, was a member of the British Foreign Service from 1959 to 1964. His third novel, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, became a worldwide bestseller. He has written twenty-one novels, which have been published in thirty-six languages. Many of his books have been made into films, including The Constant Gardener, The Russia House, The Little Drummer Girl, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in the United States of America by Alfred A. Knopf 1986
Published in Penguin Books 2011
Copyright © David Cornwell, 1986
Introduction copyright © David Cornwell, 2000
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
ISBN : 978-1-101-53545-5
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For R, who shared the journey, lent me his dog, and tossed me a few pieces of his life
A man who has two women loses his soul.
But a man who has two houses loses his head.
JOHN LE CARRÉ
With the exception perhaps of the much later The Constant Gardener, A Perfect Spy remains for me the preferred novel of all my work, the one I sweated blood for, and ultimately, for that reason, the most rewarding.
All my writing life until then I had lived with the unexpressed memories of an extraordinary childhood, endured and sometimes enjoyed at the hands of an extraordinary father whose zigzag life is mirrored in my fictional character Rick Pym, father to my hero Magnus. Those members of my real-life family who had known my father and were able to read the novel were for the greater part amused and relieved by the portrait I had painted of him, though all of us knew of a darker side that is only hinted at in the novel and which today still haunts me.
Not so long ago, when The Constant Gardener was still only a twinkle in my eye, I had an idea that in the event proved abortive: I would write an autobiography, but of an experimental kind. On the left side of each double page I would write my life as I remember it now, with all the evasions and self-exculpations that are inherent in all our memories—and my own, I am sure, is no exception. And on the right side I would print the historical record wherever it could be traced, for my father had left some pretty heavy footprints in his wake, from court records and press cuttings of his first criminal conviction, to police and prison records of countries as far flung as Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Austria. In addition, there would be the living memory, whatever was still to be found, of those who had brushed up against him, loved him, as many did, or been stung by him financially, as many were. And these were not necessarily different people, for on one point they were all likely to agree: Ronnie Cornwell was a most beguiling and persuasive con artist.
To this end, I went to the unusual lengths of hiring a pair of highly recommended private investigators who I felt were better equipped than I was to get their hands on documents that had never been put into the public domain and which, though perhaps scheduled for destruction, were still in my wishful imagination hovering between life and death in the dusty pigeonhole of some neglected official archive.
As to living memory, I had every reason to believe there were splendid riches to be found. In Hong Kong in the early eighties, while I was enjoying the hospitality of the trading house of Jardine Matheson—in those days the taipans of the Colony—in the company’s box at Happy Valley racecourse, a burly English gentleman of the official sort shyly plucked at my sleeve. He had been my father’s gaoler while the Colony was waiting to deport him, he confided to me in a murmur, and he had never in his life encountered a finer, more inspiring gentleman, let alone prisoner. “I am retiring soon,” he said. “And when I get back to Blighty, your dad is going to fix me up in a business.” Did I warn the poor fellow to watch his step? I doubt it. My father did not care for unbelievers, and neither did his disciples. Somewhere in their hearts, they were taking part in the process of their own delusion. Where is the gaoler now? If I had written down his name, I had long ago lost the bit of paper. But surely, I thought, my investigators could get onto the Hong Kong police and track him down.
On another occasion, I was staying at the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, as it was then called, and the manager summoned me to his office, where two Danish Special Branch detectives proceeded to interview me. My father, they said, had made an illegal entry into Denmark with the connivance of two senior pilots of the Scandinavian Airlines System, and had since disappeared. Did I know where to find him? I didn’t, but they were reluctant to believe me. Ronnie, it transpired, had picked up the hapless SAS men in a bar in New York, and won a lot of money from them at poker. Rather than collect the debt, he had proposed that they fly him to Copenhagen, which unwisely they had proceeded to do. The Danish police had since established that Ronnie was wanted in New York for fraud, and now he was wanted in Denmark for illegal entry and half a dozen other offences, from corruption to evading Customs and I don’t remember what else. Surely, once again, my investigators could track down the Danish papers and even, perhaps, the unfortunate airmen—or so I wanted to believe.
Or there was the time when I was swanning around Chicago, helping to promote “British Week,” and an urgent telegram arrived from our British Ambassador to Indonesia, one Gilchri
st, enquiring of the Consul General, one Haley, whether I would be willing to fork out a few thousand dollars to get my father out of gaol in Djakarta, where he had been arrested for currency offences after being chucked out of Singapore.
