A Perfect Spy Summary
by John le Carre

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A Perfect Spy Summary


A Perfect Spy is a semi-autobiographical work written in first- and third-person narration. The author, John le Carré, formerly worked for MI6, the British government's secret intelligence service, and has penned several best-selling novels inspired by his work in the intelligence community. The novel is non-linear and tells the story of Magnus Pym, a spy who has betrayed his country.

Plot Summary

The story opens as the protagonist, Magnus Pym, retreats to a secret location on the English coast after his father’s burial. It is revealed that Magnus works in espionage and has been waiting for the chance to retire and write a novel—his leave of absence for his father's funeral presents the perfect opportunity for this. What he ends up writing is not a novel, but a memoir for his son, Tom (though he also addresses other characters such as his wife and his mentor, Jack Brotherhood). In recounting his life as a spy, Magnus hopes to better explain why he's made certain decisions and prevent his son from following in his footsteps.

The narration oscillates between different flashbacks and the present day, as Magnus gives a full account of his career as a spy and discusses current events, including the recent discovery of his treason (which explains why he had hidden himself away). Magnus explains that his upbringing—particularly the overwhelming influence of his father, a con man—helped him become develop into the "perfect spy." Growing up, Magnus occupied an unusual social position, learning to navigate between his mother's upper-class background and his father's questionable business dealings. He credits these childhood experiences with teaching him the value of suspicion and deception early on.

Magnus's first ever spy mission is orchestrated by his father in Switzerland. It is here that a seventeen-year-old Magnus meets Axel Hampel and Jack Brotherhood. Axel, who is from Czechoslovakia, becomes almost like a father to Magnus. Jack, who works for a British intelligence agency, also develops into a father figure for the young boy and ultimately recruits Magnus into the secret service. Despite some initial hesitation, Magnus ultimately agrees to work as a spy, concluding that he is uniquely suited for such a position.

As he grows older, Magnus becomes more and more disillusioned, particularly as he learns more about his father. He speaks about his father’s conceited nature, which supposedly led to the mental health problems his mother suffered from. Magnus recalls being raised by various different "mothers" (in reality, mistresses of his father). Magnus was particularly he fond of one of these women: Annie Lippschitz. Unfortunately, Annie commits suicide—in large part due to lingering guilt from her relationship with Magnus’s father.

Over the years, Magnus's work in espionage requires him to betray people (including Axel) and juggle multiple identities. While on a mission in Austria, Magnus encounters Axel once again. Axel, playing on Magnus's guilt, convinces him to turn double agent and spy on Britain on behalf of Czechoslovakia. Jack becomes increasingly suspicious of Magnus, though he outwardly defends him. Eventually, however, Magnus's deceptions are uncovered and a manhunt ensues, which explains why Magnus is in hiding at the beginning of the novel. It becomes clear that Magnus views his father’s death as not only an opportunity to escape from his life as a spy, but also a chance to prevent his son from following in his (and his father's) footsteps.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy , narrative technique, theme, and plot are inextricably related. At the novel’s beginning, Magnus Pym, under the name of Mr. Canterbury, has retreated to a rooming house on the English coast in order to write, though one does not know until the novel’s end how desperate a retreat this is. For years, Magnus has been wanting to retire from his work in British espionage and the diplomatic post that is his cover, and write a...

(The entire section is 2,255 words.)