Book Review: The Looking Glass War by John le Carré (1965)
Critics in 1965 saw The Looking Glass War as something of a departure for John le Carré following the breakout universal success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. In his 1990s introduction to the book, the author claims they weren’t happy about that—not in Britain anyway. Everyone wanted the same thing from him again, and he wanted to give them something different. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold had depicted in great detail a highly successful and wickedly clever espionage operation masterminded by a man called Control, the ingenious head of an intelligence service known as “the Circus.” Le Carré claims that operations of that sort were not quite what he himself experienced during his years as a spook, during which he worked for both MI5 and MI6. In his follow-up novel, he wanted to present something much closer to the truth as he knew it: a clumsily planned operation carried out by well-meaning fools with delusions of grandeur still fighting the last war in their heads, who haven’t yet learned to properly use the tools of the new (Cold) one. A story of vital opportunities—not to mention lives—lost because of career bureaucrats more focused on inter-agency bickering than gathering good intelligence.
Not only did le Carré change his presentation of the British intelligence establishment; he even changed his tone, trading in the bleak, urgent paranoia of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold for extra-dry satire with a vicious bite. (Somewhat reminiscent of his take on another British institution, the public school, in A Murder of Quality.) The new approach caught contemporary critics and readers off guard. If he had it to do again, le Carré writes in his introduction, he would probably opt to leave out returning characters like Control and George Smiley altogether, along with any mention of the Circus, presumably so as to firmly set The Looking Glass War in its own separate literary universe and not raise false expectations in readers familiar with his previous work. Thank goodness he didn’t get the opportunity to do it again, like he did with A Murder of Quality (when he penned the screenplay for its 1991 TV adaptation)! The Looking Glass War is a very good novel as it stands now, and some of the best moments and sharpest satire come directly from his use of those pre-established characters and organizations.
Never mentioning real-world monikers like “MI6” or “SIS,” le Carré always refers to George Smiley’s organization simply as “the Circus.” Likewise, the arm of the intelligence establishment explored in The Looking Glass War is also known only by a colloquialism: “the Department.” (This could be a little confusing to readers of the author’s wider Smiley series, since the Circus itself is often referred to as “the Department” as well in other novels, but for the purposes of The Looking Glass War, those names refer strictly to two very different intelligence agencies.) The Department is concerned exclusively with intelligence on military targets, and though it ran a lot of missions during WWII (sort of like the SOE, I guess), its primary concern by the 1960s is analysis rather than intelligence gathering. It’s an old department housed in an old building and made up of old men, all veterans of those halcyon days of the War… except for one.
Standard contemporary protocol would dictate turning over such a mission to the Circus, who have many experienced field men used to exactly that sort of assignment. (In fact, Alec Leamas even gets a mention as a potential candidate!) But pride and jealousy prevent Leclerc from doing that. Officially, he convinces his Ministry that mixing up the two agencies’ purviews would create a “monolith,” but his real reasons are less civic-minded: he wants a chauffeured car like the one Control has. He wants a budget like Control’s. He wants a building that’s not falling apart. In short, he wants to command the same respect he imagines that Control commands.
These moments of interdepartmental jealousy are highlights of the novel for students of le Carré’s oeuvre, and they work specifically because readers are already familiar with the organizations and characters in question. We know from previous books that the people who work at the Circus don’t consider it to be very luxurious or well-heeled itself. (There isn’t even a budget to keep its headquarters properly heated in the winter!) So to then see a flipside of that, to realize that there are other departments even worse off who see the Circus’s grass as so much greener, provides the reader with both comedy and instant identification. How many of us have not had similar moments of professional jealousy at our own jobs? Half the joke would be lost if we didn’t already know that Control has to light a fire himself if he wants his office to warm up, and that Smiley has to deal with image-conscious idiots like Maston who would happily allow an enemy spy to remain at large for the sake of avoiding embarrassment. Le Carré is able to take advantage of his own canon to provide helpful shorthand in his satire. For all of Smiley’s misery in his job, who would have guessed that there are others in his profession even worse off?
Leclerc and his team dig deep into the Department files and recruit a Polish-born agent who served them well during the War named Leiser. He seems (to them, anyway) the perfect man to penetrate the East. Avery is tasked with babysitting him during his training. But more than that, it’s his role to form a bond with Leiser. Leclerc and his more worldly-wise associate, Haldane, understand that such a bond is integral in fostering an agent’s loyalty. Avery doesn’t realize that he’s being used in this manner.
Seasoned spy readers (especially those familiar with Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana or le Carré's own later reworking of that story, The Tailor of Panama) will spot enough obvious clues along the way to be reasonably sure going into Part III of the novel's three parts that the original intelligence is probably bad, and there will be no missiles, which causes the story to lose a bit of momentum as it follows Leiser on what we strongly suspect is a fool’s errand. But the section leading up to what we’re sure will be a disaster is rich in both character and satire. We witness with equal parts humor and dread as Leiser is trained by experts the Department has dragged out of their comfortable civilian lives to teach the same techniques they taught or used during the War. In one respect, The Looking Glass War sets the template (more than The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) for future le Carré novels: we know from the start that the idealistic protagonist (or one of them, anyway) is doomed in this world, and the big question of the novel is not if that doom will come but how. While the author frequently plays this scenario for dread, here he plays it more for dark comedy. He doesn’t comment on what Leclerc and his Department do wrong; instead he makes it obvious even to people (the majority of his readers, presumably) with no experience in the intelligence field. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. We can’t stop it, but we’re fascinated by it nonetheless.
As for Smiley, he actually gets considerably more “screen time” in this novel than he did in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, though his role is less integral to the overall mechanics of the story, if not the tone. He’s also clearly Control’s right-hand man at the Circus, which makes this our only glimpse of the era referred to so frequently in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, when the two enjoyed a successful partnership at the helm of the ship. Smiley has no cause to resign, for once, though he does have the regrettable task of delivering some very bad news. Despite the character’s limited appearance, The Looking Glass War is not a book that Smiley fans should pass over, nor is it a novel that fans of le Carré should overlook. When it comes to Smiley, however, the best (of course), was still yet to come...
The Smiley Files
Part 1: George Smiley: An Introduction
Part 2: Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Part 3: Book Review: Call for the Dead (1961)
Part 4: Movie Review: The Deadly Affair (1966)
Part 5: Book Review: A Murder of Quality (1962)
Part 6: Movie Review: A Murder of Quality (1991)
Part 7: Book Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)