Or the other time when, not long before his death, Ronnie rang me collect from Zurich district gaol to tell me in a choked voice, “I can’t do any more prison, son.” Mercifully, my late literary agent Rainer Heumann was on hand in Zurich at the time, and with the aid of his chequebook had Ronnie sprung within hours. The problem? Hotelschwindel; defrauding a hotel, which in Switzerland is practically a hanging offence. “But that was years ago, son! That wasn’t now.” Ronnie in his last years was a bit like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He hadn’t cottoned on to the way communications had speeded up since he pulled his first trick. And Swiss police records would be immaculate, I once again reasoned; on the Swiss thing, my investigators would be home free.
Except they weren’t, and wouldn’t be. In my impatience, I had credited them with powers they simply didn’t possess, nor could they. Ronnie was as unscalable to them as he had been to me. Time had worked for him; the cost of going after him would be astronomic, and even when we got there—wherever there was—we were unlikely to find the riches I dreamed of. It was the same with his army record.
Though he was of eligible age and physically fit, Ronnie had contrived to dance his way through the 1939 – 45 war almost without the inconvenience of being conscripted at all. Several times, it was true, he had been summoned to begin his basic military training with the Royal Corps of Signals in Bradford, but each time he had managed to frustrate the army’s plans for him. At first, he pleaded the hardships of a single parent. He had a case, for my mother had wisely removed herself from our lives without leaving a forwarding address. But that didn’t mean Ronnie himself suffered any hardship. To the contrary, my mother was abundantly and frequently replaced, and if hardship ever loomed on Ronnie’s horizon, my brother and I were packed off to friends or holiday schools until the spectre passed. And when pleas of hardship ceased to soften the army’s heart, Ronnie ingeniously put his name forward as a candidate in a parliamentary by-election, thereby obliging them to release him so that he could exercise his democratic right. And having failed to be elected as the Independent Progressive candidate for Chelmsford—unsurprisingly, since he did not campaign—he returned to Bradford with his suitcase to begin his basic training all over again, because that’s how armies work.
All the same, the lure of the Mother of Parliaments had stayed with him, and in 1950 he stood for real—this time in a General Election—as Liberal candidate for Great Yarmouth. You will find a fictionalised account of his campaign in this book, but the reality was slightly different. The Conservative agent, frightened that Ronnie would split the vote, learned about his chequered past and faced him with it: stand down or we’ll expose you. Ronnie didn’t stand down and the Tories exposed him. But he still split the vote.
In his last years, Ronnie had a single obsession. It was directed at a piece of land outside London, in a designated “green belt” area where builders were forbidden to intrude. Nevertheless, by means we can only guess at, Ronnie obtained the local council’s planning permission for his piece of green belt, and on the strength of it he negotiated a mammoth deal with one of the country’s largest construction companies, entitling them to build God knows how many houses on what would otherwise have been common land. The promised sum was huge, and I’m sure Ronnie ran up corresponding debts in anticipation of it, for his policy was to spend today what you hope to earn tomorrow.
But there was one snag. Local protest groups became vocal and unpleasant. Aware that it was on shaky ground, the council caved in and withdrew its planning permission, upon which the construction company understandably refused to pay the astronomic sum that had been negotiated. Several times in the years that followed Ronnie tried to persuade me to put up money for legal fees so that he could pursue the matter in the courts but, as always when he asked me to finance his projects, I refused, restricting my offer of support to maintenance and accommodation. But such proposals cut no ice with him. “You’re paying me to sit on my arse,” he would protest indignantly, and indeed I was. Yet somehow he got the cash together and fought the case, probably by offering the lawyers a slice of the action, which in those days was illegal. He won, but was dead before he could witness his triumph. It was in any case short-lived. No sooner had the court found in Ronnie’s favour than a hitherto mute lawyer rose to his feet and, revealing himself to be the arm of the Inland Revenue, collared every last penny of the spoils.
I have quoted Graham Greene a thousand times: childhood is the credit balance of the novelist. Ronnie liked to boast that he had never read a book in his life, including mine, but Greene’s dictum would have pleased him nonetheless. It was always Ronnie’s claim that without him I would have been nothing. And probably, in ways I prefer not to think of, he was right.
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 taxicab 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.