Le Carré is clearly one of the front-ranking novelists of espionage; his rank among novelists in general is less clear-cut. Most of le Carré’s critics have pointed out that the question is linked to the genre. The authors of genre fiction—detective, espionage, horror, science fiction, Western, historical—all need to establish their competence in spite of the medium in which they work. All of these genres are associated with “escapism,” and, more to the point, with formulaic, second-rate (and worse) works. Authors and critics alike must usually apologize for, or defend, the form before dealing with the individual literary work under consideration.
Espionage novels, after World War II and the onset of the Cold War, became increasingly popular and also developed from the novel of sheer adventure and patriotism to complex analyses of the murky motives and sordid realities of the spy’s world. Le Carré, especially, has not only dealt with the major moral issues in this realm, but he has also done so consistently. In his view, the theme running through all of his novels is that of questioning the right of the individual to suspend his own moral conscience in order to accomplish a national or religious goal, of the means justifying the end or the organization’s priority over the individuals of which it is composed. Only one of le Carré’s previous novels, The Naive and Sentimental Lover (1971), does not deal with espionage at all; it is generally conceded, even by his admirers, to be an inferior work. In A Perfect Spy, le Carré has combined the moral questions and suspenseful plot of the spy novel with broader issues of the moral responsibility of the parent, the artist, the businessman, relating these loyalties and betrayals to their counterparts in the ethical and political dilemmas of foreign policy and espionage. With this novel, le Carré more closely approaches the work of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, to whom he has been compared.