A Perfect Spy is the life story of Magnus Pym, a British intelligence officer and double agent. After attending his father's funeral, Pym mysteriously disappears. As his fellow intelligence officers frantically search for him it becomes clear that, throughout most of his career, Magnus worked as a spy for the Czechoslovak secret service. Although intrigue, wit, and suspense compose the novel, the story of Magnus Pym is partly an unadorned recollection of his childhood and memories of his father Rick Pym.
The non-linear narrative cuts back and forth between the present-day manhunt for Pym (being conducted by his mentor, boss, and longtime friend, Jack Brotherhood), and Pym's first-person reminiscences of his life as, in hiding, he writes a memoir explaining to his family and friends why he betrayed his country. It incorporates flashbacks to Pym's childhood with his father, the enterprising, charismatic rogue and con-man, Rick; to his early years at school and university; to his many amorous adventures, to his introduction to espionage and state secrets; and to his encounters with long-time friend and Czech spy Axel. The portraits reveal Pym as a man who for so long has manipulated his appearance to those closest to him that, in the end, he was unable to hold together the conflicting personae within him. Magnus Pym has been a perfect spy, but at the cost of his soul.
A Perfect Spy is le Carré's most autobiographical book. As the author himself has admitted, a large part of the novel is a thinly disguised account of le Carré's own early life. Before he became a novelist, David Cornwell (John le Carré) was an intelligence officer for MI6, the British intelligence service, although there are no allegations that he ever betrayed his country and spied for another country like the character Magnus Pym. Like Magnus, le Carré lost his mother at an early age, was sent to an abusive prep school, studied languages at the University of Berne in Switzerland, in the 1950s worked for the Intelligence Corps of the British Army in Austria interrogating Czech defectors, and at Oxford University spied on far-left student groups for MI5.
Rick Pym, the charismatic con man father of Magnus in the novel, is based on le Carré's father, Ronnie Cornwell. Ronnie was a confidence man and associate of the Kray twins, London organised crime figures. He made and lost several fortunes through elaborate confidence schemes, and was jailed for insurance fraud. Le Carré's biographer Lynndianne Beene describes Ronnie as 'an epic con man of little education, immense charm, extravagant tastes, but no social values'. Le Carré's relationship with his father was troubled, and he has said:
"Although I've never been to a shrink, writing A Perfect Spy is probably what a very wise shrink would have advised me to do anyway."
Matthew Bruccoli calls it "the book that is and may always be Le Carré's masterpiece". Philip Roth said it was "the best English novel since the war". David Denby, writing in 2014, agreed with Roth's view.
A 1987 TV adaptation of the same name was produced by the BBC starring Peter Egan. In an audiobook recording of John le Carré reading aloud an abridged version of this book, he introduces the work as THE Perfect Spy.